Ilgiz F

Or more completely, Ilgiz Fazulzyanov

This bit on his enamel technique is worth noting:

“Once the gold is cast into the shape of say a ring or pendant, Ilgiz takes a pencil and draws directly onto the metal, creating the guide for both the underlying engraving as well the enamel, applied with paintbrushes with only a handful of bristles. It takes a single-minded intensity and devotion to perfection to create these miniature works of art, but just one glance to remember these jewels forever.”  From a Telegraph article by Maria Doulton 10/23/2014

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But especially confounding is this series commissioned by Bovet, and unveiled in an exhibit at the Kremlin, his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse watches painted Limoges style in enamel.

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Solange Azagury-Partridge

Unwearable Jewels Collection: AK-47

Unwearable Jewels Collection: AK-47

After three years as Creative Director for Boucheron, this jewelry designer has operated her own firm for the duration of her career.  Her work is distinctively irreverent, mythical, and with her Unwearable Jewels collection, overlapping into the realm of sculpture.  It’s plausibly rooted in edginess, though for her own part, in connection with a growing number of designers, it may be better said that she is transmitting the zeitgeist of London’s late 1900s punk culture.  As we are well into our fifth decade removed from the arrival of transgressive, deconstructive imagery as defining elements of the subculture, we see them becoming mainstream, with skulls dazzled in diamonds and spiked bracelets in a variety of fine materials as standard stock in high end stores.  The use of prominent symbols as decorations essentially stripped of meaning are also signature of punk, not worn to reveal the allegiances of the wearer but to downgrade them as kitsch, turning burdens into baubles.  For an audience that grew up fueling their social independence with striking, aggressive and death-themed personal decoration, her work remains aligned with her aging peers, and their establishment in a spectrum of fields and incomes.  As the aging punks seek status objects of their own to reflect them, of their wealth or just solvency, designers from their own generations deliver luxury goods that retain that certain comfort, nostalgic links that may not establish a cohesive culture per se, but at the least one that delivers something like the familiarity of roots.  Jewelry informed by Generation X and the ages that flank it can hardly be regarded as a response to, or even appropriation of history, originating ultimately in youth culture’s need to continually reshape fashion to distinguish themselves.  It should be noted that the roots of punk tap deeply into the appearance of three clothing stores started by designers, with Malcolm McLaren’s Sex Pistols formed as an early kind of PR boy band, Vivienne Westwood’s shop and Boy setting the stage for an anti-establishment reworking of fashion that has evolved, comfortable nestled in social norms today.  Familiar iconography for some is the domain of pop culture for many now, which has swept along mashups of symbolism and adopted them as casual and decorative in the 21st century.  The proliferation of branding along with the growth of media can’t be discounted in this fading away of graphic symbolism’s tangibility of course.  But a skull ring has come a long way from being antisocial, not even a statement of masculinity at this point, in the mainstream it has become an assertion of pop culture, pink and blue, frosty with flowers and ribbons, a Tim Burton Christmas.  Whether or not this paves the way for a future where we can expect to see punk looks become uniform and ultimately conservative, Azagury-Partridge lives a family life that does exemplify certain voices of her youth, that can also be said to have brought about useful practices for coping with modern life, especially where creation is concerned.  With being an early riser, a reluctant consumer, living a lifestyle that rejects television and too much media noise, any initial relationship to her studio as rebellion can be looked upon now as an inclusive, holistic way of life.  Organically, as a creative working with the cultural materials in her immediate environment, beginning with a stroke of luck in the form of a part time job at a London jeweler, the designer has found herself both a spokesperson and compatriot of a generation.

Snakepit

Snakepit

Snakepit  Snakepit 3

Metamorphosis 2

SECRET GARDEN

 Metamorphosis 1 Metamorphosis 3

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Eternal Feminine

 tumblr_nmynx9VXew1ru8nnoo1_1280 Solange Azagury-Partridge

Shooting Star 2

Shooting Star

Shooting Star

Unwearable Jewels:  Moon

Unwearable Jewels: Moon

Villainess Ring

Villainess Ring

Triangle Spinner

Triangle Spinner

Cosmic Mirror Ball (Sterling Silver)

Cosmic Mirror Ball
(Sterling Silver.  Wow.)

 

 

· Wallace Chan ·

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Most jewelery designers just draw out their ideas with colorful markers and send them off to the stone setters to figure out.  Wallace Chan, a living master, has developed designs simply so complicated he had to invent the techniques to execute them.  Combining artistry with the mind of an engineer, he developed a unique claw setting that allowed him to create thin free floating tendrils of set melee, and has introduced laser engraving intaglio into gemstones as a force to be reckoned with.  At auction, his work sells in the millions, making him as well paid as the greatest living artists.  So I’ll leave it at that, his work speaks for itself.Wallace-Chan-Cover51525_141008180146-wallace-10-horizontal-galleryslides_17_T6biennale-piece_necklace_now-and-always_black-3-copie2xxxxwallace_chan5c730f8b6f9afb15d4e3bb6411fa568364d4643380021c4f85c8b213f10ade0e23b724f91cceba8f745d3b7394441fd06f63b_141008175440-wallace-8-horizontal-galleryWallace-Chan-le8tt

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The artist refers to this symmetrical, reverse intaglio as ‘the Wallace Cut’.

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· Hilde Nodtvedt ·

Oslo, Norway
Living Artisan

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In a modern continuation of both ancient design and techniques, the traditional ring brooch of Norway recalls the northern tribal creative connection to peoples stretching across the globes.  Centrally, the theme of the sun is reproduced, both in the color of the metal, the gold of the sun, and the wheel-like pattern of radial symmetry.  They describe the outpouring of life’s sustaining solar energy from that central moving point in the sky, and they are fastened to clothing by pinning, near to the heart and breast.

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The Norse style of these ornaments have remained, in style and decoration, a part of folk ornament, continuously made to this day.  Few cultures have maintained such a long reverence to their traditional ornaments.  The Norse tradition of burying grave goods for the afterlife was extended to gold, allowing both local crafts and seized treasures to be discovered today.  In other cultures, gold was melted and reused routinely, being nature’s perfect recyclable, and impervious to oxidation and decay.  These hoards allow us to observe just how continuous this ornamental aspect of the culture has endured.

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The use of gold discs to honor high ranking burials is, to our knowledge, the oldest use of gold we know of.  The Varna Burial, of a Thracian noble woman in modern day Bulgaria, dated to 4,500 BC, contains these first examples.  If we were to evaluate only the ornaments, we could surmise that some form of this solar worshipping cultural expression was shared and expressed between peoples ranging as far east as the Tochari Basin in China, and as far west as Greenland.

Varna Burial 4500BC

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A feature that especially denotes the Norse origin are the dangling cups that capture and redirect light in their own unique way.  These jewels present a sophistication that was available in their ancient counterparts, metallurgy influenced by raided goods from England and Ireland in the 7th-9th centuries, and trade with Constantinople until the Mongol invasion in the 12th century.  Even the use of garnets is true to their origin, which were found from early times in river beds, often already naturally faceted and polished to a certain degree.

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Berlin Iron Jewelery

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The intricate filigree of black iron, frequently including Gothic ornamentals, that is instantly recognizeable as German cast iron jewelry, is an interesting statement of both fashion and the earliest days of industrial-consumer development.  For its start around 1804, we have a Prussian state that is occupied by Napoleon’s  soldiers.  Germany then is as it has been for much of its history until recently, a cluster of small kings, countries and dialects, a loose confederacy of tribes.  There are riots against French marshal law.  The government fundraises to arm troops in what it calls a War of Liberation – one of the methods is requesting people’s silver and gold jewelry, and giving them a piece of cast iron jewelry in return.  Most accounts regard the rush to be seen wearing cast iron jewels as a patriotic fervor.  These pieces were sometimes marked, “I gave gold for iron.”

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At the same time, human nature being what it is, we have as its foremost character Johann Conrad Gauss (1771-1846).  Besides the fact that Gauss means goat, the owner of an iron foundry made of himself an expert in ornamental iron jewelry, becoming its first private entrepreneur.  The streets of Berlin were suddenly offering the metal, with no intrinsic value besides the detail and labor of its ornament, in every fine shop.  What could be better than wearing an award for a patriotic act, than purchasing several imitations of that campaign.  As a fashion it gave the appearance of generosity, as a practical tool it gave people a comforting alternative to actually trading too many of their valuable jewels in.

Brooch2

Iron is not the most ideal metal to wear, foremost of its disadvantages being its habit of rusting.   It must be oiled to preserve it from the very air.  It falls apart like an onion when it’s buried.

0069.6L

Iron was the metal of work and war, at home it was put to use and re-use as a fairly recyclable material, requiring a forge to make nails or door hinges and shoe horses. It’s workable in the lower ends of heat, allowing for shaping with the most primitive setup.  To reach iron’s high melting point is a different story though, at 2800 degrees it requires a foundry, which few things besides war could finance.  But by the 1700s we have private goldsmiths with Main Street shops, who are accustomed to working in those temperatures on a refined scale.

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IMG_1680

The exceptional thing about the intricate tracery of Berlin Iron is the amount of labor involved, mostly cleaning.  Methods would have focused on plaster casting, molds made, often from clay masters and other patterns, of sightly larger pattern forms to duplicate in future plaster castings.  Casting was done directly by pour into the plasters, a method almost universally abandoned today (even a simple centrifuge is a vast improvement to accuracy).  To a limited extent stamping may have been used, but not to the degree that the ready availability of steel dies would bring into jewelry a century later.

23948

The history of costume jewelry is older than this, but what sets the Berlin Iron apart is the way its fashionability raised the value of the pieces.  It did this to a point that production then in turn devalued them, with enough low grade work being introduced, it either no longer suggested the glamour of charitable contributions towards war, or simply out-priced its finer producers.  This might be compared to the jewelry industry of today, with so many excellent metals, permanent plating techniques, and synthetics of every color.  You could say the concept of costume jewelry is at this point deprecated, and we see the name of the designer or the fashion, though with less frequency, commanding a higher price than is relative to its production.  With the particular exception of the gemstone market, particularly diamonds, the place of precious materials is closely tied to skilled manual labor, and just being gold or silver means less now that its semblance, or appearance, is easily had.  The shiny, the colorful, all can be had for a bargain, but the manual skills behind fine jewelry could not be supported without the existence of value – of paying a premium for design.  On a small collector scale, such work becomes an artist’s market.  But when a culture turns its aesthetic around its movements in time, there are openings where economy and ornament meet.  As a result, in the modern economy, while traditional skills are micro-preserved by specialists, we still have the mediating capacity of style, to which people have adapted by accelerating – each generation now offers its own patterns for production.

BerlinIron-640x313

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Johann Conrad Guass

Cast_iron_necklace

 

Berlin-Iron-Jewelry-466x350

The Crescent (Part 2)

In my previous article on the crescent, I went into detail about its history, and its virtually pan-cultural historic association with feminine power.  Now I turn to a variation on the crescent that is as common and old as its simpler sister, and discuss the double crescent.

Bulgaria 8-9th Cent CE

Bulgaria 8-9th Cent CE

We’ve established that the crescent and creation were synonymous on a visual level, across many cultures.  And while the symbolic uses of the double crescent are many, and their examples fine, we should get out of the way first the most obvious, prehistoric, and likely root of the complicated journey this symbol has taken.  Class, can anyone tell me what this quick drawing looks like?  Be childish, dig back.

Letter Ee

 If you guessed ‘breasts’ or ‘ass’ you have an impressive imagination, considering they would be rather lopsided.  You might enjoy Cubism.  But the ancient world is full of clever logograms for the double bump and rounded rump symbol, many of them forgotten.  One of them more remembered in name than story, the ‘twins’ have since prehistoric times have been associated with the goddess.  Gemini, Castor and Pollux, Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, the twins are a story so old we don’t know where it got its start.   Often they were represented only by their rounded hats, sometimes with little stars at the tips.  They were probably actual people in oral stories long before writing.  Here’s a Spartan stelae of the twins that may well be a visual pun:

Dioscuri_Relief_Sparta_Museum

Enough said – if the crescent is a creative symbol, the double crescent leaves no remote questions – from between the rounded parts of the mother is newborn life, from her breasts life is nourished.

Now that we’ve looked beneath the skirt, the development of the symbol in adornment is pretty straightforward.  And that process is appropriation of a recognized image and the assignment of new meanings.  In modern times, we treat each historic symbol differently according to its traditional meaning, and this is the direct effect of transliteration that the move to writing has produced.  A translated word is presented alongside its meaning, as though equal, a curious paradox that has had curious, lasting effects on modern thinking, and is also prone to error (mistranslation) and the impression of culture-wide separation.   Consider as an example English speaking martial arts students learning to respond to “lao hu” each time they take the posture called tiger, as though the word has a separate meaning.  To the keen eye we can see that assigned meanings can borrow some of their strength from pre-literal, visual symbols.

Mohenjo Daro Triratna Nagas TOL

Mohenjo Daro 2600 BC

In Mohenjo Daro, the impressive city of the lost Indus Valley civilization, we have our first glimpse of a symbol that is already well established.  Possibly an image of creation, we have a tree of life sprouting at its base two horned creatures that form a double crescent.  The serpentine creatures at the base of a tree is an image that can be found from the farthest reaches of Asia to the edge of Europe.

Achaemenid (Persia), VI-IV BC

Achaemenid (Persia), VI-IV BC

Persia, 1000 BC, Jam-e-Marlik

Persia, 1000 BC, Jam-e-Marlik

Sixteen hundred years later we find the characters of a prehistoric story endure, and the goddess of creation is depicted on the Parsi cup above with wide hips, full breasts, twisted snakes for legs, and wings.  Two beasts forming a double crescent sprout from the top of the compound image.

Achamenid, VII Cent. BC

Achamenid, VII Cent. BC

Egypt, V Cent. BC

Egypt, V Cent. BC

Greek, III Cent BC

Greek, III Cent BC

Two thousand years later the mark persists.  In a gold ornament from the Persian Empire at its height, we find a simplified combination of the double crescent at the base, a regular crescent, two marks and a lotus like flower. This formulation bears its mark in cultures on either side of the Indus, collectively known as the triratna.  This Sanskrit word means ‘three gems’ and has many interpretations. The Egyptian piece features the child of Isis, the resurrection of Horus, seated on a pillar (symbol of the Earth) surrounded by lotus flowers, a similar sentiment to the feminine power of creation.

Scylla Sirens Mistress of Animals V BC Triratna

Greek, Scylla, V Cent. BC

Sicily, III Cent. BC, Morgantina Treasure

Sicily, Scylla, III Cent. BC, Morgantina Treasure

The representations of Scylla are telling of the Greek sense of creation.  Typical of the depictions of Titans, or the gods before the gods, she is an anguipede with serpentine tails for legs.  In the first example, we can see the formal symbol of creation with just her head.  At each end of her legs, lion heads branch, flower and fruit, a piece that assigns her a creator goddess role.  In the later example, we see a sophisticated depiction of what she becomes under the civilized Olympians, now defeated her story became that of a girl turned into a sea monster.  Still the emblems of her old role remain, with lions at her feet, a snake wrapped around her, even as she is about to hurl a boulder.  The old gods necessarily become tyrants and causes of trouble, so that new state beliefs can prevail.  Today, Scylla remains with us as a thoroughly modern monster: the Starbucks logo.

Triratna Uttar Pradesh 184-72bc

Uttar Pradesh (India), 180 BC

Taxila Triratna I-II CE Is

Taxila (Pakistan), I-II Cent. CE

Triratna Lion Gold Coin

Tilia Tepe (Afghanistan), I Cent. CE

Triratna

Greek Bactria (Pakistan), II Cent. CE

All of the above examples are variations on the same symbol.  Characteristic of the 1st Century CE we see in the same region Greek and Indian cultures mixing with the array of those that came before, and the triratna developing in several directions.  Each successive culture that conquers the area recognizes, adopts and modifies the image.  The Greeks may have introduced their Pythagorean ideas of the number three, believed sacred as it takes two to make a third, which leads to the literal three gems instead of the probable origin of the large circle and two dots of other early triratnas: the earth, sun and moon.  The mother goddess in neolithic times, as a sidenote, was often drawn as a triangle with a circle on top, predecessor to the ankh and the cross.  Also compare the forking ends on the Uttar Pradesh and Tilia Tepe examples with Scylla above.

Triratna Screen shot 2013-05-19 at 2.52.48 PM

Tibetan Empire, 15th Cent. CE

Heading east the changing symbol is formalized into Buddhism as the Triple Gem, with a new interpretation of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.  Yet the symbol retains the graphic lines of the double crescent.

Spiti Triratna-like India 19thC lahoul

Spiti Valley (India) 19th Cent.

tom-01 triratna

Himachal Pradesh (India), 18th Cent.

Himalaya Pichuk 3 jewels triratna

Himalayas, 20th Cent.

Miao Hook 20th

Miao (China), 20th Cent.

And it is interesting to note that despite the reinterpretation, and further layers of ‘secret’ meanings introduced in Medieval times, the symbol (especially when worn upside down), can clearly be seen to resemble female body parts.  The triratna is essentially the mother goddess symbol of Asia.

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Ethiopia, Garima Gospels, 5th Cent. CE

To the west, the double crescent was absorbed into the new religion of the Byzantine Empire, where Christianity was slowly formalizing in a region still fond of its goddess culture.  In the earliest known illustrated gospels, the crescent and double crescent are presented as arching over the index tables, sprouting as though alive.  Christianity takes part of its roots from the Egyptian religion of Isis (“I am the blood, the resurrection and the life”) and the Christ concept is in some way indebted to the story of her son, a virgin birth, a resurrection of her husband Horus (the son is the father).

In the stories of Buddha, Harpocrates (son of Isis) and Jesus in both the Bible and the Koran, the savior stories developed in the first centuries of our era are all born of a woman clinging to a tree.  (Ok, in the Christian story it’s a barn.) That woman is the mother goddess, and the tree is the Tree of Life, evolutions of a story that predates written history.

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Ancient Egypt, Isis Giving Birth

Kievan Rus Crosses XI-XIII Triratna

Kiev, Rus Crosses XI-XIII Cent.

In the north we find the raw intersection of the solar cross, the four directions, and the double crescent as their people come into closer ties with Byzantine culture.  In these examples, the crescents are often ‘birthing’ a cross.

56-263568-ejmiatsin-khachkar-vigen-hakhverdyan-wikicommons

Armenia, Khachkar, 9th Cent.

Merovingian Crux Anchor Triratna

Merovingian (France), Anchor Cross, 5th Cent.

As the cross begins to appear as a Christian emblem in the 3rd Century, among the earliest examples we have are the Anchor Crosses and the Khachkars of Armenia.  Here we have our symbol of the creator goddess in its last days, as the tree and the double crescent; also compare the three circles to the triratna symbols of old.

Victorian, Gold and Pearls

Victorian, Gold and Pearls

R Widows Mite Ring R151

Greek, Lepton (Widow’s Mite), I Cent. CE, modern setting.  This side – anchor, reverse – wheel.

In the anchor we have a visual equivelant in diachronic onamasiology, or a polysemic orthograph, in other words the classic anchor also looks just like several other symbols in one.  In this case, we have the ankh or sign of Venus atop a double crescent with forking ends, and just as often a snake-like rope wraps around its ‘tree’.  As a stick figure drawing, this is a convincing likeness of our creation mother of the sea, known as Scylla to the late Greeks.  In this we have just another example, like Isis, the triratna and the cross, of a change in gender that masculinized symbols of feminine power at the start of the first millenium.

* * *

As a reward for reading this far, I invite you to consider the mysterious resurfacing of the double crescent about five hundred years later:

Heart-SG2001-transparent

The adoption of the symbol is a bit of a mystery.  Obviously, the cordiform leaf shape is the closest natural match, abundant anywhere.  But how it turned red and came to represent the human heart is unclear. There are many theories, but historians don’t seem to know for sure.   A trace of it turns up in a Byzantine mosaic, and on the Danish coat of Arms, both from the 12th Century.  The Danes insist they are leaves, but curiously enough, they are red.  As a symbol of the human heart it appears suddenly in the Middle Ages (1300s) as a Christian mystic symbol without much of a formal introduction, though sources indicate repeatedly that it was a ‘personal emblem’ that was widely revered in private homes.  There is some confusion as to whether it belonged to Mary or Jesus until the monasteries began writing theology for it.

Andrea Pisano, Flanders Cathedral, 1380
Charity with Heart and Cornucopia – Earth Mother in Disguise?

Trifoil5

The Gothic Trefoil also appeared in the same century.

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France, Sacred Heart Ex Voto, 18th Cent.
Is Sacré Cœur a play on Secret Cœur?

In the next century, as the Renaissance warms up, it appears as one of the four ‘French’ suits that we are familiar with in our standard deck of playing cards.  And there’s our clue: in the Renaissance scholars were beginning to suspect that history had been significantly rewritten, and roughly at that.  By a combination of reverse engineering, occult tradition and folk lore, they set to work gradually introducing their ideas of Classical philosophy, science, and the rest.  The Tarot cards were an excellent tool for teaching an alternative history, carefully designed with mundane status quo images that are easy to explain, concealed as an amusing game, yet containing double meanings which could be used to teach of civilizations that had been hidden away.  The first Tarot decks were refined works of art made for children of noble families, who were receiving the most sophisticated education available.  One of the Tarot suits, Cups, a symbol for virtue and heart, became the suit that we know as hearts today.  And in Alchemical traditions of the time, one of the ways philosophy had survived at least conceptually, we regularly see the image of a reunion between male and female, sun and moon.  Psychologists have insisted this refers to an internal process, but could it reveal a more literal purpose, of restoring sacredness to the female gender, of a worldly balance and equality?  Was the heart symbol a brilliant graphic design by a Middle Ages artist who sought to restore an old balance, or were they simply bringing back to the light a secret, sacred symbol preserved by common people?

bed-boy-girl-couple-girl-boy-kiss-Favim.com-216692

 

In the next and final part of this article, I will bring you Tridents!  Brought to you by the number 3 and the letters M and W.

Austrian Kalender Medailles

Calendar medals have their origins in the 17th century, when numismatic technology reached a level that could reproduce this level of detail.  In 1933 Austria began to release an annual kalender medaille, which continues.  Most of them are silver, but some years were released in bronze.

Calendar medals provided people with a quick pocket reference to any date in the year.  The earliest of these incorporate two tables, a Sunday table that shows the dates of each Sunday for all twelve months, and a Moon table that shows the dates of full and sometimes new moons.  The Moon table was said to be of particular use for planning journeys on nights with the potential for better lighting.  The last full Moon table was included in 1938.

The coins are grouped into the seven traditional, visible planets of the ancients, which include the Sun and Moon.  They cycle through these in a curious order, the reason for the particular order is unclear: Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars.  Nearly all of them feature related images of Roman deities and the Zodiac, which reflects the country’s history.  Essentially the German lands that fell under the Holy Roman Empire’s rule, the place is traditionally Catholic, while typical of royal lineages who consider themselves part of ancient, unbroken blood rights to rulership, references to the preceding empire served to establish their antiquity.  At the same time, most of them feature the dates of the four Moveable Feasts.

In some cases Janus takes the place of Jupiter; the Four Seasons or the Solar Chariot take the place of the Sun.  The Nazi Anschluss annexed the country in 1938, and did not end until 1945, with a return to autonomy for the country in 1955.  Notably, one divergence from Roman symbolism was 1947, when the year ruled by the Sun depicts a bearded figure and the phrase, “Es Werde Licht” (Let There be Light) a unique reference to the Christian creator, and in this initial period of Allied administration, “Cum Deo” (With God) was added beside the year.  Other exceptions include Athena in place of Saturn in the year 1965, and the next time around, a Sphinx aboard a sailing ship in place of Saturn as well.  In 1975 a rooster and an owl are featured for the Sun.  Throughout the calendar coins have exhibited modernity through austere Art Deco type, with the exception of the first three years of Anschluss where the Germans saw fit to impose a gothic font.  Increasingly the influence of modern art in overall design appeared through the seventies, but in 1980 and onward, we see the return of traditional mythological gods in an emphatic, neo-classical style, with several grouped years designed by single artists.

I share these as an interesting way to quickly scroll through the years.  They provide a way to absorb the passage of time, and the proximity of the past.  And through their design elements, they give us a kind of control against which to experiment with assumptions about culture and the graphics that they maintain as part of their myths.

 1933  1933
1934 1934Kal
1935 1935
 1936 1936
 1937 1937kal
 1938 1938kal
1939 1939Calendar
1940 1940kal
 1941 1941k
1942 1942Calendar
 1943 1943k
1944 1944kal
1945 1945kal
1946 1946
 1947 1947
 1948 1948kal
1949 1949
 1950 1950Kal
 1951 hp photosmart 720
1952 1952kal
1953 1953kal
1954 1954kal
1955 1955Kal
1956 1956cal
1957 1957kal
1958 1958kal
1959 1959Kal
1960 1960kal
1961 1961kal
 1962 1962kal
1963 1963kal
1964 H. K?ttenstorfer
 1965 1965SV
 1966 1966kal 
1967 1967
1968 1968kal
1969 1969kal
 1970 1970Kal
 1971 1971Kal
1972 1972Kal
1973 1973Kal
 1974 H. Köttenstorfer
 1975 1975kal
1976 1976kalab
 1977 1977kal
1978 1978Moon
 1979  1979kal
1980 1980kal
 1981 1981kal
 1982  1982akal
1983  1983akal
1984 1984kal
1985 1985kal
 1986 1986kal
1987  1987kal
1988 1988kal
1989 1989kal
 1990 1990kal
 1991 1991kal
1992 1992kalab
1993  1993kal
 1994 1994kal
1995 1995kal
1996  1996kal
 1997
 1998 1998kal
1999 1999Kal
2000 2000kal
2001  2001Kal
 2002 2002Kal
 2003 2003Kal
 2004  2004kal
2005 2005kal

Slave Collars

slavechoker

This is a blog about ornament.  And while a slave collar is by no means an ornament in its most sinister sense, it is a form of accessory in a society that does not see a collar on its slaves.  Of the many kinds of ornament the collar worn in modern metropolis has a primarily sexual facet to it, its function can be subverted by wearing it out on the street, which may or may not be activated.  In a society that sees a slave collar as an edgy fashion or a penchant for bedroom role playing, collars for the bondage of humans are museum antiquities.  Many would have been wrought of iron, a highly recyclable metal. Many of the slave collars of the past have become nails, pulleys, or bolts, but the fact of the collar, presented here in a string of images, remains in active use.

American, 19th Century

American, 19th Century

Having my own life encounters with people held against their will, I can only begin to imagine the misery of being enslaved in a total sense.  I never thought much of restraints in the bedroom, I’m a bit of a tree hugger that way.  But I’ve never quite shaken my belief in the possibility of a kind of slavery to convenience or wage slavery, that should be rebelled against, preferably irrationally.

Slavery is lousy.  It stretches to before history, it continues today, all the civilizations have engaged in it, empire is arguably impossible without it, and if you consider women’s justice, in a world where most of them face the absence of life choices, and we have not moved far from the collars at all.  The word serf is just another kind of slave, the distinction being they and all their children belong to the property’s balance sheet, not the landlord’s personal budget.  That deal, where they are bound by shelter, food and family security needs, has been compared to a concept of debt slavery, where standards of living come with the requirement of long-term repayment.  Though not touched on often in the school books of the North, most of the wars fought in the Americas during the 19th century were revolutions that centered on slave rebellions. Serfs and debt slaves may not wear collars, but the patriotic pageants of North Korea certainly have a slave feel to them – they wear far more than collars, decorated in complete costumes.

Made in Pakistan, Modern

Made in Pakistan, Modern

Given that we are randy primates with pronounced… habits, activated by words, images, and other gifts of intelligence, and deeply invested in social thinking mechanisms, it isn’t a surprise that dominance and submission is played out in the buff with cuffs and collars as props.  While I can only imagine the psychological scars of anyone that survives being exposed to the whims of an icy hearted captor of human beings, statistics show that people who engage in any playful, consensual kink tend to be well adjusted and generally happier with their relationships.  The use of a bondage collar by people who have the good fortune of not living in the dark ages (historic or its modern enclaves) remains a bedroom toy and became fashionably acceptable thanks to a generation of punks who took elements of ugliness and subverted them as self decoration and the attracting of partners, and who is to say if there isn’t a thing of beauty in turning the ugliest symbols, like the slave collar, upside down.  It is admittedly strange, but then I can’t even bear to wear a wristwatch when I’m sunning the nether regions.

Roman

Roman

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Roman

Roman, Pompeii, Sex Slave

Roman, Pompeii, Sex Slave

Ancient Greek

Greek

Viking

Viking

African Congo

African Congo

Europe, Shrews Fiddle

Europe, Shrews Fiddle

Shrews Fiddle

Inquisition, Shrews Fiddle

Spanish Inquisition

Papal States

Inquisition

Inquisition

Ireland

Ireland

Peru

Peru

Peru, 19th C.

Peru, 19th C.

American

American

China

China

Wales, Convict Ship Slave

Wales, Convict Ship Slave

Information on the continued existence of slaves today:

humantrafficking.org

 

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Modern, Sterling Silver

Modern, Sterling Silver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

• Victoire de Castellane •

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With this second article about a jewelery designer, there is a distinction to be made between artisan, who conceives and makes, and the designer, whose involvement may be pencils and not files.  But there are palettes of color to consider, when you make high fashion jewels, that free the hand in ways production jewelry can’t obtain.

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Victoire de Castellane was a costume jewelry designer for ten years at one big house, and now runs the fine jewelry side of another house.  This was announced with a solo show in an art gallery, the Gagosian Paris.  By sidestepping opulence slightly, the designer is able to show through by bending the rules of form.

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In her work the use of color sets it apart, there is a dimensionality of thinking, consideration for multiple view angles.  And her approach is a break from the sweeping grid fields of paved stones that seem to have ruled jewels since Cartier. When and where the tiny brilliants are placed, they are in strips, single file dashes of color.  The designer admires and locks in on the color value of the stones, setting them in pass-through mounts and clusters, while no bare metal sees the surface without being treated in jewel toned enamel and lacquer on gold.  And no metal is unworked – the surfaces are florid.  No plane, right angle or facet asserts itself, everywhere is curve and undulation.

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Every surface prioritizes color over substance.  Stones are used to react to the enamel.  Stones are gathered in smooth cabochon clusters there, and variegated with strips of colored brilliants.  The range of techniques is admirable, more so is the leaving of formalities in the dust, completely reworked to have something visual to offer.

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Victoire de Castellane Fascinante Ring Victoire de Castellane Fascinante Ring 2

• Jack du Rose •

Jack du Rose

Jack du Rose is a jewelry designer coming from a hands-on background.  In a time of professional education, it is rare to encounter a successful fabricator that has his feet in apprenticeship.  He is doubly interesting for being self-taught, so far as design is concerned.

The artist gained his technical skill as a fabricator to two jewelers in London, creating models for them, most likely CAD on the front end and wax in back.  It was a lucky break, coming from an educational system that flunked him for art and design and in the English system this prevented him from entering the arts.

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Resigned to an English major he nearly gave up his visual side, but the designer found himself drawn towards the bygone ornamental work of the late 19th Century, and landed himself a position where he could learn in a production setting.

Perhaps there is something telling in the ease of his style.  Trained goldsmiths might be influenced by techniques and designs that dominate the market place, but skipping straight ahead to the technical prowess that comes only from repeated practice gave him instead the ability to make and show pieces of great difficulty, while doing it with a more total artistic oversight.

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After working on the crew that produced for Damien Hirst one of his legendary platinum and diamond encrusted skulls, we could wonder if the designer felt adequately historic at that point to remove himself from any form of vernacular.  And yet the pieces exhibit a kind of restraint to them, conservative themes (by today’s standards) are nuanced and expanded upon, original in their poise, fluid in line, but reliably adhering to the standard of what any exceptional jewel might be recognized by today: jewels, completely covered all over in them.

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Since the arrival of pavê setting in the early 1900s, the demand placed on the model maker to possess both an engineer’s mind and a graceful line are precisely where du Rose centers his bid.  And with characters like Galliano, McQueen and Westwood leading high fashion into deeper imperial punk-goth directions, his choice of creatures and skeletons not only has its audience, but takes place in a time of fortune not unlike the period that inspired him.  The Fin de Siècle was good to Lalique and Tiffany, and our new millennium sees a similar kind of global wealth concentrated in the hands of a luxury class that is hopeful, curious, and seeking to carve its place with styles that display a distance from the past.

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Apparently considering this with his primary collection, he doesn’t rest only the technical material and carat weight of the pieces, but includes an artisan made wooden case, a hand blown glass vitrine, and to the whole package adds a scorpion key as elaborately set as the large jewel inside, which locks the display.  The steering of an already successful position fabricating towards taking risks with more elaborate creativity, is at least a partial rejection of minimal and pragmatic approaches to adding value to precious objects.  It is also a signature of some members of his generation, and the promise of this motivation is great.  So much for a system that didn’t think he rated as artistic, here he unbegrudgingly leans in to make an adjustment to it where he best can. Jack-du-Rose-key

 

 

The Living Cross

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The main thrust of this article is to discuss the origins of the symbols found in a range of metalworking patterns that have been continuously employed in Ethiopian crosses, so you can enjoy the complexity they display.  Ethiopian crosses are possibly the most interesting crosses on earth, because each one looks completely different, of the finest examples no two are made the same, by tradition.  This is a rare rule in ornament, and there is an interesting story in African art history behind it.

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As head pieces for processional staves, pendant necklaces, and hand-carried objects, the Ethiopian cross is distinguished for its stylistic variety and complexity, and also for its unique ability to escape being locked into an isomorphic form.  Through tradition the precedent of variation has been preserved, allowing artisans to take liberty with the shapes and patterns of their choosing.  Creative license with the cross is more rare in modern formulations of Christianity, where the symbol, particularly the Roman cross, has a standardized form.

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Historians are unable to agree when the the cross was adopted as the primary emblem of Christianity.  It is generally thought to be no earlier than 200 AD, becoming widespread in the 3rd century.  The use of a cruciform for religious, talismanic, and decorative uses dates to neolithic times.  The stellar cross – a simple plus sign, the solar cross – a circle sectioned by an equilateral cross, which is also used as a symbol of the earth, and the swastika – the rotating cross or spiral, are early forms found in nearly all ancient cultures.  This includes cultures likely to not have communicated, and draws attention to the features of balance, symmetry, and the effect of diffraction creating rays around any light source, when you squint your eyes, as inspiring mysteries and sources of graphic inspiration common to human perception.  One of the marked interests in Ethiopian designs is the combined use of all these ancient forms.

Note: all images without captions are Ethiopian.

The Ankh

In Coptic Egypt, the ankh or crux ansata (Latin, “cross with a handle”) was still in active use, found etched into any of the mounds of stone temples old and new, perhaps for of its usefulness as the graphic symbol of life itself.   The ankh symbol is linked with a range of earth and fertility goddesses from a variety of cultures, and its use as our modern symbol for the female survives to this day, along with its use in science for identifying the planet Venus in astronomy.

 

Ankh amulet

Egypt, Ankh amulet, faience, 1700 BCE

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The symbol can be found in neighboring cultures that shared economic ties.  One example being Herod the Great, like many local lords of the time a self-styled philosopher king after Alexander (and unfairly confused with his more evil son Herod Antipas), was known as the builder of a temple for every religion, though we don’t have a complete list of which ones.  He used the ankh as part of his personal seal in coinage, dying four years before “A.D.” begins, and shared interest in the bitumen trade (raw oil seepage useful for waterproofing and embalming) with the Cleopatras of Ptolemaic Egypt.

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Herod the Great Coin 1st Cent. BCE, Obv: Celtic Helmet, Rev: Tripod of the Delphi Oracle and Ankh

Coin of Herod with Cross

Herod the Great Coin – Obv: Solar Cross, Rev: Delphic Tripod

The ankh is sometimes described as a cosmic tree of life, like a pillar which supports the sun.  This bears out well in the earliest imagery found in Christian manuscripts, where ankh style crosses are shown flowering, sprouting, drawn as a living thing.

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Coptic Egypt, Codex Glazier, Acts of the Apostles, 4th Century

In former times, a glyph related to the ankh was a kind of knot, which has specific fertility associations, and happens to resemble the configuration of a woman’s reproductive organs – the womb, ovaries and vagina.   It also happens to look a bit like a rope person, and more practically, is likely depicting a kind of tampon.  Its name, Tyet or Tet, called the Blood of Isis, is frequently found in red materials, a reference to menstruation, and like the ankh, standing for well being and life.  The ankh is also described as the pillar that holds up the sun, drawn as seen when it sets.  The sun rests on a T form, the horizontal line for the horizon, the vertical line its reflection in the sea, and always points towards the viewer no matter how you move.  The related Phoenician symbol of the earth goddess drew this phenomenon as a circle resting on an inverted triangle.  Many of the Ethiopian crosses also have as a central motif a shape resembling a woman’s sex.

Red Knot of Isis

Nubia, 6th Cent. BCE, Tet, Isis Knot

A little language-object background helps to explore the relationship between the simple and complex versions of this symbol.  Writing is a kind of drawing, used to link to meaning, verbalized sound, and image.  Ancient people like moderns had great fun with visual puns, and symbols that had multiple meanings.   Both Greeks and Egyptians were champions at it, and often found mystical significance in the patterns formed by usage.  In the Greek alphabet the letter chi, written X, has a matching phonetic sound to ankh, –kh.   This meant the sound of the two symbols matched their visual compatibility.  With ankh (kh) and tet (t), you have two glyphs that both look like each other, and sound like the respective Greek letters Chi (x) and Tau (+).  So the word cross takes the same sound as this old word for life, which is -kh, and also describes the way it is drawn, though it is no longer first symbol most would used when asked to draw life.  The cross has for a large part of the world, become a signifier of a specific religion, and its branches, while in symbolism represents a specific crucifixion story.   But in the Ethiopian cross, we can argue it is also still drawn in a way that also asserts life itself as one possible meaning.

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The Knotwork

Knotwork is a key element appearing in the earliest Christian uses of the cross.  Crosses used in key patterns for architectural decor were already staples in ancient culture.  The intertwining of the caduceus snakes are prehistoric and point to life, creative power and health, knotting together being the way snakes are found coupling.  These old creative associations can be traced far beyond the cultural regions in discussion.  But the development of knot-work fields as a motif appears as an innovation of this syncretic time period, one that quickly spread to a number of cultures.  Some argue for an origination in the knotwork animal motifs of the northern horse tribes of the Steppes, it is a regular Byzantine feature, and Armenian crosses, some of our earliest formal examples in the new context, are heavily invested in the use of it.

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Knotwork also remains the central motif in the religious artwork of Islam, rooted in a close proximity of time and place, and in some cases was the only permitted form of representation besides writing.  Throughout Europe, the Celtic and Germanic cultures adopted it intensively, and its proliferation reveals how quickly communication was made.  One reason for the fast adoption in Europe may be that Herod the Great’s personal army consisted of Anatolian Celts, with broad trade connections; in the centuries that follow, the use of knotwork, spread to the reaches of the far northern cultures through Viking networks, visually merging neolithic spiral art that still survived there with the new universal literary religion.

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Crosses as elaborated trees of life, foliated or filled with knot-work are not only the first such illustrations in Christian books, but found in the earliest sculpted versions as well:

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Armenia, Kachkar

 

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India, the Cross of Thomas

 

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England, Lindisfarne Gospels

 

A Compound Talisman

Ethiopic crosses are emblematic trees whose branches touch on many meanings.  The incorporation of solar discs radiate in broad variety, interspersed with stars of David, tree birds, all varieties of this type of cross point to an intentional talismanic concentration of multiple symbols.

Ethiopian cross

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Incorporated into many of these crosses are essential graphic elements that, like the cross itself, point backwards in time to pre-history, and underline the role as a broad symbol of life itself.  The cross is sometimes growing from a significant point, the peak of a holy mountain.  This is usually symbolized with a three-stepped pyramid, a base motif also found in many cultures.  Other times, a simple trident serves as the base, a symbol of creation found in very different cultures far to the north, and the east.  This abstracts the frequent presence of ‘twinning’ elements, symmetrical serpentine forms representing life force, that belong together in a class that includes caduceus, cherubs holding a wreath or curtain, the torc, and horns and antlers.  In simplified form, like the trident, this twinning is found within the Om symbol, and the triratna (three jewels), equally ancient symbols of creative power and life force, and all cognates of the tree of life, the ankh, and breasts.  We also find the early cross combined with images of the arch and pillars, doorway symbols of fertility culture and creative force, while the pillars are yet another symmetrical presentation of the ever-present twinning, branching, division and symmetry.

India, Saanchi, a triratna

India, Saanchi, a Buddhist triratna from the 3rd Century BCE

Processional_cross_Old_Lalibela_closeup Two Nagas

So we find in the Ethiopian record of the cross, the survival of a wide range of symbols for creative power, from earth goddesses, to the sun, to sprouting plants, regularly compounded into concentrated, syncretized forms.  The use of the knot-work can be easily understood in this context, as representing the entangled similarities of primary, multicultural symbols for life, woven into union.

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Survival as a Symbol of Life

A very interesting distinction about the Ethiopian cross can be made, that sets it apart from the rest of the modern Christian world: the cross is an object of worship in itself, and has texts devoted to it that did not survive elsewhere, considering it a symbol in its own way alive, and able to bestow the power of life and healing.  In the world beyond Ethiopia, the cross lost all of its feminine, life-giving associations long ago, becoming something we are more likely to find familiar today, a memorial symbol of an execution, and a grave marker, referring to new life for a single historic personage in the distant past, rather that a broad conceptual emblem.  For most of the Christian world today, the cross symbolizes the crucifixion story, but is no longer seen as a force of life in itself as frequently.

Armenian Kachkar

Armenian Kachkar, a fascinating fusion of emblems of creation from all directions.  Each is also traditionally quite unique.

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China, Beijing - Nestorian Tombstone, 7th Century

China, Beijing – Nestorian Christian Tombstone, 7th Century resting on a lotus, another creative emblem also found in late Egyptian art.

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You can see in this Ethiopian processional design several things – the tradition that the direction of the spiral cross has a fixed meaning in time is false, it is like all graphic symbols simply a drawing first – and the fact that the Nazi claims on these symbols was nothing more than appropriation resulting from poor attempts at science. Had they known it pointed towards a total interconnection of life, and unity, rather than their notion of some mythic ancient superiority, they would have used something else I imagine.

 

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Mongolia, Nestorian Pin, 7th Century

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As an ancient literary empire closely linked to trade, and a historic part of the Egyptian sphere, Ethiopia’s connection to the Mediterranean dates to Solomonic times during its height, preparing a home for the arrival of converts to Christianity during much later Coptic times.  This would form a bloc that was deep enough into the African continent to avoid the coming torches of the Roman Empire.  Rapid changes in climate had a strong role in this, and reduced their ancient trade position by surrounding the country with desertification.  This helped the Ethiopians rebuff the Arabic conquest, which had spread east along the Silk Road and west by the North African coast, gradually causing the disappearance of many other cultures and languages.  As its ancient power quietly started to nod off, Ethiopia was effectively cut off from the later debates, mergers and conflicts that developed in the Christian world, sweeping changes would bury much evidence of this symbol’s highly syncretic character.

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Preserved then in the many Ethiopian languages (there are more than 7 with both Semitic and Nile rooted flavors) are rituals, emblems and books that still provide glimpses into what the first distillations of Christianity from Coptic Egypt would have looked, survivors in remote cliff-top monasteries, some only approachable by climbing rope.

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Despite the removal and this symbol’s character, Ethiopia did not escape any better the demotion of the goddess and the feminine in general that clearly defines the more recent religions – especially in the essential removal of women as people of leadership, which was never particularly universal, but suffered greater losses before what gains have been made in modern times.  But in some way, the cross there has retained a mothering, feminine presence, as a living symbol, in terms of the interwoven, multicultural history it displays.

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As surviving symbols of a reverence for life, you could imagine there is just a hint of what was once more widely felt to be an essentially feminine concept of power.  And it makes sense that their individual patterns vary and change, each unique like a living thing, formed as though from a tangle of roots and branches.  Perhaps by preserving the lore as a living symbol, they have yet to collapse into uniformity, limited to a specific story, being overcome by text.

But the change in symbols, of female to male, from a sense of the renewal of creation, to a symbol of suffering  and death, should also serve as a warning of the dangers that a monopoly on belief poses to human cultures.  The loss of power for half of the people, to serve the power of another, and the past reshaped to delay, disable and divide people, is the mark of empire.  It is an immense privilege, using modern eyes, to be able to choose our beliefs, and pass up any that do not promote the belonging and creative potential of all individuals.  The returning of women into the fold of secular and spiritual leadership, in all aspects of society, is the restoration of some of what has been lost; the achievement of true balance and equity however would be a modern accomplishment without comparison, something new on this earth.  Restoring (or simply rediscovering) a reverence for life seems like a fitting step forward.   While there are losses we can lament in the past, beyond the necessity of a spiritual reverence for all living things, whatever chances we have for survival as a whole now depends on a major departure from days before science, when mystery and fear could be easily used to control the understanding people had of their world, and of their options.

The Ethiopian memory of the cross as a vital, living thing has something for anyone that can read the symbol, and while tied to place and time the tradition of depicting each one as distinct gives them individuality as well – as each person forms their own matrix of experiences and roots, each their own manifestation of life, both the fruit of the tree and the seed of what grows next.  We can all benefit from our woven nature, and find some direction by avoiding the erasure of becoming just another isomorphic expression of symbol and myth.

Click for a 1974 documentary that shows manufacturing methods and further history of Ethiopian Crosses.

Egypt, Temple of Isis at Philae, Coptic Cross, 3rd Century

Egypt, Temple of Isis at Philae, Coptic Cross, 3rd Century.  Note the star above, and the trident underneath.  Sky and sea, above and below?  Added to the four directions, is this a 3D compass rose?

German Hunting Amulets (Charivari)

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It’s a bit difficult to grasp in a country whose idea of hunting starts with guns blazing, what might take shape in terms of custom and memory if the act of seeking sustenance in the wild woods, involved in memory more of a tangle of endurance, skill, patience, luck, risk, hunger and blood.  For descendants of a pioneer family such as my own, we have the image of the Mountain Man, rugged separatist who preferred the wilderness to the city, who preferred to learn the tongues of the native inhabitants to the slick tongues of the European immigrant flood.  They were described as possessing scarce knowledge, speaking the language of the land, and in what wild wisdom they had earned by sacrificing all comfort made them into symbols of a more pure form of justice, one that was more essential, more in line with the laws of man and beast, of life, than the spearpoint of economics that most think of when squinting eyes and peering backwards at the idea of frontier justice.  So goes the story anyway.

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True Grit

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So it was told around the fireside in my family, these men who lived off their (s)kills experienced something like the tradeoff of senses, the heightened hearing in the blind, or existential insight of the hunchback who lives in the cathedral attic.  They reverted in some way, retrogressed and so became civilized, solidified in another.   Their clothing might be entirely composed of the skins and furs of the animals they had killed, laces, shoes and bedding.  But these men were also told to be rogue scholars of a sort, not a few in possession of at the least the Works of Shakespeare which served as the everyman’s library of the day, or the Compleat Angler which was truly the English speaking world’s first Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I can remember making a beaded necklace complete with plastic bear-claws in a youth group, and being mystified by the legend of the meeting place where civilization receded into the woods, and the wild animal came to live alongside re-wild man.  I could feel, by slipping the costume claws over my neck, something of the effort and mystery involved in them.  You had to earn them.  You had to face death to wear them.

Shown worn traditionally over lederhosen.

Shown worn traditionally over lederhosen.

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All of this introduction serves to relate as best I can to a form of talisman that is at once so ordinary it needs no introduction, and so vitally spiritual, in the most minimal sense of that word, that it could be called timeless.  Charivari is a word with uncertain etymology, it appears in several languages, in France it means roughly ‘a large group shouting’ or occasionally a wedding, but with completely unknown origins.  In Germans speaking countries, it refers specifically to the hunting amulet, or a chain of them that is  draped in front of one’s crotch when wearing their leather hunting gear, or the folklore costume version of them.  I’ve encountered references to these talismans having the expected magical uses, but also as displays of wealth in that purely tribal fashion, thick silver chains and strung coins, along with mythological references such as tribal symbols, saint medallions and vanitas skulls.  Tales are painted of young hunters being initiated and receiving them as graduation gifts, pointing to a form of ornament that blended personal taste, belief and trophy.  More than a few charivari chains terminate in a nice long bit of antler or a penis bone strung right over where the manhood dangles, suggesting no shortage of humor in these low-hung man jewels.

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Women have their own charivaris as well, usually worn as an apron tie or bodice closure.  Tribal finds  throughout the ages show a widespread habit of stringing amulets along the belt in clusters or tucked into little pouches, for both men and women, surviving into the late middle ages and beyond as chatelains, buckles, watch fobs, and keychains, even today lingering in the rainbow colors of a lucky rabbit’s foot.  In modern terms, so cleaned of their practicality, it is difficult to picture the raw objective feeling beneath these traditional ornaments.

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What I find most interesting is that for the most part charivaris seem to have a kind of humility to them, they are usually small tokens just the tips of horns, a single tooth, or a seed, or the jaws of a small hunter like a weasel.  At home or in the lodge one might mount heads or racks of horns, but when one goes out to the woods to engage in death and life, wearing their leather clothes, the talismans are subtle.   Bits of fang and horn, the pincers of stag beetles, the beaks of birds, little reminders of sharp and contentious things.  In a private, liminal way they can be held in the hand to become one of the animals, a small button to press and enter on even footing into the chaotic court of the wilderness. Small tokens, humble in their recognition, unsparing in their reminders at the modesty of the greatest hunter in the face of being snowblind, or scented by ravenous wolves, or breaking an ankle on a particularly long trek in search of food, or failing to find food too frequently.  Beak and talon, tooth and fang, small reminders of the hunter’s true scale in the face of survival, the woods, and the world beyond.

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Alphons Mucha’s 2nd Prize Jewelry

1900

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What is success?  For artists, the public is really only aware of a very few.  The ones that have withstood the test of modern, media time, artists that an average, educated adult could identify.  By identifying an artist, I mean not the name that is linked with a single iconic work, but one whose style is unforgettable, really registers.  The ones  that still sell posters, lunchboxes, and magnets, in every Midwest city bookshop, who are accepted as clearly being artists by people who would never on their own visit an art gallery in their life.  Among these few are Vincent Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dali, M.C. Escher, and of course Alphons Mucha.

The humble artist who was tapped by stage and screen star Sarah Burnhardt to work his designing full time, turned out to be more than a smart promotions move.  This Bohemian slumming it in Paris happened to have the most fluid, expressive line around, a quality that was just at that moment in time deeply desired by the elite – and it happened Mucha became one of just a few artists that really transformed all of visual design and the printed layout at the time.  It may be better to say that central to this was a totally new exposure to Asian art, and it was Mucha that codified the new design rules into the European style book.

Cascade, 1900

Cascade, 1900

The turn of the century, when 1899 became 1900, was for some a hopeful time, thanks to science people were beginning to think humans really could be wizards.  Inventive, not necessarily noble people were getting rich, sometimes with inventions or improved machinery, sometimes through the savage colonization of people with less sophisticated weapons.   The bizarre magic of electric lights and the motion pictures were appearing everywhere. For the European elite, the turn of the century was extra charged.  Each new country occupied by a European nation meant a boost to the market, so to speak, regardless of the long-term costs to all parties.  People were getting very close to making the first successful powered flight in an airplane, 1903, and gliders, balloons, and other contraptions occupied dilettante minds and hovered overhead.  In 1905 Einstein wrote a paper on photoelectric effect, one birth of quantum mechanics.  Thanks to potatoes and a reprieve from plague, population had exploded, making labor in Europe unbelievably cheap, while dissolving the traditions of apprenticeship.   This meant young designers with a fancy hand on the pencils could afford to employ seasoned craftsmen.

For the great majority of the people however, all of these wonders were carnival instances between lives of drudgery, but in this day, as though remembering through time and space, Mucha is best known as a poster artist, the artist who filled Paris with the most beautiful, free art posters you could imagine, and is still a household name.

The Zodiac, still in print

The Zodiac, still in print

Coming into his own at just this time was Mucha, who with little access to the world of owning fine things, had set about creating them for himself and been granted the situation to run with it.   He must have known that the  1900 Universal Exhibition was going to be a tremendous competition.  It was an intense concentration of high skill and inspiration on display in the new style, and it remains legendary for this reason.  Presenters had been working as long as ten years to prepare for it.  It showed what people are capable of, a side that is rarely seen.

It has been argued that it was so exceptional because the optimism brought by science and technology introduced a relief from the pessimism and lack of choice that followed a long reign of apocalyptic beliefs.  Or that it was a relief for the collective mind to see as new the art of other cultures, which helped break the aesthetic and symbolistic controls of their environment, that had been hardening in place for nearly two thousand years.   Though technology’s romantic side quickly gave way to an orgy of weaponization and destruction, Art Nouveau could be argued to be the aesthetic of humanism.

Reading the materials of the time, however, he was painted as quite the opposite.  In the New Century in 1904 he was described as a new version of the same old mysticism, the stuff of that his art rejects science and analysis in favor of natural beauty.  He is described along with a roster of artists as among those trying to resist modernity, and vestiges of this view remain.  One gets the sense in the article that this distaste for Nouveau was a casualty of the fever for hunting and eliminating old viewpoints, a foretaste of the passionate desire and then shame of fascism that would from these beginning claim all its acts to be in the name of science, modernity and progress.

Bracelet worn by Sarah Burnhardt in her role of Cleopatra

Bracelet worn by Sarah Burnhardt in her role of Cleopatra

Sarah BUrnhardt CLeopatra 1899

As the fair approached, the style in his posters was already being imitated across the city and beyond.  Even as wallpaper and textiles, these flames from a spark that appears to have come from Mucha’s flyer doodles.  Things had fully come to a boil, all in the new style that Mucha had been promoting.  And the greatest artisans there weren’t just introducing their own  product lines, they could also be found competing to win the prize for the best booth design.  At the same time he was designing a dozen lines, from posters to objects, Mucha managed to create an exquisite gilded metal bust for a perfumery booth, for the same fair he revealed his elaborate jewelry designs.

Display for Houbigant Perfumerie

Display for Houbigant Perfumerie

mucha-jewelry
We all know that a certain Rene Lalique came out of that fair with his name synonymous to the 1900 style.  And this must have been a difficult outcome for Mucha, after he invested considerable time into a joint venture with another master jeweller of Paris, Georges Fouquet, he might even have been sure of himself.   Perhaps it was not a problem at all, they sold much jewelry besides.  I think the key difference is visible in the work, that Lalique is slightly better suited to the jewelry medium.  Familiar with the materials, a family background in glass, he could design with the specific capacities of the materials directly in mind.  Young Mucha’s designs instead show a kind of monotony of scale, and when he set down to invent jewels, they were like his posters, only miniaturized.  The complex drawings are just a little too fine for the way light plays on a small object, just a little too delicate to be held firmly in the human hand, and greatly increased the time in production of each piece.  He was too much of an illustrator to be a perfect craftsman.

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Mucha Fouquet Brooch

What both Lalique and Mucha had in common, that Fouquet and other contemporaries seem to have had less of, was a childlike permission to draw from their imaginations.  Both Lalique and Mucha continued uninterrupted throughout their careers to draw the snakes, skulls, goblins, naked girls and magical themes that motivated them since boyhood.  Their adolescent imaginings were perfectly time with the young art movement, leaving them no need to change their repertoire, unconditioned to deliver the epics and myths required for institutional careering.

This made them odd birds for making jewelry,  one of the more engineering oriented and metallurgical arts, but this only compounded the refreshing character of them.  It was a moment when design became more valuable than production or materials, and people in the right position for it could pick almost any field to work over and gain quick notice with little competition. Many of Fouquet’s designs still held an adherence to the sharp corners of Victorian design, almost half way into the new style; he was either an apologist or moved with the times begrudgingly.  Fortunately, in executing Mucha’s designs, he was also rigidly dutiful, or was not allowed to stray by the artist.  The artist would in turn make his shop into perhaps the most elaborate, fantastical jewelry shop of all time.

Foquet's Shop, designed by Mucha

MF_Ornamental_Chain

Chatelain

Lalique would eventually turn to revising the glassworks of his own background, almost every rare car’s radiator would be eventually capped by one of his fabulous cast glass plugs, flowers draped from his affordable line of vases.  Mucha left jeweling behind, but nevertheless became so respected he would redesign the money of his native Czechoslovakia, making arguably the most beautiful paper money ever produced.  There, decades later, he demonstrated with engraving a way that his finer lines could be put to their best use.

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In a way, like all great changes in art movements, Nouveau was a premonition of today’s consumer culture, driven by the tastes and pocketbooks of elite identities.   But it was more than that, it had a rebellious, minor key tone to it that retains an almost populist respect, as though it were an artform that could not be criticized as merely excessive.  And it is uniquely identifiable, the curious arrival of a very new aesthetic, just at the dawn of mass production, that would help to unravel aesthetic as a cultural norm.  It suggests what modernity is capable of, and is at the same time a reminder of how easily beauty can be set aside and overpowered, perhaps this is why it remains protected by the public at large.

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Products of all kinds continue to be released, using his designs as the measure.

Anyone with sense would be happy to say they took second place to Lalique for the gran prix.  But the astounding display of skill that year didn’t last for very long, war and its draining of the cultural market would see the taste for an optimistic and energized aesthetic vanish just as quickly as it arrived, and like so many people at the time, Mucha retired to the contained virtual reality of nostalgia for a mythic past.

Mucha even seems to have predicted the use of his artwork beneath glass domes, ultimately resin, the magic behind fridge magnets.

Mucha even seems to have predicted the suitability of putting his artwork beneath glass domes, like today’s resin, the magic behind our fridge magnets, over which he is still arguably the king.

 Moon Pendant

 

For his wife, Maruška Chytilová, 1906

Made for his wife, Maruška Chytilová, 1906

Navajo Silver

Crescent Pendant

Naja Pendant

Known to the world as the Navajo Nation, the Diné (meaning the People) are one of the more successful of the tribes at surviving colonialism in North America, making use of the rugged and vast Southwestern terrain to survive conquering attempts by the Aztecs, the Spanish, and later the people from the East.  The Navajo remain on some part of their ancestral lands, rare in the fates of the tribes, retaining customs, a government, and even their language.  Still on point, today they must resist the conquest of the global economy, which has an appetite for the uranium buried beneath their feet.

Throughout the world, they are also well known for their jewelry, a mixture of solid silver design with the most precious of local gems, turquoise, a rock the color of the sky.   Interestingly, silversmithing was a late development, the result of contact with Mexico, beginning in the 19th century.

Modern Navajo Necklaces

Modern Navajo Necklaces

Bracelets

Bracelets

Expanding mainly from conchos (named for the seashell they resemble), ornamental slides useful for cinching leather cord and personalizing horse saddlery, the tribes developed a visual language of studded belts, rings, bracelets, and bolo slides.  The bolo marks the earliest beginnings of trade, the silver tie piece filling in with people from the East for a late Victorian fashion inspired by Lord Byron, who started men wearing a bit of bright color around their neck. With silk a relative rarity in the wilderness, this Southwestern version of the silk tie was shaped by tribal hammers, still worn on the reservation as a kind of rebellion against the Yankees.

Conchos and Leather

Conchos and Leather Ornaments, 1900

Concho, 1930

Conchos, 1930

The Diné remember the name of their first trained silversmith, Atsidi Sani, who apprenticed with a Mexican silversmith between 1853 and 1868.  Later he trained his sons and other members of his tribe, making original work part of an unbroken family tradition.  Shortly after, in 1870, the Zuñi nation also had its first silversmiths, and eventually the Hopi between 1890 and 1895 had their own as well.

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Zuni Channel Work

Warren and Doris Ondelacy, Zuni 1950-75

Warren and Doris Ondelacy, Zuni
1950-75

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Hopi Mosaic Inlay 

Part of the unique look of the buckles and pendants set with turquoise that makes Southwestern tribal silver identifiable, comes from the angular modeling that results from casting directly into knife-cuts in tufa stone (a soft pumice) abundant in the volcanic fields of northern Arizona.  Similar to cuttlefish bone used to teach casting today, two slabs of the soft stone, one flat and one carved in relief with V-shaped cuts, are bound together to form a mold.

Navajo silversmith, 19th Century.  This has hung in my workplace for many years, to remind me of what is actually required to be a maker.

Navajo silversmith, 19th Century. This has hung in my workplace for many years, to remind me of all that is actually required to live as a maker.  All of the basic tools required are present – on the left, a steel hammer and anvil, in the center, a boy operates the bellows of a clay melting furnace, and on the right, a man works with a wooden bow drill.

Among classic symbols important to the Navajo, the “squash blossom” necklaces are a regional specialty, worn by men and women.  The flower is a misnomer, not the local squash at all, but a carryover of the popular Mexican pomegranate flower worn throughout the south.    The necklaces typically have as their focal piece some variant of the crescent, called the Naja.   One version of this symbol was translated through the grapevine… during their long occupation of Spain during the Middle Ages, the North African Moors introduced the custom of placing a crescent on the headstalls of their horses for talismanic protection, which the Spaniards brought to the New World.   Another part of the story undoubtedly involves the moon and the sky.

Squash Blossom Necklace

Squash Blossom Necklace, early 20th C.

Another important motif for the Navajos, found in buckles, conchos and wrist guards, is a four-fold symmetry, represented in a dynamic variety of forms.  In general, the tribes of the Southwest share a tradition of a genesis myth involving moving through four worlds, as four forms, this world being the fourth. Worn in subtler patterns, the story is elaborated visually with detailed sand paintings, costumes, and dance.

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Navajo Sand Painting

Ketohs, Wrist Guards for Archery

Ketohs, Wrist Guards for Archery

In 1918 the Fred Harvey Company began ordering the tribal silver wholesale to sell in essentially the first chain restaurant in the country,  The first class hotel-restaurants catered to major railroad and highway stops, often a town’s first ‘fine dining’, and helped to create the mystique of the Southwest as a kind of traveller’s paradise.  For a time, with the wartime closure of European imports, Southwestern art grew in popularity and Americans took interest in the cultures in their own backyard, to such an extent that the Navajo style is now reproduced cheaply in factories across the ocean and one of the essential American icons.  The Navajo Arts and Crafts Guild maintains quality rules and a register for those interested in the authentic. 

Fred Harvey Co.  Shop, 1907

Fred Harvey Co.
Shop, 1907

Rings

Rings

Necklace with Mercury Dimes

Necklace with Silver Dimes

Francis Jones, Modern

Francis Jones, Modern

Modern Necklace

Modern Necklace, Black Silver

 

 

Gold before the Conquest

Tairona, X-XVI C. Columbia A masterful use of molds, casting, wire and fusing.

Tairona, X-XVI C.
Columbia – A masterful use of molds, casting, wire and fusing.

Pure gold is an element that has incredible working properties.  Even a small quantity can be put to use creatively, it can be hammered thinner than tissue paper, into a foil, and draped over wood forms.  Unlike copper and bronze, it is a dream for casting,  naturally free from oxidation means successful pours without the discovery of flux or other special technology.  It can be melted again and again without degrading, giving it a reputation of purity.  It never tarnishes, retaining its polish, and because it is highly ductile, one part of an artwork can be fused with focused heat without damaging other areas of the work, allowing complex forms to be built up with ease.

Zapotec, XVI C. Oaxaca, Mexico Lost wax method, a rare finger ring.

Zapotec, XVI C.
Oaxaca, Mexico
Lost wax method, a rare finger ring.

At the same time, the unalloyed metal is too soft to be used a tool or weapon.  Between its workability, beauty, and lack of usefulness, gold’s chiefly sensible employment through much of history has been as a creative medium, producing delicate objects that require gentle handling – really only useful for pleasant gifts, offerings, ceremonial cups, religious objects, and jewelry.   As a result, the earliest appearances of civilization are accompanied by gold working to some degree, where trade made it available, and its earliest disposable, symbolic character meant it went into graves and other places where at times it survives, often as virtually the only artistic record of a culture.

Spain, XVI C. Goldwork at the beginning of the conquest

Spain, XVI C.
Ring – Gold, enamel, Columbian emerald.  Produced with materials from the conquest.

From a raw material that circulates widely in tribal cultures, weighted for the value of its beauty alone, gold’s value changes when more organized, more imperial culture develops, and it becomes a unit of money.  As a culture grows more sophisticated, we see more gold concentrated in palaces and temples, and ultimately we see wars fought over it, and with it.

International Style Panama, V-VII C.

International Style
Panama, V-VII C.

In addition to distinct regional styles that reflect expansive cultures with visual vocabularies all their own, there is an International Style, works that have a simplified, trade oriented appearance to them.  There are also gold objects made as tribute, such as Mixtec and Zapotec works produced as payment to the Aztecs in their own themes.  Much like the ball-courts indicate the international popularity of the games and identify centers of tournaments, gold-work was clearly traded and had centers of production.  One of the greatest was in modern day Central America, especially Panama and Costa Rica, where various styles were produced for trade with neighboring cultures.   Centers with the longest known continuous production were in modern day Columbia and Peru, where the Incas obtained the discovery that gold could be burnished to a razor fine edge, and was being employed in surgery.

What follows is a visual sampling of major gold working cultures in the Americas. The work is sorted by centuries, to give a scope for develop over time.

Peru Chavin V-II BC

Chavin, V-II BC
Peru

Nazca II BCE - V CE Peru

Nazca
II BCE – V CE
Peru

Zenu, II BCE-X CE Columbia

Zenu, II BCE-X CE
Columbia

Peru Moche Headhunters I-III C

Moche, I-III C.
Peru
Headhunters and Severed Heads

Moche, I-III C. Peru

Moche, I-III C.
Peru
Condors

Tolima II C. Columbia. The region is still producing gold today.

Tolima
II C.
Columbia. The region is still producing gold today.

 

Panama, IV-V C.

Panama, IV-V C.

International Style, V-VII C. Panama

International Style, V-VII C.
Panama

Darien or Venado Beach V-VII C. Panama

Darien or Venado Beach
Deer God, II-VII C.
Panama

Yotoco or Calima VII C. Columbia

Yotoco or Calima
VII C.
Columbia

Wari VII-X C. Peru

Wari
VII-X C.
Peru
Refined silver embossing

Coclé  VIII-XV C. Panama

Coclé
VIII-XV C.
Panama

Nariño  VIII-XV C. Columbia

Nariño
Hummingbirds, VIII-XV C.
Columbia

Coclé Alligator Necklace Panama

Coclé
Alligator Necklace
Panama

Coclé Jade Nose Ring Panama

Coclé
Jade Nose Ring
Panama

Popoyan IX-XVI C. Columbia

Popoyan
IX-XVI C.
Columbia

 

Tairona Butterfly X-XVI C. Columbia

Tairona
Butterfly X-XVI C.
Columbia

Veraguas X-XVI C. Panama

Veraguas
X-XVI C.
Panama

Chiriquí XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Chiriquí
XI-XVI C.
Costa Rica

Diquis Lobster XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Diquis
Lobster XI-XVI C.
Clay casting, Costa Rica

Diquis XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Diquis
XI-XVI C.
Employment of varied sand grit to create texture. Costa Rica

Tumbaga Pink Gold Alloy, X-XVI Columbia

Tumbaga
Pink Gold Alloy, X-XVI
Columbia

 

Inca, XII C. Peru

Inca, XII C.
Peru

Inca, XII-XV C. Peru

Inca, XII-XV C.
Peru
Masterwork of Repousse and Fusing

 

Bat Nose w Whale Tooth XII-XVI Panama

Bat Nose w Whale Tooth
XII-XVI
Panama

Mixtec Lip Plugs 3 Mixtec Lip Plugs 2

Mixtec Lip Plugs, XVI C. Mexico

Mixtec
Lip Plugs, XVI C.
Mexico

Aztec Heart Pendant, Tomb of Ahuizotl, XVI C. Mexico

Aztec
Heart Pendant, Tomb of Ahuizotl, XVI C.
Mexico

 

Lover’s Eyes

c5ea454127934d7827ffcb4a6e167c0eThe whims and tragedies of celebrity have always moved human societies.  In more cohesive, pre-modern times when people looked to highborn aristocrats as both the highest cultural and symbolic members of their society (regardless of whether this was with a positive feeling), anything from a decree to a rumor might influence the habits of the people.

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Could it have been the way she powdered her wig?

Could it have been the way she powdered her wig?

During the Georgian era, of English King George III, also known to American revolutionaries as Satan, it seems even his son was the recipient of popular sympathy against the rule of monarchy.  A young prince, one day to be George IV, fell for an older woman Maria Fitzherbert, who had survived several tragedies but was without the right shade of blue blood to be approved for the future king.  Unable to bring her into the family, he went through an elaborate common marriage anyway, in direct disregard of the law.  Innovating a way to be romantic in a ruling culture that held little regard for sentiment or affection, he hired a miniature painter to create a portrait as his love token.  Even this was considered too much of a risk of looking like a real marriage, and he was convinced to find something more discreet, and less legally binding.  He chose to send her a portrait of just his eye, and in turn he carried a matching portrait of her eye in his pocket.

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The forbidden love was a lasting one, while towards the woman he was officially required to marry, and his own father, he maintained his distance from them for life.  The tragic story of  these ‘first family problems’ found sympathetic understanding in star-crossed lovers, partners of merchants making six month business trips crossing the Atlantic under sail, and any number of lovers who had no say in who their parents formed alliances and transactions with.  In a rare show of affinity, the French were so fond of the fad it quickly became assumed that the Lover’s Eye was their invention.  In other courts across Europe, where there were no shortage of high borns with illegitimate affections, solidarity with Lover’s Eye led the way.

As a result, many of them are masterful both in painting and jeweler’s settings, meaning you’re not likely to find one in an antique shop all that often, but we will continue to see them revisited as annual Valentine’s social media content for some time, as a reminder of how refreshing the weird can be.

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One also has to wonder if there wasn’t another layer of sympathy, or even unconscious symbolism taking place – the tremendous coup of the American Revolution was accompanied by an unusual sign, the stuff of Puritans once believed to be shipped off and done with – the Masonic “All Seeing Eye” that would one day settle into its new home on the Dollar Bill.

The newly independent colonies had a well known reputation of saying 'God made me do it' every time they broke the law.

Puritan pulpit.  The newly independent Americans had a reputation of saying ‘God made me do it’ every time they broke the law.

Could it be that the Rebellion of the Prince and his choice of symbol were no coincidence, but a very clever jab at his father and unsympathetic members of royal courts everywhere?  Or that a part of the visual sensibility of the New World Order was easily appropriated in a tongue in cheek way for the noble right to romance?  A lover’s eye could as easily be a way of saying, “this is my Revolution I say, and she’s a ginger named Marianne who lives in the garden house.”

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Scottish Petrospheres

In stark contrast to the previous article in which claims are made to know crescents more intimately than we might first imagine, it is worth mentioning the discovery of rare objects of ornament that have no clear explanation at all.

Exclusively in Scotland, with uncertain dating but believed to be over 2,000 years old,  exquisite little hand held works of art have been found in the form of unusual, ornamented stone spheres.  The very best of them, the Towie Ball, is meticulously engraved with some of the earliest known examples of an undeveloped predecessor to the Celtic spiral style that would ultimately develop in the region.

Towie Ball 10th C. BCE

Towie Ball, Aberdeenshire, 10th C. BCE, may be 3,000 years old.

Beyond the skill and care placed in these small, hand-held objects from a people who left little but piles of stones, the occasional rock carving, and circles of standing stones, what is striking about the petrospheres is their curious variety.  They have been compared to cells, atoms, and other things, but the real coup is how peculiarly unique they are in the scheme of world art.  Nothing quite matches these, making them an apparently completely regional innovation.

stoneballs1

 

No two it would seem are alike, and so this must be one of the defining features of these unique objects.  It is said that for every one petrosphere in a museum, there are a hundred hidden away in private family collections, suggesting a tradition of secretly passing on these relics of the Scot’s pre-historic peoples.  The Scots are well known for preserving aspects of the language and customs of a once expansive culture.

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Many speculations have been made as to their use, from cooking stones to weapons, but scientists have found these speculations to be without evidence.  Due to the unique character of them, it is fair to say that they were made by inventive, creative people with manual skill.  And in their variation, we can guess that the makers sought to individualize them.  What can be said, from a maker’s perspective, is that with the exception of the engraving done on the most exceptional, the balls all have in common the fact that they are made by filing.

Ashmolean Museum, discovered 1927

Ashmolean Museum, discovered in 1927

We have observed in surviving shamanic cultures around the world today that one of the major roles of a witch, magician or healer, and a central part of material trade for them, is the production of amulets.

Amulet objects are visually crafted to possess unique, curious appeal, and this is the physical aspect that will be blended with reverence for the individual’s perceived power, with just as much invested presence as the physical and implied symbolic references the object might include. It follows that forms of amulet could possibly gain in popularity for similar reasons – because of the unique beauty of interest of the object, or because the place, or person is particularly admired, and another possibility is inherent, that the object is believed to be associated with some great or miraculous event.  Much the way fans today seek to dress like their pop star idols, amulets are arguably more a matter of fashion than tradition or origination.  In this way they are more like art objects than artifacts of cultural concreteness.

BLW_Carved_Stone_Balls

It is enjoyable to find something that has no clear explanation at all.  The balls have no direct relation to anything left in stone carvings, the only record of the people who made these.  The scientists can only go so far as to call them “status objects”.  They have never been found in burials, which anthropologists suggest made them objects that did not belong to individuals.  Much later than the dates of any of these spheres, we have examples among the Anglo-Saxon and Frankish peoples the practice of wearing smooth rock crystal spheres as amulets.  These have been found in graves, and are known to have been worn by women, suspended from the belt on a chatelaine.  Though the time and distance does not draw any direct correlation, these are examples of how a spherical amulet might be worn.

Anglo Saxon VII C. Crystal Sphere, Warminster

Frankish, VI C., Crystal Sphere, Cologne

For now, the mystery of the petrospheres remains intact, the subject of household whispers and amusement, something to enjoy for not having a clear reason to exist, and connecting our own modern ideas of creativity to the impulses of people in the distant past.

Pages with more detail from Joseph Anderson’s Scotland In Pagan TImes:

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The Crescent (Part 1)

Hathor Mirror XIV BCE

Mirror of Hathor, Egypt, 1400 BCE

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The High Life

 

Easily one of the oldest symbols known to human beings is the crescent, and with any symbol that widely known it has as many meanings as it has uses. It is today nearly universally recognized as being the moon, sometimes called a lune or  lunula, and almost as broadly, especially in the early days of civilization, as the symbol of peace, unity and creative power, called most often by countless goddess names.  It remains in well known use in this respect in at least a few places today – such as the crescent beneath the feet of Mexico’s Virgin of Gaudalupe, and the one appearing at the top of numerous mosques and flags of Islamic cultures.   Across the sea in China, the goddess of compassion Quan Yin reclines in her arch listening to the troubles of the world.  What is interesting is that in these cases, the crescent’s appearance is not a part of the religion’s formal imagery, but a continuation of their already widespread use, a semiosis of meaning that extends to the earliest human artifacts.

Chang-O Moon Goddess aka Kwannon or Quan-Yin

Chang-O Moon Goddess
aka Kwannon or Quan-Yin

The crescent is a primal symbol of choice for the divine feminine at times, worn especially by women in cultures across the world.  It is a symbol of the waxing or waning moon, which is considered in most cultures to be a goddess.  It changes shape each day as it arcs across the sky, as though continually swelling with pregnancy, and seems to dance with the third brightest object in the sky, the planet Venus.  A little noted part of its mystery today, is that whenever the moon grows close to Venus, it happens to appear as a crescent, as though reaching out to embrace it, and whenever the moon is full, it is far away from Venus in the sky.  This relationship, a matter of speed and orbits, must have been baffling to witness month after month, and is the reason the crescent and star have been associated with each other since before written history.

Nigeria

Nigerian Brass Crescent

The crescent or arc could be said to appear in other places; the outline of every leaf of a plant can be said to include a crescent.  It might resemble two arms reaching out, or the arc of a boat’s hull.  Of course, during the fertile wet season, a perfectly familiar crescent radiant with color makes what we call a rainbow across the horizon.  Flipped over, just like the moon’s crescent does every month from wax to wane, it is shaped like a basket for winnowing grain, or fishing, serving bread or carrying a child. And in true semiosis fashion the crescent and the arch are related in architecture and play such a strong role in stonework.  The curved line can present itself as the vault of the sky, the section of a dome, the spread of a canopy.  The crescent is easily translated (or hidden, consciously or unconsciously) with the graceful mark of a curving line.

Phoenician Scarab Intaglio Seal, Carnelian Several Crescents as branches on the Tree of Life 600 BCE

Phoenician Scarab Intaglio Seal, Carnelian
Several Crescents as branches on the Tree of Life
600 BCE

Horseshoes are lucky everywhere, more typically with the opening facing downward.

Horseshoes are lucky everywhere, more typically with the opening facing downward.

While speculation towards the origins of symbols can only ever get us so far, which is to say origins are of little use in studying signs, it is fair to say that three marks have been used around the world, scratched into stone and mud, since before history, because they easily present the three most apparent mysteries of the sky:  the star, the crescent, and the circle.  The star symbol – usually four, five, or six pointed – has long been used to describe the dots of light that fill the night sky, whole fields of them laid out on the earliest pottery, exactly the way you see them playing upon the lenses of squinted or watery eyes.  The crescent describes the moon, and essentially time itself, thanks to its fabulous ability to predictably, reliably change shape through time, waxing and waning its way through 12 months (moon-ths) a year, serving the earliest people as the first calendar.  The vital counting of the moon’s calendar was essential for the beginning of human life as farmers, especially in difficult climates where a late planting could mean a year’s supply of food destroyed by the cold season.  The circle or wheel of course describes the circular sun, which does not ever change its shape but day in, day out, zips across the sky, so radiant it can’t be looked at directly.

Modern Egyptian When facing up, people say it's to catch the luck.  When facing down, they say 'the luck flows out the points.'

Modern Egyptian
For people who face its opening up, it’s to catch the luck. When facing down, they say ‘the luck flows out the points.’ Picture pots of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Byzantine Temple Pendant 10th - 11th Century

Byzantine Temple Pendant
10th – 11th Century

In ancient Byzantium, we find a proliferation of jewels that   defined temple fashion for women, the temple pendants, crescent shaped weights that were worn to secure scarves that covered their heads to enter sacred precincts, and were a particularly elaborate and visible way to show off wealth.  These go deep into Mediterranean culture, and their use persists in the form of North African Tuareg veil weights today.

Tuareg Veil Weights

Tuareg Veil Weights

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the far northeast in wealthy Viking Kiev, where jewels were becaming virtually indistinguishable from the Byzantine fashion by the 11th century, we find every shape of crescent imaginable strung together, along with hoards of crescents in the workmanship of Slavs, Scyths, and tribes from distant Siberia.

Viking from Kiev 10th-11th Century

Viking from Kiev
10th-11th Century

Viking Necklace

Viking Necklace (and buckle)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another example where the crescent is alive, and a clue to its meaning of old, is in the surviving Celtic tribes of farthest Ireland, who managed to revive its use through the Claddagh, a symbol of friendship, loyalty, and a common choice for a wedding band.

The Irish Claddagh presents a clear picture about the meaning of the crescent.

The Irish Claddagh presents a clear picture about the surviving meaning of the crescent.

The Crescent was ubiquitous among Celtic civilization

The Crescent was ubiquitous among Celtic civilization

Crescent and Lovebird 'Wedding' Earrings from Oaxaca, Mexico

Crescent and Lovebird ‘Wedding’ Earrings from Oaxaca, Mexico

 

Moroccan Earrings 18th Century

Moroccan Earrings
18th Century

 

Tibetan Ritual Bell 13th Century

Tibetan Ritual Bell
13th Century

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In India where rich textual sources remain alongside the symbolism, the chandra bindu, or the crescent and dot, appear together as part of the famous Aum symbol, and in a breath we can say this symbol represents the mystery of creation.  In context it is a polyseme, or a sign with multiple related meanings, as numerous as the writers or the time.

Chinese Sycee

Chinese Sycee

 

 

 

 

Coptic Cross Alexandria, Egypt, 500 CE

Coptic Cross
Alexandria, Egypt, 500 CE

 

Bhutan Terma Means and Knowledge combined with Crescent of Unity

Bhutanese Terma
Means and Knowledge combined with Crescent of Unity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THe A

The Aum or Om symbol is a combination of three of the oldest symbols of creative power, and suitably has countless elaborate, poetic interpretations.  We’ve touched on the top two marks in this part, in Sanskrit called the chandra (moon, canopy, water) bindu (dot, point or pearl) or nada (sound, river, praise) bindu.

In the next part of this article, I move to a semiotic discussion of the crescent’s close relative, the double crescent, the triple symbol, the tree of life and the triratna, as some of the earliest symbols of the goddess of creation.

Assorted Slavic Crescents 10th and 11th Centuries

Assorted Slavic Crescents
10th and 11th Centuries

In the third part, I will discuss further crescent relatives: the trident, the twin snakes, and other creation related uses of the symbol.

 

As a side note, to reward you for reading this far:  Whoever invented the Miller High Life logo (very first image) was a pretty informed cat.  While the world at large figures it was just another logo, a creative coup, it was in fact a bit of culture jamming.  The whole package – the whip under her arm that suggests lion taming, the witchy hat, the elaborate but cheery costume sporting hearts (all these have been removed over the years), suggests A.C. Paul, the Miller advertising manager in 1907, knew (and admired) his goddess lore.  According to the legend, he was lost in the woods and had a vision that became the logo.  Mighty clever Mr. Paul.

· Kazuhiko Ichikawa ·

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I discovered this artist on the increasingly international forum for handmade goods, Etsy.  First let me say that Etsy has made a turn for the better.  After its initial low-competition, high interest startup was a breakthrough in creating income to the fleet-footed, they chose to cash in on the press by inviting non-makers into the fold to mill seller’s fees. Every kitsch dealer, antique shop and importer on the net was eager to get a piece of the market, all of whom had vast experience with their own versions of online marketplaces, proceeded to the flood the contemporary handmade right out of public view.   Realizing their error, Etsy has refined the model, allowing visitors to quickly sort maker from supplier or reseller, retaining some of their credibility.  In its latest form it is increasingly international, and at present offers visitors place where merit and skill still have a shot at being encountered.

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With Kazuhiko Ichikawa and artisans of his calibre, this is a mixed bag.  Etsy, and the craft market in general, has a buying demographic that matches the economic scope of the creative class.  Seeking status objects that are clearly not manufactured yet concerned with integrity by avoiding egregarious objects of wealth, this group seeks a pricepoint that is challenging for craftspeople living in high-rent centers of culture and design to work with.  The skill and time required to turn heads sort of collides with the buyer’s reality that’s translated from proprietary search algorithms to notoriously poor sales for anything above several hundred dollars.  It’s a comfort zone that makes crafters who want to really elevate their craft rather uncomfortable.

In Japan, Ichikawa commands choice boutique display space, public notoriety and plenty of awards, but this does not translate to international recognition.  Placing one’s self in a global marketplace targeting the appetite of the creative class means matching your talents against skilled artisans with more affordable situations in Istanbul, Buenos Aires and Jatarka.  What this translates to is excitement for anyone who notices, creating good deals for shrewd collectors, when high end art jewelers like Ichikawa crave to move beyond a cozy established practice.  He wants a place among the legends, and begins to produce inspired, affordable pieces like this just to insert himself into the international market.

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His story is doubly interesting because we have a truly contemporary phenomenon.  In the history of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and the related movements that swept parts the world, it is well known that no small influence came from exposure to the aesthetics and hand made goods of Asia.   Especially the opening of Japan, with its cohesive, still alive and kicking artisanal patronage system.  Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright juggled debts from his risk-taking infusion of design into structure, by vigorously importing and trading what were then utterly rare and unknown Japanese woodblock prints, making a killing at the markup with an uninformed audience.  There’s also the very broad concept of void or blank space in traditional Chinese ink painting, which was the final catalyst (permission) that collapsed centuries of European stagnant reliance on icons and symmetry in art, and was synonymous with the rebellion of youth styles.  It is hard to measure the effect new ways of seeing had, in the tangle of new ways of living (major political shifts away from aristocratic governance, the transformation of industry and mass production), but they are tangible and remain intense in our aesthetic memory.

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And here we have the long term involution of a now networked culture (again, like the start of the 20th century, for better of worse).  Kazuhiko Ichikawa explains his inspirations are Art Deco, Art Noveau, he wants a piece of Rene Lalique’s crown.  What a twist, a Japanese artisan working with the permission and creative energy source of a really diverse exchange that his own culture helped introduce!  Moving in a complete circle from his own intimate connection with Japanese nature-informed design (he is on his second career after a long stint with greeting cards and stationary) he turns to his jewelry with a flexible, surprisingly youthful style.  He employs special metal alloys and techniques unique to japanese metalworking, such as keum booshakudo and mokume-gane, retaining in some pieces a clear cultural identity, while departing when he pleases using the classic design elements as his vehicle.

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Beyond all this talk of culture, I think it’s evident when looking at the pieces that any artisan who derives joy and freedom from their work delivers the same feeling within their work, for anyone to see.  Visit the artist’s shop here:  KAZNESQ

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Tibetan Silver – Artifacts to Counterfeits

This is a phenomenon that I have witnessed in my own lifetime – the complete transformation of “Tibetan Silver” from authentic and rare crafts to a generic term that can be applied to virtually anything silvery in color, a synonym for “Hilltribe Silver”, and a similar story of the rapid wholesale export of a culture’s handwork to collectors leading directly to a mass market term for unrelated merchandise.

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Traditional Tribal Silver is Elaborate SIlver

Leaving it to the reader to contemplate its causes, here are some examples of the real things, treasured, prayed over, placed around children’s necks.  And then some of the modern fakes that carry a reputation few will ever be the wiser to.  Hopefully this will help clear some things up and spare buyers from deception.

First sign of a probable authentic piece - Huh? What the heck is this?

First sign of a probably authentic Tibet piece is the “Huh? What the heck is this?” Test

I would not have predicted it.  Having the benefit of friends with exotic, tribal interests when I was young, I was first introduced to the wonderful crafts of Tibet at a Renaissance Faire.  It wasn’t long before I watched stores stocked with these goods appear in nearly every college town in the country.  It made perfect sense for students – the ornaments were elaborate, bizarre, and incredibly affordable.  Everyone with a willingness to take risks, plus an open mind towards the world’s cultures, could find satisfyingly ornate ambiguity in the work.  Buddhas, when depicted, were charmingly rustic and understated, and writing, where it appeared, was in mysterious unintelligible Sanskrit, and there were lady Buddhas, fiery toothy demons, skulls, flowers, something for everyone.

Always rustic, the real stuff was obviously time consuming to make.

Always rustic, the real stuff was obviously time consuming to make. This piece was made primarily with chisels, carving into the metal.

Rings were chunky but never too gaudy.  Jewels, when present, were modest hand ground cabochons in earthy tones – pale turquoise, faded red coral, and lemony amber. The workmanship was routinely rough, and often had natural grime, scratches, dings.  Instruments had been played, drumskins dried out, Woodwork smelled of yak butter (quite seriously, it was used to seal and preserve) and the necklaces strung on cord perhaps even had some trace of the previous owner’s smell.  This all meant a young person with an eye on world exploration could own quality exotica, free of any evidence of modern manufacturing. The reward for having a taste for tribal aesthetics at that moment was to be able to decorate the dorm room with merchandise that looked like it belonged in a museum.

This is a ritual drinking bowl made out of a human skull.  Yes that's right, and though illegal untold numbers of these made in with the mountains of other stuff.

This is a ritual bowl made out of the top of a human skull. Yes, that’s right. While illegal, untold numbers of these made it through Customs among the mountains of other strangeness.

I wouldn’t have guessed that in a few decades, the plentiful stuff would actually run out.  Supply and demand, we usually assume, is in effect when low cost means there is an abundance of the material.  But there is a major difference between a steady supply, like sea water, and a sudden supply produced under pressure, like a broken fire hydrant.

Every colored stone had a trade value, often even beads are carefully framed.

Every colored stone had a real trade value; beads are carefully framed with the greatest care possible.  Even when skills are wonky, effort was considerable and the results are charming.

What happened, in the simplest of terms, is that everyone in Tibet, for one reason or another, began to sell their family jewels and handmade objects in the mid-20th century. As more people bought them, more was paid, and the faster their export began to cascade until cheap export knockoffs took their place. I write this with a mind towards showing how “Tibetan Silver” underwent a dramatic change in quality, from the authentic cultural production of a once massive, ancient Silk Road kingdom to a generic synonym for New Age fashion jewelry, so I’ll spare you economic theory.  This country was so isolated that not very long ago it was still using turquoise as a currency in certain parts. But faced with modernity meant being strapped for cash, not blue rocks.  This meant exporters with the guile were able to quickly fill up shipping containers with quality goods.  How could nimble hippies dancing on the campus green with their unusually fine jewels know that their favorite incense-burning import store was the compliment to something like a Las Vegas pawn shop halfway around the world?

Early export work uses the indian technique of combining stampings with wire applique to good rustic effect.  You could hear the buyers telling the TIbetans, "More amulets huh?  Look we need rings, bring us lots of rings."

Early, made for export work, uses the Indian technique of clustering stampings with wire ornament, and more lavish use of stones.  Rustic skill and imagination are still evident.  You could hear buyers telling Tibetan smiths, “More amulets, huh? Look we need rings, bring us lots of rings.”

The real stuff shows attention to detail doesn't rely on wire applique.

The real non-export stuff shows attention to detail, and doesn’t rely on wire.  Note the chisel work, even on the bail.  Attention to the bail is a sign the jeweler wasn’t being rushed in a production shop.

The influx of Tibetan imagery, artwork and handcrafts really began its stride in the late 1980s and hit full steam ten years later.  It begs the question, which came first, the popular sympathy here for Tibet that created interest in its culture, or the appearance of its affordable goods as ambassadors for growing interest in Tibet?  To be sure, there was a disconnect – Americans were faced with the uninterpreted presence of altar pieces, temple statuary, sacred paintings, and other accoutrements of a country that almost seemed to have just decided one day to give up its religion. One was usually able to learn the object’s name from the shop owner, and could tell it was soaked in symbolism… but that was about it.  Its every context was a mystery, and that appealed to many, granted a kind of permission to project into these objects new ideas that might age and tarnish immediately into something like legacy, history or tradition.  To be sure, these shops gave many American kids a taste of tribal tradition the likes of which they had no other access to.

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Two more examples of unhurried, skillful rustic chisel work and stamping.

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Without precision tools, a different kind of quality comes from the ample free time of pastoral living, which made intricate traditional crafts possible.

Fast forward just fifteen years, and most of these shops were gone. It’s striking to realize there was such a brief window, a fraction of a generation, that would have even noticed.  Along with the pre-owned goods, during that import bubble workshops of local craftspeople appeared to produce export goods, reasonable reproductions of the more popular elements they had already been making.  These came pouring in alongside the finer and more rustic crafts, and helped keep the prices low.

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A common export ring, with the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”. Skillful hand-pierced lettering, with stamped appliques and wire decoration.

mantra ring

A modern wax casting of a similar Sanskrit ring, no craftsman (and no Tibet) involved.

A portable altar shrine, a centerpiece of craftsmanship.  Painstakingly hand repoussed, once a cherished possession.

A portable altar shrine, a centerpiece of craftsmanship. Painstakingly hand repoussed, with protective cloth covering, this was once a cherished possession.

A recent, though elaborate, imitation of a traditional altar.  Note the extensive use of wire filigree for fill.  The lavish use of stones on a sacred object is a giveaway.

A recent imitation of a shrine. Note the extensive use of wire filigree for fill. The lavish use of stones is off for a sacred object, they are too-bright (dyed), and the faceted low-grade gems a bizarre new novelty.  Not at all a traditional object.

While following the pattern of a traditional amulet box, the wire filigree marks it as recent, and designed for consumers.

While following the pattern of a traditional amulet box, the wire filigree and production shop uniformity marks it as recent, designed for export.

Another export item based on a traditional shape, made more tempting in gold, but relying on filigree and of poor skill.

Another export item based on a traditional shape, made more tempting in gold, but relying on filigree and of poor workmanship.  The Buddha (Chenrezig) is most certainly cast (resin and turquoise powder), and not a carving.  Probably made in India.

What has claimed the term “Tibetan Silver” today is truly bizarre, considering that nothing more than strung beads of the color scheme blue and red, or anything silver and mass produced at all, is apt to be called this today.  As if the metal itself is suggested to carry some mountainous property in it.  Whole websites in dubious English are dense with marginal New Age descriptions of Tibetan symbols, illustrated with counterfeit examples. The shift in meaning is so diluted, I can’t help but wonder if there is as much a demand in Asia as America for the lost mystique of Shangri-La, that has helped create the artificial response to demand.  It wouldn’t be right to call the dilution an amnesia, since the exotica poured in and vanished before consumer awareness had a chance to even register it. All that most people know about the curious time when another culture’s handcrafts came raining down on the streets of College-town America is the name of that country, and maybe who the Dalai Lama is.

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A very Tibetan symbol, the Double Dorje (crossed lightning), shown in a clean authentic style.

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A nicely carved casting of modern manufacture, possibly even designed on a computer. Probably from China, one giveaway that it’s not real is the tidy jumpring bail.

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A very poor workshop version, again with the modern bail.

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An extra tricky one, this looks believable, but all the bright colors scream Chinese dyed stones, while the filigree just says sweatshop.

It’s similar to the way Egyptian and Mesoamerican symbols had their own American luxury goods fads in the 20s and 50s respectively, riding carrier waves of authentic items that led to stylistic imitations. The difference is that the real work came from a pool of archaeological goods discovering a market, while in Tibet it happened in real time, their culture was leaving, sold off, and as it was floating across the sea it was already mid-transformation into becoming pop culture kitsch here.  It has become “retro” even though the originating culture is still breathing, and in some places producing the authentic work!

SpreadTibets3

These are from Harper’s Bazaar

From Harper's Bazaar

Welcome to the Global Village, Tibet

To close, allow me to horrify you with some search results that turn up for “Tibetan Silver”.  None of these are authentic, all of them rely on the skills and techniques of traditional Tibetan crafts being forgotten, and reduced to a magical consumer legend within a word:

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This one sold as “Vintage Tibetan Retro”. Yikes.

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Glue and gravel for the tourists, Mexico style.

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This “Tibetan Antique Necklace” is so horribly false, it shouldn’t claim to come from any country, anywhere.

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Leftover dyed bone beads from a girl scout craft bag = “Tibetan Jewelry”

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Red and blue palette plus imagination makes for a great Tibetan costume… for someone in Istanbul.

Joseph Gatto

State Winner

State Winner

Los Angeles is a large city, with so many creatives and artists that, according to a recent cultural census, it is presently the greatest concentration of the arts in any city in history.  Before this claim seems too dubious, consider that we’re discussing one half of one percent, which includes all the creative professions.  That said, the Contemporary Art world where I work becomes suddenly small when an educator the likes of Joseph Gatto is vanished from our collective lives.  While I never met the man, his impact could not be missed even in my corner of the city.  Within a day of reading the LA Times article about his shooting death in his Silverlake home, people were compelled to seek solidarity in expressions of sadness, asking how we were effected, I quickly learned the man was deeply respected.  He was the pivotal founder of the LA Arts High School and its concept, building the program from the ground up, something that has almost no precedent.  No ordinary administrator, he was involved with his students throughout his life.

Returning to the article with questions left unanswered about what had happened or why, one detail stood out – the art educator had been a jeweler.  Looking up his name quickly revealed a haunting affinity in my own life, working as I do in arts education, as I discovered he was also a devoted craftsperson in his spare time.  I regretted instantly not being able to eventually meet him, but felt a connection across time, as creatives so often must resort to.

Roman Horses

Clamping Roman Horse RIng

This discovery meant a lot to me for several reasons – you have all sorts of divisions in the art world, arguments composed mostly of presumptions about the implied audience, barriers comprised almost purely of imagination and fashion.  And here at the root of the arts, seeking to shape the discourse where it begins – youth – towards creativity, is a man who comfortably located his own art form in a craft.  What a relief, what permission!  I have no further questions, regarding the validity of my own choice of creative outlet in the greater scheme of things.

Military Brooch

Military Brooch

He was a notoriously tough (that means honest) character – managing so many people while still giving a damn is no small accomplishment, but also in his jewelry there are plain, obvious  elements of tenderness.  Objects of beauty made as gifts, and a dense collection of commissions that were plainly sought by or meant for friends, given that they are all in his style.

American Architecture Rings in response to 9-11

American Architecture Series of Rings in response to 9-11

The jewels also reveal a deep, spiritual relationship to history that I can relate to, and had even felt a little solitary in pursuing.  There is proof of a broadness of character in his career, required to engage all the diverse leanings of students for their own sake – to respect the truths of another is no small or common ability – and to then compel them to move in their own given directions, under their own power.

Meanwhile, his choice of elements like Japanese Ojime beads and Ancient Egyptian scarabs is telling, they are all signatures of a kind.  Gatto’s rings involve engraved and stamped bands that bear his marks and signatures, in his own hand, or with hieroglyphic cartouche, or Hiragana characters.  They combine a modern design objective with emblems and tokens of signification from the distant past, selected from notably artistic cultures.  All of this work was done in the intimate, private studio of a jeweler, where he must have worked to link himself to his role, to the significance of the teacher across time.  At the same time, I think you can sense this is a private search, he is seeking to take the jewels to a personal, artistic level that is not especially focused on, or perhaps unburdened from, merchant success.  There are no (obvious) engagement sets on his website, the bread and butter of a commercial jeweler, making the site more a mirror of discipline to his craft.

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This points to an awareness of the kind of time-transcending place that being a teacher, and a creator, occupies, and that I think many of us in the field thrive upon.  In other words, I would think he saw or at least explored in himself the path of becoming a master, not in the sense of an owner of others, but as mentor to them, what some distinguish by calling a “true” master.  Curious that such opposed meanings cling to that one word, and add something poignant (and tragic) about the way he met his end.  Any chump with a gun can be a master of property and death, but the true master works in the medium of life.  

Bracelets

His especially unique, abstract bracelets

Additionally, for teachers, there is an acceptance that the need will always outweigh what one is able to do in their life – and what makes a teacher is a noble disregard for the odds, in favor of what must be done anyway, in whatever measure time allows.

Ojime Bead Ring

Ojime Bead Ring

Erotic Ojime Bead RIng

Erotic Ojime Bead RIng

He did enter competitions, seeking recognition for his artistry, and perhaps this underlined his life’s work, which exemplifies the lesson that recognition is not remotely the same thing as success.  He provided recognition to others, and that provided them with strength, confidence, and insight.  He did this for young people who were quite a ways away from being ready to measure up in terms of success or failure.  At the same time, to my eye there are clues like the occasional appearance of a hummingbird photo among his jewels, little glass songbirds, tiny spots of inlay for color, the search for free association of materials, all of these point to a kind of conservation of energy through skill… humility isn’t quite the word but this is not bling, not grandiosity, the work is really an afterglow of a deep self-searching that is difficult to understand unless you’ve spent the requisite time, alone, facing your tools.

Bird's Nest Ring

Bird’s Nest Ring

Roman Horse Ring

Roman Horse Ring

I was simply blown away by this discovery of his separate practice as a jeweler, and in this way, without having met him, he became a teacher for me as well.  I extend my respect to Mr. Gatto for his work, and remember him by recording here that there are many, many others that have also been moved to self-empowerment through creation by him also.

A hummingbird from his website, the file titled "Good Flight"

A hummingbird from his website, the file was titled “Good Flight”

There is an in-depth interview with him on Modern Silver’s page, but there is no direct link, you must search “Gatto” in order to find the article:

http://www.modernsilver.com/featuredarticles.html

This is the artist’s website:

Wear Art Now ( http://www.wearartnow.com/ )

Ashes to Diamonds

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Algordanza Inc.

When I first heard about turning the cremated ashes of loved ones to diamonds some years ago, I found it something that would be sensible to the Victorians, who are well known in the jewelry world for their morbid fascination with mourning jewels.  I have learned the idea is well known, much talked about, but in terms of a business (an extension of the lab created gem industry, contracted out to funeral homes under a few business names) is not exactly a booming option.

Algordanza Japan

Algordanza Inc.

Having a large diamond made is time-consuming, a super-heating furnace transforms the carbon ash to lead, and then compresses the crystal in a process that ranges from six months to several years, which is still incredible considering what a shortcut that is from the pressure and heat which requires millions of years in the earth to grow diamonds the natural way.  The electric bill alone must be staggering.

ash diamond machine-08cf8d56e8eb5451d22253e83ab615f5a0a63977-s6-c30 CNN Cremain Diamond

Given there are plenty of articles on the subject categorized under news of the weird, I thought only to provide a few visuals.  The prices quoted by one firm, ranging from $5,000 to $22,000, make the cost of the diamonds comparable to a traditional funeral but the same firm indicates it receives as few as thirty orders per year, and they are the worldwide leader.  This makes the diamonds, if we are to allow all forms of robotics and technology that virtually replace the traditional jeweler in supplying the world’s demand for personal ornamental objects, a truly rare form of jewelry art.  They call for a very specific vision of death, remembrance and adornment that says as much about the ‘collector’ as they do the service which creates the gemstone.  For this scarcity alone, a diamond made of the ash of a deceased person is incredibly unusual, contemporary and falls completely outside of popular trend and fashion.

Reiseki Co Memorial Stone

Reiseki Co.

In Japan there is a firm that takes a slightly different approach, in a way very fitting to the cultural aesthetic, of memorial stones, smooth like river rocks, which recall grave markers, but made of the ash combined with molted quartz material are shaped into altar pieces that can serve traditional memorial needs for urban families not wealthy enough to have a family burial plot.  Starting at $1,500, the option is much more accessible, but even this firm reports fewer than a hundred orders per year, making theirs as unusual a funeral option as the diamond.

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Perhaps the most interesting bit of trivia about the cremain diamond is its color.  Going in to the furnace, the lab has no control over what color will be produced by the relatively small amount of ashes.  Various shades of blue are the most typical result, which the scientists who create them explain is the presence of trace amounts of the element Boron, while other typical results are yellow and less frequently, clear.  They can’t explain why the color should be so unpredictable, but it adds an interesting element to one’s sense of self… what color diamond would I make?

Nora Rochel

I discovered the artist as one might discover an unusual flower taking a walk through the woods.  Towering and obscuring the sunlight, the pillars of our man-made world tap deep into the soil and drink up surface resources until all that remains are smooth clearings, lightly carpeted with the needles begrudgingly sprinkled by the monarchy above.  In this setting, with eyes wide open, it is hard to miss the sparkling white flower of the smaller parts that are defiant in their scarcity, but homogenous in their rest upon the substrate that supports all structures great and small.  This is how I encountered her work, for its working, its inventive handling of the metal (such as the whitening of the silver, and the depthening of the brass), the organic order/disorder and delicacy that is described by her manipulation of the metals… these were both obvious and rewarding, true treasures to find.

Not surprising, then, to read Rochel’s statement and discover that she is motivated by the medicinal and the philosophical in the natural world.  She gives a nod to the medicinal for both its storied traditions and its implied references to time, “with its roots at the very beginning of human history or even before.”  The artist works with organic form the way one might work with abstract painting – to disturb the smoothness, to disturb the square – not for the sake of obliteration but to unveil further distrbutions of ordering concealed in the vitality of things a stage before their manufacture into tools.  Her pieces are not instruments or possessions, but distillations of essentials alive in the saps and flowers of her subjects.

The artist adventures across mediums in her pursuit.  When her metalsmithing strikes the chord she is after, the tone reaches ears and is picked up.  We can only hope these successes drive her further into her investigation.

Artist’s Website:  nora-rochel.de

Bernard Instone

A jeweler who found his way through the ordinary channels of the English school system, who scholar-shipped his way directly to his occupation. At the age of 22 he was already teaching and making his own commissions. His practice was interrupted during which he fought in the Great War. It was said his character was steely, that he would challenge his sons to duels if they disagreed with him, and that he was prone to stand on his head at 70 to prove his stoutness. He ran two shops later in his life, which sold both paintings and jewelry.

Doves

Taxco the Magic Town

Now a legend among collectors and a destination for Mexico’s wealthy and jewelry enthusiasts, the town of Taxco has made a name for itself in the world of silver, weaving past and present through the imagination of artisans.

The town is referred to as one of Mexico’s ‘magic towns’. Taxco is small city in the state of Guerrero, built near Atatzin Mountain. Its name in Nahuatl (the Aztec language) means Place of the Ballgame, referring to the spectator sport enjoyed throughout the pre-Columbian civilizations, likely played there as it was a seat for the local Aztec governor.  A silver mine, now nearly depleted, has operated continuously since that time, with the working of the metal traditionally taking place in the vicinity as well. The new town built by Cortez closer to the mine is rugged and steep, twisting roads paved with darks and light stones to form mosaics including images from the zodiac. It is a place with a continuous line into the past: despite government intervention, the locals still practice an array of local customs, including a fondness for penitent processions.  Wearing hoods they conduct various activities involving chains, rosaries with sharp spikes, thorns, whipping, or the carrying of heavy objects.  It’s said they are carried on for their affinity to the regular blood rituals of the Aztecs.

In the late 1920’s, on a recommendation from a friend at the embassy, an American named William Spratling arrived in Taxco with the express purpose of setting up a jewelry workshop to revive the native reputation for silver in the area. A renaissance man, he had practiced architecture, participated in southern literary circles counting among his friends William Faulkner, and later became a champion of Mexican artists, Diego Rivera in particular, arranging most of the important New York shows for them. Hiring a local goldsmith and using Mesoamerican design principles, Spratling’s venture in Taxco far surpassed his wildest expectations. What originally was conceived as a modest jewelry shop in a picturesque mountain town became a massive apprenticeship system drawing and training talent from throughout the region. Essentially part of the same wave of economy and popular interest that fueled Arts and Crafts and similar movements in other parts of the world, an additional boost arrived when the European war interrupted supplies and placed Mexico in the spotlight for producing luxury goods. Trying to capitalize on this Spratling made a public offering and wound up losing control of his company. Nevertheless the system held, and many of his artisans went on to found workshops and design houses of their own that remain in operation. Their work and imitations of the unique regional style developed in Taxco can be found in antique shops throughout the Americas. It is denoted by sets of full, heavy repousse work, especially cuffs and bracelets and broad expressive necklaces, or as flat patterned enamel or mosaic inlay pieces. The work runs a spectrum between modern style and direct Mesoamerican reference, and generally features elaborate maker’s and quality marks, and the town’s name.

· Felicity Powell ·

If you are blessed enough to live in London at this moment, you have the rare treat of taking in the full sweep of a personal crossroads for a few weeks longer.  Felicity Powell out on display windows into the tiers of her creative being.  Her own works in Charmed Life: The Solace of Objects at the Wellcome Collection are fabulous and absorbing wax sculptures on black glass, so particular in their execution that they speak of a deep understanding of their subject matter.  Curiosity is the best possible word for the subject, which does not yield itself despite the artist’s obvious intimacy with it.  Fortunately, I imagine one can straighten up from their close case-gazing and take in Powell’s tandem exhibition of her curatorial skills, a survey of amulets, charms and a history of magic in London.

Perhaps you have heard much about the split between craft and art.  The separate museums and galleries would seem to validate this.  The imported crafts sold in contemporary art museum gift shops seem to underline it.  Nevertheless this discussion is as droll as invoking the vaporous ‘market’ to explain the success and challenge of the individual.  Through the lens of this exhibit, we see the actuality of an artist at work, particularly an artist who is closely involved with their materials.  Personal inspiration leads to research, then curation and promotion, and the drafting of proposals that can dance between intrigue and education for the public, all to incorporate one’s artistry into this vehicle.   If this was not enough, to then take this  sweated opportunity to display command and composure by delivering craftsmanship reveals the mark of an ambition that is almost unearthly in the dry and glassy eyed world of creatives steering by mere ‘market-driven’ navigation.

Have a look the exhibit here:http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/charmed-life.  Then look closely at the jewels that serve as the peaceful eye to this artist’s storm, I hope you find them as satisfying as I did.

The Signet

Seal of Roman Emperor Augustus (the Imperial “Whelping Sphinx”)

One of my favorite subjects of jewelry, the signet or intaglio ring can act like a time-capsule of personal identity.  They were once so common they are like the signatures of ghosts left to sprinkle ancient dwelling houses.  Like a stone fingerprint, or the 3-digit security code on the back of your cards, they were used to seal documents or sign them by pressing their mark into a patch of wax.  Their designs were usually carved intaglio into a gemstone, so their impressions left a raised relief design.  Later, as they fell into disuse, their metal would be melted down or reused, the carved stones tossed aside having little practical value, to be discovered in abundance by archaeologists or traded endlessly as pocket curios of the Classical world.  Throughout the later middle ages they became prized treasures of nobility, reset and collected, maintaining a reputation with their lost languages and mysterious figures to be magical.

These seals were often worn as rings, in order to conduct routine business, and are remembered today as the signet ring.  The contemporary signet frequently bears an inscription or a seal of some significance – though rarely in modern times are they a reverse imprint designed for wax, and if so purely nostalgic.  Signet rings still retain the suggestion of a claim to some kind of authority (if only the spectre of masculine authority), whether a masonic ring, a class ring or a family crest,  or at its most minimal, a heavy ring with a large flat and undecorated stone.

Minoan Signet Ring

The origins of signature seals are very ancient, dating back thousand of years.
In Mohenjo Daro, the neatly planned city on the Indus River sophisticated clay seals with writing have been found dating back nearly 5,000 years.  Ancient Mesopotamians sometimes preferred a cylinder seal that pressed or unrolled a small vignette onto wax and clay plates.  Ancient historians describe a Babylon where not a person was without a seal hanging around their neck.

Assortment of early seals.

In ancient Egypt, a glittering example of their characteristic design sense, scarabs served the same purpose.  The scarab, a symbol of the heart and the sun, served as one face, while the other served for carved intaglio writing and was typically flat.  Perhaps this served some religious significance – there was a strong belief that one’s name, ren, was a sacred thing to be protected – the rotating scarab-heart might have served to ‘cover’ the name.  The hole drilled for the purpose of making these rotatable led to a popularity, and continued production today, of using them as beads.  These are so abundant, typically in the sky blue faience color with crude approximations of hieroglyphs stamped on the back, that each of us has likely seen at least one in gift shops around the world.  The ancient form are so common that a person can find the real thing in virtually any art history museum’s collections.  

Egyptian Scarab Rings

The scaraboid gem form of a ring seal was spread throughout the Mediterranean world by the long trade rule of the Phoenicians, and became the business standard.  For non-Egyptians the rotating stone had no significance, and we find the seals mounted in fixed settings that did not move.  Signet rings became widespread among many cultures surrounding the Mediterranean, and deep into Central Asia, while seals in general are found in use throughout the world.  

Their function in business affairs created specialty shops in every trading port and city, the gem carver being a discussed occupation in the literary Classics.  A skilled carver’s quality and style enhanced security by being easier to authenticate visually, much the way engravers were physically responsible for the level of security in printed banknotes in more recent times.  The best seals were elaborate works of art usually cut in fine grained, quartz based gemstones, such as agates and jaspers, more inexpensive ones cut into softer scratch-able stones like hematite or calcite.   Many were also cut into glass.  Roman glassmaking was at one time traded throughout the known world, including seals, introducing waves of generic signs and intaglio stones that were purely decorative for trade.  Some gems served as signatory objects in a different way, as devotional objects, inscribed with a donor’s name, with the purpose of leaving one’s name at temples and shrines, others were bought pre-made with the temple’s image, to take away as a commemorative souvenir and a source of income.

Assorted Roman gold signet rings.

 

Silver Roman signet ring

Signet rings can give a more personal glimpse of economic activity than coins can provide.  They show that during periods of heightened trade where they will appear in greater number, the variety of similar amulet stones also increases, and this is where the story grows interesting.  During the particularly syncretic time period (300 BC-300 CE) of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, centered around Alexandria, many cultures lived side by side, where familiar cultural motifs of writing and themes of religion and myth began to merge and also form new colloquial, magical and cult themes.  We see fine examples of inventive figures alongside numerous rough replicas of them, peak examples of the gem carver’s craft alongside soft stones that are crudely cut with incantations, psuedo-writing, magic diagrams, incantations and palindromes.  There were symbols of newly forming religions, hybrids of converging cultures, including Christianity.  It is as though the intaglio signet had for many become a kind of personalized charm or amulet, an emblem of relocated  authority, or a statement of membership in a group, perhaps a kind of continuation of the Egyptian culture’s reverence over the wearing and display of one’s identity.

Typical Greek-Egyptian fusion, here of Anubis and Hermes with incantations.

Early Christian Intaglio

One of the greatest mysteries of antiquity is the multitude of Alexandrian signet stones that bear the unusual word ‘Abrasax’.  The meaning of the name remains unclear, though the letters add up to 365 (they did not have numbers yet) and it may simply mean ‘everything’.  These gems frequently depict an array of unusual characters that do not directly tie to any established religious context.  These appear with a variety of different figures that have in common only an appearance of being invented, or combined, as though the results of an effort to form a sort of catch-all multicultural figure of devotion.  The frequent inscription may be the reason the word ‘Abracadabra’ still lingers today, carrying with it the magical connotation of these gems. The Abraxas stones are uncanny and unique, and mixed in with their contemporaries comprise such a magical pile of jewels they have attracted ages of mystique and curiosity for the time they were created.

An anguipede, unique  to its specific region and time.

Signet stones continued to be in use for a few centuries after the decline of Rome.  At the end of the Sassanid empire, the rule of Islam produced its own abundance of carved rings using Arabic script, which is well suited to ornamental gemstone carving.  Among these stones carnelian was especially favored from North Africa to Mughal India.  The Mughals took gemstone carving like all arts quite seriously, most famously with the enormous 5×4 cm ‘Moghul Emerald’.  

 

The Moghul Emerald

The Moghul Emerald

 

Solomon Iran XV Glory to He who does not die

Through the middle ages elaborate seals continued to be used in by nobles and clergy but the use of gemstones in regular trade use, and signet rings in general declined.  Beginning in the Renaissance ancient intaglios, widely collected as curiosities, resurged as an enduring fad in jewelry, strung together in necklaces, remounted in rings, and put together as ‘charm’ bracelets.  Collectors also traded plaster imprints of the stones from their elaborate cabinets to expand their collections.

Intaglio collection remounted

Even as professional habits and modes of expression have changed, the signet ring’s mystique, suggestion of antiquity, or pedigree, and air of importance has retained a certain validity in use.  It lives on as the well known style of ring with its broad flat face, often still serving as a stock engraving blank or bearing a suggestive yet anonymous seal design, or a trophy of membership.

Contemporary Onyx Signet by Stephen Einhorn

The popular black onyx blank slate has its own curious place in the story, apparently inspired in some way by Victorian mourning jewelry, today the black stone is the most typical for a modern signet ring, though in history not much evidence of its use appears before this time.

All in all, the signet is a multi-cultural survivor carrying on a 4,000 year sense of meaning as its place among ornament endures.  When an actual insignia is used today, etching directly into the metal is the preferred signet, leaving the lost ancient trade of cutting intaglio gemstones to be practiced strictly as a preservationist art.

Adone T Pozzobon hand engraved masonic caduceus ring

· Miel-Margarita Paredes ·

The irrepressable Miel-Margarita Paredes is a gift to us all, hailing from Wisconson.  Her repousse and fabrication ingenuity have resulted in pieces that are as suited to gallers walls as they are to craft museum displays.  Anyone familiar with repousse will instantly note the quality, skill and difficulty of the projects gives have life to – what we are observing here is a prodigy, able to produce work that takes many years of practice for others.  In particular, her functional items are displays of skillfully finding the imaginative plasticity of the metal, such as her “Ruminant Pillbox”,  her exquisite bird and octopus teapots, her toys, and her “Luna Moth Tea Infuser”.  Fortunately, this artist’s career is just beginning, and her energy (a vital component of a metal worker) promises much more to come.

Artist’s Website:  http://www.mielmargarita.com

Huguenin

I have yet to uncover any biographical details of this Swiss family name, other than to discern that during the turn of the 20th century medal sculpting must have been a family affair. Henri-Édouard seems to be the most productive. I primarily wished to share this work for their purpose is today rather novel – these are awards for accomplishments of basic living, decorated with humanistic deities and nymphs – the progress and mere existence of modern living standards would appear to have reached near spiritual proportions of celebration. It was a peculiar combination of social-realism and erotic tokens that somehow describes the marketing zeitgeist of the burgeoning industrial age.

In artwork, the rise of science and technology was frequently paired with fanciful illustations of ancient metaphor; this neo-classical rendering was perhaps an emphasis of Newtonian triumph.  The early scientists worked under significant repression from the church, something that was freshly in mind during these times, leading to a popular sense that science had uncovered a more authentic ‘divinity of nature’.  This created a cultural connection between the wisdom of ancient, previously suppressed philosophers, their myth-making imagery, and modern progress.  A curious juxtaposition that captures the sense of excitement during a brief window in history.  The wonder of human invention would lose much of its glamour as the world wars approached.

It just makes one contemplate how things have changed. This was spurred by my mother discovering in a box of things a little gold medal I had won once for extemporaneous speaking. I admired the coarse ‘realness’ that it had compared to computer drafted engraving goods these days, and the little blank ribbon waiting for my engraved initials. As with this family of medalists, in addition to commissions for governments and institutions the artists regularly produced blank trophy items – agricultural scenes for market shows, family scenes to celebrate weddings and childbirth. These items would be hand engraved with names, inscriptions and dates. Hand engraving was an art, and a few decades before this period comprised a major part of independent jeweling.

 

Students graduating from the Marseille School of Decorative Arts were awarded with a medal of a woman removing her blouse ribbon.

 

Electricity, a common medallic theme in this time period, here celebrated with a floating nymph whose diaphanous shroud is pulled away, entangled in the new power lines.

A flowing toga on a victorious goddess is used to illustrate prudence.

I am guessing this is a brewery.

Here a goddess of progress, indicated by her Amazonian height, is showing the scientists around the labratory.

The hydroelectric dam.

Hospitals, symbolized by a goddess of health in scanty nightwear with a dish of fresh fruit.

Neptune himself attended the ceremony for stormdrain installation in Bern.

Peer Smed

One can get a sense of how the lives of artisans have changed in a few generations time through little suggestive windows left from the turn of the century. Candid home snapshots start appearing, indexed documents are more easily found. Without too much information, the life or Peer Smed was a successful one. The son of a blacksmith, he moved to New York from Copenhagen, where the silversmith guilds would help promising artisans emigrate for fear of having a surplus in their countries. He occupied one studio and never left it, having five children several of whom grew up working with him. His work was held in museums during his lifetime, and he contributed architectural elements throughout the city. He lost a daughter when she was 18.

Dragon Triskelion

What is striking to me is the stability (standard of living) for the memorable metal artists of this time – from residency, to commission, to family and home. By contrast, a modern metal artisan may choose their trade arbitrarily out of interest, is very briefly trained at great personal expense, and is left to seek their fortune as an entrepreneur. Their skills frequently have little outlet among modern products (Peer Smed would make silverware and table services, for instance). For contemporaries the establishment of a permanent studio and a family is often delayed for a long period of time. This is not to say that every metalsmith of his day was of the calibre of Peer Smed, but one can see a distinction between a recent history of holistic cultural integration in the trade, and the literally radical and novel market based challenges today. Which is to say, an individual that understakes the approach of fine craft today, especially as an adult, is possessed of a good measure of courage.

Repousse

Repousse

Ring

Squirrel

Most of these images as you can see, are from a site that has an interesting bio page including photographs, I recommend you take a look and perhaps reflect on similar things: Peer Smed

Into The Brooch

Everyone knows what a brooch pin is.  But what is it?  For the jeweler, it’s the closest one can come to making a free-standing sculptural piece.  It can be shallow relief or three dimensions, and is often the fate of any object that is created without a clear idea of its use beforehand.  All it requires is a pin of some kind to affix it to the front of a wearer’s garment.

Truth be told, the brooch has come pretty far, from its purely ornamental role today the namesake describes a typically hefty style of pin used to fasten one’s cloak or robe.  A few thousand years ago, these were more common than a pair of shoes. Not to be mistaken with a fibula, which is the exact same thing, but describes a slightly different mechanism that was favored by the Romans.  The brooch was popular among the other tribes, the Celts and such, and curiously we have opposing names for cloak pins between old enemies – empire and tribe.  We don’t use either word today for ‘fastener’, but the brooch pin does survive in a symbolic sense.  Jewelers will also be familiar with the word broach, which is a sharpened needle-like tool used to bore out the inside of rings and tubing.  It comes from the Old (Celt) French word for pin.

Here are a few images of the original brooch pins; to the sympathetic eye they provide rarified glimpses at a long and continent wide vocabulary of ornament that was largely chopped up (hacksilver is an archaeological term) and melted down by empires, invaders and inheritors.  From the looks of it, the brooches are distinct, personal items, perhaps once known for different tribal touches, or clan marks that are long gone.  At the same time, for design enthusiasts there is something peculiarly uniform,  a cultural aesthetic, that distinguishes the Celtic remnants – something like a philosophy that keeps the common thread of ornament informed, from Anatolia to Ireland. Fans of history are familiar with the mystery of this culture, who gave us many of the place-names of Europe, stories of King Arthur and Merlin, and legends of the bards travelling from tribe to tribe spreading the news in song, and the incredible survival of some of the language within the reaches of the British Isles. The old culture that used no writing left almost no record except their obsessive aesthetic of spirals and knots, an intent to abstraction that makes them all the more compelling.

· Jennifer Trask ·

A living artisan that completely bridges the divide between sculptor and jeweler, and whose work crackles with intelligence. After working for several years, she started gaining notice and has become justifiably successful. With her growing acclaim, she shows complete independence. Rather than devolving into a designer’s role creating redundant wealth-objects of increasing expense, she demonstrates a continued devotion to working the materials personally. Her latest series, Vestige, is breathtaking, and instead of gold she creates complicated formulations out of ordinary bone. Eclectic carvings are fused with the metaphoric bones of antique picture frames. The mark of a brilliant materials handler, the essence of gold retains its contemporary spare inkling through the remnants of gold leafing on old wood; the wealth on display is skill and the devotion of time. It generates a feeling of gratitude in me that the artist has chosen to direct her success towards a deeper pursuit of artistry, providing us with a living example of real creative integrity.

Something that comes to mind: for an artist who has reached the level of magazine articles and museum collections, you’d think she was ready to start her own design house. This is the curious place of an artist and creative labor in today’s economy. It’s simply not enough, even with full recognition. Trask’s name should be well known and collected among people who enjoy jewelry, as was Lalique, Tiffany or Jensen in their day. Trask should be raking it in and changing the way we look at ornament.  However, any sensible placement as top market and the pride of the region where she works is prevented by the mean average of the global market.  Though she should be able to ask anything she likes for her work, the scale of the market – its ability to import matching manufacturing but from a differing relative economy – controls the ceiling of prices, limiting recognition and reward for artistry in jewelry.  Today top market jewelry, regardless of genius, is based primarily on the raw value of materials and somewhat in the perceived value of branding.  In order to see natural innovation and real creativity surround our lives again, we would start choosing our local artisans for every service possible, a priority shift of buying less and paying higher prices for better goods. This would transform the way work is done overseas as well. Encouraging regional development – anywhere in the world – is accomplished by using one’s good taste and sensibility to choose goods that exhibit the human touch and essentially benefit the growth of culture.

One of her artist statements, for ‘Unnatural Histories’:

“This work arose from my unending fascination with the material world.
Deliberate arrangements of flora and fauna, mineral and vegetal, side by side, delineate multiple subjective taxonomies. One defines a personal aesthetic; catalogs texture, color, and light in a formal and intuitive manner.

Another system, one of sly, unnatural histories, is derived from a curiosity about the material world and conceptual relationships; associative meanings and actual elemental materiality. By abstracting particular materials my intent is to create an impulse to pause, and look again. To consider. The results are oddly metaphoric arrangements on an intimate scale that invite examination.

In that moment of engagement, perhaps one might reclaim a sense of wonder, visceral delight, or simply curiosity as to the purpose of such meticulous arrangements.”

Artist’s Website: http://www.jennifertrask.com/

Dorrie Nossiter

I have a number of these artisans archived, that I’ll post over time. I intend to intersperse them with living artisans, who deserve twice the attention.  Jewelers are especially hard to track down, given the frequency for which they worked anonymously for houses, and a general lack of documentation.

England, Arts and Crafts / Stil Liberty.  The use of cabochons contains a reference to historic metalsmithing that was part of the unique appeal of the English A&C movement.   The riot of colors was her signature touch.  A comprehensive site about her, including biography is here: http://www.dorrienossiter.co.uk/

Art Nouveau and Samurai Swords

It is well understood that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the rise of industrialization in Japan and the explosion of an international philosophy of ‘New Art’.  By looking at the mechanisms of this influence, I hope to demonstrate the New Art was much more like a prophetic vision than an ephemeral moment to enrich antique collectors.

In the accounts of Art Nouveau and its related movements (Arts & Crafts, Craftsman, il Liberte, Jugendstil, Secession, Arte Joven, Art Nova and Stile Liberty) one is apt to run across claims that it is a spontaneous development that marked a transition period between classical academicism and modernism. But this stand-alone islander perspective hardly accounts for its genesis or its end. The genesis came with the arrival of photography and access of the West’s artists to the finer crafts of Asia, especially Japan. Previously, Chinese porcelain had long been traded, but the style was vernacular and limited to like items. The arrival of documentation relating to supremely technical metalworking methods, sophisticated print and painting techniques, and essentially an entirely different cultural take on both universal design principles and representation of the natural world set off an inevitable alchemical reaction.

Artists I’ve spoken to about the subject explain that there is a root distinction in the composition of academic European and traditional Asian art. After the rediscovery of proportion during the Renaissance, the West had until the New Art period essentially pursued rules of symmetry – especially with regards to a horizon line, with the primary divisions of fore, middle and background. The history of western art has very specific reasons for this development, and essentially it revealed the collective psyche of a broad pan-culture. The approach to composition was both taught and essentially instinctual. When it came to decorative items, we find the same absolute principles: symmetry, relief and depth.

The shockwave of cultural confluence stems from a truly novel introduction within Eastern art: the concept of “infinite space”, which essentially allows elements of fore or background to interact with void. This had also developed to an instinctual level in that pan-culture, and is found mirrored in their philosophy and calligraphy. In fact, one reason speculated for this key element of composition is the use of pictographs for writing, developing an ancient practice of ‘floating’ pictures over the top of other pictures, creating a conceptual intuition for layering that was independent of relativistic proportion.

Once Western artists became exposed to the successful break in symmetry a new dialect of visual language spread like wildfire, transforming every aspect of art. Curiously, though so distinct and widely embraced it is easily identified today, this paradigm shift was short lived, and like the swing of a pendulum modernism rose with a hard return to symmetry, replacing decoration with line and simple geometry. It was as though nature was erased completely from vernacular language.

There are many discussions on this, which make for good reading. In a nutshell, the fine craft epidemic was made possible by the last generation of traditional apprenticed craftsmen, who were widely being displaced by the rise of industry. Essentially, young inspired artists and designers found at their disposal droves of highly skilled master craftsmen, who happened to be unemployed. Little did they know they were living in a fantastic, singular moment in time. Beautiful dreams sprang up in the form of cooperative workshops, intentional artisan communities, and free schools staffed by true experts in design and the arts. This was the last generation of its kind in the West, and is the reason why the housing, furniture and countless other items are unsurpassed even today in their quality and appeal. They are haunting, specific to a time, a place, and a lineage of authorship – they are downright talismanic.

One can hardly blame the hopes many had that it seemed possible for revolutionizing and improving the quality of life in every home for the founders of the various New Art movements. Unfortunately the economy of scale would make its presence known just as quickly, particularly at its apogee of unrestrained, nearly viral transformation of life in an opposite direction – the prolific outpouring of weapons of war that came to occupy the awareness and industry of that same, once hopeful world.

Following the global wars manufacturing had completely disconnected from skilled hand-crafting, its mechanisms actually unable to incorporate it even if it wanted to. Modernism took an even more severe turn, moving from streamlined to simple, and was embraced, as Corbusier put, as a way to ‘clean’ cities and lives of the madness and ruin of revolutions. Modernism represented a desire to turn away from the past’s hopes and nightmares, and erase if possible all grandiose discussion of the big picture. It was successful, to a degree, though ask anyone about the terms ‘marketing’ or ‘branding’ and you will hear a crystalline linguistic litany that is truly global, and discover what you already knew – that the predilection for living by a totalistic view has never departed.

The New Art appeared to our most creative thinkers to be the obvious direction for a new, international visual language and they threw themselves towards it with magnificent energy. That their prediction was shut down so abruptly should not be regarded as failure. They were absolutely right about the most critical of concerns:

1. The viewpoint of New Art was genuinely better. It was altruistic and holistic – a model that provided meaningful, enriching work for laborers, a clear and signature identity for artists, and affordable works of art for the everyday home.

2. The connection between tradition and technology was possible, and even likely. The only thing the model requires is an abundance of free time that was once standard in agrarian life, and the related family-community basis of living that integrates work, leisure, social belonging, house living, cultural distinctiveness, and allows for lifetime learning.

3. The motivation of holistic artistry is infectious and inspiring.  Life is better when the things we do, make and own have something we can relate to and enjoy. Inspiration from holistic sources generates tremendous energy. The evidence is in the record of New Art – for just a few decades time, their artifacts are everywhere, and are still repeated throughout the diaspora of information.

For your enjoyment, and as an aid to reflect on the impact and prophetic properties of visual language, I give you a few of the innumerable sword hilts of the Japanese samurai, called tsuba. Each instrument of death is the record of the love and life of a village metalsmith.  Japan is an archipelago whose transformation from feudal life by the sword to nuclear accident in less than a century can help us create a clearer model of modernity. It can help to reconsider the Western spaghetti soup story of industrial transformation that leads to all manner of complicated and unfortunate conclusions. For all the talk, well, just look at these sword hilts and decide if we’re doing our best today.

The Treasure of Sutton Hoo

The Sutton Hoo Burial Ground

This is a story about humility.   And the glory of a long-dead clan of Old English ancestors – so old they still wrote in runes.  I have always had a particular leaning towards self-education – entirely due to the pace and way that I ingest information.  This hasn’t been the best approach with regards to craft, a hard lesson – there are simply ways to do things right the first time that are so effective at shaving off unnecessary experimentation time… well, you get the picture.  Fortunately I had a mentor for the larger areas of metalwork, but for technical aspects of jewelry I could not bring myself to find one in person.

Picture me pouring through catalogs and big comprehensive books, searching for a solution to a problem.  Unbelievably, I was beginning to realize that what I was missing must have been so unthinking it was just overlooked in the writing of one book after another.  It was unbelievable.   Finally I reached for a trade-paperback sized book, a Dover to top all, something I had picked up for a few dollars and had basicly ignored in favor of costlier hard-bound books with photographs.  I had glanced through it initially, and mentally registered it as a reprint of antique methods I might one day enjoy for leisure.

Herbert Maryon Metalwork & Enamelling

 

In frustration I gave it a crack and behold, the very instructions I was seeking were there… written so lucidly and thoughtfully you could almost hear the teacher’s voice.  Herbert Maryon, Metalwork & Enamelling.  I learned quite a lesson from the little book on many levels.  I realized much of the jewelry equipment I was gradually accumulating were items I merely believed were essential.  Maryon didn’t fuss around with too many gadgets – his instruction was essential – rather, it was behavioral –  as though one could make anything with fire, metal, and sticks.

Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

Ship Burial - Not Much Stuff, All of it Excellent

This wasn’t far from the truth.  Maryon was the lead conservator of the Sutton Hoo treasure, the most sophisticated collection of Celtic metalwork ever discovered.  The key pieces amount to a few items from a chieftan’s ship burial, of such workmanship that the techniques would be a real challenge for a craftsman of today – no matter how much of the tool catalog they owned.  One gets the picture from Roman legend that the Celts were barbarians, foaming at the mouth.  Taking a close look at this treasure makes them appear just as sophisticated as the empire that fell upon them.  Like the earliest poems, the sword reveals masterful fold-lines, and is signed by its smith.  The gold work is expertly enameled  in a champleve manner.  In all, precision, control and long tradition are evident here.

Sword

Sword, signed "Scott"

This is now the book I recommend to anyone interested in metalsmithing.  As a place to start, it begins with common sense… the why precedes the how.  Maryon reverse engineered every method with which the ancient smiths were able to accomplish their work.  In this way he returns to write a teaching guide that requires the crafter, not the tools, to be sophisticated and sufficiently sharp.  It’s a refreshing realization in a time when so much is ready-made that grown adults may experience the childlike frustration of not having fully developed skills for making necessities on our own.  Maryon demonstrates that much of what constitutes an equipped and trained professional today is quite extraneous – as though the finest work may be produced outdoors, beside a fire, with a tree-stump, a bowl of tar and a hammer.  Indeed, Maryon helped realign my priorities, and place my start-up investment into my hands rather than the tools.  And I look forward this spring to following a few of his ‘recipes’ outside in the fresh air.

Thanks to archaeology, we now know for certain they wore mustaches.  Barbarians?  Hardly.

The Great Buckle

Shoulder Clasp

 How about the fineness of that enameled knotwork?

Purse

How about that checkerboard enamel inlay effect?

Brooke Stone’s Totems

A hero of mine, this jewel sculptor works out of Eugene, OR.  She uses the lost wax method and is a wax carver; her mature style is a breathtaking combination of nature and contemporary, experimental composition and rendering.  Using the metals as a palette her work stands on the strength of its artistry, distinguishing it from so much manufactured work that relies on metal content and stones to create value. In addition, her animal themes (regarded as totemic) speak of a close involvement between her imagination and the natural world, and so describe the artisan behind the pieces.  To top it off, Stone is alive, and deserves recognition, for she is true maker of talismans.

Her website is full of personal care, and includes an excellent photo overview of the lost wax process.

Brooke Stone Jewelry

 

McClelland Barclay

Among jewelers Barclay lived an interesting, though somewhat short life.  His jewelry was informed by the times, with Arts and Crafts principles, introducing affordable items with the modern decorative style of natural subjects and asymmetrical composition that was known elsewhere as Art Nouveau, il Liberte, Jugenstil and other variations on the theme of a new approach.  Taking a page from Georg Jensen’s style and working approach,  his silver jewelry frequently revolved around nature, with workshops using high-relief repousse dies to produce stamped serial units for matching sets of bracelets, necklaces, brooches and earrings.  He also created rhinestone pieces that bore a striking similarity to Cartier’s famous art deco emerald works.

He was industrious – the graduate from the Art Institute of Chicago branched into jewelry and decorative home items after success with his pin-up art, especially in commercial art.  The war interrupted his jewelry when he was appointed by the Navy to develop maritime camoflauge schemes in the pacific theatre, and shortly after Pearl Harbor he began to paint recruiting posters.  At the age of 52, on assignment near the Solomon Islands, his boat was torpedoed.

Wings

 

Pinecone

Pinecone

Swan

Swan

Pear

Maurice Delannoy – Medalist

The first in a series of select art medals in the Art Noveau and Deco styles.  Fortunate to have a shot of Delannoy here woking his trade, sculpting directly into a large plaster disk that will later be reduced by a pantograph (reducing machine).  The plaster sculpting method was used for all manner of precision modeling for metalwork, from industry to jewelry, until the mid 20th century.

Award

Agriculture

Ceres

Family

La Chaleur du Soleil

Artemis

Mater Dolorosa

Marc Newson’s Fractal Necklace

Behold “Julia”, the stunning interface of science, beauty and intense labor.  In an era where luxury goods are so paradoxically mass produced they are defined solely by their label, this one of a kind necklace has no comparison.

Marc Newson Julia

Julia

It’s named after Gaston Julia, a mathematician in the 1900’s who created a formula that, when graphed, produced a self-repeating structure at endless smaller scales, an infinity complex expressed in a formula.  It contains over 2,000 diamonds and blue sapphires, selected for the precision of their color and cut, and set in three-pronged mounts that make each gem appear to float.

The piece took over 1,500 hours to craft.  Such high-level craft items attract particularly adventurous types, and if history is any indication, a showpiece of wealth on such a scale is likely to intrinsically include a statement about the owner.  Welcome to the 21st Century, where the technocrats are opulently adorned with the science behind their ascent.

Boucheron Julia

Julia Close Up

You won’t see me posting too many broad spreads of arranged gemstones.  I can’t really see in them much that inspires my work, nor do they speak of a craftsman, the voice of the creator, nearly so much as they paint pictures of several specialist workshops.

This piece brings up a factor of interest in production of any kind today – transparency.  The labor factor of 1,500 hours they have provided is seriously questionable.  Hard stones like these are usually cut by trained professionals, at at least 2-3 hours per piece.  At over 2,000 stones we’ve already hit a minimum of say 6,000 hours.  This does not consider the time involved in mining, sorting and preparing the rough, heat treating, grading and handling.  So I’m assuming the 1,500 hours mentioned are limited to stone selection, smithing the platinum and stonesetter’s time.  In all, the piece may as well have 10,000 hours of time in it.  Which is fitting, like the fractal… the closer you look, the more there is to it.

And this is also where it begins to lose its charm, its talismanic properties.  The essence of the mathematician is lightly in there, like a sketch, but the layout was executed by computer like most modern jewelry, and the designer’s presence rapidly begins to fade from the piece.  The vast majority of crafting under the ‘house’ Boucheron was not conducted in-house at all, but through a buying of finished materials; they seem to have casually failed to state the lion’s share of the actual crafting involved here – the expert faceting of the stones.  Why decide to understate the hours?  Would a true number have been too decadent even for a design house that specializes in this practice?  Is there a professional curtain for high grade work, behind which only certain professions’ hours qualify as labor?

It’s amusing, and why I am never terribly impressed with this sort of work… it is less likely to reveal anyone’s essence than to resemble something more inanimate and collectively made, like a tall skyscraper.  It is eminently imperial in its manifestation.  Marc Newson becomes something more like a civil engineer or architect here, but unlike a finished building with most of its infrastructure concealed, peering closely at the piece reveals nothing but stones, with the real work laid bare.  They may not have been accounted for in time, and it is likely not the implicit intent of the designers, but one may get a taste of true craftsmanship laid bare by peering inward to every detail.

That said, if you want to kick up the crazy a notch, what about that full-sized diamond skull by Damien Hirst back in 2007?

The Diamond Skull

It’s proper title is ‘For the Love of God’ and it was created in 2007 by superstar artist Damien Hirst.   It is so well discussed out there I don’t feel too many words are required, but it may be news to fans of jewelry.  It does bring up interesting, long-running questions about how blockbuster fabricated concepts fit in, but that’s for my art blog.  Something like this stimulates one kind of opinion or another, with visitor responses assembled at one exhibit into this amusing interactive site: http://www.fortheloveofgod.nl/  In any case, after the ‘spots’ show I really don’t want to say much about Hirst at all.  There are a good thousand living artists that all could better use my time.

Damien Hirst For the Love of God

"For the Love of God"

What I can offer that’s relevant here are interesting pictures of the skull making in process.  I happened to run across an excellent article years back, and grabbed the images.  This is fortunate, as I can’t find the article any longer (link would  be appreciated).  I do archive images regularly.

Victoire de Castellane’s Dead Royal

With a touch that is either sarcastic or ironic, the live created by de Castellane for her Dior line ‘Reines et Rois’ in 2010 made a curious statement.  The ‘Kings’ are skull pendants elaborately festooned with diamonds, while the ‘Queens’ are similar rings.   Presumably, the King is to be worn like a badge on one’s chest, while Queen is wrappedThe skulls are carved of semiprecious stones, with names matching the stones, such as Reine d’ Opalie, Reine de Chrysoprasie, or Roi de Jaspe.  While ex-votos are not a new phenomenon in jewelry, these pieces are clearly for the amusement of the wearer, and perhaps in the vein of artist Damien Hirst, who produced a diamond-encrusted platinum skull at a cost of nearly £10 million, this is the designer’s way of  producing objects that mock death as a way of coming to terms with it.

Reines et Roi 1

 

 

One reviewer caught on to the curiosity of the line… in plastic or even silver these rings would be ordinary street kitsch, but the elaboration makes a statement about what we might regard as ‘elevated taste’, which is to observe that there seems to be no distinction within the classes between kitsch and ‘luxury’ at this point.  The unfortunately anonymous reviewer (perhaps a marketer of the design house) was poignant to note that ‘the line’s success indicates a strong morbid desire that has developed today, one that makes people clearly prefer skulls over hearts or symbols of love’.  Indeed mystery reviewer, the movement away from symbols of love and sentiment is a phenomenon across the arts and culture in general that arrived with modernism, and historically can be traced back to the onset of the crazy wars that shattered in the ‘New Arts’ ascendancy in the early 20th century.  It would appear that the door to morbidity is the only symbolic door that seems to have been left open in this post-modern, sentiment cleansed world.  That this is deeply embedded in our culture is well illustrated by luxury goods that bear no real distinction from the playthings of adolescents save their price.

Reines et Roi 3

At the same time, perhaps these might be regarded as simply high-end kitsch, and not an indicator of elite tastes.  The pavé diamonds are not terribly costly, and the skulls require so much material it is not a surprise that they are low quality and muddy in color.  It may be better to view this line as kitsch with a nice label, as most of luxury goods have become.  With the material factor out of the way, we can look with fresh eyes at the work of the designer, which shines through.  The care and fluidity of her crowns, feathers and collars are clearly graceful, and each is instantly distinguishable from each other.

Here, in a time when we have an essentially inverted culture – when luxury goods are cheap mass-productions and well-crafted artisan goods as valueless without a luxury label, or if you prefer, a time when skulls are preferred love tokens, it is always refreshing to see the touch of an engaged designer, even if they are nearly anonymous within a production house.

Philippe Wolfers

Philippe Wolfers

Enamel and Gold Choker - Click to Zoom

Born into a prominent Belgian silversmithing family, Philippe entered his father’s shop to apprentice at 17.  He clearly was a rebel son, embracing the “new art” that resulted from the revitalizing impact of Japanese aesthetic on European culture.  Pieces that he created outside the family shop’s aesthetic are fairly rare, and clearly imitating the master Lalique.  His early works in jewelry and smithing do not quite possess the harmony of other artists, but in these mature works the result of his enterprise are plain.

"Japanese Style"

Salvador Dali

The artist Salvador Dali is an exemplar of that quality that enhances our enjoyment of the best of them – he was prolific. From countless paintings and drawings to his own deck of tarot cards, the man with the mustache is one of those artists that is known even to people who do not follow the art world. It is just as likely anyone that has heard of Dali know that he was a Surrealist. It comes as little surprise that surreal is one of the first adjectives that come to mind when it comes to his exploits in jewelry.

Successfully Surreal

He designed these jewels in the 40’s and 50’s, working closely with their maker, Carlos Alemany. Known for living an extravagant life, he personally selected the gems (a pleasant activity) and attributed a symbolic value for each. The pieces now reside in the Teatro-Museo in Figueres, Spain.

Royal Heart

Ruby Lips

Living Flower

Eye of Time

Silver Rat

Around 2009 a friend, the artist Andrew Sexton, asked for assistance with a project. He wanted to make a gift that involved transforming a classic rubber rat toy into a substantial piece of silver bling. We began with a silicon mold of the rat to create a lost wax duplicate, which allowed for thickening up the tail and repositioning it to form a bail. It was my first direct pour using silver… as with anything it had its learning curve. It required several hours blasting the silver with an oxy-acetylene rig before we realized we needed a broader torch tip for melting. In all the thing drank up nearly five ounces, a real sternum buster. It was also my first stone setting, if I recall, involving two small pink rubies for the eyes.

Silver Rat 0272

An enduring mammal.

Left Eye

Left Eye

Rats

Solid

Oaxaca

In 2008 a little vacation in Oaxaca, Mexico turned up a few local jewelry themes.

 

Crosses of Yalalaga

The Cross of Yalalaga is usually an equilateral cross with three pendant crosses attached.  It was all over the place, on rooftops as weathervanes, in ceramic, and especially in silver.  Locals explained it was around long before Cortez showed up.  Oaxaca is a UNESCO heritage site, as it is home to quite a few totally distinct indigenous languages.  You can see some of these pieces have been Catholicized, some have not.  I was especially curious about the winged heart shape variation – some are even double-winged.

More Crosses of Yalalaga

Too bad I was still getting the hang of that camera.  In heavier versions of the pendant, the design wold reveal more distinctive transepts than a simple equilateral cross – distinctly resembling the sweeping wings of a diving bird.

Bird Earrings

Beautiful filligree works seemed to cary the unique fondness for the downward swooping bird.  Above, traditional wire forming methods show Spanish and indigenous influence.

Earrings

Variation: Double Birds and Crescent

In other pieces the bird theme continued as two birds facing each other, forming a symmetry meeting at the beak and feet.  This might explain the ‘winged heart’ on the smaller Yalalaga pendants, the heart shape being te silhouette of this symmetry.  Again, we have the downward crescent suggesting a swooping motion.

Contemporary Necklace

This magnificent piece of silver jewelry seems to have everything but the kitchen sink, but suggests indigenous metaphor in its arrangement.  The collar fan area is an array of winged cherubs, with an enclosure of a hand holding a heart.  Below it are a pair of ‘eyes’ that suggest the ancient Nahuatl god of rain and harvest, Tlaloc, that can be found concealed in the painted motifs of colonial churches.  If this is the case, we have another clue: two hands descend from his eyes, appearing to deliver the disc of the sun and the moon.  Could the hands’ gesture double as the silhouette of two birds?  The heart shape is easily made this way.  Could the descending bird represent the sun, or light?  And the pendants on the Yalalaga rays of light, raindrops, or seeds?

The trip to Oaxaca was a satisfying survey of syncretism between religion and culture.  Something in the jewelry of today retains threads of previous cultural incarnations: people who once made ornamental earplugs now make silver filligree birds and crosses.

Zapotec Earplugs

 

The Talisman

As long as I’ve known it, the term has felt closer to me than any other description for my craft’s purpose.  Jeweler, goldsmith, silversmith, designer, craftsman… all of these cross over somewhere in my work, but to be sure what I make, and why I make them, has little to do with the full sense of any of these trades.

I create and track talismans, phenomena that appear in fiction or historical reproduction, but are incredibly rare as an active product in this culture.  The talisman truly blurs the line between craft and art as it is viewed in those distinct ‘markets’.  It’s also an uncommon word.  If anything, it suggests an object of belief, like an amulet, or an object of power, like a fetish.  But that’s not quite right – a talisman is at once something special, completely unique, and functionally essential: somehow reflecting the spirit or person of maker and even the wearer.  The easiest way to explain why I prefer the term talisman is to say that you will find a lot of intelligence woven into my work:  backstory, magic, a distinct life in and of itself.  And my motivation, the thing that makes me a talismonger (now there’s a word that is nearly extinct)  has everything to do with seeding the world with droplets of this peculiar brand of intelligence, and ultimately achieving a degree in my work where this cultural function is the first thing that is apparent in any given piece.

My question in making the talisman is one of substance – what is the difference between intrinsic value and perceived value?  Where do they overlap, as with craftsmanship, and where are distinctions made?  Why does perceived value appear more frequently than the intrinsic in our culture?

The heritage of the word talisman is interesting.  It’s been all over the place, borrowed and repurposed, which is proof of a long life serving up a special meaning that never quite had another match.  Here’s the entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1630s, from Fr. talisman, in part via Arabic tilsam (pl. tilsaman), a Gk. loan-word; in part directly from Byzantine Gk. telesma “talisman, religious rite, payment,” earlier “consecration, ceremony,” originally “completion,” from telein “perform (religious rites), pay (tax), fulfill,” from telos “completion, end, tax”.

So the sense of this definition seems to be a ceremonious or customary payment.  A bit inadequate, this doesn’t seem to match our modern usage that well…  The Arabic participation makes sense – you still find antiquarian tribal wealth jewelry featuring thalers riveted into their fabric, especially among the Arab tribes.  Still, this doesn’t get close enough to our use of the word.  Let’s pull in the cognates – other words in use at the time that sound similar and resemble the meaning.

Talers on Qu'aiti Woman

Talers on Qu'aiti Woman

First off, we have thaler or taler, which is the origin of the word dollar, and describes large silver coins (equally well-known as crowns) used for trade throughout Europe and in other lands for hundred of years.   At some point, thaler was a word nearly anyone would know.  It also stood for the rise of stability through the great merchant leagues, the legendary free cities, and the decline of the dark ages.  Another cognate from this time, teller, means one who keeps count of money and ‘tells’ the count.  No doubt there were little jokes about the tellers that count the talers.

Maria Theresa Thaler with Arab Counter-Stamp

The Famous Maria Theresa Thaler with Arab Counterstrike

Thaler means ‘from the valley’ and it is said this meaning was first attached in the silver-mining regions of Bohemia, where the early silver coins were stamped with a design representing the valley it originated from.  Even today, independent bullion mines stamp their locations on their produce.  So here we can glean a little extra information – enhancing its role as a ceremonious payment, it is accountable, straight from the source.   The otherwise anonymous bit of metal gains implied value through the imprinted decorations, that indicate its origin and a guaranty of quality standards.  By the thaler’s other common name, crown, we know that the implied value is doubly connected to the eminence of its ‘maker’, with source and a noble’s ‘seal of approval’.

Wildermann Thaler

The Woodwose (Wilder Mann) Thaler

A great example of this double guarantee of source and approval is the ‘Woodwose’ thaler, an archaic word for a ‘wild man of the forest’ that came from folklore, and is unique to the region of Brunswick.  We might be able to taste a bit of the trustworthy character of this creature in his descendant, the ‘Jolly Green Giant’.  There are many designs.  On the flip ‘crown’ side one would find the issuer’s coat of arms.  Around our Wild Man we find various telling inscriptions in Latin, the language of church and king, imploring people to honor their value – “Recto Decius” – The Right Choice;   “Honestum pro Patriae” – Honor for my Country; “Deo et Patriae” – God and Country, and even “Alles mit Bedacht” – Think Everything Through.  So we have a coin that is not merely silver, but assured by crown, religion and commonwealth, and a hint at why talisman today means so much more than just a worn decorative object.

The thaler-crown was not only a trade unit, but such a fact of life that it was fractioned to make smaller coinage for daily use.  Well known in folklore today as the pirate’s currency, the ‘pieces of eight’ were a crown that was cut four times to produce eight wedges or chunks which were then hammered into crude coin shapes.

Pieces of Eight Dr M Lee Spence

Pieces of Eight

Finally we have one more cognate, surviving in the form of atelier, which is French for workshop, specifically describing a trade guild system of education and production that lasted for centuries.  It is connected to the occurrence across Europe of using taller to describe a workshop, especially a metalsmith, which seems a perfect hybrid word for ‘fancy’ as it could lend a suggestion of French sophistication to the shop’s name, and just happens to sound close to thaler, and so synonymous with a crown standard of quality, as with the implied meaning of a ‘sterling’ reputation.  I would imagine a successful taller would take the talers they earned straight to the teller.

So the talisman was once a substantial piece of silver whose markings assured reliability, and was the medium of customary tribute and borderless trade far beyond the known world.  A shining fruit that grew on the trees of the guilds, harvested from the workshops and scattered in the ships of the merchants.  A rising moon (the brightness of polished silver was since ancient times compared to the moon) that shed a light of prosperity on the dark ages.

And the talismonger was a maker and seller of talismans, precious metal workshop objects that were sophisticated, fancy, beautiful and of quality.  Something so good, as good as a thaler, and worthy for paying tribute.  The talisman was not simply a magical amulet, it was an exceptional and hand-crafted thing that captures something of the good and common law, of justice in pan-society.

Maria Theresa Thaler as Tribal Jewelry

Thaler transformed directly into wearable tribal wealth.

And this my friends is the origin of talisman; we had to abandon the cliff notes, blow the dust from a few older memories, and arrive at the personal motives behind this term.  It has come to be used almost purely for a fantastical end –  describing a mystical symbol-object one wore around their neck for protection, erroneously connected to early Europe but really stemming from more recent Colonial times.  This is precisely how memory becomes myth, and lives its life in the common use (the reflection of how it is breathed among everyday people).  What else would one indigenous to the Spice Islands, a Bedouin trader, or a Native American do with the exotic concept of this universal trade unit of Europe, but string the thaler or tilsaman around their neck like an amulet?

Taler as Tribal Ornament in Sudan

If the history of the Silver Thaler as a global trade unit interests you, check out this comprehensive history page about the Maria Theresa Taler, minted 300 million times:

The Maria Theresa Taler / Walter Hafner

(A golden hue is the effect of tarnish on 'frosty' proof minted silver. A proof originally was a specimen, struck twice on new dies to test them, but later became a kind of product with special dies for a mirror background. This is a very modern version of a very common, but enduringly beautiful Austrian thaler.)