Tag Archives: jewelry

• 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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Alphons Mucha’s 2nd Prize Jewelry

1900

1900

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

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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

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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

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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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

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?