Renowned jeweller and Master of Australian Craft Margaret West reflects on 40 years of practice in studio jewellery in Australia. She states that to be a studio jeweller is to be both a dreamer and a maker. Poet and engineer. Simultaneously or alternately to be lost in imaginative reverie. This article has been commissioned by Craft Australia to celebrate 40 years of innovation in the Australian studio craft movement.
Jewellers use a magnifier, called a loupe, to inspect gem-stones and fine detail. It has special single or multiple lenses that allow the eye to focus closely on an object, making it appear larger and revealing tiny details we couldn't see with our normal vision.
Loupes made with a single lens generally distort the object under scrutiny and add flashes of color to it. 1
I am writing this on a new computer, with an unfamiliar operating system, unfamiliar word-processing application, unfamiliar (but excellent) keyboard, a (very touchy) trackpad instead of mouse. The contrast between my present awkwardness and my facility with the tools in my workshop is unsettling. The mind-eye-hand-tool fusion, forged in more than forty years of practice feels entirely natural, so that when working I am able to concentrate exclusively on the task in hand, without the distraction of wondering how to use a hammer, a file, how to string a saw and how to use it, how to coerce the solder to flow "just so". Free of concerns about "how to", concentration is focussed on the poetics of forming, engineering, working the surface; although working in the face of risk - working speculatively - is essential for any artist, and, for the studio jeweller, work frequently does demand experimentation with materials, tools, process, it no longer daunts.
To be a studio jeweller is to be both a dreamer and a maker. Poet and engineer. Simultaneously or alternately to be lost in imaginative reverie - possibly practical or impossibly impractical - and to practise with utmost exactitude the fine engineering necessary to enable the vision to become manifest, substantial as an object, as a jewel, as some-thing which can be worn, some-thing which is able to stand in for the dreamed idea of the maker and the aspirations of the giver and/or owner-wearer.
Jewellery is implicated, entwined, enfolded in the being-ness of being. It is associated with the physicality of the body, the psychology of human behavior and emotion, the perception and projection of self. Wrists and ankles. Necks and ears. Fingers and toes. Celebration. Mourning. Remembrance. Nostalgia. Love. Joy. Affection and affectation. Desire, deceit, disappointment, despair, desolation. Solace. For the studio jeweller an understanding of human bodies and nature is not merely useful; it is obligatory.
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Whether we like to be called artists, jewellers, craftsmen or women, as with any creative artist, a sense of vocation is paramount. Not: this is what I do when I work; rather: this is what I do, is who I am.
The studio jeweller is an autonomous worker, and, with autonomy, comes exclusive responsibility for the quality of work produced. No other is accountable. The rigorous pursuit of right-ness, which might be called excellence, the application, the imposition of stringent quality control, whether applied to the validity of an idea or the quality of its execution - ideally to the fusion which is both - is the hallmark of the studio jeweller.
It is a solitary business. Occasionally some work in duos, or in communal or shared workshops, but the actual process of making requires intense concentration on the task, literally, in hand. I walk into my studio. I am alone. Alone with my thoughts, my ambitions, my tools, which have become extensions of my hands, which are an extension of my mind.
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The jewellery studio is an extraordinary place. A sanctuary. A place to dream. A place of quiet contemplation. A place of fervour, excitement, zest and zing. A place of angst. A place to laugh. A place to weep. A place to speculate, to test theories, to undertake journeys of discovery. A place to find problems and sometimes to solve them. A place to work brain to boiling point and fingers raw to the bone. A place to enter in hope(although, down a steep flight of stairs, I have at times thought of it as a descent into Hades). A place to leave in jubilation, or despair.
Australian studio jewellers work in many locations and situations. The majority are in major cities or regional centres, a few in more remote locations. Some support themselves financially by producing work which is accessible - physically, intellectually, financially, others support speculative developments by small production runs or by other work, such as teaching. Their studios are as varied. I made my first pieces on a tiny bench at the end of a large workshop, progressed to a small caravan liberally patched with bituminous putty and tape to keep out the weather, thence to room-come-studios at home as I moved around. Now I enjoy working in a purpose built studio, downstairs in our home in the Upper Blue Mountains. Its windows open across the garden onto national park - somewhere I can drift to, psychically or physically, when stalled. I have never had a studio away from home. My work is an integral part of my life. I need to be able to go downstairs in the small hours, still in pyjamas, and check on progress, make notes, adjust an edge, modify the finish on a painted stone.
Materially, studios are particular, peculiar, idiosyncratic places. Some are equipped with just a small workbench and a handful of essential tools; others contain the full gamut of specialized tools and machinery. Some resemble the lair of a Satin Bower Bird; others have the pristine aspect of a laboratory. Tools are put away neatly, each in its place, easy to find, or scattered everywhere, "at hand". A few sketches are visible on bench or wall. Material tests and experiments are tidied away or are spread around for reference. Key older pieces are on display as reference points. Postcards, photos, drawings, various things and bits and pieces of almost anything (and sometimes, apparently, everything) are displayed as prompts. Work in progress lies on benches. Several pieces are worked to a certain stage simultaneously, or individual pieces are completed before progressing to further work.
The state of the jewellery studio can be perceived by another as: immaculate (it looks as though nothing ever happens) tidy (it looks as though things happen in an orderly manner) or chaotic (is looks as though nothing could ever happen, or, conversely, everything has happened at once). Some find clutter enriching. Others are driven to distraction by it.
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If there is one thing that distinguishes the studio jeweller, whether they make work for the local market, craft shop, commission, commercial gallery, or museum, it is the intimate connection that develops between maker and matter; and jewellery is all about intimacy. Rarely is a stage of the development handed over to outside assistance, relinquished to outside control.
The studio jeweller works as a whole person, where mind and eye and hand work as one, so the relationships between idea, imagination, knowledge, judgment, and what is perceived by the eyes, and what happens under the tool (or machine) controlled by the hands are indivisible. This unification of the whole person in the process of making work enables the studio jeweller to be immersed in the work mentally, physically, emotionally. This may sound like a romantic view of the practice. From my experience (viewed through my loupe) it is accurate. It is the antitheses of situation of the manufacturing jeweller who hands most, if not all of the process, to mechanical production (or digital with CAD/CAM)2.
From initial ideas, developed and crystallized through notes, words, sketches, drawings, diagrams, material tests, the sort of play (sometimes described as research) that leads to the development of the piece, thence to its actual making, sawing, drilling, filing, swaging, planishing, engraving, etching, enameling, painting, plating, polishing, and the essential fine-tuning to confirm that it properly performs its assigned role on the body - trying it on - everything is done by the studio jeweller. The range of materials and processes available is (still, to me) extraordinary; much of it unchanged for centuries. It is possible to identify, in ancient Egyptian images, jewellers working in ways instantly recognizable as those used today in some jewellery studios in Australia. Of the increasing range of newer materials and technologies, such as CAD/CAM and polymer laser sintering, though alluring, many are inaccessible in the jewellers' own studio. Others are discouraged by conservative expectations of wearers and some institutions. In 1974, when a mature age student at RMIT, I was reprimanded for using stainless steel and titanium. Then, with few exceptions, studio jewellers used silver, gold, gems and precious stones, enamel. Increasingly, since the nineteen seventies, a wider range of materials is to be found in jewellers' studios: iron, steel, titanium, aluminium, tantalum, ceramic, glass, plastics of many kinds, timber, fibre and textiles, cardboard, paper, wax, chemical crystals, soap, skin and hair, fake fur, leather, rubber, silicon, latex, lead, parts of other objects, sticks and stones, acupuncture needles, as well as "non-materials" such as projected light, transparencies and shadows... There seems to be no limit, although less has changed in this regard than might be expected and the traditional materials of silver and gold still appear to predominate. The tricky part for the artist confronted with such a plethora of options is to select which materials to use. Each has its particular physical, structural, and aesthetic properties, and each carries its historical and cultural baggage, whether that load is something to be celebrated, lamented, or ignored.
Matter and mechanics. Material, tool, technique: these form our physical dictionary. The manner in which each jeweller selects and incorporates them into their vocabulary evolves as their material language. As with any language, it is not just the selection of words and the order in which they are used - the grammar and syntax - and the individually voiced emphasis given to each that makes the work unique, rather it is the poetic and imaginative expression to which they are harnessed, and to which, with remarkably reciprocity, they give rise.
It takes years to master even a small range of the materials and processes now associated with contemporary jewellery. The majority of studio jewellers concentrate on a select few, or even just one, developing their expertise to the extent that the action of tool on material becomes as instinctive as breathing, where the watchful eye and the acting hand with the tool work with such ease that the taking of new pathways poses little threat and may lead to broadening, enrichment and refinement of material language. Where ideas may be imagined already formed, though the intrigue of working them through lies in opportunities to push beyond familiar terrain.
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None of this is unique to Australia studio jewellery, to Australian studio jewellers. Although forty years ago, there were differences, I suspect that, today, there is little that sets us apart from studio jewellers in the rest of the developed world, and perhaps less than we might expect from those in the developing world. Regular perusal of the discerning yet extensive Klimt02 3web site and dialogue with jewellers in other countries confirms this; and material on the Craft Unbound web-site 4 confirms that attitudes are more alike than we might expect between us and developing countries towards the making (and wearing) of jewellery, though opportunities and outcomes differ substantially.
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Practising the oldest art form (100,000 years) in one of the newest European colonizations (220 years) of one of the oldest cultures (50,000+ years) on one of the oldest continents (around 4,000,000,000 years) carries with it the responsibility of respecting such multifarious aspects of our heritage without feeling burdened by it.
Australia: The largest island. The smallest continent. A country of extremes. The driest country on earth, environmentally fragile, yet lushly verdant on the north east fringes. Vast expanses of desert, uninhabitable except for those with expert knowledge of its secrets, and a melee of activity around the eastern and southern seaboard and at present in "the West", where the JMGA 5 conference has just been held. A culture which, though changing rapidly, still demonstrates predominantly its European colonial foundation. Currently we here in Australia are twenty hours at thirty thousand feet away from the European cultural heritage of most studio jewellers although that is changing. A country of I have no idea how many studio jewellers; but around 160 people attended the 2010 conference in Perth and some 280 attended the one in Sydney in 2006.
The time of sneaking glances over our individual and collective shoulders to see what was happening in Europe (or, more rarely, the USA) has been replaced by two things: a growing confidence in our national and cultural heritage and product, and increasingly global exposure to the activities of studio jewellers and others. Travel from Australia to overseas, as well as touring international exhibitions has softened the edges of our angst. And internet sites such as Klimt02, kit and caboodle 6, Craft Australia, Craft Unbound, provide access to a titillating cornucopia of approaches.
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In the early nineteen-seventies there were few opportunities to study for the would-be studio jeweller. Now, in most major centres, universities and technical colleges offer courses, and hobby courses are run by some community and adult education organisations; but before the upsurge of institutional courses the only option was to study overseas, or to attend one of the private classes for individuals or small groups that have existed for many years, or to persuade someone to take you on as an assistant or trainee, or, not-so-simply, to teach yourself. With the growth of jewellery courses in the universities and colleges came the growth in the population of both practising studio jewellers and those who have studied and developed an interest in the area.
A solitary occupation, certainly, and when I started in 1973 one with few possibilities, without travelling, to experience what other artists in the field were doing, apart from images in magazines 7. A handful of small galleries and shops exhibited a variety of crafts, including jewellery, and on rare occasions a commercial art gallery might mount a jewellery exhibition. Then, gradually the snowball gathered momentum 8. In the last thirty years, distinctively curated, touring exhibitions of the work of Australian and overseas studio jewellers has enabled the growing community of makers, connoisseurs and those with a more general interest to view quality work at first hand." Most state museums and galleries 9 now hold collections of work, which are available for perusal by appointment, and small selections of which may be on view from time to time. In Australia, as well as overseas, there are still only a few privately run galleries that specialise in jewellery, although the number burgeons from time to time 10 . With the size of our population, this is not surprising.
An important addition to "the scene" has been the Jewellers and Metalsmiths' Group of Australia (JMGA), established in 1980, which has done much to ameliorate the sense of isolation that had characterised the lot of studio jewellers in this wide land whose inhabitants are so tyrannized by distance.
It is easier than it used to be for studio jewellers working in Australia to obtain supplies of specialized materials, findings and fittings, tools and machines, thanks to some improvement in the stocks of local suppliers; but the opportunity to purchase from overseas through the internet has been of greatest benefit. However, our early frustration often resulted in interesting solutions, devised as a result of the ingenious engineering skills that jewellers develop. I well remember in 1974, begging IMI 11 to sell me a small piece of titanium for some research I was doing into metal colouring, only to be put through the third degree. ("I might use it to make a rocket!" In fact, a small piece did explode and fly across the room when I heated it with an oxy torch to see what colour it would turn.) It was only when I produced my RMIT student card and promised to show them the pieces that resulted that they cooperated. Then they were both interested and helpful. Now, that material and many others previously unobtainable, can be purchased in small quantities from suppliers of jewellery materials.
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When I started my jewellery career in 1973, it seemed a simple and relatively innocuous venture. Frustrated by what in my hands was the slovenly slop of clay, drawn like a magnet to metal, I simply crossed the RMIT Art School corridor from Ceramics to Gold and Silversmithing. During the 72-73 summer vacation, having purchased the mandatory "bible" 12, I began my attempt to digest it. Never having worked with metal, it all appeared daunting. Impossible! So many processes! Tools! Materials! Terms! So much to learn! I spent the summer in a state of mounting panic, furiously studying the volume - all five hundred pages of it. What had I done? Perhaps I should stick with clay, with all its perceived limitations.
As soon as I had my first lesson: stringing a jewellers' saw with an impossibly fine blade and cutting numerous carefully scribed straight and curved lines from a small square of brass, my panic disappeared. Everything was possible; but only with the collaboration of mind, eye, hand, tool.
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The practices of studio jewellers in Australia are infinite in their diversity. The studio can be a place of toxic dusts, noxious fumes, putrid potions, earsplitting noise, or of (almost) silent concentration. A place of aspiration, attention, accomplishment. A place to make things that bring delight to other people.
I anticipate, that the genre of studio jewellery will continue to beguile and to be practised by those intrigued by its special combination of engineering and poetry, matter and spirit; by those with a passion for humanity and the way it is implicated in all that we do; and by those who are eternally bewitched by the power of these little things that we make to carry such momentous significance.
As people from increasingly diverse cultural backgrounds seek new ways to manifest the potential of the form it will surely become enriched and even more diverse. Executed and honoured over a hundred thousand years, it will continue to be practised with growing respect for our planet and love for the humanity to which we all belong.
Margaret West is an artist who sometimes makes jewellery; she writes - mostly poetry and essays; she is also a gardener who admires both roses and dandelions. She has exhibited widely in Australia and overseas and is represented in major national and international art collections. She lives at an elevation of 1,060 metres, where she enjoys the fresh air and the solitude.
1. This is, necessarily, a brief sketch which makes no pretense to be a scholarly historical survey of developments in Australian studio jewellery in the past forty years. Rather, it is an idiosyncratic and possibly myopic, view from the perspective of one working in the field. For a comprehensive and scholarly analysis I recommend The Crafts Movement in Australia: A History by Grace Cochrane, New South Wales University Press, 1992; Patricia Anderson's Contemporary Jewellery The Australian Experience 1977 - 1987, Millennium Books, 1988. There also (too numerous to list here) essays and catalogue publications which add colour and detail to the picture. For a cumulative current insight into the work of international studio jewellers, the KLIMT02 web site www.klimt02.net is impressive for its range.
2. In The Craftsman Richard Sennett's elaborates with considerable erudition on the role of mind and eye and hand. Allen Lane, 2008.
3.International art jewellery on line www.klimt02.net
4. Kevin Murray's Craft Unbound can be found at www.craftunbound.net
5. Jewellers and Metalsmiths Group of Australia. Formed in 1980 conducts a biennial national conference hosted by the state group in alternating capital cities. These events are well attended by both Australian and international makers, writers, critics. The 2010 JMGA conference took place in Perth, WA. The web address is www.jmgawa.com.au
6. Australian and New Zealand jewellers' site www.kitandcaboodle.com.au
7. Mostly German jewellery magazines such as Goldschmiede Zeitung and Gold und Silber, which, though their focus was on commercial jewellery, devoted a section to the work of studio jewellers each issue.
8. A comprehensive list of earlier exhibitions appears in The Crafts Movement in Australia: A History by Grace Cochrane, New South Wales University Press, 1992, others, more recent, appear on the Craft Australia web site. Current shows are also listed on Klimt02 www.klimt02.net and kit and caboodle
9. With the notable exception of the Art Gallery of new South Wales.
10. Galleries specialising in jewellery are listed at KLIMT02and kit and caboodle
11. Imperial Metal Industries as it was then named, had a branch in Melbourne.
12. Oppi Untracht's Metal Techniques for Craftsmen, published in 1968 and subsequently superseded but not supplanted by his monumental Jewelry Concepts and Technology, published in 1982.