Women's Jewellery

Jewellery in the third dimension

Jewellers who place the physical pleasure of wearing a piece of jewellery – and the emotion it evokes – at the heart of their designs have a growing fan base, says Vivienne Becker.

November 23 2010
Vivienne Becker

The feel of a jewel against the skin or on the body, the way it moves with you; this element of tactility has become the “third dimension” of precious jewellery. You may not think about the comfort of jewellery the way you might about shoes, say, but some pieces you take off as soon as you get in the door, such as clip-on or heavy earrings, and others you keep on all day, every day. Too often in the past, the way a jewel feels when worn has played second fiddle to ornament and decoration, but to look truly elegant, in jewellery as in fashion, ease and comfort are crucial. The jewel has an intimate relationship with the body; it should become a part of you, bringing a sense of personal pleasure. And now the feel of jewellery, its suppleness and a certain playful movement, are becoming part of its concept, design and fabrication.

It’s no surprise, then, that gold, the most tactile of precious metals – being soft, malleable and warm – is the material of the moment; it offers both emotional and physical reassurance. Wellendorff, the family-run firm of goldsmiths and jewellers based in the German town of Pforzheim on the edge of the Black Forest, has made its name through the extraordinary suppleness of its signature “silk rope” gold chains. When Georg Wellendorff says, “It’s all about the feeling,” he means both the physical sensation and the emotion that goes along with it. The Wellendorff silk rope, which has a devoted fan base around the globe, has quietly entered the realm of contemporary classic and its unique quality is, as it says “on the tin”, its silky-soft smoothness on the skin. This suppleness, together with a particular strength (the chain comes with a lifetime guarantee), is the result of an ingenious process of hand-craftsmanship – a description much overused, but one that has an added authenticity in this context. As I discovered on a visit to Pforzheim, the word “hand” is key: the goldsmiths have to “feel” the gold with their fingers as they stretch, twirl and twist the fine gold wires into a rope chain.

Inside the Wellendorff building, where I was expecting industrious German techno-wizardry, I found a pastoral idyll: a vast showroom of trompe l’oeil parkland dotted with wrought-iron garden chairs and tables. In a vitrine, I was shown a collection – as unexpected as the greenery – of ancient Etruscan goldwork, including examples of the famous granulation, light as a frost and one of my all-time passions. Also on display is a bronze, gold-handled sword bought by the grandfather of the two Wellendorff brothers, Georg and Christoph, now at the helm of the company. It is a masterpiece. The rich gold, seamed on each side with a perfect plait of woven gold wire, is mindboggling in its beauty and technical perfection. “It is our guideline, our target and our teacher,” says Georg. “Everything starts from here.”

The idea of the silk rope, however, came from something more homely. Georg and Christoph’s mother used to play with the silky ropes that tied back the velvet curtains in her grandmother’s villa; when she married a goldsmith, she asked him to make her a rope chain as soft and silky as the curtain ties she loved as a child. He told her it was impossible to reproduce the suppleness of woven silk in gold, but she insisted, and two years later, in the early 1970s, after relentless research and experiment, he devised a technique for weaving the perfect “silk” rope chain. She still wears the first rope necklace every day.

Wellendorff alloys its own gold to a secret recipe, producing a warm, soft, slightly reddish tone. The core of 18ct gold inside the coiled strands of wafer-thin gold wire is its hidden strength. The handwork, the pulling of wires through holes, the twirling around a little tool (which I tried myself; I will stick to writing), the twisting into ropes, means that each chain is very slightly different, bearing the human imprint of the goldsmith who made it. There are some 50 goldsmiths in the Wellendorff workshops, and the company has set up its own training academy.

The silk rope comes in yellow or white gold (from £3,500) – which is a soft, muted grey – and in different style permutations from single- and multi-strand necklaces (Black Silk Temptation necklace, £21,320), some dotted with diamonds or polished-gold “sequins”, to bracelets (Moca Princess bracelet in yellow gold, £12,310), earrings and lariats with slides of diamonds and enamel that slither up and down the chain.

Playful movement is also the key characteristic of Wellendorff’s spinning ring (from £2,200), the company’s second hero product, based on a personal family story involving a realisation of the circle of life, and also the result of technical ingenuity. Composed of separate rings – at least four and sometimes as many as eight – each band is manufactured precisely to spin around smoothly within gold edges coiled like the silk rope. An engraved cross-hatching pattern, overlaid with shock-resistant enamel, is further ornamented with foliate gold motifs. The idea is for the wearer to play with the ring and that twisting it meditatively is soothing. Like the rope, the ring is an understated, all-day every-day jewel, although some models are edged, or even fully pavéd, with diamonds for a glint of day-to-evening glamour.

Every year, Wellendorff creates a special limited-edition spinning ring. For 2011 (launching in December) – when there will be 211 produced – the subject is a guardian angel: a golden, laughing putto sculpted and engraved in high relief, with rococo scrolls and pure white translucent enamel (£6,640). The idea was again generated by a true story, told in a moving letter from a collector in Latvia: her rope chain, to which she had added an angel pendant, had miraculously survived a devastating house fire. “This true personal story fits into our thinking,” says Georg Wellendorff. “It’s a story only life can write. People who want to combine values with emotion buy our jewellery.”

Sensuality, tactility and a sense of wellbeing are also woven into the ethos and craftsmanship at leading Brazilian jeweller H Stern, under the barrier-pushing direction of Roberto Stern, son of the founder. So connected is the jewellery to physicality and feelings, and to self-gratification, that one of its Rio stores is combined with a L’Occitane spa.

The newest H Stern collection is the result of an inventive collaboration with progressive dance troupe Grupo Corpo – coincidentally based in Belo Horizonte, in the heart of Brazil’s mining district. H Stern’s creative team worked closely with Paulo Pederneiras, Grupo Corpo’s artistic director, translating avant-garde choreography (based on Brazilian culture and folk art), stage sets and costume designs into rhythmic, lithe, fluid and sinuous jewels pulsating with energy and light. Some 60 pieces – 10 different series, each inspired by a particular ballet – are made mostly in H Stern’s signature Noble gold, a soft tone between white and yellow gold, with a sprinkling of diamonds and muted coloured gems.

The collections are designed to capture the extraordinary, extreme movements of the dancers and the strong, unexpected shapes they create together on stage. The rugged textures and undulating articulated loops of the Benguelê series (from £700) reverberate with an African beat; Parabelo (from £2,000) rustles with dancing leaves of hammered gold. The surface of the goldwork is crucial. “Textures bring good feelings, pleasure and wellness to those who touch them,” explains Roberto Stern. “For us, working with textures, movement, twisted surfaces and sinuous lines is essential. It is our trademark. The movements of a Brazilian body, the people’s sensuality and happiness, are all subtly present in our creations.”

In London, goldsmith Catherine Martin is famed for her braided gold jewels that look and feel like cloth (from £500 to £30,000). Using both 24ct yellow gold and platinum – supported with 18ct gold for strength and durability – she plays with the sensuality of light and form, producing a subtle sheen between matte and shine. The result is jewels that are light, that don’t catch or tangle, and that frame the face or drape the neck. “My necklaces are flexible and overlapping, so that you don’t see or feel any break in the line,” she says. “There is a wonderful feeling of gold flowing around the neck.”

Martin’s work is based on a recherché Japanese textile technique that she has adapted to her own near-magical hand-braiding, which, worked in rounds or squares, is more 3-D than weaving. Her newest technique involves rolling the braids, and she likes the scattered-light effect of “the platinum spinning white and going dark”. A musician and singer, Martin allows music to instinctively shape rhythmic forms and says her clients comment on the sense of calm they feel when they see her jewellery – something she feels is linked to the meditative aspect of her handwork.

“I don’t like hard metal,” she says. “I want my jewellery to have softness, like women’s bodies.”

By contrast, the young Italian brand Mattia Cielo, set up in 2005, explores industrial techniques to produce new-generation jewels alive with tactility. Cielo, from an established jewellery-making family, and his talented designer, Massimiliano Bonoli, incorporate movement into the concept and construction of a jewel, believing that how jewellery feels when worn is crucial to new perceptions of luxury.

With strong silhouettes, the designs are reduced and architectural yet intriguing, abundant and sensual. The Armadillo ring ($27,060), for example, has unfolding, overlapping plates of polished, blue-sublimated gold; the Bruco ring ($6,400, matching bracelet $47,800) is a springy, concertina-like tower of rose-gold discs. Fiore (from $10,000), a stylised, perfectly rounded flower, is like a brush-head with gemstones mounted on quivering springs that shake and move with each movement of the wearer; while the Maglia earrings ($8,800) are delicate open nets of chaotically woven gold, scattered with diamonds. “Movement,” says Cielo, “is the alchemy that quickens the matter of these creations.” It’s the face of the future: using intellect and ingenuity to make jewels for body and soul, for the third millennium and the third dimension.