Jewellery with craft at its heart

Exquisite handmade jewellery that relies on extreme craft skills is becoming as sought-after as the rarest gemstones themselves – and these extraordinary pieces are bringing their maker and wearer closer together. Vivienne Becker reports

Gold, diamond, lacquer and mother-of-pearl necklace from the Plume de Chanel collection, price on request
Gold, diamond, lacquer and mother-of-pearl necklace from the Plume de Chanel collection, price on request | Image: Chanel

A fascination with extreme craftsmanship is one of the most potentially disruptive and influential aspects of the growing consumer connoisseurship that has shaped the jewellery industry since the millennium. Alongside the desire for the rarest gemstones runs a quest for the most rarefied, age‑old, painstakingly meticulous crafts skills, such as sculptural stone carving, the speciality of Hong Kong jeweller Wallace Chan, whose rise to international prominence in the past decade has been the talk of the trade. These virtuoso techniques, demanding years of dedication, zen-like patience and concentration, have become luxuries in an age when time is such a precious commodity and concentration is easily eroded. 

From left: Japanese master lacquer artist Yuji Okada worked with Chanel Fine Jewellery to create a suite of jewels in the Plume de Chanel collection. The Chanel feather motif has been simplified into a leaf shape, the edges slashed to suggest feathering. It is then lacquered in black and embedded with metal particles and mother-of-pearl
From left: Japanese master lacquer artist Yuji Okada worked with Chanel Fine Jewellery to create a suite of jewels in the Plume de Chanel collection. The Chanel feather motif has been simplified into a leaf shape, the edges slashed to suggest feathering. It is then lacquered in black and embedded with metal particles and mother-of-pearl | Image: Chanel

Yet this is a concept that goes beyond technical prowess, crystallising into an emerging trend towards artisanal art-studio-influenced jewellery. It takes elements from the modernist craft movement of the 1970s, when a new breed of conceptual designer-makers – many art school educated – rebelled against commercially made jewellery, conceiving and crafting the jewels themselves, forging a self-consciously new style. The trend also has echoes of artists’ jewellery by names such as Picasso, Calder and Kapoor, and of esoteric, even “extreme” handcraftsmanship. 

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However, the key thing that turns a pure focus on skills into a stylistic movement is the vision and emotion driving the craftsmanship. This vital connection between art and craft ignites a certain spirit or instils “soul” in a jewel; it represents a new genre of storytelling for jewellery and signals a major shift in buying attitudes and habits that looks set to reverberate throughout the industry. It also points to a new fluidity, as it infiltrates both fine and fashion jewellery. For her first couture show for Dior in January, in the gardens of the Musée Rodin – transformed into an enchanting, moss‑covered maze – Maria Grazia Chiuri accessorised ethereal gowns with sculptural, organic, handmade copper jewellery (prices on request) by the artist Claude Lalanne. Tom Ford, meanwhile, teamed slinky, glistening evening dresses with massive artisanal craft pieces in brass and and leather.  

From top: Rosewood, titanium, diamond, ruby, sapphire, aquamarine and pink tourmaline Intertwining Love earrings by Wallace Chan, price on request
From top: Rosewood, titanium, diamond, ruby, sapphire, aquamarine and pink tourmaline Intertwining Love earrings by Wallace Chan, price on request | Image: Wallace Chan

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I admit I’ve not been a massive fan in the past of 1970s-style so-called “craft jewellery”, all Perspex and bashed saucepan lids, but its time has come again. Swept along by today’s craft revival, it has matured into something more glamorous and sophisticated. And there is undoubtedly something hugely appealing about the studio as a laboratory of ideas and pulsating creativity, individuality and originality, and about the lovingly handmade jewel carrying the imprint of its maker.

Chaumet rose gold, diamond, ruby and garnet brooch, price on request
Chaumet rose gold, diamond, ruby and garnet brooch, price on request

David Mills, director of the annual Goldsmiths’ Fair (September 26-October 8), showcasing the work of British designer-craftsmen, has seen growing enthusiasm for “individual, independent, finely crafted work”, backed up by increasing visitor numbers: over 9,000 people attended during last year’s fortnight-long event. “Ongoing research shows that clients value meeting the maker, hearing inspirations, learning about materials, technique, traditions. The jewel becomes more meaningful; people are hungry for storytelling,” Mills explains.

From left: Ara Vartanian at work. Ara Vartanian white gold, diamond and ruby earrings, price on request.
From left: Ara Vartanian at work. Ara Vartanian white gold, diamond and ruby earrings, price on request. | Image: Rui Mendes

Fashion jewellery designer-maker Vicki Sarge is turning her Elizabeth Street shop into a gallery, where the focus will be on precious, crafted studio pieces that carve out a space for the non-commercial yet distinctly wearable. She feels strongly that there’s a “major shift away from the purely commercial towards jewellery with a real viewpoint and the craftsmanship to express that vision, purpose and individuality. It’s the only way forward.” 

Cartier platinum, diamond, emerald, onyx, quartz and cultured pearl pendant, €550,000
Cartier platinum, diamond, emerald, onyx, quartz and cultured pearl pendant, €550,000 | Image: Vincent Wulveryck @ Cartier

Romilly Saumarez Smith (showing at Goldsmiths’ Fair), whose work Sarge admires, started out as a bookbinder, and when she began using metal in her binding, she found the material so exciting she diverted her craft skills to making jewellery. All her work is painstakingly handmade in her studio from dream-like ideas: the Unicorn rings (£3,000) – organic-looking clusters of tiny silver and gold sequin-like discs, with diamonds and eruptions of unicorn-like horns; or her Barnacled pendants (£1,500-£7,000), encrusted with gold and diamonds. “People are craving these more eccentric one-off creations,” says Sarge.

From left: Romilly Saumarez Smith gold, silver and diamond Unicorn ring, £3,000. Junichi Hakose for Van Cleef & Arpels white gold, diamond and mother-of-pearl butterfly clip, price on request
From left: Romilly Saumarez Smith gold, silver and diamond Unicorn ring, £3,000. Junichi Hakose for Van Cleef & Arpels white gold, diamond and mother-of-pearl butterfly clip, price on request

For bespoke clients, visiting the studio where the skills are on display is a vital part of the whole experience. The studio-workshop of Brazilian designer-jeweller Ara Vartanian is an integral part of one of his São Paulo boutiques, where every jewel is handmade. “Clients like to see the jewels being made,” he says. “It gives value to craftsmanship and has helped my boutique business flourish, differentiating it from bigger brands.” He likens the studio concept to restaurants with fashionable open kitchens. “A restaurant where the owner, who can cook himself, buys the ingredients – as I buy all the stones – and where you can see the chef and he comes to talk to you. It involves the client, it’s personal.” 

From left: Castro gold and black rhodium band, £810, and black rhodium-plated silver signet ring, £1,215. Master metalworker Sensei Kenji, who taught engraving to jeweller Castro Smith
From left: Castro gold and black rhodium band, £810, and black rhodium-plated silver signet ring, £1,215. Master metalworker Sensei Kenji, who taught engraving to jeweller Castro Smith

For heritage brands, retaining allure relies on the painstaking transmission of craft skills, not only handing them down through generations, but refining and perfecting – as in the case of Cartier’s impressive longstanding tradition of stone carving, now headed in Paris by master carver Philippe Nicolas. Nicolas’ intricate sculptures, often of the iconic panther, in fossilised wood or pink opal, are star turns in the world of high jewellery. In the brand’s new high‑jewellery collection, Résonances de Cartier, one beaded necklace (€550,000) is centred on a knot carved from smoky quartz, to give the illusion of silky suppleness, as if the cords of the sautoir have been pulled through and tied into the knot. 

Claude Lalanne for Dior copper necklace, price on request
Claude Lalanne for Dior copper necklace, price on request

Refinement in the ancient art of virtuoso gemstone cutting is also emerging as a key feature in this season’s high jewellery collections. The baguette rubies in Chaumet’s Aria Passionata flower brooch (price on request), in the Chaumet est une Fête collection, have been individually calibrated and custom‑cut to fit the leaves and petals. 

From left: Piaget white gold, diamond, sapphire and feather Sunlight Journey pendant, price on request. The feather art that went into its creation
From left: Piaget white gold, diamond, sapphire and feather Sunlight Journey pendant, price on request. The feather art that went into its creation

This year, Van Cleef & Arpels celebrated its own tradition of technical ingenuity, including its famously complex, mosaic-like Mystery Setting, linking French high-jewellery savoir-faire with Japanese craft traditions, in an exhibition, Mastery of an Art: Van Cleef & Arpels High Jewelry and Japanese Crafts, at Momak, the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto. The showcasing of Van Cleef’s cultural and technical connections to Japan included a past collaboration with Japanese lacquer artist Junichi Hakose on a collection of one-of-a-kind butterfly clips (price on request) with lacquered wings; these are still produced and in demand. Nicolas Bos, president and CEO of the company, agrees that extraordinary craftsmanship is becoming a driving force in the precious jewellery market. He sees the exhibition project as part of a continuing dialogue between art and craft, between cultures and design disciplines – a dialogue that, he hopes, will broaden the horizons of the jewellery world. Included were works by contemporary Japanese craft artists, lacquer by Hattori Shunsho, ceramics, textiles and woodwork. Bos even brought the head of Van Cleef’s Paris atelier to Kyoto to meet the masters and exchange ideas. “I hope this can lead to further collaborative projects, perhaps a series of objects or a minaudière of wood marquetry,” he says.  

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In Japan, the most esteemed artisans are known as Living National Treasures or “Important Intangible Cultural Properties”. Craftsmanship is recognised as a noble pursuit on a par with fine art, and exceptional handmade objects are described as “transcendental workmanship”. This attitude is spreading westwards, elevating extreme craftsmanship into the realm of meta-luxury. In reaching beyond the material and physical to something with a deeper, more wondrous and near-mystical quality, luxury is becoming the search for the absolute. 

This year, the creative studios of Chanel Fine Jewellery collaborated with Japanese master lacquer artist Yuji Okada to create a suite of jewels in the Plume de Chanel collection, interpreting Chanel’s famous feather motif through the traditional art of maki-e – lacquer sprinkled with gold, silver or platinum. Chanel has opted for gold and platinum for this brooch, necklace and earrings (all price on request). In true Japanese style, the feather is stylised, simplified into a dynamic leaf shape, the curved edges slashed to suggest feathering, and lacquered in black using traditional urushi lacquer (resin from the urushi tree). The lacquer is meticulously layered and polished to a perfectly smooth, glossy surface, which is embedded with glinting metallic particles and fragments of iridescent mother-of-pearl, inlaid using the “raden” technique. White diamond feathers, in the same stylised form, float over and around the lacquered ones in Coco Chanel’s favourite combination of black and white – her “absolutes”. 

Scratch the work of several leading British studio‑jewellers and you’ll find a Japanese influence. It is  particularly striking in the signet rings of black rhodium-plated silver (£1,215) engraved to look like marbling, or in gold and black rhodium bands (£810), of up-and-coming British silversmith Castro Smith, who went to Japan to learn engraving under master metalworker Sensei Kenji.  

In France, the equivalent of the Japanese National Living Treasure is the Mâitre d’Art, a distinction introduced in 1994 to honour exceptional artistic craft skills that can only be passed on from master to student. One such technique is ornamental feather art, one of the specialist métiers d’art lavished on haute couture creations. Feather marquetry has recently been explored by watchmakers, but now Piaget has transferred the technique to jewellery, collaborating with Parisian master plumassière Nelly Saunier to create two dramatic cuff bangles (price on request) in the Limelight Sunny Side of Life collection. In the first, Life is an Odyssey, the colours of sunrise and sunset are captured in feathers from exotic birds, including the flamingo, macaw and scarlet ibis, their pink and orange hues melting into pink sapphires, spinels and a yellow sapphire. The second, Life is a Bliss, has palm-tree motifs in the deep Amazonian greens and blues of lovebird, parrot and kingfisher feathers, edged with diamonds and an emerald. Saunier took between eight and 10 months to gather and assemble the feathers for the compositions, selecting and arranging them like gems. They are, she explains, a way to load a jewel with emotion, while for Piaget they are an expression of technical and artistic innovation, and the chance to give clients the thrill of the unexpected. For its high-jewellery collection, Sunlight Journey, launched this year, Piaget commissioned 10 exceptional creations incorporating feather art, including a sautoir with pendant (price on request), made up of lagoon-blue feathers and gems and centred on a colossal 45.99ct blue star sapphire

Nadia Morgenthaler, based in Geneva, believes that today’s most discerning jewellery clients are actively seeking a strong, personal artistic expression conveyed through uncompromising craftsmanship. This idea of a powerful individual identity captured in a jewel, she says, is eroding the boundary between art and craft. “The creative identity of the designer-jeweller gives a soul to the creations,” she says. She also feels that today’s unlimited access to images nurtures this appetite for uncovering something utterly, uniquely astonishing. A highly trained, experienced artisan herself, Morgenthaler worked for years in a Geneva high-jewellery atelier, making pieces for the world’s leading houses, before taking over the workshop in 2009. She launched her own collection in 2013. Today, her jewels are characterised by a quiet yet awe-inspiring refinement of workmanship, an intricacy that, she says, enables her to create fluid, light, three-dimensional structures – jewels in the round, particularly earrings (price on request), her speciality, that are contemporary in form yet have a flavour of antiquity. She works with natural pearls, stringing them into draped, graduated loops, with echoes of 18th-century aristocratic grandeur, inside which you might find a hanging pink tourmaline – all meticulously set in blackened silver. Technical perfection, she explains, is at the service of concept and design, the two inseparable. “Working without compromise, designing, crafting, thinking of every minute detail, without commercial limitations – this is a vital part of the process.” 

The studio is not just the centre of her world, it is an energising force, the source of her creativity, and the springboard for the stories she shares through her work. She holds intimate events, setting the jewels, in bell jars, on the workbenches, and inviting clients to revel in the journey of transformation, where imagination is turned into matter, where craft is transformed into art. 

Daniel Brush, arguably the most revered artist-jeweller of our times, perhaps says it best. The jeweller, whose awe-inspiring craftsmanship is the vehicle to express profound, yet playful, ideas – steel brooches engraved to look like velvet-petalled flowers, or the tiny strands of stainless steel, glittering with antique diamonds, inspired by a hanging thread on his wife’s sweater – believes “the individual soul, hand and mind of one craftsman” is crucial to the art of the jewel. Clients may look at different pieces, surface to surface, design to design, he says, but “the soul of the individual craftsman is, I think, the real reason that the viewer’s heart is pounding.”

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