The creative process for jewelry is the same whether it's diamonds or tin
Cartier Design Viewed by Ettore Sottsass, now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, begins with a narrow portrait gallery of bejeweled rulers: kings, queens, chiefs, maharajas, socialites, and movie stars. Sottsass is giving us context, asking us to think about who has worn Cartier jewels and why. "Here the main theme revolves around ornamentation as a representation of power," he says. It's not an especially enlightening thought, but it's real; approaching the exhibit we expect to see a collection of stunning objects, to feel delight, wonder, and covetousness, and maybe a little disdain - these belong to the inaccessible realm of the very wealthy.
Instead, once inside the exhibit, our focus changes to craft. "I care nothing for the social importance of pieces or their material value. My choice was made on the basis of colors and the quality of design," says Sottsass. So much the better: it's fun to study the provenance of each object - the clock of Maharaja of Nawanagar or the brooch of Countess Hohenfelsen - but it's more interesting to learn about the materials, influences, and work that made each piece the delicious little bit of bling that it is.
"Fern Spray" is a set of two articulated pendants designed to look and move, well, like a fern frond. Made in 1903 with rounded, old European-cut diamonds, it's remarkable for its graceful sway, but also because it was the first jewelry to include platinum. Unlike gold and silver, platinum is strong and lightweight, and can be worked in a very thin gauge to create settings that are delicate, like the garland-style "Fern Spray," but strong. Here, Cartier also used the malleable metal to create a white on white composition that would show off the diamonds in all their gleam and glory.
The jewelry designs are a compelling part of the show, not only for their artistry - they had to be as exact as possible to provide a pattern for the craftsman - but also as they serve the viewer: a constant reminder that these pieces were made by human hands. A favorite was the partial enlargement of a vanity case design featuring an intricate Chinese vase. It's one of few you can actually map to the object created, and it's wonderful to see all the flowers right where they were drawn, a delicious bouquet of multi-colored enamel set off with emeralds, sapphires, and diamonds on a background of black enamel.
Instructor, artist, and tin enthusiast Teri Blond says she has been working in thin metals since she was 12. She likes them because they are cheap, but also because they are light, which lends itself well to the kind of metal collages she creates. In her class, students cut basswood, which is very light, into various shapes and cover it with copper. The copper is then layered with other materials to create jewelry. All of the students brought found objects from home as well as tin cans ... lots of tin cans: spices, leibkuchen, Indian pure ghee, and salsa.
"I store everything I find in my mind," says Blond. "I have an incredible photographic memory, so I can reach back and put them together."
That seems to be true of everyone in her class. Cruising around, I see a stubby cross decorated with thin strips of Bavarian cookie tin and a dangling row of tiny gold circles. The artist, Theralyn Hughes, took the latter from an earring, sanded it, colored it with a sharpy, and then distressed it further with some steel wool. She's working from a tin of earrings collected at flea markets, and she shows me a knot of red wire she found in a parking lot with some pride. "When you do this kind of work, you look at things differently: you see how you might use it one day. So, I have a garage full of things," she explains. I suppose that's how Cartier felt when he put together the "'Elephant' Mystery Clock." The impulse and process are the same, whether it's an 18th-century jade elephant or a garageful of whatnot.
Ultimately, though, the point is not jewelry high and low, but that each informs us - whether we see it as art, craft, power, or simply beauty - and each is created through the same collaboration of creativity and technique. Ettore Sottsass said that he came to realize, while working on the Cartier exhibition, that "the history of jewelry reveals the history of mankind as a whole. It's all about incredible efforts, endless voyages to find stones." •
By Susan Pagani
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