Specimens of Craftsman Jewelry
By Claire M. Coburn
No form of handicraft is so intimate and personal and so little utilitarian as jewelry-making. From its very nature as an adornment, it has no excuse for being unless it is beautiful. The first savage maiden who wore some crude metal ornament instinctively sought out what she felt was peculiarly suited to her charms. The warm human association of a necklace worn by some famous belle never seems to die out and leave it cold and lifeless. Let the fancy whimsically dwell upon the role which jewels have played in romance and even history. Who will ever forget Carlyle's vivid description of the almost priceless diamond necklace ordered by Louis XV for Madam Dubarry, an extravagance which, undoubtedly hastened the French Revolution.
But despite its romantic history, its traditions of beautiful workmanship in the past, its possibilities as individual and personal adornment, modern jewelry has been sadly influenced by the "cold and arid regularity of the machine" and the spirit of commercialism. The money value of a cluster of diamonds in a ring or brooch signifies more to the average woman than the design of her ornament, its quality of workmanship, its relation to her hair and complexion and the garments with which she will wear it.
During the last few years, with the renewed impulse in this country to fashion articles of use and beauty with the hands, has come a revulsion of feeling; quietly and gradually the standard of taste is changing. People who add to good breeding some artistic feeling, are welcoming handmade jewelry like that shown in the accompanying illustrations which was made by workers skilled in the technique of the craft, keenly alive to the imaginative possibilities of jewelry and its place among the artistic crafts.
The group of men and women whose work is shown here are members of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, though their actual workshops and studios are scattered over the length and breadth of the country. They all originate their own designs, and nearly all execute every detail of their jewelry, even to cutting their own stones. Though some of these craft workers are also metal-smiths of various kinds, and enamelers, with most of them jewelry making is a profession and not a passing fad for which some natural aptitude and a smattering of specialized training is necessary. To be sure, there are many amateurs who have a slight knowledge
of design and some training in metal work which they apply acceptably to simple and unambitious jewelry. But today, as in the time of Cellini, to make exquisite jewelry, the worker must have first the artistic sense for color and form, then long years of study of design, besides an apprenticeship in a craft most technical and exacting. Few schools exist in this country where this handicraft is taught, though workers are entering the field with such enthusiasm that a demand for these schools has been created. As the result, nearly all metal-smith must learn their craft in the work-shop of some master, not entirely unlike the apprenticeship of the older workmen, though they often profited by an inherited skill.An interesting and somewhat unique experiment of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts has been the equipping of a shop for silversmiths and other metal workers where several of the jewelry makers whose work is shown here have had their benches. Each person works there as an individual and no teaching is done, but the cooperative scheme of sharing the running expenses of the shop has it advantages aside from the stimulation of sympathetic comradeship.
The very substances with which jewelers work are stubborn and inflexible and must be grappled with "till ease is the beautiful result of forgotten toil." Silver, then gold. and copper, are the base materials most often used for jewelry. The whole gamut of precious and semi-precious stones, of wondrous beauty, are used by the craftsman who, however, has a penchant for some of the stones little used in commercial jewelry, as for example, the turquoise matrix (see Figures IV, VII, IX), the baroque pearl (see Figures I and III), the Amazon stone (see Figures VI and VIII). But the diamond alone in its glory is a1most never found in handmade jewelry. This gem, which is the popular ideal for adornment, the artist crafts man groups with other stones (see Figure IX) that they may be a foil to each other in creating some harmony of color. From the aesthetic standpoint, how often does the cold glitter of the diamond beautify the wearer? She herself must be young, sparkling and unfaded lest it prove a dangerous rival and claim homage as an index of her bank account and not as an accent to her charms.
But the craftsman is not restricted by the conventional idea that only expensive gems are appropriate for jewelry. Just as the basket maker goes into the woods and fields and selects delicate-toned grasses, purple corn husks or green willow shoots for her weaving, so the jewelry worker ingeniously employs seemingly valueless stones, shells, mother-of-pearl, coral, all manner of odd bits which he may have chanced upon and loved for some magical quality of tone. One young worker recently contrived a fascinating necklace of silver with tiny dull pink pebbles for pendants. A treasure trove to another craftsman was a box of many colored California pebbles hidden away in an attic. To her, every little stone was alive with suggestion for setting in rings, fobs, brooches or necklaces. A material which at first thought seems entirely unsuited to its purpose is shown in Figure III, in the brooch by Miss Margaret Rogers, in which fragile Mexican beetle wings are mounted on plaster and set in a silver scarab. Thus preserved they are quite substantial and retain their sheen and iridescence which not even enamel could reproduce. But in these unusual combinations of odds and ends with metals, the craftsman must never disregard the relative quality of metals and use precious metals with valueless stones or vice versa.
Enameling, the glory of the jewelry of the middle ages, lends much of the fascination to modern jewelry. Its processes are numerous and very baffling, for in the form of a colored paste, it is subject t to the caprice of fire and requires the knowledge and skill of a chemist.
These illustrations of jewelry adorned with enamel still retain some of their suggestive grace of line but they convey little idea of the glowing originals. The peacock buckle, Figure X, by Miss Mabel W. Luther, is a joyous piece of enameling, vying in brilliancy of tone with the rich plumage of the bird which inspired it. The necklace of little enameled frogs is also wonderfully quaint and lovely in its coloring.
Each of these workers has individuality of style, which quickly distinguishes his or her work for the eye of one who is technically trained. The free and vigorous treatment of her metals and at times the almost barbaric splendor of Miss Ednah S.Girvan's conceptions, as shown in the silver necklace with turquoise matrix pendant (Figure IV), are easily recognized. The group of rings (Figure IX) and the brooch (Figure III) by Mrs May Mott-Smith Cunningham, hint of the fluorescent loveliness and craftsman like work which have won her a reputation in this country and abroad. Thus each worker expresses himself in terms of line and color, each according to methods generally alike but very dissimilar in detail. For there are times when the pencil sketch or colored drawing is too rigid a guide for making a bit of jewelry. Until the worker has actually put his hand to his metal and has begun sawing, etching, carving, twisting of wires, enameling, he cannot tell whether his design is workable. Often he spreads his stones out before him and from their color, shape and some half-formed fancy or color-memory, his design will evolve. In proportion to the technical skill and the creative imagination of the design, will the result be worth the effort and the possession.
It has been aptly said of M. Lalique, who has been so influential in revolutionizing modern jewelry, that he is "courageously Parisian in the way he gives. his imaginative skill to the splendors of fashion." Since personal ornament is a luxury, women of fashion will probably possess more jewelry than any other class for some time to come. Still much of this craftsman jewelry is within the means of the person of moderate purse and many of the workers, though not "courageously Parisian," are enthusiastic artists whose jewelry is fundamentally simple yet fresh and original in design.