This article is one of a series of articles from Metalsmith Magazine “Art and Technics” talking about techniques in craftsmanship and design. For this 1991 Fall issue, Tim McCreight talks about to get the best supplies and materials.
Providence is where industry makes jewelry; it’s that city’s principal activity. An appraisal of the Yellow Pages is instructive. The entries seem endless, although in actuality there are only 18 pages dedicated to some aspect of this endeavor. There are equipment suppliers, services, job shops, jobbers, casters, stonesetters, modelmakers, refiners, packaging manufacturers, display card manufacturers, etc.
Virtually any connection, no matter how remote, is exercised to get a company’s name listed somewhere in the jewelry section. Still, for all this diversity in manufacturing, promotion, marketing and service, the product – whether low end or high – represents the lowest common denominator of banality. It’s not that there isn’t the potential for good stuff. A vast array of mass-produced elements are catalogued and readily available. This includes components, sub-assemblies, findings and chains, many of which originated before the end of the 19th century and remain either in stock or even in production.
There are other items – still in production – that trace their origin from every period of art, or, more importantly, taste, in the 20th century. It’s true that there are many fewer companies in business now than at any other time since the beginning of the industrial revolution, which produced the Providence jewelry industry. Many of the actual production facilities and machines remain in the service of the subsidiaries or larger concerns and corporations we know today.
There are castings, stampings, screw machine products, swedgings, milling machine products, rings, chains, meshes, money clips, charms, findings, ornaments, decorated wires and roller-printed sheet stock, available off-the-shelf or in limited-production runs in copper, brass, nickel-silver, sterling silver, stainless steel, karat gold and even plastic, to say nothing of gold-filled stock and anodized aluminum. There are also in-numerable sample makers – those people who rummage through all this material in an attempt to synthesize finished pieces of “jewelry” for niche markets as well as mass distribution. Unfortunately, the great majority of these people, or the companies they work for, have little or no interest in any aspect of their product, other than their profit margin, even if the sample makers are esthetically competent.
An exception to this dismal morass can be found in the work of Olle Johanson. Olle first studied in Sweden and more recently earned an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. While this education would suggest a career in goldsmithing, he has not been content to operate exclusively in that rarefied atmosphere. His Webanschauung incorporates an intellectual structure of systematic values, a capacity for abstraction, objective analysis and commitment to the total sensory quality of his work, His jewelry respects the need for the expression of haptic, auditory and optic integration as a condition necessary for the work’s vitality and validity. Olle evaluates the experience of his pieces as a personal and social statement Without regard to the trivial dictates of style or the confines of ideological rhetoric. He insists through his work that within the wealth of industrial production one needs only to recognize those elements and components, which, through synthesis with his intuition and the conceptual base of his intellectual reinterpretation and manipulation, transcend the banality of their origin.
An integral part of this interaction is his concern for the social implications of his work. As a result of the incorporation of mass production and base metal, Olle is able to produce classless, broadly accessible objects, which, while they are not intended for the detached reverential atmosphere of a display case in a museum, are priced competitively with fashion jewelry. They function as objects of personal detail that are not bound to the transitory nature of fashion. The wearer can enjoy the object both as an intimate esthetic experience and as a piece of jewelry that will survive the marker-powered shifts in style that doom ordinary accessories and articles of apparel to obsolescence and abandonment.
Among the most interesting pieces in his line of jewelry is a circular mesh brooch in the form of a washer. It is produced by forming a double ring- figure eight in cross section – of seamless knitted 87-13 brass mesh with a loot press. The fattened piece retains some of its flexibility, although it has been work-hardened. The surface has been brightened by this operation, even as the individual strands of wire are partially swedged to form a series of tiny ovaloid flats, which emerge from the surface as round wire moving into the core of the object. The mesh has also opened slightly as it has been fattened, rendering it sievelike, so that one can just see through it. Pinbacks and an elliptical trademark are silver-soldered on the reverse side. The washer is polished, heavily nickel-plated and finally gold-plated to a thickness of 50 mills. This is the same thickness as the plating on a Cadillac hood ornament, which is intended to last 50 years. Cadillac hood ornaments are plated at the same facility as these disc brooches.
When handled and examined, this jewelry reveals a richly textured smooth surface, reminiscent of the pleasant silken coolness of a snake passing through the fingers. This is a private experience that exists only in real time. Remembered, it is a verbal and intellectual abstraction. When the piece is flexed, it produces an audible crunch, both auditory and haptic. This results from the physical characteristics of the heavy nickel plate, which is applied as a preparatory base for the 50-mill gold plate, because gold does not adhere properly to brass. The experience is also both time-specific and transitory.
These washers are intended to be worn. It is only then that they fulfill their destiny as visual detail. And it is only then that they assert their identity, but it is not an authoritarian projection of the designer’s ego or a surrogate personality for the wearer. It is, in fact, the legitimate operation of an intimate object to integrate a daily social and personal esthetic experience.
Curtis K. LaFollette is a professor of art at Rhode Island College in Providence.