Barbara Heinrich: Casual Perfection

The textured surfaces of Barbara Heinrich’s gold jewelry deceive with their simplicity. At first glance, they clearly appear to be reticulated, but even the most casual second look reveals a complexitiy that is the happy marriage of two opposing forces. Here, Ettagale Blauer explores through her approach to materials and working methods the esthetics of Heinrich’s synthetic style.

Barbara Heinrich - Brooch
Brooch, 18k gold, sapphire, diamond, 1990

Barbara Heinrich has successfully combined a rigorous German training with her exposure to the more individualistic American approach to jewelry. The result is surface perfection coupled with seeming randomness, a casual perfection she achieves by working the surfaces over and over, layering and layering, then selective polishing. What results is a unique vocabulary of texturing.

“The textures are always four or five processes layered on top of each other to get the look I want,” says Heinrich. “I hammer the gold on rough steel blocks to create a very rough texture with hammer marks, then sandblast them, or maybe use marring brushes and pumice powder. Sometimes I use a fiberglass brush to make the surface matte.” When the surface has achieved her signature “moonscape” look, she highlights some raised areas for contrast, burnishing the gold selectively to achieve a high polish. “I hand burnish everything – that way I can get a varied finish. I can control exactly where it goes.” This is the Heinrich combination, casual and controlled.

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Milkyway Pin, 18k gold, diamonds, 1990
Photo: Tim Callahan

In her new work, Heinrich continues to expand on the type of surfaces she has used before, but always working on larger, more difficult pieces. “I am really getting into bigger pieces. Systematically, my average price for pieces sold has gone up every year. I can spend more time with the piece and do more with it.” There is more work involved, more rime, more detail. I always enjoy that. I do want to go further that way.” These pieces are all gold, mainly necklaces and bracelets fashioned in the three-dimensional linking system Heinrich has devoted herself to lately. As the textured pieces offer an unusual combination of seeming casualness with perfect control, the three-dimensional work is, at first glance, simplicity itself. Yet, again, closer inspection begins to reveal a system that is as intricate as a Chinese puzzle. Small wonder that Heinrich has resorted to making models of her work before moving on to the gold. As you turn the piece over and over, your eye is constantly pulled in different directions. They are visually satisfying in both intent and execution. For example, Heinrich’s all-gold necklace is classic, individual, modern and wearable.

On the three-dimensional pieces, Heinrich polishes the edges of each element, texturing the flat surfaces. This combination is particularly successful; the work has the lush color of 18k gold without the obvious sheen, but it is also sharpened by the slight gleam around the edges. If these flat elements were brightly polished, the reflections would distract from the astonishing intricacies of the interlocking system.

Bracelet, 18k gold link, 1990

These are particularly satisfying pieces because they are so wearable, not just because they have a certain amount of intrinsic value, but because they have a presence that is user-friendly. “Galleries always tell me that my work is easy to wear; it’s not imposing on the wearer.” While much of that credit must belong to the design esthetic, large share is earned by the physical reality of these pieces. The technical aspects are worked out long before Heinrich actually puts her hand to the gold.

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“It is quite a job to figure out the mechanism. It’s hard to do it on paper, it’s so three-dimensional.” Instead, Heinrich creates models, usually from silver but sometimes from brass, and works out the linking mechanism and the clasps. These models remain on hand for reference. “I am doing more models before I do the piece; I am breaking into something new and I want to try it out. I usually use silver because it has similar properties to gold – but it does solder differently. I have quite a collection of silver models around for reference, as the pieces are always out in the galleries.”

Heinrich sees other changes in her work as well, a complexity that comes from absorbing influence, especially since her move to America. “I used to do simple clasps; now I am doing double and triple strands. In rings, in the past I did narrow bands. Now my rings have volume. They are more three dimensional. They are fuller. Everything is entering a new dimension.”

Brooch and earrings, 18k gold, tourmaline, cabochons, brooch, 2½ x 2″, 1990

The attention to detail and the quest for perfection Heinrich describes as, “where the German part comes in. We really work out our clasps. I cast my own findings. I often rework my models, four, five, six times, until we really have it where we want it. I think that is a professionalism that sometimes is not in art jewelry.” Heinrich’s technical virtuosity was learned at Pforzheim, Germany, where she earned an MFA with highest honors following a formal goldsmithing apprenticeship. She followed this up with an MFA at Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Fine and Applied Arts.

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The American influence appears in the esthetics: “Most of my rings always had one center stone and two accent stones; now I am working on throwing some stones at the Pieces; I am using more stones, a lot of color and different shaped stones. I think before I would have felt uncomfortable dealing with these complex combinations of square, round, triangular stones that are colorful. I have worked with putting a lot of different colors in one piece within the past year. I think it has a little to do with the American influence here, like Bill Harper. I think his work is fantastic, all the colors and materials he mixes, to let more, different elements in. I think it has something to do with being here, in America. It doesn’t all come from within you. You respond to what is going on in your field.”

Barbara Heinrich’s jewelry was recently shown at Susan Cummins Gallery, Mill Valley, CA.

Ettagale Blauer’s book Contemporary American Jewelry Design will be published in June, 1991 by Van Nostrand Reinhold.

By Ettagale Blauer
Metalsmith Magazine - 1991 Winter
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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