The Concept of Preciousness

The very word PRECIOUS, the concept of PRECIOUSNESS is anathema to most contemporary artists, especially painters and sculptors, and perhaps rightfully so, given the stance of contemporary aesthetics. Yet it continues to intrigue the goldsmith, jeweler.

Precious can refer to size, material, scale and proportion, intent. It is not unto itself a negative concept. Of late, however, it is consistently assigned to that arena.  But why? Surely we are a people sophisticated enough to realize that all extremes can exist side by side, that contrasts incite and inspire. Just as BIG can excite and arouse, and bring on that rush of overwhelming involvement which only the monumental in scale can trigger, so can the truly small in size, in scale, in proportion, trigger a different but equally exciting response within the viewer. . . .

The rarity of a material can denote an object as being precious. The rarity of technical skill needed to create the object is another aspect of its preciousness. The rarity of sublime intensity in its conception is perhaps the most elusive factor. Is a diamond really precious, or is it simply worth a lot of money? They are not the same. Among the most precious objects I have ever encountered are the intricately carved boxwood rosary beads from the Middle Ages. . . .

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I embraced the concept of PRECIOUS in my own work essentially in rebellion to the slowly reductionist trends that would eventually culminate in-Minimalism: less might be more, but was it necessarily the most? While the movement might be interesting to the mind, quite often the objects themselves failed the eye. They simply were unable to hold visual interest once they had undergone initial visual scrutiny. A Persian miniature painting holds a complete world within its extraordinary borders. One can look, examine, explore the forms, the details, the narratives, and then turn away, and be left desiring more. This is an experience of intimacy and of time.

It is the intimacy which allows the concept of PRECIOUSNESS its most complete flowering. One artist, a single maker, creates an object intimate in size, rich in detail, overwhelming in its delicate relationships of scale and proportion. Introspective objects—contemplative microcosms. Manuscript painting, carved ivories, overembroidered brocades, a Vermeer painting, the art of the goldsmith. These do not easily fit into the modern museum so that endless crowds can look at them. Rather, they are for the single collector, they are in the realm of the individual who will be rewarded for his looking by seeing things which his own mind could never have imagined. . . .

The Concept of Preciousness - Tim McCreight, Chalice
Tim McCreight, Chalice, sterling silver, rock crystal, garnets, partial gold plate, 6″

Perhaps the other element, TIME, is the crucial factor in regard to the precious object. Time in its active passive forms, the effect of time taken in the pursuit of an idea, time is often the most precious element in the creation of the precious object, and this same time is the key element of entrée which allows the viewer to explore its secrets. The time to explore, the time to ponder.

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To be precious is to be nonduplicatable. The most precious object is one which cannot be repeated. It must have unique qualities of the moment it was conceived, and from the time that it was created, that thereby make duplication impossible. Even though objects generally considered precious are usually crafted over a long time, the “moment” is important to them, for it is within this “moment” that the proper forces of idea and commitment, of spirit and hand, converge so that a unique object can come forth. It would not be the same if the point of time was other than what it was.

How more inspiring one Great Pyramid than two World Trade Centers. How more moving a single carved sphere of wood imbued with the wonder of the human spirit than a box full of gems.

Excerpted from “Precious Objects” catalog introduction by William Harper: Reprinted with permission.

The motivating idea for this exhibition is amply explained in the thoughtful and well-phrased catalog introduction by William Harper. It is reprinted here for all to enjoy and better understand the exhibition itself as well as to understand all the discussion it will undoubtedly inspire.

Reading the above should help explain why I, as reviewer, felt restricted from fully enjoying these diverse and in many instances quite wonderful works. However, that same restriction forced me to rethink “preciousness” and in turn to dredge up, from a place where I thought they were safely tucked away, related issues that are so fundamental to the question. “Why jewelry at all?” For those of us “older craftsmen” who are actively involved in making our entire living from the design, manufacture and sale of “precious objects,” most of these issues have had to be solved in one way or another. However, for the younger people in the field, or about to enter the field, the issues raised by this exhibition are many and complex enough to fuel lively discussions for years to come (as they have for years past).

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If only I had not been instructed by the very format of the exhibition that these objects were to be considered “precious” and that preciousness, for the purposes of this exhibition, even had a size limitation of “no more than six inches in any direction!” Perhaps my uneasiness with the word stems from being too close to it. For 30 years, as a metalsmith and jeweler, I have been trying to deal with preciousness in my own work sensing, as Harper says, that “precious” gradually became a pejorative term with several shades of meaning, never very clear, but negative, nonetheless. Having been trained at a time and in a school where “jewelry” was synonymous with “preciousness” (of the intricate and intrinsically valuable sort) and having survived vicious grumblings from the so-called “fine artists” when a piece of my jewelry was awarded first prize in design over all the other work of that year, and, having taught for 20 years as the only craftsman on a fine arts college faculty, I thought I had come to terms with the issue. However, here I was, in forced confrontation yet again. It brought to mind various attempts I made over the years to banish preciousness from my work. During the 60s and 70s, for example, I reacted to the spirit of that period by producing my share of pieces which could be described as ‘bold”, “spikey”, “striking.” Was that my bid to be taken seriously as “real” artist, not just a craftsman? I even tried some sculpture with a “heavy” theme, a social commentary piece in which I used the human figure (perhaps an attempt to find a place among the figure-oriented faculty of the college where I taught).I know now that I was seeking greater power, greater weight for my own artistic expression. I was struggling primarily with the problem of “scale.”

Paula Garrett, Bamboo and Stamps 1 brooch, sterling silver, kuromido, copper, 14k and 18k gold, 3⅛ x 1¾ x ⅜” d.
Photo: Judy Nemeth

Scale, among the several points of misunderstanding between artist-craftsmen and fine artists, is perhaps the one which is easiest to demonstrate. Standing before a Franz Klein painting about six feet by eight feet in size, the average human can almost step into the “picture” which Klein created and can be awed by the power of the slashes of black paint as they go whizzing by or as they stand there like jagged constructions with palpable physical dimensions. They are so big that they overwhelm us with their power.

Many painters relish the evocative power of abstract form executed in enormous scale and some of them perhaps have little right to the resultant plaudits, because it is the scale of their work alone which makes it so overwhelming. In sculpture, think of Alexander Calder’s early pieces. He dabbled in jewelry-sized forms and then developed whimsical little “mobiles.” His mobiles ceased to be described as “whimsical,” however, when they grew to a size sufficient to overwhelm a human. Sculpture that was “cute” when you could comfortably hold it in your hand became a “powerful statement” when it grew to the size of a school bus. Take Christo, for example. How wonderful was his enormous orange curtain, billowing for hundreds of yards across a high canyon, a spectacle to behold. However, how much impact would a three-foot long orange silken scarf billowing across a two-foot deep drainage ditch make? It might provoke a self-conscious giggle. Yet again, billow that same silken scarf across a naked, nubile human body and you get to another point of disagreement between the two art forms of “craft” and “fine art,” that of the power and meaning in human imagery.

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Craftsmen have avoided using human imagery, for the most part, and those who do use it do so in a very stylized way. Stylization often insulates the observer from emotional contact with the image and the result is loss of power for the artist’s statement. Of course, the other ingredient missing for most artist craftsmen is an adequate format on which to display human images where they are large and compelling enough to matter. This need for scale leads right back into the fine-art media.

The issues above that I have merely touched upon deserve much more thorough treatment. However, I used them to illustrate certain aspects of a craftsman’s struggle in coming to a philosophical position of relative calm. I would not, for one moment advocate that everyone in metals should feel the same way, lest the entire field would collapse into mere artisans plying their trade. The struggles are good. They keep us alive and open. I don’t even mean to imply that I have sworn off “bold”, “spikey” and “striking.” I have simply reprioritized, and, yes, compromised in the least painful way. Yesterday, I sold a “very striking” sterling belt buckle set with an enormous slab of malachite. Today, I spent hours squinting through my #5-power lenses at a tiny gold ring, set with a delicate marquise sapphire and three little diamonds. Precious? Of course! At our shop we have an increasing demand for the later. One aspect of preciousness, for us, is bread on the table.

Perhaps, in deciding to feature preciousness, this exhibit is saying to metalsmiths and jewelers, “Hey, its all right to think ‘precious’ again.” After all, as Harper indicates, we have already gone through the 60s and 70s “crafts revolution.” We have proven that we can make some pretty powerful stuff and we’ve also done some sorting out. Some of us still want to do “big,” some “small,” some want both. In deciding which is the right course for us, we also have other factors to reckon with.

As the result of the “crafts revolution” we have also witnessed the proliferation of jewelers and metalsmiths of extraordinary abilities. This very proliferation, in large measure, is due to the forum and refuge provided for the “crafts revolution” by universities and colleges. Many of these “revolting” craftsmen were and are connected with educational institutions and have seen to it that excellent facilities have been built and that continued support has been forthcoming from the educational institutions themselves as well as from public and private granting agencies. These institutions have become patrons of the arts, to a large degree, and have allowed for the development of excellence and professionalism. The large number of top-notch jewelers and metalsmiths is reason enough to expect a return to the showing off of their design training and extraordinary technical skills and to once again place value upon, gasp, “beauty.” What better way to do it than be reexamining preciousness, its connotations of small scale, uniqueness, intricacy and intrinsic value in direct opposition to decides of non-jewelry, wise-cracking social commentary pieces, cardboard houses as brooches and so forth?

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William Harper, Robe II, gold and silver cloisonné enamel on copper with sterling silver, 14k gold, copper, bronze, pearls, 12.6 x 8.4 cm

We who deal with preciousness in jewelry and other objects know that we are parties to the realization of other kinds of power that do not require large-scale visual formats. We deal with the power to amaze with our intricate designs and skillful constructions. We deal with the power of tradition and sentimentality. We serve as counselors in romantic situations. We also counsel in economics and in other, more tender assessments of personal worth, such as beauty. Economics, i.e., intrinsic value of materials, however, still seems to be the most important powerplay. Much of the buying public feels a need to delight, amaze and impress friends and other social contacts with not only the beauty of an object but also its intrinsic worth.

There are, of course, some negative connotations to this attitude, such as, “Do you love me one karat’s worth or two?” One can, I believe, look at this kind of power-trip as a more contemporary compression of the primitive need to show off one’s wealth and position, the visible value of a wife and so forth. So primitive people staggered around under ropes and ropes of shells and beads and crowns of bug-ridden feathers, whereas a contemporary princess can do the same job with just one huge diamond. Now that’s progress! Yet another related aspect of this game is the question of how far are most people willing to stray from traditional formats in their jewelry of great intrinsic worth? My answer: not very far. If it’s relatively inexpensive, then, “Let’s have some fun! Design me something outrageous!” However, the more expensive the materials, the finer the gems, the more traditional the designs need to become to make the client feel comfortable.

Fortunately, there are wonderful exceptions. However, for the most part, people see huge emeralds with formal diamond surrounds gracing the delicate neck of Marie Antoinette and they want similar treatment for their gems—nice, balanced pendant forms. They see Queen Elizabeth’s gargantuan rocks ablaze with the aura of power, their symmetry and pompous pendant forms symbolizing the traditions of balance and solidity’ Would it ever “do” for the Queen to appear in a slick, asymmetrical dazzler concocted by one of England’s more daring jewelry designers? Someday, maybe. Happily, our efforts at change have not gone unheeded and I believe that we can look forward to doing ever more creative designs, providing we have patience.

Another factor which has undoubtedly influenced the apparent return of interest in precious objects is that of the swing toward socio-political-economic conservatism in the western world. Many newly well-off middle-aged people, and of course, the ubiquitous “Yuppies,” have become very interested in “collectibles.” They collect precious objects of all kinds and for many reasons, some monetary, some social and some esthetic. Thus encouraged, artistcraftsmen feel freer to employ their finest skills, using the best of materials and feeling relatively sure of being able to sell their work.

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All of the above notwithstanding, I still approached the task of reviewing this exhibition with some misgivings about the restrictiveness of the terms. However, in truth, the overall effect of this show, as it travels across the country, will be like a review of the past 20 or more years in American jewelry and metalsmithing. This is not an earth-shaker, not a show of the hottest stuff right off the pages of the latest “crafts journal,” but there is much to be seen and learned here.

In the spirit of the newly defined “preciousness,” I shall happily place William Harper’s exquisite enamels at the top of the class He has managed to survive his and others’ more visceral forays into the world of elves, fairies and witches and has come up with mysteriously delightful pieces entitled, Wizard, Bronze Bibelot, Robe I, and Robe II. I particularly appreciated the more serene organization of elements in Robe II which seems to be leading him to a more serious, less fey, approach to design and subject. I hope he does retain the magic, however. Technique is never a problem for Harper . . . it is pure “wizardry.”

Kurt Matzdorf, Havdalah Set—spice container, Kiddush cup, candle, holder, sterling silver, partly gold plated, amethyst.

At the top of the class also are Michael Good’s elegant works, which exhibit such an extraordinary control of the medium (that they caused me to consider changing fields entirely). While we all admit that competition is a good thing, how does one account for such phenomenal work at such low prices. We have all seen and marveled at his tapered hollow gold loop earrings and now he confounds us with an intricately ruffled gold bracelet, polished on the outside and tinted an amazing matte orange on the inside. It could easily adorn the wrist of a mermaid princess. These are production pieces at the highest level of accomplishment.

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Of course, in the same group of technical masters is Heikki Seppä who seemingly effortlessly whipped up a delicate tourque in honey-comb structured gold. He also showed a pair of large pins in the same technique: they were no less wonderful technically, but a little awkward in design.

Equally masterful, while mole traditional, is the work of Kurt Matzdorf. His beautifully wrought Havdalah Set is truly precious in scale and obviously the result of vast experience and professionalism. His prices were also those of a man who knows the reality of his particular corner of the business, realistic, even a bit too modest.

Richard Mawdsley’s intricate work is still evocative of some of the same nether-realms touched upon by Harper. His pendant with repoussé face and tendrilled forms would delight Glenora the Good Witch. Spells and incantations must surely accompany these pieces.

Spells and witches may not quite be the folk that Tim McCreight has in mind to use his tiny wares but they certainly would find a home in the elfin quarters described by Tolkien. His egg-cup-sized chalice is delicately engraved with minute leaves, the whole effect that of homage to another time.

While still on the subject of other worldly inspiration, we find the delicate, balanced work of David Goebel who arranges private symbols and forms with intricate care. He even manages to incorporate the square links of the manufactured chain with some of the square elements of the pendant. John Cogswell seems to be working in a similar vein, employing a juxtaposition of controlled organic textures and simple geometric forms; however, as much as one can tell from only two pieces, they seem a little forced.

John Hays and Garret DeRuiter are showing similar textures and colors in their work. DeRuiter stays with more organic forms, while Hays takes flights of fancy into the realm of Star Wars. He shows a neckpiece befitting Darth Vader’s empress, or some such outer-space persona. He effectively contrasts hard, polished linear elements with dark, moody textures and some lush oxidized silver coloration. Particularly effective is a purplish silver and gold ring, set with tiny, winking diamonds.

In yet another vein of mysteriousness we have Pat Flynn’s delicate, spare, little pin in forged, blackened steel with a small yellow gold element poised tentatively off-center. His minimalism provokes in the wearer of his work a quiet rapport with perhaps the tracery of the wind on a sand dune or the exquisite purity of the horizon at sea. While not carrying the multilayered fascination of a Harper enamel, Flynn’s work seems like private bits of observation and memory.

David Goebel, Pendant, 14k, 18k and 24k gold, sterling silver, copper, tantalum, ivory, opal, garnet, diamond, ruby.
Photo: Harold O’Connor

To be sure, metal is far more difficult to use as expressively as paint, but it still offers an appreciable variety of guises. As for style, well now, there is a subject worth reams of paper, a veritable motherlode of issues, too complex to deal with adequately here. However, one aspect of style that I find interesting is, where does it come from and how is it spread? We have heard of architectural “style-books” which were popular in America during the great building period from the late 18th through early 20th centuries. Witness the wide-spread vernacular adoption of the Greek-revival style as one example. Question: Are our beautifully illustrated contemporary crafts publications in part “style-books?” If they are, is that bad? Is it bad, for example, that I admit to being simply “blown-away” by Eleanor Moty’s current exploration with tourmaline crystals? Seeing them caused me to rush to my box of long-cherished tourmaline crystals and to start designing them into sketches for pieces, ideas for which had perhaps lain dormant for a long time.

Certainly, whatever I finally come up with will not be copies of Eleanor’s work but might have remained dormant longer had I not been influenced by hers. If several of us produce pieces with these same types of crystal forms, will this be the beginning of a “style?” Is another name for this phenomenon, visual communication? Is this the kind of thing that “fine artists” have been doing right along? Unfortunately, Moty seemed to be saving her latest explorations with tourmaline crystals (which are truly beautiful and precious) for other forums, because she sent to this show two rather quiet and sad pieces. Perhaps it is the keepsake quality of preciousness she chose to express here in her fan-shaped “brooch,” big and heavy enough to be a table piece and framing what seem to be bits of a person’s memory—a faded photograph, a shell and a hank of hair.

Most exhibitions of a retrospective nature, as I believe this one to be, can be divided into stylistic groups or sensibilities groupings. With that idea in mind, I place Linda Watson-Abbott and Linda Threadgill in league for the cool, frosted look of etched or sandblasted silver, which was so popular with university-trained jewelers only a few years ago. Delicate sticks of gold on kite shapes lend organic qualities to Watson-Abbott’s, while tight, geometric patterns identify Threadgill’s. Betsy Douglas, Jane Groover and Joanna Fraser-Rhoades grapple with heavy silver forms with shared uncertainty as to direction. Do the pearls really matter on the tips of the wires; is the fold too forced; are matching slices of watermelon tourmaline in sync with the underlying silver forms and so forth. Their work, of all that was shown, seemed the least precious to me. Paula B. Garrett’s sad little memorials to Vietnam (?) are expressive and well-designed. Her colors of rust and kahki are well-suited to her subject. She deals with the introspective aspect of preciousness, evoking bemusement at her particular symbols. Kay Yee does something similar but with much more disturbing imagery. Her series of grubby little enamels evoke, to me, horror stories of bits and pieces of humanity, burnt and clinging to wreckage after a holocaust. “Precious,” I don’t know.

Stuart Golder was in a category by himself in this show, although he is certainly in league with Mary Lee Hu and other metal weavers. He produces little technical marvels but they are seldom passionate enough for me. His woven leaf-shaped earrings are a departure from perfectly woven, gem-lidded boxes, but I still get the urge to snip one of the strands or put a dimple or a pimple somewhere to give them life.

Randel Gunther’s titanium “clunkies” (my word) are endearing in their awkwardness. They defy the ubiquitous purples and implied formality of refractory metals with scratchings, dots and dents, but are they “precious”? Alan Revere, on the other hand, uses anodized niobium as we are now used to seeing it, its rich purple and fuschia limited to circles crossed by thin gold wires with minimal virtue—probably quite salable.

David Pimental gets involved with rather brutal forms of bladelike and rocketlike qualities to produce pieces which have a serious, social-commentary nature, while Harold O’Connor explores some of the same territory with his series of “wink, wink, nudge, nudge,” “funny,” miniature toys.

There is something for everyone in this show. Seeing it caused a healthy retrospective think.

“Precious Objects: A National Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary Metalwork” was held at the Worcester Craft Center, Worcester, MA from September 22 through November 4, 1984. Organized by Tim McCreight and Cyrus Lipsitt, Director of the Center, the exhibit traveled to Bloomington, IL in December. The catalog is available for $3, including postage and handling, from The Worcester Craft Center, 25 Sagamore Road, Worcester, MA 01605. A 35-slide kit of work from the exhibition is also available from the Center for $40.

Vincent Ferrini is a well-known gold- and silversmith from Boston, who, with partners Bob Fairbank and John Reynolds, owns and operates Goldsmiths 3 of Concord, MA. The partners produce a wide variety of contemporary jewelry and some holloware and flatware. They specialize in using precious gems and enamels.

By Vincent Ferrini
Metalsmith Magazine - 1985 Spring
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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