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Where technology goes, design follows. Isabel Lloyd pinpoints some of the breakthroughs that changed the course of jewellery…

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012

In many ways, jewellery is the most limited of arts. Precious stones and metals are unreliable, recalcitrant base materials with only a few, often nannyish ways of getting them to do the thing you want. The objects you make mustn’t be too heavy, unwieldy or scratchy, but they have to be sturdy: as in engineering, all the bits have to stick together. So when the engineers, as they occasionally do, come up with a new way of building, cue much excitement. Designs change, fashions change, even entire markets change.

Take the cultured pearl. In 1905, after decades of experiment and a couple of fairly major setbacks—killer algae, the death of his wife—a Japanese noodle-salesman called Kokichi Mikimoto finally worked out how to prod oysters into making properly round pearls on demand. An industry that had been virtually fished-out leapt back into life, throwing out little balls of nacre like popcorn; the classic string of pearls moved from the preserve of grande dames of the Belle Epoque (when, weight for weight, they cost more than diamonds) to the neck of your average aspirational housewife. Pearl glut duly led to pearl boredom, which jewellers tried to counter by promoting some often only dubiously attractive colours. But it also gave them more raw material to play with: if you want Big Pearls, you can have them.

Jewellers are magpies. They nick ideas to feather their nests. So with lost-wax casting—what Geoffrey Munn, of the jewellery dealers Wartski, calls “an honourable technique of sculpting, which migrated into jewellery”. No one knows when the migration, or nicking, began: there are pieces of Asante gold millennia old, cast from beetles. But it’s easy enough to spot jewellery made this way. It’ll have a sculptural quality, and perhaps some obviously intricate surface detailing. That’s mostly down to the method, which involves carving a design in three dimensions—traditionally in wax, though modern jewellers may use resin, foam or even 3D printers—covering it in plaster, then burning out or “losing” the wax over heat before filling the remaining plaster with molten metal. It’s hellishly tricky, though. Even the great 16th-century goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, maker of a stupendous sculpted golden salt cellar, is on record moaning about the difficulties of casting heads.

Specific techniques seem to lead jewellers towards similar uses. The glossy surface of early enamel, like icing on a golden cake, was often used in religious icons, perhaps because it looked so obviously everlasting, with a kind of holy impermeability. But once flux—the addition of borax—was discovered in the ninth century, the medium flowed more satisfactorily across surfaces and into tight spaces, and enamellers abandoned religion for the tinier, more colourful corners of the natural world: the sheen of a flower’s petal, the shimmer of a dragonfly’s wings. The exception was Fabergé’s beloved guilloché—his own invention of pouring translucent enamel over engraved gold—which instead mimicked the effect of moiré silk, a furnishing fabric used to gussy up walls and chairs. Hence his famous, if rather pointless, eggs: jewellery for mantelpieces.

My own favourite technological breakthrough is all about accessibility. In the 18th century an Alsatian jeweller called Georg Strass began experimenting with the recipe for glass, mixing silica with high levels of lead oxide and additives such as potassium in a wet “paste” before firing. The results were unusually hard and clear, and could be cut, polished and backed with metal foil like real diamonds, at the time themselves backed with foil in an attempt to increase their glitter. But Strass’s paste was more malleable than diamond; his gems could be bigger, and cut to any shape, so they could be set very closely together. A Strass paste jewel gave you more sparkle per square inch, and per pound spent—just what the new industrial merchant class wanted. You could argue this was the beginning of the democratizing of jewellery, and its design: the unlimited palette of colours, the lightness and fluidity of the material, took the brakes off. As Carmen Busquets, who buys jewellery for the luxury retailer Couturelab, says, “paste jewellery tends to be bold, more colourful and less conformist than traditional pieces. That’s what makes it appealing.”

None of the jewellery below is particularly conformist, but all of it speaks particularly clearly of the processes, the chemistry and the engineering, involved. And if it’s largely way beyond the means of most of us—well, thanks to Herr Strass and his lead additives, there’s always paste.