F rom the first precious Roman rings and intaglios that found their way here, to the scraps of garnet that still wash up on the Thames foreshore and the gorgeous flights of fantasy that appear on international red carpets and catwalks, London has been at the heart of the jeweler craft for millennia.
Yet, though the Goldsmiths Company has presided over the trade since 1327, and Hatton Garden is a world-famous centre for the jewellery trades, there is a constant struggle to keep the craft flourishing in the face of cheaper international production and ‘faster’ jewelry trends such as demi-fine.
That makes the trajectory of a new generation of artist-goldsmiths in London all the more remarkable. Perhaps it’s a swing of the pendulum back towards ‘slow’ craftsmanship, perhaps it’s the internet’s ability to gain greater visibility than ever before, or maybe it’s the influence of the Goldsmith Centre’s extraordinary educational and promotional activities over the ten years since the Goldsmiths Company set it up.
“When a culture disappears into dust, we've still got these things. The glass crumbles, the pots can crumble, but the rings last..."
Whatever the reason, an increasing number of talented, dedicated British goldsmiths, many based in London, are discovering ancient techniques, developing new ones and creating work that is at once impeccably crafted, utterly contemporary and embedded in the historical story of London’s jewelry trade.
A new selling exhibition by Sotheby’s during London Craft Week, celebrating British goldsmiths in the Queen's Jubilee year, brings together four of the most exciting talents in London’s jewelry scene today: Christopher Thompson Royds, Lucie Gledhill, Castro Smith and Sian Evans. Here, we discover what makes their work so special.
Castro Smith: Reinventing the Seal
One of the oldest forms of metalwork, surface mark-making has been important through the ages and across cultures, and for Castro Smith it is the iconography of Medieval heraldry that inspires the engraving of his seal rings. Yet his work is far from traditional.
Modest to a fault, Smith, who hails from Blaydon, in the North East of England, attributes both his engraving and the unique style of his rings to accident.
Always interested in drawing, after dropping out of university and travelling the world doing bar jobs, he planned to get into computer game design but, on a whim, applied for an apprenticeship at RH Wilkins Engravers in Leather Lane.
There he spent four or five years learning the traditional skills of goldsmithing and engraving, and it was in the workshop that he made the fateful slip of his tool that would lead to his signature style, in which the seal engraving breaks out of its traditional space to cascade down the shank of the ring. “We slip all the time,” he says. “It's about how you hide your slips!”
Smith even attributes his jewelry's desirability to luck – Dover Street Market, Rei Kawakubo’s cult concept store, had begun to sell his pieces just as he won a residency training in Japan under the guidance of master silversmith Hiroshi Suzuki, meaning his pieces were suddenly unavailable, creating a huge demand from frustrated customers.
Those lucky customers who do get hold of his work own a piece that sits in a direct line from the Mesopotamians’ cylinder seals 5,000 years ago. “When a culture disappears into dust, we've still got these things,” says Smith. “The glass crumbles, the pots can crumble, but the rings last – they're so strong a structure, the metal and the deep engraving that means the picture survives because it's carved, reversed…”
For all his personal modesty, there’s no doubting the thought, research, leaps of creativity and craft that go into Castro Smith’s work, from the tiny deep-cut intaglio heart on a ring, to the gesturally gouged copper on a bowl raised by the Japanese master Koichi Io, to the exquisitely delicate hermaphrodite butterflies on a large silver urn more than 100 hours in the making.
And the craft – the act of making, the embracing of chance and human touch – is at the heart of it all. “I think there's a veil in making by hand, and you see it slowly unveil,” he says. “When something is made, it is kind of grown organically and there’s some magic in it still. There's a bit of mystery.”
Sian Evans: Jewels from the Earth
In a large, light-filled studio in a concrete London Fields building, Sian Evans skilfully extracts an unearthly beauty from pebbles that, to the uninitiated, seem entirely unremarkable.
Yet, when hand-carved, smoothed and polished into pale, silky textures and tactile shapes, the reveal themselves to be British agate, with extraordinary, delicate banding patterns within. On one stone, now riveted onto a heavy gold ring shank, the patterns resemble traditional Chinese cloud patterns, an artistic partnership between nature and the sculptor. Others feature arches, ovoids and polygons. All are meticulously and slowly unearthed by Evans, for whom lockdown offered an opportunity to revive a discipline she’d learned long ago – and one that would create a whole new thread of work.
“It joined up the dots for me in my life,” she says. “My grandfather studied geology, and he’s Scottish, and one of the most famous locations for agates is a place called the Burn Anne. And we found his geology sketchbook recently, a walk that he’d done almost to the Burn Anne with cross sections of the geology all the way down.”
These are, says Evans, sculptures, on a tiny scale, created using ancient techniques. “You spend hours trying to figure out how the hell you're going to get the best out of the stone. The stone is almost speaking to you and you're trying to tease out what the stone is trying to say.”
“You spend hours trying to figure out how the hell you're going to get the best out of the stone, to tease out what the stone is trying to say.”
In fact, Evans’s career in jewellery – after studying at the Cass (now London Metropolitan University) – began in the fashion world in the 80s and 90s, before teaching jewellery design at Central Saint Martins for 13 years. With a growing interest in sustainable jewellery making and rediscovering ancient techniques, she finally went out on her own again, with a promise to herself never to source anything newly mined, from stones to gold.
And it is the ancient that is as appealing to her as the geography. A keen archaeologist as a child, her Sands of Time collection features archetypes of jewellery recast as ghosts of themselves using the ancient technique of cuttlefish casting. One is cast from a 14th century pilgrim’s ring, another from a Roman signet ring.
Her Meta collection has similar themes, but perhaps even more layered. To create it, she carved sculptures of rings in silver, complete with sculpted gemstones, then cast them using Delft clay, another age-old technique.
“It's looking at how you lose information, especially with the sand casting, because sand casting almost creates a pixelated finish,” she says. “There's a ghost of a stone, but it's not actually present. That’s the narrative.”
Christopher Thompson Royds: Designing with Daisies
Forging delicate petals, leaves and blades of grass from gold might seem like the most complex and demanding of tasks for a jeweller – and there’s certainly an exceptional skill at work in Christopher Thompson Royds’ pieces. Yet it is a quest for simplicity – simple designs and a memory of simpler times – that drives the artist and goldsmith.
“In a way, it's working directly from nature,” he says. “I'm not a great sketcher, so I have a tendency to go straight into metal and make brass models and then, in a way, extracting the flowers or reducing them to these elements that make sense.”
The result is a series of delicate sculptures in metal that have the natural, organic flow of real foliage, but with refined, considered surfaces that capture the essence of flowers without overworking the detail. “Invariably, it's just one small part that makes us go, ‘oh, that's a buttercup or that's a daisy. A long as you can sort of capture that, then it does the work for you.”
And while they might look like works of art, displayed like botanical specimens under cloches, they are in fact eminently practical – pull the flower from the top of a stem and you find a delicious little earring ready to wear.
"My attraction to flowers is going back to our very first interaction with adornment - most people have made daisy chains, or put a flower behind their ear."
If that sounds sophisticated, the intention behind it is anything but, says Thompson Royds, whose work is not only privately-collected, but represented in global collections, including the V&A in London. “My attraction to flowers is that, in a way, we’re going back to our very first interaction with adornment that most of us have as children – most people have made daisy chains, or put a flower behind their ear. It's that element of going back to something more simple.”
One of his most charming pieces, in fact, is his gold daisy chain – a construction that is audaciously (and deceptively) simple: a series of daisies connected through the stems, in exactly the way children have always made daisy chains.
“I think fine jewellery can get very caught up in the value of the stones,” says Thompson Royds. “In a way that this work is much more about a more simple narrative, trying to make people imagine that they've just come back from a walk in the countryside.”
Not that his work is entirely pastoral. In fact, it is the resilience of wild flowers, their underdog status, that attracted him, while living in Amsterdam, to begin forging them from gold.
“You'd be bicycling around, and you’d just find these amazing wild poppies and buttercups in these urban areas. Yet if you have daisies in your lawn, that's a nightmare. You want to get rid of them. So there's an element of celebrating these unsung heroes. And so that's why I recreate them in gold, because gold is a valuable material. It's imbuing them with the value of celebrating things that are overlooked.”
Lucie Gledhill: Making Chains Great Again
An oft-overlooked part of the jewellery repertoire, chain is to the uninitiated merely the thing you hang a pendant from, the vehicle to hold charms, or a connector between more important elements. But for Lucie Gledhill, chainmaking is the main event, and her work takes this intricate skill to levels of beauty and nuance that a machine could never replicate.
“I find the relationship between the handmade and the machine-made really interesting, because obviously machine chain is just so ubiquitous,” she explains. “But to have a handmade chain is a different thing. For example, my curb chains are usually graduated, very difficult to replicate in machine chain, and they always have a handmade quality.”
Indeed, though her pieces are beautifully finished, Gledhill will sometimes deliberately leave little nuggets of texture on the links or exploit the qualities of different metals to create something with an element of chance that would confound a machine.
A recent development after taking a break during lockdown, for example, is to re-examine the relationship between her rope chains and curb chains to create “a sort of ropey, curby, fused-gold collection” that relies on the different melting temperatures of white and yellow gold to create uniquely ‘squishy’ chains. “You can really see the liquid metal in the finished piece. It’s quite… fleshy.”
Led by the process as much as the theory, Gledhill came to chainmaking during her Masters at the Royal College of Art, where an interest in repetitive meditative making practices and the discovery of a fob chain belonging to her great grandfather came together.
"I fell in love with making chain. It never becomes boring for me."
“I loved the graduation on the chain and I wanted to take that element and really exaggerate it. So I made a sculptural chain where each link was ever so slightly smaller, with links as small and as large as I could possibly make them, so I was working within the limits of my own physical strength. And I fell in love with making chain. It never becomes boring for me.”
Anyone who’s attempted to make chain will know that one woman’s meditation is another person’s screaming frustration, but for Gledhill, who learned to solder at the tender age of seven under the tutelage of her father, a hobby jeweller, there is, she says, an element of play.
“There’s unlimited patterns you can play with. And I love that chain adds strength and flexibility to a rigid material. You take a wire and you turn it into a kind of flexible, wonderful, watery, liquid chain.”
A skilled metallurgist, she plays with the alloys of gold, too, adding ever more dimensions to the work. “What I love about gold is that, because it's so beautiful, humans have engineered it to the point where there's an alloy for everything. It can be soft and buttery and pale and almost green, and then it can be rich and coppery and springy and all flaky. It can do all these amazing things depending on how you mix it. That really excites me.”
Shop London Craft Week’s Highlights
All works at the 'Quartet: Goldsmiths In London Now' exhibition are for sale. The exhibition is at the Bing Gallery at Sotheby’s, New Bond Street, from 6-22 May and 28 May – 30 June.