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Creative Hands

My husband is a jeweller and for thirty years we have run a small Cumbrian gallery, complete with manufacturing workshop, where precious jewellery is produced and sold.

Recently an elderly gentleman marched through the gallery door and demanded to see The Jeweller. Our young assistant was reticent, particularly as it was her job to look after the customers without disturbing the workshop.

– He’s very busy. Something urgent has to be finished before lunch.

The man was determined.

– It won’t take up much time, I’d just like to see if he’s a real jeweller.

The jeweller, being duly fetched and not in the best temper introduced himself politely.

– Show me your hands.  The man said. – Only last place I went to the so-called jeweller’s hands were white as snow. He may ‘ave been a craftsman but I could see those hands hadn’t done a day’s labour.

Dumbfounded my husband put out his hands. Thirty years at the bench have taken their toll, the grime of polishing compound set into needle-saw scars, nails blackened from working the metal.

– Aye, you’ll do. The man said. I can see you’re a real craftsman.

With that he proceeded to order a special hand-made ring.

 

          Although we specialise in jewellery it is probably true of any craft that the hands define the maker. If you studied a potter’s hands, or a weaver’s, their ‘battle-scars’ would differ from those of a cabinet-maker or jeweller yet the hands tell a unique story because every craft has its specific methods and tools. A maker performs a wide variety of processes, any of which can leave their mark. Some are transient – most dyes fade in time – some everlasting, generally signifying a failure in that unique hand to eye co-ordination.

Craftspeople use their hands as an extension of their imagination. The object he or she makes may be entirely functional but it is still made to be loved. For many makers the desire to create is as intrinsic as breathing, and as necessary.

When we speak of a piece being hand-crafted we hope it will be enjoyed for the quality of its making but modern craftsmanship is complicated by so many different definitions it’s hard to pin down a simple response. When does a work of craft become an art form? A craftsman is a manufacturer so whatever he or she makes has to represent beauty of purpose, whereas a work of art does not have to have any purpose other than to entertain.

Being ‘hand-made’ is implied as a definition of quality, a nod of respect towards the maker, but it is only in relatively modern times that a ‘craft’ has been presented in the same light as a work of ‘art’. Traditionally craftsman remained obscure, even when their work was highly respected. And many gifted craftspeople would prefer to keep it that way, and let their work speak for them.

During Victorian times the concept of craftsmanship became synonymous with the ideas of John Ruskin. His writings inspired William Morris to form the Arts and Crafts Movement, a reaction against the Industrial Revolution. “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him…..Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them….” (The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin)

In many respects our ‘computer age’ is similarly threatening the status given to objects which are ‘hand-made’. Many people have no concept of the time and skill it takes to make something by hand, no patience for processes which are not instantaneous. Happily there remain customers who still believe in the words of William Morris and his band of gentle revolutionaries, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

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What happened to craftsmanship?

ImageI attended art college during the seventies and graduated as a designer when there was still enthusiasm for crafts based industries, in England anyway. The idealism of William Morris endured in our education system, the belief that something hand-crafted from good and true materials would always hold more intrinsic value than anything a machine churned out. Thirty years on I feel this view has emasculated. There is a strong sense that anyone who works with their hands, regardless of skill, is somehow inferior.

 

Medway College of Art and Design was founded (in Rochester, Kent) on the beliefs and aspirations of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Teachers were chosen because their abilities were exceptional and every course was anchored in practical learning. For example the student jewellers made jewellery ‘at the bench’ under the tutelage of craftsman from the best workshops in HattonGarden. It wasn’t by chance the department cleaned up most prizes at the annual Goldsmiths Awards in London and was heralded as the best silversmithing and jewellery course available worldwide.

 

Working on the assumption that being taught by experienced professionals encouraged the best possible working practises the college had an outreach programme which permitted children (from the age of eleven) to attend Saturday morning classes. As a child I was fascinated by all things hand created and enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with many different arts and crafts (embroidery, millinery, figure painting, model making, textiles, sculpture) before finding design was my speciality.

 

During the thirty odd years I’ve helped run a small jewellery business I’ve seen the status of real craftsmanship slide to an all time low. Not only do people lack any concept of how long it takes to perfect the necessary skills they don’t seem to value that input. And the media doesn’t help. Television implies renovating a houses or garden can be done almost instantly so why not the making of a ring?  

 

Are we no longer spellbound by a craftsperson’s mastery? Is there no sense of aesthetic pleasure in discovering something of beauty emerge from basic materials such as metal, clay, wood or stone? There is a theory amongst historians that the products created by a society reflect its wellbeing. I have always been inspired by works of fine craftsmanship just as I am by so-called works of art but I feel the erosion of status for hand skills doesn’t bode well for our future.

 

 

 

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