David Watkins (b. 1940)



Gold, Opals

David Watkins began his career as a jazz musician and sculptor before starting to make jewellery in the 1960s. He went on to become an extremely influential Professor of Goldsmithing, Metalwork and Jewellery at the Royal College of Art (RCA) for over two decades from 1994 to 2007, where he tirelessly encouraged innovation and experimentation in design and materials. He describes his personal aim in designing and making jewellery as follows: “My intention is to be psychologically liberating”. He goes on “To wear my jewels is a contrived and conscious act, like singing compared to speech, or dancing compared to walking.”

Watkins discovered jazz music whilst still at school and performed as a pianist in jazz groups throughout his Fine Art studies at Reading University, from where he graduated in 1963. By 1965 he was living in London with his wife, the designer jeweller Wendy Ramshaw, whom he had met at Reading. Watkins was playing in big bands in London and making sculpture out of coloured cast resin and jointed wood, as well as working on several successful fashion jewellery projects with Ramshaw. This was also the year Watkins started working at MGM, where he made models for Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’: “… for me (working at MGM studios) was more than a job, it was a feast … at once humbling and electrifying’”. The experience of working with astronautical experts and cutting-edge technology at MGM, combined with his enduring passion for music, had a clear and lasting impact on Watkins’ work.

Watkins’ experimental jewellery embraces all kinds of materials from paper and acrylic to industrial metals, often combined with gold. There is a strong sense of rhythm, form and precision across all his work. The relationship between his jewellery and the body of the wearer is crucial to its design. Technological innovation is the cornerstone of Watkins’ work and thinking, and he has advocated the use of computers in the design process since the 1970s, enjoying the exactitude they can bring: “I have a tough time keeping my hands off machines… I like precision, and materials that will give me that quality.” It is Watkins’ ability and unflinching determination to push traditional and innovative techniques further than most which is the hallmark of his work and the lasting legacy of his teaching: “I don’t accept the everyday standards of technology, but nag away to find its limits. That’s where it gets interesting.”

Graham Hughes, Art Director and Curator of the Goldsmiths’ Company from 1951 to 1980, was an enthusiastic supporter of Watkins’ work and wrote a book on Watkins and Ramshaw’s artistic partnership in 2009. This particular gold and opal ring is one of five jewels by David Watkins in the Company Collection. It was made in 1973, an important year for Watkins and Ramshaw which saw a joint exhibition of their work at Goldsmiths’ Hall and another at Barbara Cartlidge’s recently opened Electrum Gallery in South Molton Street. Watkins’ preoccupation with sculpture is evident; the wide, polished gold hoop of the ring acts as the stand for the group of miniature sculptural forms of varying heights which form the bezel.

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) hold several significant pieces of Watkins’ work in its collections, including bangles, neckpieces and a brooch, variously made of gold, steel, aluminium, titanium and acrylic. 
In addition, one of Watkins’ innovations as Professor at the RCA was to invite international jewellers and silversmiths to give a week-long masterclass to students. As part of the programme, each visiting artist also made a piece for the Visiting Artists Collection, which is now held at the V&A.
Bruno Martinazzi, who made two rings in The Goldsmiths’ Company Collection featured in this exhibition, made a gold brooch for the Visiting Artists Collection whilst teaching a masterclass at the RCA in 1991-2.