John Donald (b. 1928)

'DRUM' RING (top)

1963

14ct gold, with 15 diamonds set on arms in the centre

The ‘Drum’ ring (top) is an experiment in form in which design is matched by exquisite craftsmanship. It developed from Donald’s first experiments with what he called “nugget flakes”, formed by dropping molten gold into cold water. The flakes were then soldered together into a sheet and rolled to form the crown of the ring. The marquise diamonds then had to be set deep into the hollow centre, making the setter’s work extremely difficult. Donald explains in his book, Precious Statements: “I solved this problem by adding a thread to the very fine stone set wires, then screwing them into the inside of the crown. This was very time-consuming, and it was difficult to reach a good design balance. It did achieve the three-dimensional effect which I had had in my mind.” With further experiment he found that he could set the stones on the wires before soldering them into the crowns while protecting the stones from heat. The result was something completely new in ring design which became an iconic form for Donald.

Donald belongs to that select group of London-based designers who led the revolution in designer jewellery from the 1960s. He studied at the Royal College of Art alongside Robert Welch and Gerald Benney before setting up shop in Foster Lane, just along from Goldsmiths’ Hall. Graham Hughes, Art Director and later Curator at the Company, recognised his talent and supported his work from the beginning. In 1959 he won the design competition for the new Company Wardens’ badges – a heraldic piece in a modern idiom with an abstract irregular textured rim. Hughes bought a fascinating group of Donald’s early jewels, including three rings from 1959-1965 and an important group of brooches which experiment with nugget flakes, rods and rough crystals as he developed his unmistakeable personal idiom.

Rings below, left to right:
Ring, 1959, 18 carat yellow gold with irregular Scottish pearls from the River Tay, with amethysts set in nuggeted gold
Ring, 1960, 9 carat yellow gold irregular square rods, split shank and set square peridot
Ring, 18 carat yellow gold with iron pyrite crystal within three irregular claws

John Donald has a particular affinity with baroque pearls and enjoys experimenting with gold settings to complement their natural form and allure. He first started experimenting with Scottish freshwater pearls from the River Tay in 1959, as seen on a ring of that date set with amethysts in nuggeted gold (above), and a brooch from 1966 in the Company Collection. His jewels are often what he called “experiments in form”.
Here the design of a ring from 1976 follows the uneven shape of the pearl at its centre, which is cradled in a pear-shaped dish of matte gold with a nugget edge finish. It forms a protective sheath which subtly reflects the pearl’s lustre and its origins within an oyster shell. Writing of this effect on a pair of cufflinks made in 1968, Donald comments in his autobiography, Precious Statements: “I felt that the nugget edge surround reflected the water”. Polished, shiny gold contrasts with roughly-textured gold on the shoulders of the ring to make an intricate small sculpture for wear. It expresses a completely new kind of social status as jewellery in its organic form and informality.

It is exciting to realise that we have many of Donald’s rare, innovative early pieces in the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection—including some surprises—which document his career. The Curator, Dr Dora Thornton, introduces some of his early brooches and a bracelet in the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection which trace the development of his career in the early days, supported by the Company.

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