Men & Brooches: Wearers

By The Goldsmiths’ Company Curator, Dr Dora Thornton

It’s easy enough for a curator to fall in love (professionally) with a piece of jewellery. Which is exactly what happened when James Robinson, Head of the Department of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum, saw this paper brooch by Nan Nan Liu.

James Robinson’s paper Brooch, 2020, Nan Nan Liu (Image courtesy of Nan Nan Liu)

“I find Nan Nan Liu’s works as mesmerising as she intends them to be. She speaks of her observation of water, its unpredictability and its emotional pull and of how she translates these qualities, like an alchemist, into tangible shapes built of ripples within ripples. This gives even her small works of jewellery a certain contemplative power that is transfixing.”

‘Oyster’ box, 2012, Nan Nan Liu

One of the lovely things about his brooch is that it could only be her work. She is best known for her innovative, graceful sculptures in silver, such as boxes, candlesticks and baskets. These are exquisitely built up in graduated layers of silver, like her ‘Oyster’ box of 2012 in the Company’s Collection, or fabricated from flowing forms of silver wire, like our specially-commissioned bread basket from 2016 for the exhibition, Made For the Table.

Bread basket, 2016, Nan Nan Liu

Nan Nan always starts with intricate models in paper, before translating these into silver, “using the idea of tree rings as my inspiration. I have gained a passion for working with metal in an organic way.” Comparing the paper model for the bread basket – which Nan Nan has generously given to the Company Collection – with the silver version shows how she works.

Bread basket paper model (Image courtesy of Nan Nan Liu)

More recently, she has explored paper jewellery, as she explains to me: “I hand cut a sheet of paper into different sized paper rings, pencil-colour them by hand individually then build them together in a unique form by used strong glue and finally seal it with one or two coats of lacquer.” This organic, tactile brooch takes us to the heart of her practice as a maker, to the place where all her creative work begins. James recalls:

“I really knew I had to have it when I held it. The paper gives it a lightness that is counterpoised by the silver mounts and pins which makes it a positive pleasure to handle as well as to wear or to contemplate.”

James has done a lot of thinking about jewellery. We were fellow curators at the British Museum for over twenty years; he as a medievalist and I as a Renaissance specialist. That meant close study and handling of the Museum’s superb collections as well as reporting on thousands of metal detector finds for which we wrote reports for the Portable Antiquities Scheme. So James comes to jewellery with an educated eye, though he explains that “I’m not an avid jewellery wearer. In fact, apart from a brief New Romantic flirtation with diamanté in the early 1980s and a gold stick-pin of a fox head with emeralds for eyes which I wear now, I’ve had very little experience of wearing jewellery at all.” He bought it with a particular suit in mind, “my ‘Filthy Lucre’ suit from Richard James. It’s dark blue with wavering pin-stripes of acidic green and the brooch just demanded to be bought for it.”

James’s ‘Filthy Lucre’ suit by Richard James with his paper brooch by Nan Nan

Hugh Curthoys, Events and Marketing Executive at the Goldsmiths’ Company, gets the opportunity to see and handle all the latest jewellery as part of his work on selling events such as Collect and the Goldsmiths’ Fair, and he has close contacts with makers throughout the year. It was the intricate wirework of Andrew Lamb that proved irresistible in buying his first brooch; up until then he had only bought cufflinks. Andrew Lamb has his own meticulous way of working: “For a number of years I have been using precious gold and silver wires in my jewellery. I create my pieces by layering, and positioning these ‘threads’ to create rippling textures and colour variations, playfully drawing in the viewer and creating a moment of surprise. I am influenced by illusion and the mesmerising visual effects of optical art”. Hugh placed the commission for his brooch at Goldsmiths’ Fair in 2019 after seeing a small pin worn by Natasha Kerr, Fair Ambassador, who was part of the Fair’s marketing campaign.

“I wanted something different and so I commissioned a small brooch designed to be worn on a lapel. I love the size of it as it allows me to wear it everyday whether on a casual coat or a suit jacket for an event at work. It will forever remind me of being part of the Goldsmiths’ Fair team and my time at the Goldsmiths’ Company.”

Hugh wearing his brooch by Andrew Lamb

The Silver Steward, Charlie Spurrier, who works in my team at the Goldsmiths’ Company, handles silver and jewellery every day. Ours is very much a working collection: the silver is studied, displayed and used at social and business events as well as being used to teach the next generations of makers. The jewellery is worn on occasion, though rarely [other than official badges] by men. I think that is changing as men buy and wear more jewellery. Brooches, being so versatile, are an inspired choice. Greg Parsons, who worked on my team for a year as Deputy Curator for contemporary silver and jewellery, regularly wears brooches from his own collection and has written a blog series on his pieces. Together, working with the Contemporary Craft Committee, we bought pieces by Louise O’Neill, Jacqueline Ryan and Anna Gordon for the Collection in 2019-20. For the Fair, he and Dr Irene Galandra Cooper (who worked alongside him as Deputy Curator, Historic on my team) are talking about men and jewellery in the Renaissance and now. As the former Curator of Renaissance Europe at the British Museum, the link between men and jewellery is intuitive to me: though women wore jewellery, it was so often owned by men and linked with lineage, status and property. Exactly how that worked was the subject of a PhD by my former student, Dr Natasha Awais-Dean, which she published as an excellent book.

‘Rolling Waves in Moonlight’ brooch, 2017, Ute Decker

Charlie wearing the ‘Rolling Waves in Moonlight’ brooch

Greg is a regular brooch-wearer, but it was a new experience for Charlie when I asked him to model one of our latest acquisitions, Ute Decker’s Fairtrade gold brooch, ‘Rolling Waves in Moonlight’ from 2017, as part of our contribution towards filming a programme on Gold for ITN. Ute’s brooch is a bold spontaneous-looking scribble – it is from her Calligraphic series – made up of a hand-textured ribbon of gold with a matte surface and polished edges. The result is a striking statement which can be worn by just about anyone in just about any context – and it looks particularly good on men. It suited Charlie so well that I snapped him on my phone and Instagrammed it as a perfect example of a contemporary piece which really works. He tells me I can use that image here. What is so striking about these three examples is how well the brooches complement their male wearers and blend seamlessly with the clothes against which they are worn. I hope we will see lots more of it.

Object photography by Clarissa Bruce.

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