Upcycling: Creative Re-Use in the making of Brooches

By The Goldsmiths’ Company Curator, Dr Dora Thornton

Upcycling is an in-word to describe the creative re-use of unwanted materials so as to make something new. The idea is to add artistic value to something which might otherwise be overlooked or even discarded. In my work on brooches for the online exhibition for Goldsmiths’ Fair 2020, The Brooch Unpinned, I have come across some fascinating examples in the Collection which made me rethink my attitude to the work of leading makers from the 1960s to the present. It is another aspect of their inventiveness and responsiveness to materials which makes the study of brooches – and of contemporary jewellery generally – so fascinating.

Brooch, 1963, Andrew Grima

Textured gold was a key to the 1960s look, as Andrew Grima recalled:

“I set to work immediately, experimenting with all the techniques available at the time to make gold look like a material which nature might have produced.”

A good example is his brooch set with a marvellous piece of rose quartz in an 18 carat gold frame, held in place with three white gold bars with pavé-set diamonds. The border puzzled me, as it is appears to have been made from crumpled collets of soft 24 carat gold which have been massed together on their edges to form a frame to the stone. A note on file said that these were made from leftovers from laboratory assaying in the Assay Office. So I asked Adam in the Assay Office what this meant, and he explained that they used to return diets, or fragments of fine metal removed for assaying, to the maker. Instead of melting these down in the usual way, Grima re-used them just as they were to brilliant effect on a new piece. They look like gold barnacles which have somehow grown organically around the pink crystal. And it is a reminder that the experimental texture and roughness of Grima’s brooches relate to Brutalist architecture of the sixties, as shown in the extraordinary Jermyn Street shop designed by his two architect brothers, Godfrey and George Grima, with the sculptors Bryan Kneale and Geoffrey Clarke. At first sight, it was more fortress than shop – at least that is how I remember it from a childhood visit with my father, who admired it greatly. In his obituary of Grima, Graham Hughes recalled the shopfront: “The effect was one of intense contrast: primitive, barbaric, blank areas of stone beside delicate pinpoints of light. It was part fortification, with huge steel nuts and bolts and bars to hold it together, part fantasy in space, luring the observer inside”.

Jermyn Street frontage of the Grima shop the day after it opened in 1966 (Image courtesy of the Grima Estate)

Something of that inventiveness and experimentation, as well as the exquisite micro-engineering, is to be seen in miniature on Grima’s brooches in our online exhibition – which is why we are keen to show you the backs as well as the fronts of each piece.

Jacqueline Mina took a similarly inventive approach to platinum gauze in the 1980s, which was considered to be merely a waste product in the making of fertilisers at the time. I read a brief reference to this when I was doing research into her brooches for the exhibition, and so I wrote to her, asking if she could tell me more. She responded very generously, and the insights she has offered make her special achievements in working in platinum all the more remarkable.

It all started when she was teaching at the Royal College of Art. She was invited to join the jury of an annual Platinum Competition for UK jewellery students funded generously by the platinum dealers, Ayrton Metals. She discovered that none of the students or their tutors had much direct experience of working with platinum, so she arranged a Summer School with Ayrton where tutors could experiment with this wonderful metal and discover its potential. Jacqueline tells me: “I took a group of RCA students on a field trip to Engelhard, manufacturers of precious metal products. There we saw platinum being cast into a one inch thick by one metre-long rod which was then drawn down until it was as thin as a hair. Then it was threaded up onto a loom and woven into a magical, gleaming textile. This was then cut into six foot wide discs in preparation for stacking into a container through which some chemical was passed in order to make fertilizer. My question to the operator was, ‘what happens to the corners?’ that were being cut off to create the circle. ‘They go back into the melting pot’ was the answer…”

Jacqueline’s special insight and skill was not only to recognize the potential of the metal in combination with gold – developing her ‘fusion inlay’ technique – but also to use it like a textile. Again, this was partly serendipity, as she discovered platinum gauze at the same time as she encountered the lustrous silk velvets of the great designer, Mario Fortuny, on a visit to Venice. “I made it a project, on our return, to somehow translate my reaction to them into metal. The platinum gauze was perfect for this… I was able to cut it into damask-type designs and fuse it to a gold backing, then rub it back and roll it through steel rollers until I had a plane surface, which I then textured – again, using the rolling mills. It was a laborious process and initially, not always successful, but I eventually mastered it. I called it ‘fusion-inlay’.”

Brooch, 1989, Jacqueline Mina

The Company’s Collection contains two of Jacqueline’s brooches made using her special technique. The first dates from 1989. It is crafted from 18 carat yellow gold with platinum mesh fusion inlay and platinum hollow form, textured by roller imprinting. She has used the mesh to create a lacelike pattern, with platinum and gold forms in high relief.

It illustrates her belief that platinum is “not hard, cold or tough, but capable of great delicacy, elegance and preciousness”.

And it demonstrates her achievement in “subverting and taking precious metal techniques to the extreme” in the words of the jurors of the Jerwood Applied Arts Prize for Jewellery in 2000. Each piece made by this technique is unique, working directly in the metals without preliminary drawings. The affinity with Fortuny’s damask designs is particularly noticeable on this brooch: her attention both to surface pattern and form is a defining characteristic of her work. Jacqueline graduated from platinum gauze to platinum mesh, always in combination with gold, and that led to her lobbying for a change in the hallmarking law. The first combined Pt./Au. Hallmark was applied to her ‘Petals’ necklace of 1986 which is in the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection.

‘Petals’ necklace, 1986, Jacqueline Mina

I love to think that it all began with an observation at Engelhard’s—no-one could have foreseen what would come from upcycling a waste product. “I didn’t then know quite what I could do with it” Jacqueline recalls, “but I was determined to get my hands on some of that material! I was in awe of this beautiful, clean, lustrous textile and had to find a way of using it.”

Brooch, 2004, Jacqueline Mina

Romilly Saumarez Smith has a special sensitivity to base-metal objects which have been thrown away, lost or hidden – sometimes for centuries. She repurposes them and gives them new life and meaning. Her ‘Torch Garden’ pin brooch from 2015, which we were fortunate to acquire for the Company Collection in 2018, is an example of the way she works. It is a Roman bronze pin transformed into a brooch with the addition of her own interventions in 18 carat gold, silver and diamonds. In 2011 Romilly started to buy bronze metal detecting finds on eBay, which inspired her to make them into pieces of jewellery.

‘Torch Garden’ pin brooch, 2015, Romilly Saumarez Smith

I find Romilly’s work particularly moving, as the base metal finds which she uses parallel the finds in silver and gold which are reported through the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The PAS, as it is called, is run by the British Museum and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. As a senior curator at the British Museum, I wrote thousands of reports on these finds from the 15th to the 17th centuries, based on handling and classifying each one according to its type, date and findspot. It was part of a huge team effort across England and Wales by curators and finds liason officers. The results are easy enough to find online: https://finds.org.uk/database. Most of the pieces fell into broad and common categories, but sometimes you would come across something rare in gold of the kind which just does not usually survive – such as a tag or aglet of the kind worn by Holbein’s sitters in his portraits – which it was possible to acquire for the Museum. I also met many mudlarks who loved the Thames foreshore, such as Tony Pilson, who generously gave his collection of base metal toys to the British Museum – including a beautiful pewter Tudor doll. You learnt to see history in small, relatively ordinary things.

Newfoundland, 2016, Romilly Saumarez Smith, Verdi Yahooda, Nicola Barnacle and Daniel Edwards

Romilly tends to work with humble, base metal objects which are outside the scope of the PAS. Working with Verdi Yahooda, Nicola Barnacle and Daniel Edwards, she has recorded the journeys the pieces have made in the book Newfoundland, by Mile End Press. Each copy of the limited edition of the book (we have one in the Company Collection) includes not only photographs of the finds before and after their transformation, but has a jewel built into the backboard – in our case, ‘Torch Garden’. Romilly comments:

Newfoundland…refers to the jewellery and boxes I have made from metal detecting finds—the everyday bronze remnants of history found in great quantity in this country. They have lain hidden for hundreds of years, part of an unseen, underground world and I wanted them to find a new-found life above ground, set into a new landscape.”

Since being paralysed from the neck down fourteen years ago, Romilly has found a different way to make art, collaborating with her ‘translators’, Lucie Gledhill, Laura Ngyou and Anna Wales. The result is a new vision as well as a new way of working; upcycling as an artform.

Object photography by Clarissa Bruce and Alf Barnes.

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