The Saul Bell Design Award has been driving jewelers to innovate and excel for eighteen years, giving a platform where craft and fine jewelry can intersect and cover new ground. From alternative materials to silver, platinum and gold, the high rigor of the jurying process, together with Rio Grande’s professional recognition, bring a breath of fresh air to the industry.
This year’s award winners include several jewelry artists who also traverse the craft show circuit. Sophia Hu, who won the Best of Show award with her Origami—Window with a View collection, has previously been inducted into the Saul Bell Hall of Fame. In 2017, she was awarded Second Place in the Alternative Materials category, but due to a twist of timing, her husband was unable to attend the ceremony, a regret which compelled her to test her skills once again in this year’s competition. An intriguing concept and a consistently developed theme led to this collection. Hu’s fascination with the nature of folding, of flat planes given dimensionality and depth, is inspired by Japanese paper art, and perhaps, too, her fifteen years background in architectural design.
Her foray into jewelrymaking all came about due to a lack of choice: Hu’s taste in jewelry is particular and the commercial world had nothing to offer that matched her personal aesthetic. The solution was to make her own jewelry, and she dove into it with her husband’s full support. The result is lightweight geometry, blooming like flowers in the night, with surface textures and keum-bo to impart contrast and color.
Coming with a very different approach is Garen Garibian’s Mata Hari brooch, a classical design that manages to combine the elegance of the fine jewelry of the twentieth century with a playful touch. Named after the famous, or rather infamous spy from World War I, Garibian’s piece is like a miniature sculpture, with one blood red ruby drop betraying Mata Hari’s untimely demise. A necklace of diamonds contrasts with a silky black dress of onyx, spiraling down like a twister, bare golden arms tempting the onlooker to come hither.
Garibian came to the United States from Armenia to pursue a career as a plastic surgeon. His life changed course after arriving in America when he took on a friend’s job doing jewelry repair work. A certain sense of irony in the universe perhaps gave him this similar line of work to his old career, where he focused on face recovery. Garibian had graduated from art school back in Armenia, so the shift to making jewelry was a natural fit.
As a regular winner in the competition, Wolfgang Vaatz is a consummate jeweler, with a love of surface design and rich textures. He turns bracelets and pendants into canvases where nature unfolds like a landscape painting, although his work goes beyond the representational. This year, he applied for the new Jewelry Collection categories, where he was awarded First Place in Jewelry Collection Couture/Fine.
The inspiration for this collection was the Rocky Mountains, which Vaatz has visited in the past. His capture of the serenity and stark beauty of that stretch of wilderness imbues each piece. An artist who works in a variety of media, including painting, Vaatz employed a variation of the sgraffito technique, where a surface layer is scratched away to reveal the substrate underneath. In one bracelet, a glorious sunburst emanates from a single diamond, placed in the center above the rolling hills. Etching away the gold, then oxidizing the silver produces thin black lines, like the caress of a pencil upon thick paper, that pulses outward. Shrubs, towering, spindly trees, and deep shadows make this subtle scene come alive.
Sometimes it is the denizens of nature that make an appearance in the contest. Carina Wong’s First Place in Enamel, Leaping Tree Frog, is a delicate and attractive rendition of the famous amphibian that dwells in the Amazonian rain forests. Orange sapphires are used to recreate the creature’s webbed feet, while the brilliant enamel brings to life the poisonous animal’s vibrant patterning. A resident of Hong Kong, Wong is one of the contest’s international applicants, and an example of jewelry as a universal artform. Another member of the animal kingdom is represented by Sinork Agdere’s The Dragonfly, the Second Place winner in the Enamel category. From Los Angeles, California, Agdere’s take demonstrates how many ways the same subject can be interpreted, where artistic license and abstraction leads to an almost clockwork creation. The two award winners also utilized different enameling techniques, with Wong employing champlevé to produce the silken texture of the frog’s skin, while Agdere used plique-à-jour to infuse her insect’s wings with their characteristic shimmer.
The Alternative Metals/Materials category is an interesting exercise in making a piece of jewelry that appears luxurious without using the materials most associated with luxury. The requirement is that the predominant material must be a metal or material not included in the other categories, and in previous years has featured such unusual mediums as recycled rubber and Nespresso coffee capsules. Gabri Schumacher, from Schoonhoven in the Netherlands, won this year’s First Place prize with her titanium ring, Head in the Clouds.
Schumacher’s piece is self-commentary, not only on herself, but also other artists and designers who are constantly thinking about what they will make next. To those who experience the drive to create, the process is a continuous flow of observation, inspiration and imagination, a sort of day-dreaming which manifests in the crafted object. Despite the mercurial picture that she depicts, Schumacher went through a laborious and detail-oriented procedure to arrive at this ring. She first made paper cutouts as a three-dimensional model of sorts, to arrive at the basic design. Once that transpired, a 3D computer program was used to produce the prototype. The ring had to be perfectly designed from the beginning, as any mistakes in the dimensions would make it impossible for all the pieces of titanium to fit together. The end result is abstract, quixotic and mysterious.
The competition also encourages the next generation of jewelers to participate in making their mark with the Emerging Jewelry Artist 18/22 Years of Age or Younger categories. This year, Hoi Yi Lai of Toronto, Canada, and Peyton Rogers of Fort Worth, Texas, were the first place winners, each coming from different places but showing ingenuity and imaginative thought in both their designs. Rogers is fifteen years old and constructed her necklace entirely by assembly and handsawing nickel silver; a few salvaged synthetic beads added color to the piece. She is a world traveler, and the inspiration for her necklace comes from the waterfalls she has witnessed in Ireland and Switzerland. Wearability was an important factor in the design, and she made sure that it would properly flow down the neckline, like roiling water.
Courage is the name of Lai’s ring, and her interest in philosophy and religion leads her to pick words that have meaning and then render them as a piece of jewelry. Entirely hand-fabricated from wire and silver sheet, the piece looks both diaphanous, and a bit intimidating, like brass knuckles that were formed for a particularly erudite gangster. The first jewelry she ever made was “a brooch that I pierced out of brass. It was a drawing of an alien with cat ears,” she says.
The Saul Bell Design Award shows that the stories behind fine jewelry are more nuanced than one might imagine. As a cross-section of skilled craftspeople from across the globe, the competition has given individuals the ability to define what jewelry is and will become. The results, as we can see, are fascinating.
Next year’s winners will be announced at the Saul Bell Design Award ceremony on May 19, 2019. Read more on present and past award recipients on their website www.saulbellaward.com.
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Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. A recent trip to Michigan for a friend’s wedding led inevitably to work on the side. A visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts, preceded by a very pleasurable excursion to the Scarab Club, gave him the opportunity to see “Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume” in person. As a science-fiction geek, it was hard to resist. From the original trilogy to the most recent reprise of the series, Benesh-Liu appreciated costumes past and present, and found out how poorly the lightsaber props were constructed. He did not miss the chance for a photograph with famous alien sage Yoda either. He also presents the winners of the Saul Bell Design Award, a competition organized by Rio Grande where stellar artisans from across the world test their ability, and ingenuity, in the pursuit of fine jewelry.