How do you look at a piece of art, or for our readers, an artist-made piece of jewelry? Does your reaction differ if you base your opinion on merely what you see, or does knowing about the underlying materials and processes affect your reaction? Most of us decide quickly if we like or dislike something, even if we have the background knowledge to engage in more deliberate consideration. This may occur even during the judging of a competition or a show, although one would certainly then further appraise the design, crafting and other relevant factors before arriving at a final decision.
After looking critically at jewelry of all types for over four decades, I am still shocked when what I thought I knew differs from reality, as with the case of Pat Tseng’s fiber and stone jewelry (Liu 2015). Similarly, even though I have known David Freda since at least 1981, (he won the 1984 Ornament competition Juror’s award by Lloyd Herman [a jewel box/neckpiece with black rat snake eggs and hatchlings, along with the mother snake]), had attended one of his moldmaking workshops, and photographed his earlier work, my recent studio visit with him revealed a complexity, intricacy and difficulty of execution in his work that was well beyond what I knew.
With my background training and research as an ethologist who studied fish behavior, Freda and I share common interests. In 1986, I traded a long run of Copeia, the leading journal for ichthyologists and herpetologists, for an enameled pupfish, which is still in progress due to the challenge of this project (to get the correct color of a breeding male pupfish, Freda went to Salt Creek in Death Valley to photograph them). His grandfather was a jeweler and Freda still has his riveting hammer. His father was a skilled machinist, so he acquired much technical knowledge working summers with him. He is perhaps the metalsmith with the most knowledge of nature and easily qualifies as a true naturalist jeweler. Freda has extensive working experience as a wildlife illustrator, raptor bird bander, falconer, taxidermist, and past curator of a wildlife center, as well as certified scuba diver, technical rock climber and avid mountain biker. Any visitor to the home of Freda and his partner Trish McAleer, also a metalsmith, cannot help but be aware of his deep interests in nature, which she shares. A full scale and accurately detailed replica of a Latimeria coelacanth hangs on a wall, something rarely even seen in a museum. A cat, two Siberian huskies and some walking stick insects share their home, along with numerous plants (especially orchids) and outdoor beehives.
Past and contemporary depictions of nature, whether botanical or zoological, were often caricatures of the actual plant or animal, frequently overly ornamented with jewels. G. Paulding Farnham’s orchid brooches made for Tiffany in the late 1800s-early 1900s were a mix of naturalistic blooms with excessive gemstone-set floral components and stems, although at least one example was devoid of gemstones. The Farnham orchid brooches may have been partly electroplated, which may be the basis for internetstatements about the orchid blooms being dipped in wax, as electroplating can involve wax. Lalique was the least susceptible to this tendency of overusing precious stones, and set only a few gems, although his enameled plants and animals were more impressionistic than realistic.
For someone like Freda, who both loves nature and intimately knows and appreciates the anatomy of plants and animals, it would be almost a sacrilege not to replicate them fully and accurately. When he talks about his jewelry depicting members of the natural world, he states it is “pretty sacred, making these things.” I think his pride would not permit him to make replicas of nature that did not satisfy his high standards. When you couple this commitment to his superb technical prowess, it is easy to understand his devotion to the process of making a piece, from which he certainly gets his high. If one understands the technical and engineering challenges involved in each step of his fabrication process, one can begin to also realize the satisfaction that must reward the maker when making progress with such difficult procedures. His jewelry usually takes months to complete, so daily positive feedback is vital. This passion no doubt holds for many craftspeople when producing art in their studios; many remark that time often appears suspended, like being in a zen state.
As an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, he studied with metalsmith Marcia Lewis, at a time when he was making leather falcon hoods. His graduate studies were at State University of New York, New Paltz, with Bob Ebendorf and Kurt Matzdorf, during 1980-1983, when Freda experimented with enameling on aluminum, as seen on the example on page 49. In the 1990s a Cooper-Hewitt exhibition of the great French master Lalique further pushed his talents toward enameling. About the time Freda won Rio Grande’s 2002 award for his stag beetle necklace, he was approached by Tiffany and Company to make enameled orchid brooches in gold. Up to then, he had only enameled on aluminum and silver; using the Rio Grande award to buy gold, it took
him a year of experimenting before he was ready to start producing the gold orchids, as it is much harder to enamel gold than silver, in part due to the alloys in gold (Fabergé enameled on silver but Lalique used gold, although he did use aluminum for structural elements of his jewelry, Harrison et al. 2008).
Freda took about a year to work out the molding of the orchids, their hollow core casting and enameling. The blooming orchids, or other specimens to be cast, are actually dissected into components, which then have silicon rubber compounds poured around them to make two part molds, from which the hollow waxes are made by injecting molten wax into the molds. He achieves hollow waxes by a clever process of blowing into the mold after the outer layer of the wax has set, with the force of the air from his mouth expelling the still molten portions of the wax from the mold. Such waxes are what enables him to do hollow casting. Because of the small spaces involved in his casts, he needs to use syringes to place the investment within the tiny apertures of the hollow waxes, as well as filling other spaces and gaps inside the investment flask used for lost-wax casting. If his casts were solid metal, the varying coefficient of expansion (COE) of the metal and the enamel could result in cracking or crazing of the enamel, similar to what happens when one attempts to work with glass of different COE. Since the butterfly wings of his brooches are solid but very thin, such problems do not occur when they are enameled. Additional factors in favor of hollow casting are the need for the jewelry to be as light as possible when worn, yet be strong enough to bear the stress of being worn, and that enamel looks better on hollow metal.
To be able to make good molds and the requisite air venting, waxes, their sprueing, investing, burnout, and casting all demand a high level of skill, luck and magic, although proper utilization of the vacuum in mold making, investment preparation and metal casting are all critical to success. Since Freda does all these steps himself, it is a given there are strict standards of control and quality in his artwork. While these fabrication procedures are difficult and time consuming, it is his enameling that is awe-inspiring. Since I have had a long interest in insect jewelry (Kuehn 2003; Liu 1998, 2003), I am aware that none of the historic or contemporary interpretations of insects begin to approach Freda’s representations in accuracy of anatomy or coloration, both vital in characterization of such animals.
Just looking at part of the processes involved in his enameling of butterfly wings provides a good indication of the complexity of his techniques in this media, which Freda terms “mosaic enameling”. Besides the overall patterns of the upper and lower wings, which are based on color photocopies of the actual wings, smaller, contrasting spots of color are often separate cutouts of gold sheet, copied from precise stencils. These tiny pieces, some only millimeters long, are adhered onto wires protruding from a wire trivet, using his own adhesive mix of Klyr-Fyr, water lily root and saliva (the latter is also used by Mauritanian women bead artists when they wetpack glasspowder for Kiffa beads). Two hundred grit enamel, either Ninomiya or old Thompson leaded enamels are sifted onto these pieces of metal, then fired briefly at well-controlled temperatures for up to ten times, with the color checked against the actual specimen depicted (Gans 2003). These fired pieces are placed in precise patterns on the wings, often after the underlying enamel has been ground off to expose the gold. These steps are repeated until obverse and reverse sides of the wings are fully patterned accurately. Fabrication of a butterfly brooch takes three months of constant work.
Freda sets gemstones, like diamonds, into the platinum body and antenna of his butterflies, as well as gold granules onto the wings. These embellishments add to the perceived and real value of a piece, possibly at the request of the firm or individual commissioning the piece. While his jewelry is not really priced according to the value of the precious metal and gemstone content, they are at the top end of contemporary artist-made ornaments. Nowadays, the clients are often from China, Japan or the Middle East. One of his older orchid brooches sold at auction for ninety-four thousand dollars, with a beginning bid of thirty-four thousand; this hammer price is rare for living jewelers.
While Freda is still young and in the prime of health, he has already attained a level of achievement that future jewelry historians might regard as somewhat reminiscent of Lalique and Blaschka, the Bohemian father and son team of the nineteenth, early twentieth century who made astounding painted botanical and marine invertebrates in glass, including orchids. Freda’s vast practical knowledge of biology, derived often from living plants and animals, and his largely self-developed metalsmithing and enameling skills have undoubtedly been the foundations of his success, along with a dogged determination at solving problems. An admitted dyslectic, he appears to have compensated by arranging his studio environment so neatly and logically as to fit his particular way of working.
David Freda is very much a jeweler in transition, now that he will concentrate more on selling to private clients or collectors. Since his pieces are so time-consuming, he needs time to build up an inventory. With his inquisitive and inventive mind, it is hard to predict how his work might change, especially with his intense fascination of nature and willingness to challenge himself even more, especially if there were less restraint on his artistic license.
Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His recent book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty plus years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to wearable art, both in and out of the Ornament studio. Recently he has been teaching one-on-one photography lessons at our offices, as well as teaching workshops on bamboo jewelry. In this issue Liu writes about David Freda, who is as much a naturalist as he is a superb enamelist and jeweler. His techniques are among the most complex the author has seen in over four decades of writing about jewelry.