gold maker magic
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking to goldsmith
Joni Johnson, a fellow artist and dear friend about her
process, inspiration and art as jewelry.
KC: Tell me about yourself and your art.
JJ: I refer to myself as a goldsmith because most of my work is in white and yellow high karat gold. I make one-of-a-kind pieces, so I feel "smith" is appropriate and expresses the old world quality of handmade things. In addition to commissions for clients, I keep my curiosity alive by creating my own unusual art jewelry. My favorite technique is scoring and folding gold sheet into minimal architectural type forms. I did a series of rings this way. Some look like origami. I find I like making rings best so I do those most often. They are so intimate and symbolic and have many cultural traditions. Imagine, this tiny object holds so much history and meaning.
I have two industrial Design degrees from Rhode Island School of Design, which gave me a strong foundation, and I started my own design business after college. After years of designing on the computer I started to miss the tactile experience of model making. That desire to hand-make objects eventually led me back to RISD to pursue a masters in metalsmithing. The experience really opened my eyes to art jewelry and alternate materials: the possibility not only to create, but to create wearable ornaments. It fascinated me because, until then, I was designing things for people to hold or work with. Product design requires considerations about ergonomics (body scale), movement and such. With jewelry, I was dealing with the body in an entirely new way. Jewelry typically has inherent value and sentiment which is very different from consumer products. The shift in focus made me rethink my entire process, but at the same time jewelry did have a connection to my product design background as well. After I completed school I rented a studio space in Downtown Providence, where I still work.
KC: When one thinks of jewelry, it's the ultimate in adornment, self-expression, sentimentality. When people die, they pass on their jewelry as heirlooms. It's a very profound area of work. It's people wearing all these art objects close to their skin. It's extremely intimate. Thoughts?
JJ: It’s generally believed that the act of wearing [jewelry] began about 5,000 years ago in Africa. I think it began even earlier, perhaps as people attempted to protect themselves from the elements. Even this small act required a personal innovation, using natural elements like leaves and mud. Early ornamentation and even scarification also gave clues to status and wealth. People found ways to personalize recognized patterns and designs in their own unique style, even when altering skin or body parts. It's becoming popular again as we see tattoos and piercings are common now.
Currency was actually made in bracelet form to be worn. Wearing one’s wealth in the form of jewelry provided a way to clearly show importance in a community, as well as being a way to keep the items safe by carrying them on your person. At the turn of the century, the tradition of a diamond engagement ring was often used as a security measure as well as a romantic gesture. If a farmer died, for example, the widow would likely sell the ring to continue to provide for the family. The engagement ring still represents an aspect of status.
KC: Considering the hard work, skill and fine craftsmanship which goes into every piece of jewelry, why is it difficult for the general public to see and feel the clear difference between art jewelry versus production jewelry?
Yes, it is difficult that people don't always understand the difference between production and one-of-a-kind work. Jewelry is generally mass-produced in Asia and India where labor rates are extremely low and environmental laws lax. By producing there, companies can retail jewelry for much less than I am even able to buy raw materials for. My job is to find a way to make each piece unique and speak to its owner in some way which makes it special.
I'm not trying to compete with production jewelry in what I do; it’s very specialized. There is also confusion about value because of branding. Companies like David Yurman and Tiffany’s are attempting to blur the line between fine art jewelry and mass-market jewelry by making people believe that branded items have more value than unique pieces.
The “production versus one-of-a-kind” issue gets even more complex with the advent of 3D printing. This allows for amazing shapes and designs that would be technically impossible to create by hand. They are even beginning to print directly in metal. Printed models are able to be used as one-off or molded and mass-produced. I see this technique as another tool in the toolbox and use it for projects where it seems appropriate. For example, I'm working on a piece now that's very complex, so it makes sense to 3D model it in wax and cast it in gold rather than hand-fabricate. This is a perfect solution for this particular piece; however, I will go back and work the surface with a hammer a little in order to show the “hand" in the piece. I'm concerned it will be too static and perfect, losing the beauty of a handmade piece complete with its tiny imperfections.
KC: How does the history of ornamentation inspire, affect and translate specifically in your work? I remember this winter you created three stunning pieces directly relating to a family death of a client. Could you describe that process, the history, and the emotional components attached to this commission?
JJ: I think I'll answer these questions together since they tie in. Yes, I look everywhere for inspiration including history and nature in order to solve a design problem! There are design solutions all around. Seeing with a critical eye is the soul of designing and creating a design language for yourself. As I mentioned earlier, jewelry has a very deep, rich history to draw from. The rings you mentioned were very challenging because of the emotion. My close friends lost their daughter in a car accident and asked me to create a series of memorial rings for the family. In order to really understand what they wanted, I had to ask some pretty difficult questions. It was very emotional but ultimately we became even closer and this helped me to really design in an intimate capacity. I put photos of their daughter at my desk when I worked as well and really tried to consider her life as well the the obvious sadness.
For these rings I looked to the tremendous history of mourning jewelry mainly done in Victorian times. It was very intimate and symbolic, even including hair from the deceased. Black or white pearls indicated marriage status, age, et cetera, and colored enamel also indicated divinity and religious beliefs. There were also interesting brooches that I really loved that were painted just showing one eye of the deceased—very provocative and unnerving. I used some of these traditions in my memorial ring designs but tried to alter them so they were not so literal. For example, on the ring shanks I added a texture to the gold reminiscent of hair to refer back to that tradition. All three rings had the same shank and overall treatment, but each was different as well since each family member had a unique relationship with the young girl. I was trying to address that unique relationship in making the rings, yet I wanted them to have a correlation to each other as they were for a family.
KC: What do you feel, as a “maker," people need to understand the most about jewelry design and construction?
JJ: The thing I like people to be aware of is that if they do have a piece designed and handcrafted, be patient and communicative. It's helpful to have examples of things you like, even if it's a photo of a tree that shows a texture or a certain type of aesthetic you are fond of. It doesn't have to be literal—in fact, I personally prefer that it's not! Unlike production jewelry, handmade jewelry is extremely time-consuming and laborious, so be aware of that as well. Luckily, for most of us it's a labor of love! Jewelry usually looks pretty bad until the very end. It’s a bit of a dirty process. There is nothing like the feeling when you finally finish the surface and it just comes alive. It's so rewarding. It's still a bit of a surprise and the icing on the cake for me, even after all these years, that when the piece is completed you can actually wear it!
Joni Johnson can be contacted by email at Diamondog6@gmail.com
by Kim Celona
Prolific Artist and Writer
Photos & Credits:
1. Sylvester, Hans – 2008. “Natural Fashion, Tribal Decoration from Africa”. Thames and Hudson, New York, NY.
2. Nehama, Sarah – 2012. Mercy Otis Warren Brooch, American 1812. “In Death Lamented”. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.
3. 18 karat Gold Ring from “Preposition Series” by Joni Johnson. Photo by James Beards.
4. 18 karat Gold and Hand Cut Quart Ring from “Preposition Series” by Joni Johnson. Photo by James Beards.
5. Patinated and Painted Hollow Brass Vessel by Joni Johnson (from the Daphne Farago Collection). Photo by James Beards.
6. Boettcher, Graham/Shushan, Elle/Manning, Jo – 2012. Pearl Brooch from Lucy Warren Antiques, American 1835. “The Look of Love”. D. Giles Ltd., London, UK.
7. Joni Johnson. Photo by Glenn Tiberius.