The Telegraph Luxury Magazine



 WORDS: Joanna Hardy

 "At the beginning of the Sixties in the jewellery world, one big question loomed: how could the British jewellery industry turn a corner? Nothing new, exciting or original had been made since the start of the Second World War – all raw materials, platinum, gold, diamonds, not to mention manpower, had been used for the war effort.  Rationing had been in place until the mid-1950s and industry was focused on rebuilding the country.  With tax on luxury goods at an astonishing 125 per cent, no one was designing and making innovative jewellery, let alone buying it.

In 1959 Carol Hogben, the assistant keeper of the trendsetting Circulation Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, conceived the idea for an exhibition – what would become the International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery 1890 – 1961, a showcase of all that was new and exciting in jewellery design from the turn of the century to the modern day.

In order to get a new perspective, Hogben came up with an ingenious idea. He sent a group of artists from other disciplines, including sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and the painter Terry Frost five pieces of wax with which to sculpt items of jewellery that would then be made up by goldsmiths in the UK. The finished pieces would then sit in the exhibition alongside the work of established craftsmen such as John Donald, Georg Jensen, Mario Pinton, Faberge and Sir Alfred Gilbert, and pieces from major jewellery houses such as Garrard, Chaumet, Cartier and Boucheron.

However, with preparations well underway, in February 1961, just eight months before the exhibition was due to open, the V&A suddenly pulled out, citing rising costs and logistical difficulties.  In desperation, Hogben, and his senior research assistant Shirley Bury, turned to Graham Hughes, the art director of Goldsmiths’ Hall, for help.

For nearly 700 years, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths had concerned itself with the quality control of precious metals and had instigated the hallmarking system but, while an avid supporter of gold and silversmiths, it had never paid much attention to their jewellery.  Incredibly Hughes agreed to take the project on, and under the guidance of the V&A created what would become the most important jewellery exhibition of the 20th century.   Hughes described it as ‘an art exhibition of high order, intended to raise the standing of jewellery so that it becomes a valid interest both for discerning patrons and, as during the renaissance, for leading artists of all sorts.’

With finished wax models coming in from artists including Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Bernard Meadows, F.E.  McWilliam, and Elisabeth Frink (Hepworth made several attempts, but was eventually so dissatisfied with her results, she gave up, as did Henry Moore), Hughes’s next challenge was to find new talent to participate in the show.  First, he visited the Royal College of Art where he met David Thomas – one of the few students who had previous training in making jewellery – whom Hughes enlisted to help cast the artists’ wax models in various metals such as gold, silver, and bronze, with financial support from Goldsmiths’ Hall. It was a good choice.  Thomas, an absolute perfectionist, is still considered one of Britain’s finest goldsmiths.

Next he asked De Beers, which had started its prestigious Diamonds International Awards in 1953, to sponsor a national jewellery design competition.  De Beers put up £10,000 – a fortune at the time – some of which would be used as prize money, and some to make the winning designs. As time was short, the competition was only open to British entrants, but it attracted a wide range of talent, including sculptors and painters venturing into jewellery for the first time. Across the four categories, there were 315 entries consisting of drawings, models or finished pieces completed in 1961.

Meanwhile, the architect Alan Irvine was hard at work designing the exhibition itself.  Using his years of experience in spatial dynamics he conceived a series of 32 small glass tetrahedron stands and 17 glass wall cases – simple showcases that would work well with the lavish 19th-century gilt mirrors and crystal chandeliers of Goldsmiths’ Hall.

A total of 33 countries took part in the exhibition, showcasing 901 jewels with a value of £3 million.  The space was divided into three parts: 1890-1914, which included 27 pieces by Rene Lalique; 1919-1939, featuring jewels by the notable French houses such as Cartier and Boucheron; and 1945 to the present day, which accounted for more than half of the exhibits, and from which a new generation of artist-craftsmen emerged.  These included Fulco di Verdura and Jean Schlumberger, who, despite being skilled draughtsmen, were not trained jewellery craftsmen.

The exhibition was an unprecedented success, with 26,000 visitors (though it also had its detractors, one journalist describing the gold bracelets designed by F.E. Mcwilliam as ‘heavy as prisoners’ manacles’).  But more importantly it kick-started a new wave of jewellery making and gave craftsmen the permission to explore and develop invigorating designs that breathed lifeback into the dying industry.

It also signalled a renaissance for The Goldsmiths’ Company itself.  Between 1961 and 1975, it held 40 one-man retrospectives of designers including Wendy Ramshaw, Louis Osman, David Thomas and Andrew Grima.  Hughes asked the visionary Grima, a master of ‘lost-wax’ casting (a very new technical skill at the time) to help make up the designs from the De Beers competition for the 1961 exhibition, from his H J Company workshop.  Creatively, Grima was ahead of the game in working with rough-cut, semi-precious stones and organic forms, and would go on to dominate the jewellery world for the next three decades, winning the prestigious De Beers Diamond International Awards 12 times – more than any other jeweller.

In 1975, The Goldsmiths’ Company also instigated a series of annual selling exhibitions called Loot, as it was still felt that it was near-impossible for young designer-craftsmen to find outlets for their work. Loot was replaced with an event called The Goldsmiths’ Fair, held over one week at Goldsmiths’ Hall, at which craftsmen could sell their work direct to the public.  This has since grown to two weeks and provides a fantastic opportunity for the public to discover some of the best contemporary jewelers and silversmiths in the country. 

The exhibition also sparked an interest in finding novel ways to support and promote the industry.  Under the guidance of Hughes, who passed away in 2010, The Goldsmiths’ Company started a collection of modern jewellery, which now comprises about 1,000 pieces, including work by influential modern jewelers such as Gerda Floeckinger, John Donald, Wendy Ramshaw, Jacqueline Mina, Leo de Vroomen, Kevin Coates, David Watkins, Fred Rich, Tom McEwan, and Catherine Martin.  Since 1981, the collection, some of which is displayed at Goldsmiths’ Hall, has been curated by Rosemary Ransome Wallis with assistance from a Modern Collection Committee who meet four times a year to select work for inclusion in the collection.  The latest jeweller to be commissioned is Charlotte De Syllas, a designer and stone-cutter whose entire degree show at the Hornsey College of Art was bought by Hughes in 1966.

If anything shows that the 1961 exhibition must not become a memorial to the creativity of the 20th century, it is this.  The 1961 exhibition should be a reminder of what can be achieved when independence of thought is encouraged and expressed.  Britain has an enormous wealth of talented jewellery designers and craftsmen who need continued encouragement and support to achieve excellence.  And this will only be realized if the buying public continues to search out beautifully handcrafted individual and bespoke jewels so that the skills of the goldsmith are kept alive and not lost forever."