Demand for ancient jewellery art revives as age of bling starts to wane

Craftsmanship is taking precedence over brand names

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

What happens in one sector often affects another. When the big Swiss watch names set about the revival of the nearly lost art of enamelling, it was a reasonable bet that the jewellery industry would follow suit.

But why, in a world of computer-generated design, would anyone bother with an ancient, time-consuming and high-risk craft that involves multiple colours all melting at different temperatures, and where a lapse of concentration can lead to a very expensive mistake?

David Mills, head of marketing at London’s Goldsmiths’ Company, says tastes are changing. “There is a renewed interest in craftsmanship and skills-based luxury goods over bling and brand names,” he says.

“My instinct is that this is in response to the overexposure of luxury brands, in part because of the huge demand from China and other emerging markets. Luxury consumers across the globe are becoming more and more savvy.”

Craftsmanship is becoming the hallmark of growing consumer sophistication, says Theo Fennell, the London jewellery designer.

“Emerging markets want unusual, original grand designs . . . pieces you cannot get elsewhere and that are the very best. This sort of piece is only going to come out of a workshop and studio environment, somewhere craftsmen with arcane skills can prosper.”

Barbara Tipple, the Mayfair-based designer, says Chinese clients who once dressed themselves “from head to toe in Chanel have started to realise that it is not a stylish look”.

Ms Tipple has noticed increasing demand for bespoke designs from the US and China – often with an enamelled element that is always, in her case, made by Fred Rich, an enameller based in Sussex in the south of England – that fetch £70,000 and upwards.

Katharina Flohr, creative and managing director at Fabergé, the luxury brand established in Tsarist Russia, whose name is associated with the enamelled egg, also believes the age of bling is on the wane, partly because of difficult econo­mic times when ostentation may not seem appropriate.

Brilliance: Fabergé’s Ouef Sophie Rouge

She makes much of the “luminescence, magic and alchemy” of vitreous enamel but cautions that its production is a very complicated process. “It’s not the first choice in terms of manufacturing or price.

“It’s laborious and time-consuming and can involve seven or eight firings. At the last instance, the whole thing might bubble up and you have to start from scratch.”

She says Fabergé is becoming more of a household name in the jewellery sector, having in 2009 launched its first collection since the Russian Revolution. Enamel would be an obvious craft to make more of, but the company was taken over by Gemfields, purveyors of coloured gemstones, in 2012, and has more immediate opportunities to pursue.

Besides, she says, some of the colours in old enamelled pieces would be difficult to replicate, purely on safety grounds. Crushed glass from which enamel was made in Russia was often recycled church windows with a high lead content that played a big part in the colours.

She is an admirer of Limoges craftsmen, Frey Wille, an Austrian company that specialises in bangles and bracelets, and Victor Mayer, the German group that held the original Fabergé licence.

But Theo Fennell swears by British craftspeople. “We have the best in the world. We should be much prouder and make more of them.”

Elizabeth Gage, a Belgravia jeweller, has used enamelling in her pieces for 45 years.

She sees increased interest as part of a trend toward the bold use of colour, as clients want something that makes them stand out from the crowd.

“When I started using enamel it was colourful and inexpensive. As my budget did not allow rubies, sapphires or emeralds, it was a great way to add vivid colour,” she says.

She used enamelling in the rings she created for Cartier in 1968 and continues to use it in many of her pieces. Phil Barnes, who has a workshop in the village of Yoxford, Suffolk, produces all her designs.

Christoph Wellendorff, managing director and co-owner of the German jewellery company that bears his surname, says it has established an in-house academy to ensure skills such as enamelling are preserved.

“Handwork, quality, origin and details have become more important than empty marketing,” he says.


Passion and patience: What it takes to make it work

Jewellery designers usually gain experience of enamelling, the fusion of glass to metal under high heat conditions, while at college. But the need to earn a living usually means the high-risk, painstaking, expensive decorative art is sidelined.

Those who develop a passion for the skill, often come back to it in their 40s, says Pat Johnson, chair of the British Society of Enamellers. “Once they have the job, the husband, the children, the house, they have the financial backing to do it.”

One might also add patience to that list. It is a difficult process when multiple colours are involved and they melt at different temperatures of up to 900 degrees.

Techniques include:

● Champlevé, a French word for “raised field” in which the artist removes the silver by cutting, hammering or stamping to create a depression to receive the melted glass.

● Basse-taille, where the recesses are engraved with patterns or carved with a low relief which can be seen as varying densities of colour through the enamel.

● Plique-à-jour, the technique used by French enamelists Lalique and Feuillâtre in the 1900s, in which the enamel is fired into an open framework, resembling stained glass.

● Grisaille or painted enamel, in which ground metallic oxides are painted on to a white enamel base with fine brushes and fired, layer upon layer.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.