Thinking back to what made me good at filigree, I’ve probably proven my own theory that that the rise and fall of certain technologies is related to the economic constraints of a particular time and culture…except that it didn’t always.
Long long ago (”in a galaxy far far away”…almost 35 years ago!) I was a student who quickly turned into a pro because I wanted to spend all my time making studio jewelry and art objects. It was so costly that I quickly had to get good enough to sell my work and save myself from yet more crappy part-time jobs. Back then, I had two main loves: Eastern repoussé and Russian Filigree. Repoussé required sheet, which had more mass. Filigree required lightweight, fine wire.
No one was interested in buying anything in copper back then. It was considered “student grade” metal like the cheaper student grade paints at the art supply store. This was before Martha Stewart’s shiny, pink bottomed pans were on TV and before the Arts & Crafts revival in the mid nineties made people appreciate copper again.
Nowadays, the jewelry industry is simply profit driven. (Not jewelry artists or studio jewelers! Alas, we’re not much different than my college self, eek out a living.) Less metal + cheaper labor in Asia = higher profit margin for those at the top who don’t know a jeweler’s saw from a torch. Once upon a time, however, filigree, granulation, and other jewelry with tiny curves of wire were infinitely more costly in labor than cast or repoussé work. It wasn’t just the time it took to make it beautifully intricate jewelry. All non ferrous metal had to be pounded into flat sheet first. Wire was created by “strip twisting,” cutting (or punching) narrow strips of this flattened metal and twisting them tightly until they finally became round. This wire could then be twisted together with a second strand and used as was or beaten flat with a hammer. Rolling mills may look like simple technology, but exquisite metalsmithing was done without their invention for thousands of years.
In my college days, silver was a painful $3.35 troy oz. That meant that a piece of sterling sheet big enough to do a repousse pendant cost a whopping $5!!! Yeah, those were the days. Of course, back then, what I could sell a one of a kind, repoussé pendant for was not much more money. Silver wire was not so expensive, especially after I discovered the scrap box at my local Swest store (RIP, Swest!). Every time some of their wire stock became inadvertently tangled, mangled, or bent, they threw it in the box and sold it at scrap price.
Yep, always a rebel with a reverence for the past!
The combo of cheaper but high grade materials + my obsession with wanting to make stuff all the time, meant I gained wire-working skills super fast. My passion for art of the past + my innate need to incorporate my own vision into the mix meant that I didn’t do things quite the way I was taught. I wanted the curves to have more life, more spontaneity without losing their gracefulness, so I ventured into creating long, compound curves in asymmetric designs alongside the traditional spirals.
Silver wire costing less than sheet may have been the impetus for why I got better at filigree first, but what really made me good at it was making tons of it..and the early pieces were far from perfect. In fact, some of them were quite cringe worthy! As discussed this week when I was a guest on Tool Tip Tuesdays with Little Metal Foxes, doing things right doesn’t teach you much. Doing things wrong teaches you tons of important things!
For decades, I was absolutely blasted for doing filigree. Jurors and craft writers thought it was too traditional. When I began teaching, students thought ‘filigree’ was another ‘F’ word and wanted nothing to do with it. Fortunately, I never listened to my critics. I kept making the work I loved, and eventually, through galleries, collectors (you wonderful early adopters!), and eventually students who became intrigued, filigree caught on big time.
Well, I could say that people were tired of the post-modern era’s not-so-pretty jewelry, but what really proliferated the technique was my success in getting people to stick with it. I’d pioneered how to teach the process as hard as I’d pushed how far filigree can bend, and I’d made it fun.
Now when I search filigree on Pinterest, I recognize the styles, proportions, and nuances that I brought to the art long ago as the lineage shows up in the work of so many younger (and young at heart) artists who have ridden a successful social media algorithm. Some of them know my work and some only know the people who learned from the people who learned from me or my DVD. Either way, I consider it a grand success. — I still vividly remember many years ago getting a call from Yahuda Tassa after he’d bought my DVD on the topic, thanking me for helping him to reconnect with the filigree he’d learned as a child in Yemen. Granted, I was utterly naive when he started picking my brain about what it was like to produce a DVD, but I digress…
It’s a bit like seeing where one’s DNA goes way down the line. There won’t be clones of me, thank goodness! Filigree’s DNA gets mixed with other influences and ideas to make something new and enduring just as it once opened my own eyes to the endless possibilities.
I have literally twisted and formed miles of wire on my filigree journey, and I hope I have many more miles to go before I retire.
More of the dome variations I teach in Beginning Filigree
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