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Gold Standard

By: Ettagale Blauer

Photo by Zaffiro Granulated 22-karat gold and diamond pendant, set with Sardinian Branch Coral.

Gold is a seemingly magical substance. Virtually impervious to corrosion, this most malleable of metals can be made to flow, to fold, to be pounded into sheets as thin as foil. It can be shaped and pierced, made solid or hollow, cast to replicate any form the goldsmith desires. Perhaps the most magical technique of all is granulation—affixing patterns of tiny gold balls onto a gold surface. It was practiced in ancient Mesopotamia and Minoan Crete, but then became a lost art, not to be revived in Europe until the 19th century. (Brilliant examples do, however, survive from Tang-dynasty China and fifth–sixth century Korea, and in medieval Russia, the technique of granulation was used on silver.) Then, astonishingly, the technique was lost again. In the late 20th century craftsmen rediscovered granulation once and for all, which is practiced today by a select coterie of jewelers.

The beauty and modern-day wearability of archeological jewelry inspired latter-day jewelers with wonder: How do those tiny balls adhere to the gold background without any apparent soldering material? How did the early goldsmiths, with their simple tools and unpredictable heat sources, manage to make such exquisite and delicate objects? Granulated objects from Mesopotamia, circa 17th century B.C., include discs with graduated rosettes of granulation, dedicated to Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. A crescent moon from this period, with its triangles of tiny granulation patterns, suspected from a bail, looks totally modern. Richly embellished Greek earrings and fibulae (similar in function to safety pins) from the eighth century B.C. show a mastery of granulation. In central Italy the Etruscans used the technique extensively, creating forms of jewelry that embrace a whole world of influences, but which are completely wearable today. Etruscan work from the fourth century B.C. is breathtaking in its realistic depiction of flowers and other natural forms.

In mid-19th-century Rome two goldsmiths arrived on the scene to create an entirely new body of work using granulation, which is widely admired and collected to this day. The Castellani brothers, Alessandro and Agosto, were the sons of Fortunato Pio Castellani, who began his jewelry business next to the Trevi Fountain. This fortunate location brought the firm an unending supply of foreign shoppers who were open to new ideas in personal adornment. Ironically, the firm’s newest idea was its so-called “archeological jewelry,” based on designs found in the ancient tombs of central Italy that were just then beginning to be excavated. According to Geoffrey Munn, managing director of the London jeweler Wartski and author of the definitive work on the Castellani firm, Alessandro worked for more than 30 years trying to uncover, or rediscover, the techniques used in classical jewelry. Through the use of goldsmiths from Naples, a city well known for its forgeries of classical pieces, Castellani arrived at a formula that enabled them to successfully emulate the ancients.

The Castellani vision would have been incomplete without Carlo Giuliano, often described as a student of the Castellanis but actually a great jeweler in his own right. He focused principally on Egyptian-revival motifs, employing enameling and the use of engraved colored gemstones. Although their names are always linked, as if they were two halves of the same designer, in reality each made discrete pieces that were signed either “Castellani” or “Giuliano.”

In addition to creating new work in the ancient style, the Castellanis made exact reproductions of specific pieces from antiquity. Perhaps the ultimate example is their pendant of the head of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, appropriately topped with a grapevine wreath. The grapes, as well as Bacchus’ full beard, are covered entirely with granulation. This amazing pendant was one of the treasures of the remarkable collection of Judith H. Siegel, which was sold at Sotheby’s in December 2006. Siegel was inspired to begin collecting the work of both Castellani and Giuliano after viewing it at an exhibition at Wartski in 1984. This 154-lot sale was a landmark event, and the Siegel collection is believed to be the largest group of such jewels ever gathered by one individual.

In the early 20th century, after the demise of the Castellani-Giuliano school, various goldsmiths and metallurgists, succeeded to various degrees in mastering granulation. Some, like jealous cooks, refused to reveal their recipes or else left out crucial steps. Over time bits of knowledge from here and there were combined, until a method evolved that was not only doable but also teachable. Although many hands and experiments were involved, the revolution ultimately came down to the determined efforts of one man, Robert Kulicke.

Kulicke, who died in 2007 at the age of 83, trained as a painter in Paris and gained fame as an innovative designer of aluminum and Lucite frames that became a standard for modern art museums. In 1968, building on the work of earlier craftspeople such as H.A.P. Littledale, Hans Michael Wilm, Patricia Davidson and Cornelia Roethel, Kulicke perfected the technique of granulation and went about democratizing it. He established a school for goldsmiths on upper Broadway in New York City where absolutely anyone could learn granulation.

Generations of goldsmiths emerged from the Kulicke Academy, later renamed the Kulicke-Stark Academy when Kulicke’s second wife, Jean Stark, joined him (It is now called the Jewelry Arts Institute). Today schools across the country teach the technique, and goldsmiths have also learned to figure it out on their own. The technique has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that the challenge now is to make original jewelry designs rather than aping the classics. Two who have found a way to their own aesthetic are Maija Neimanis and Zaffiro, the company name of Jack and Elizabeth Gualtieri.

Neimanis was one of the hordes who arrived at Kulicke-Stark Academy and found a calling. After a three-week course there, she says, “I got completely addicted.” Still working at her day job as a film stylist and costume designer, she would practice her new craft in the studio at night. “When you granulate, it’s like Zen,” says Neimanis. “You’re just in another world.” Her designs have a flow to them that reflect her experience in costume design. They’re soft and rounded, and the granulation floats around the designs; it enhances and embellishes and doesn’t shout out its own cleverness. Though the granulation is precise, there is a sense of casualness about the designs.

For the husband-and-wife team of Zaffiro, the goal is to create “clean, crisp designs; it doesn’t have to look old.” Nonetheless, a goldsmith from 150 years ago would feel right at home in this couple’s workshop, where absolutely everything needed to create the jewelry is made by hand: “We mill from 24-karat gold, we make our own sheet and wire and then we make our own granules.” Although their production is not large—on average about 100 to 120 pieces a year—it is very labor-intensive. Jack Gualtieri echoes Neimanis’ comments when he says, “Making the granules is very Zen, very therapeutic. When you really love to do something, you are willing to do whatever it takes.” Along the way they have worked out their own recipes, enabling them to do platinum granulation on yellow or rose gold, white on white, rose on rose and even platinum on platinum.

In a field of perfectionists, Daniel Brush is the supreme master of contemporary granulation, although this mysterious, little-known man is self-effacing and likes to play down the difficulty of the technique. “Granulation,” he says, “can be learned in a minute and a half.” In a sense, that is true. At the Kulicke-Stark Academy, the novice can be shown right away how to place a hand on a piece of metal and make a few granules adhere to it. But of course, effortless simplicity is something an artisan has to recapture after mastering the art. For Brush, the only way is “to obviate the technique, to rise above the technique, to pass through the technique.”

After the granules have been placed one by one on the gold surface, affixed perhaps with a bit of flux that will permit the ultimate bond between gold and gold, when the desired pattern has been achieved, the jeweler reaches the ultimate moment of terror—firing the piece with a heat source to the exact moment, not a second too long or too short, until the magical bonding occurs. Too much heat, and those tiny gold balls lose their crisp round shape. Too little, and they are in peril of falling off the object. Brush knows that moment very well.

Brush, who has isolated himself in his New York studio for most of the past 30 years, says, “I wasn’t interested in surface decoration; I wasn’t interested in the technique. The first thing should be, ‘Does it take your breath away?’” He refers to the work of Indian goldsmiths on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, in his hometown. “The pieces were so remarkable. For the Indian girls doing it, there was insouciance; it was part of their everyday. It was just this delicate transparency of spirit. The schools don’t teach that.”

A former professor of art at Georgetown University, Brush came to goldsmithing out of a desire for a different kind of learning, less intellectual and more experiential. “I wanted to understand what it meant to have 6,000 years of gold come into my being,” he says. Totally self-taught, he set himself the task of making a gold dome, covered with patterns of granulation. More than 600 hours of work went into the piece. One by one, using a brush with one hair, he placed granules on the dome—78,000 of them. And then he left the piece alone. For two years he didn’t take the ultimate step of firing the granules. He devoted himself to everything else, anything else, except taking that final, crucial step. “I did this as an aside; it was not about fear. It was about time. How does one move through the journey of time? How could I place myself in a situation where I removed my ego and let it be on its own? I was unnerved because it was finalized.”

The dome is one of small group of objects he has made over the decades. He has created bowls, boxes and other objects meant purely for contemplation, most of which have been bought by an elite group of collectors. Resold at auction, one of his round gold and steel boxes, the top covered with granulation, brought $27,500.

Brush is aware of the work going on outside his studio door. “A lot has happened outside the studio; inside it is the same. Neoclassical work is totally different. I don’t interact with it. Contemporary pieces? I don’t find them to be magical. They’re loudly saying, ‘Look at this technique.’” The matter of making a living, he believes, should be accomplished by doing something else, “so you can continue your passion.”

Through it all, Brush says, he never plans a piece. “There is no drawing, nothing. It will not be a journey if you plan it.” His elusive and subtle work shows that even now, with granulation no longer a trade secret, there is something about this ancient art that remains mysterious. But it’s not the kind of secret that can be divulged.

A La Vieille Russie, New York

Aaron Faber Gallery, New York

Camilla Dietz Bergeron, New York

Edith Weber Fine Antique Jewelry, New York

Fred Leighton, New York and Las Vegas
212.288.1872; 702.693.7050

Kentshire Galleries, New York

Maija Neimanis, Windham, N.Y.

Macklowe Gallery, New York

Primavera Gallery, New York

Reinstein-Ross, New York

Wartski, London

Zaffiro, Portland, Ore.

Author: admin | Publish Date: February 2010

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