THE INNOVATORS, PART IV: Charles Lewton-Brain

June 1998

Precious Metals:Metalsmithing

Charles Lewton-Brain: Goldsmith, Inventor, Teacher, Author, Publisher, Web Master

Breaking traditions, sharing the results

by Alan Revere

At age 42 he has invented a totally new way of thinking about metal. He has written and self-published several unique jewelry books and has created a highly successful jewelry-maker's Web site.

He heads the jewelry/metals program at Canada's Alberta College of Art and Design. He travels around the world teaching an array of metalsmithing and jewelry skills to some of today's most creative artisans.

His own designs have been exhibited widely, and together with wife Dee Fontans he operates a private center for jewelry education.

The list of Charles Lewton-Brain's accomplishments goes on and on, just as his work continues to expand like the universe.

Lewton-Brain was born in England, grew up in Tasmania, studied in Germany and the U.S. and now lives in Canada. He is one of the most knowledgeable, most celebrated and most accessible metalsmiths in North America. Above all, his most significant contribution has been to invent a way of working metal that never existed before: fold-forming.

As amazing as it may seem, nobody ever worked with metal this way in the more-than-10,000-year history of the craft. Fold-forming is truly a new species derived from two disparate parents: the Japanese art of origami combined with traditional techniques of metalsmithing. All of the related procedures, which now approach 100 forms, are executed with a minimum of equipment: a rolling mill, a few hammers and a couple of stakes.

Fold-forming Metal
The concept is to fold and crease metal, as you would paper, and then selectively forge, form, roll and unfold it to produce light, elegant volumetric shapes.

Fold-forming is based on metal's inherent physical characteristics. Therefore, the process and the product derive from the material's natural plasticity, ductility and elasticity.

The procedures for fold-forming include a series of techniques that allow rapid development of three- dimensional surfaces and structures. The dynamic and fascinating shapes created through this system are unachievable by any other method. The technique can be used to create complex high-relief forms and to resemble chased, constructed and soldered forms. All are produced from single sheets of almost any metal in a matter of minutes.

High Energy, High Creativity
It doesn't take long, when in the presence of this hyperactive, red-headed whiz kid, to appreciate his genius. Lewton-Brain is a high-energy problem solver who always looks for something else to figure out.

With a scientist's systematic approach, an inventor's inquisitiveness and an artist's eye, he has already carved a name for himself in the history of metalwork. Fold-forming has been recognized internationally as a new approach to metalsmithing. In 1990, Paul Craddock, the head of the British Museum Research Lab, recognized fold-forming as a new approach to working metals without precedent. In 1991 Lewton-Brain received a Rolex Award based on his discovery and development of fold-forming. And in 1997, the JCK International Jewelry Show in Orlando featured Lewton-Brain's fold-forming demonstrations in its "Touch the Future" pavilion.

Now, almost 15 years after the invention of fold-forming, hundreds of designers and metalsmiths around the world integrate some aspect of it into their work.

Lewton-Brain received a formal education in metals while maintaining a childlike drive to explore the world around him. He was trained in Pforzheim, Germany, with Klaus Ullrich, a celebrated designer, master goldsmith and master silversmith. Ullrich's singular mastery placed him in the forefront of post- war German jewelry techniques. In the 1950s, Ullrich pioneered the philosophy of exploration and exploitation of traditional and non-traditional metals for jewelry. He suggested that one first must understand metal and then gently guide it to do what comes naturally. The results contain, by definition, a natural beauty. "See what the metal wants. Listen to it and then release its expression," Ullrich taught.

This approach is opposite that of commercial jewelry manufacturing, which seeks to impose form upon material.

After Germany, Lewton-Brain transported his research the State University of New York New Paltz. His master's thesis was the product of codifying the basics of fold-forming.

No Secrets
Forever the non-conformist, Lewton-Brain has broken another accepted tradition in this industry: he gives information away freely. He has committed himself to sharing and helping build a community of metalsmiths. "I made a decision a long time ago, particularly with fold-forming, that I wanted to give it away, so it could be used by as many people as possible. The secrecy shrouding so many techniques is evidence of small minds trying to protect small properties."

But for Lewton-Brain, who so obviously loves his work, why shouldn't he give it away? After all, if you find a great toy, you want to share it with a friend. Work, play - there's no difference to Lewton-Brain. Winston Churchill understood, saying, "Those whose work and play are one, are fortune's favored children."

For those interested in learning more, join over 16,000 individuals who have visited Lewton-Brain's Web site and downloaded a quarter million pages of information, gratis, at

Alan Revere is a master goldsmith who received training in the famed goldsmithing program in Pforzheim, Germany. He is an award-winning jewelry designer and director of the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts, San Francisco, CA.

18 karat fold-formed brooch by Charles Lewton-Brain
  Fold-form in sterling silver by Charles Lewton-Brain

Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


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