March 1998

Precious Metals:Metalsmithing


Captivated by granulation as a young man, he became a master

Though he is not widely known in commercial jewelry circles, John Paul Miller has built an international following for his breathtaking granulation techniques.

From childhood, Miller has excelled in art. In high school, he took a formal art class and was introduced to the craft of enameling. He enrolled in the Cleveland Institute of Art, graduating with a degree in industrial design. During this time, he stumbled upon a depiction of the technique he would later master.

"In 1940 I happened to come across photos of granulation by Elizabeth Treskow in a German art magazine called Die Kunst," he recalls. "I couldn't understand the German and I knew nothing about granulation - including its name - but the work fascinated me." This glimpse began a journey of discovery and innovation by one of this country's most creative jewelers.

The Search
He began a search for information about this ancient art and found that granulation reached its apex in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. Over the intervening years, however, the technique was virtually lost.

Miller found little else written about granulation. When he asked goldsmiths about it, only one or two even knew the rudiments.

He researched archeological journals and finally discovered one devoted to granulation. The author speculated that certain alloys could form a eutectic bond (at the lowest possible temperature of solidification) when heated in a reducing atmosphere. This would permit the precision fusion of tiny spheres of metal on to a surface just like Miller had seen. Ordinarily, when solder is used, it tends to fill in corners and blend the shapes. However, in the fusion process, the granules are attached at only very small contact points, giving them the effect of floating above the surface like balloons on a quiet lake.

The Experiments
In his first experiments, Miller worked with 14k gold and actually had some success with granulation. Then he explored a range of variables, including different alloys, flames, fluxes and adhesives. "Little by little, I learned to control the surface of the gold," he says. His skill increased and he discovered how to join larger components the same way, without solder. Eventually he learned to fuse long seams so an entire piece could be made using only one alloy.

By 1950, Miller was constructing larger and more complex pieces. Having overcome the problem of enameling on soldered components, he then applied enamel to his work with great success.

These breakthroughs allowed Miller's artistic sensibility to be expressed in metal. Unfortunately, his time in the studio devoted to creating jewelry was limited. He taught three-dimensional design at the Cleveland Institute of Art during the day, leaving only a few hours at night to make jewelry. For 40 years he worked this way, completing roughly four to eight pieces per year.

The Legacy
Now, almost 50 years after he first encountered granulation, Miller stands out for a number of his innovations.

As the original American granulation artist, he has inspired a generation of goldsmiths who work in granulation. His work can be divided into three distinct sections. In his "Fragments" series, large floating shapes are adorned with tiny fragments that hold the elements together at hidden points.

His "Black & Gold" series combines blackened fragments of 18k gold with brilliant golden fragments of 24k gold to produce one of the most dramatic effects ever seen in precious metals.

Perhaps the most widely known of Miller's work is his exquisite menagerie of beetles, moths and snails. In this series, the artist fashions tiny creatures in 18k gold, combining granulation with beautiful enameled surfaces. As in all his work, Miller's refined artistry conveyed via his masterful goldsmithing is purely enchanting.

Examples of Miller's work can be seen in the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery. In 1994, he received the American Craft Council's Gold Medal for Excellence.

Miller continues his quest to create beautiful pieces, though he confides, "I will never complete all of the commissions that await me."

by Alan Revere

 Note the airiness of the wings on this 18k African Moth pendant.
The Dung Beetle pendant is crafted from 18k gold. 
  The "Black & Gold" series paired blackened 18k and 24k gold, as seen in this brooch from 1982.
 The 18k brooch from Miller's "Fragments" series was made in 1975.  

Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


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