From the Vault
Often underappreciated and unacknowledged, these heroes bring jewelry
Bench jewelers are the unsung heroes of the jewelry world. In their hands,
beautiful design renderings on paper become breathtaking wearable jewelry.
The success of this transition is entirely dependent on their technical
virtuosity, enormous patience and minute attention to detail. The best bench
jewelers are a combination of artist, artisan, inventor and engineer, using
each of these talents and skills to transform rigid metal and gems into
jewelry that is comfortable to wear and a delight to see.
The finest jewels are those with subtle touches. Hand-engraved details
along the edges of a bracelet, on a ring shank or on the back of a piece
of jewelry are good examples, along with millegraining and fine gallery
work. While these touches may not be necessary to the function of the piece,
they add enormously to its value.
The care and attention spent on finishing touches demonstrate pride of
workmanship. Function of the piece is critical, however, and this again
is dependent on the bench jeweler's abilities. The best of these magicians
devise supple connections between each element so the piece is flexible
as cloth, intricate hidden clasps are fabricated as central elements and
safety latches become an integral part of the design rather than an afterthought.
Form and Function
Convertible jewelry designed to serve more than one function is another
example of the bench jeweler's wizardry. Tiaras that convert to necklaces,
necklaces that convert to bracelets, pendants and clips or brooches that
convert to pendants are some of the more frequent combinations.
Convertible jewelry evolved between the 19th and 20th centuries, becoming
more refined as technology advanced. These miracles of engineering may seem
simple at first glance. However, closer examination shows them to be ingeniously
contrived. The early 1930s Cartier bracelet pictured below is a case in
point. When you press on the apparently seamless surface of the central
element of the buckle, it opens so you can hook in the bracelet end; when
you squeeze the ends of the diamond-encrusted cylinder, the latch springs
Power of a Bench Jeweler
Every estate jeweler has stories reverently told in hushed tones of convertible
jewelry that passed through his or her hands. If sold, it was with regret
because these pieces are exceptional, exquisite. This, then, is the power
of the bench jeweler.
Curiously, these bench jewelers are rarely known to us by name. Large
jewelry manufacturers generally prefer that their pieces be stamped with
the name of the company alone. It's rare for the designer to be credited
on the piece of jewelry, much less the bench jeweler an astonishing
but accepted trade practice. Great bench jewelers are well-kept trade secrets
whose renown as technical virtuosos is circulated by word of mouth. A notable
exception is the legendary Carl Fabergé, jeweler to the Russian royal
court. Fabergé's workshops employed several workmasters who specialized
in particular bench techniques. These workmasters were allowed to stamp
their maker's mark on pieces along with the Fabergé stamp. Uniquely
egalitarian as Fabergé was, his name has survived as one of the greatest
jewelers of all time all the greater for crediting the men who helped
build his fame.
An ingenious clasp as the central motif is featured in this diamond and
platinum bracelet by Cartier (circa 1930). Courtesy of Neil Lane
Jewelry Inc., Beverly Hills, CA.
by Elise B. Misiorowski
Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.