Bench Wizards

March 1999

From the Vault

Bench Wizards

Often underappreciated and unacknowledged, these heroes bring jewelry to life

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 shut! Fabulous!

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.


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