Professional Jeweler Archive: Gracious Rebel

July 2004


Gracious Rebel

Engravings and carvings tell a story in, and of, stones

Ute Klein Bernhardt understands gemstones long before she subjects them to her grinding wheel. “Feel the softness of these stones,” she says, handing over some river-tumbled, banded scarlet agates. She waits for a reaction and chuckles, suggesting one should know exactly what she means. But these stones are hard and cold, with the only area of potential compromise being their smoothness.

Bernhardt’s lilting German accent suggests she misunderstands the meaning of “soft.” But she’s dead on – her definition takes into account the gems’ russet hues, their shape and textures, their individual and delicious quirks of nature. You find she’s visualizing the way these gems will look after she’s coaxed their essence from them at her cutting machine.

Completed, they demand to be turned over and over in your hands. They exude the softness she knew existed in them all along.

Bred in the Bone

Carving is in Bernhardt’s blood. At the tender age of six, while visiting her grandfather’s shop in her birthplace of Idar-Oberstein, Germany, she marveled at the miniature stone carvings of animals he and her father crafted. These animals and cameos would go to major jewelers. “I had a fascination with carving and started as an apprentice with my grandfather at that young age. By the time I was 13 after World War II, my apprenticeship had grown into a burning desire,” she recalls.

But it was not easy for the Klein family after the war, and the young woman had to help the family business by mass-producing carvings and cameos from 6 a.m. to midnight daily. “We were cheap labor,” says Bernhardt. And while she resented the copying and lack of imaginative carving, the grueling apprenticeship schedule taught her technique and patience.

In 1952, she began studying carving and engraving at a trade school under Richard Hahn, then one of the world’s greatest engravers. He is credited with reviving artistic gemstone awareness in Idar-Oberstein after the war. At the trade school, she also learned from Manfred Wild, Dr. Walter Fischer and Karl Schlossmacher, all of whom deeply influenced the gemstone and carving business in Germany. They also influenced the young carver.

“Carving was decidedly not a woman’s career path,” she says. “There were 40 fellows in the classes – and one girl.” And though classmates chided her for choosing a “man’s profession,” her professors saw great talent and promise in her work. “I was a rebel. I had to be better than the men in my techniques in order to succeed,” she says. Hahn always reminded her: “This is just the beginning. You must never stop learning.”

American Flower Blossoms

When she was 23, Klein married Manfred Bernhardt, a German living in Oak Park, IL, and raised four children there. Returning to carving, she completed a carving in 1981 of Marshall Field, the legendary Chicago retailer, using an 1,800-ct. Russian green beryl. It became a permanent part of the Field Museum collection in Chicago.

Other spectacular carvings ensued, many inspired by ancient mythology. A bust of Homer stares solemnly from blue tourmaline, and a “Diana Slays the Elk” cameo draws attention in agate. Bernhardt never limits herself. Though she loves mythology and ancient themes, she also thrills in depicting movement and fluidity. She handily captures it in a herd of mustangs galloping through smoky quartz or chrysoprase. She also freezes movement and grace in dancers and human figures, with every muscle and ripple of cloth transferred to stone. “My duty is to discipline the gems, to make them do what I want them to do,” she says.

Bernhardt has an uncanny ability to mix realism and abstract themes, making the viewer of her carvings wonder about their meanings. She enjoys being playful in her depictions of animals. A recent foray into carving Tahitian cultured pearls, for example, resulted in a chubby armadillo following the contour of the pearl. As the piece is turned around, a pointy face peeks out from behind corrugated nacre armor. Tender, translucent ears are fashioned from the nacre, and tiny feet are tucked under the armadillo’s belly, the underside of the pearl.

In 1995, she was given an opportunity to carve the likeness of Pope John Paul II. She traveled to Vatican City, studied the Pope’s movements, expressions and style, and eventually spent more than 200 hours crafting a cameo on a banded red and white agate. It’s part of the Vatican’s Papal Collection. She also took advantage of the opportunity to study in the Vatican library and examine its gem and ancient cameo collection.

Bernhardt has earned numerous awards. She won the Grand Prize at the Tucson Gem & Mineral Society Show in 1993 and was inducted into the National Rockhound and Lapidary Hall of Fame. She has been generous in sharing her expertise through lectures, notably as an instructor at the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts’ Master Symposium in San Francisco, CA. She also offered a poster session on Engraved Gems: 600 B.C.-2000 A.D. at the Gemological Institute of America’s Third International Gemological Symposium in 1999.

Berhardt’s carvings and engravings grace gem collections at the Idar-Oberstein Museum and the Gemological Institute of America Museum.

The advice of teacher Hahn to never stop learning still propels Bernhardt forward. “Now I’m working on a fistful of lions, drunk on protein, in a 10,000-ct. orange beryl. On the other side, I can see already a lioness leading her cubs away. But who knows where the carving will go,” she ponders. “It is a journey of love where one cannot see the end.”

  • Ute Klein Bernhardt, Wausau, WI; (715) 355-4935.

– by Robert Weldon, G.G.

“‘Evergreens John’ is a beautiful Belgian stallion with a cinnamon colored body,” says Ute Klein Bernhardt. “In this multicolored slab of liddicoatite tourmaline from Alakamesi Itenina, Madagascar, we see in juxtaposition the smallness of man.” Weight: 280 carats.
“I call this sculpture ‘Lament,’ fashioned from translucent Montana River-worn agates with dendrites,” says Ute Klein Bernhardt. “A Brazilian street urchin I saw inspired it. I wanted to show her alone but holding on to her world.” The sculpture, shown in three views, measures 60mm by 100mm by 80mm.
“‘Octopus’” has a 20mm mabé pearl as its body,” says the artist. “The beauty of these cultured pearls is that the oysters don’t know when to stop secreting nacre so these rich, soft forms develop. In the carving, the nacre-covered shell surrounding the pearl became the natural extension of the octopus’ many arms, waving in the ocean currents.”
“‘Samburu Boy,’ from a tribe in North Kenya, comes from my fascination with Africa and its people,” says Klein Bernhardt. “I picture him sucking his thumb, observing his older brothers and sisters herding cattle. I carved the child from this natural 54-ct. Sri Lanka sapphire to cool my nerves while I was carving the likeness of the Pope at the Vatican. On the opposite side is a beech leaf in abstract.”

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