Friday, April 30, 2010

In Praise of Synthetic Gems

When I was in art school, we spoke of synthetic gemstones in gemology class - how they are created in the laboratory and how to tell when a gem is a knock-off. But we were never encouraged to use them in our work. Deemed second best, these humble lab-grown gems were destined for "practice" stone setting, never to let their dazzle delight the senses of anyone with a refined sense of style.

I feel as though I have to stand up for the humble cubic zirconia, the disrespected laboratory corundum, the reconstituted "ambrelle" and hematite, the "black onyx" which is actually just a kind of quartz, the lovely copper coloured glass that we label "goldstone". These tiny pieces of beauty are a tribute to the innovation of humans. Nobody died for them. No land was destroyed to get them. Massive amounts of money and resources were saved in their creation. Add to these things the fact that these gems are more colourful, more dazzling to the eye, cleaner, clearer, and, in some cases, more durable, than their natural counterparts, and sell at a fraction of the price, and I would say that my choice is clear. I choose synthetic.

People want something rare, though - something that was suffered for and meticulously excavated. Princesses want their heros to fight dragons, not slave over an alchemist's tools. Even if it means that the end result is a dirty, included, foggy old emerald instead of a clear, forest green laboratory beryl? I find something flawed in that mentality. This point was driven home to me in gemology class as we learned about the Diavik diamond mine. An aerial photo shows an enormous open mine with a huge sea wall built around it. In the often harsh northern climate of the Northwest Territories, people must be flown in to work, fed, housed, and paid. Diamonds are beautiful, durable and (maybe not as) rare (as the industry would have us believe), but there is nothing in this photo of the Diavik mine that convinces me that spending this much energy and expending these resources (not to mention the casual pillage of the land) is worth it for the gem that will come out of that land. It's white (mostly), extremely hard, shows wonderful prismatic colours, returns a lot of light to the eye when it's cut properly, and should last forever. So does a moissanite or a cubic zirconia.

I always had a crush on that geeky alchemist. The hero was always just a little too full of himself.

top: Silver ring with synthetic ruby (lab corundum)
middle: The Diavik mine north of Yellowknife, NWT
left: earrings with goldstone navette gems (glass with copper dust inclusions) and reconstituted hematite cabochons.

Jewellery by Gracebourne. See listings on Etsy:


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It runs in my family

When my grandfather died, he didn't leave behind a lot of material goods. Notable to me were his lathe and several wooden rosaries. Hand turned wooden beads, put together with base metal wire or strung on a cotton cord. He was a jeweller of sorts, and I didn't know it. I thought I had nothing in common with him. I don't remember a single conversation between us - I only remember his disapproving looks and unsmiling face. When he died and this hobby that we both shared was revealed, I went to my parents' medicine cabinet where I'd stashed a small jewellery box that grampa had turned from the trunk of a young tree and painted, gifted to me one Christmas with a string of dollar store false pearl and gold tone beads. The ivory coloured paint still had a faint smell. I discarded the necklace and secreted the box away.

I started making jewellery the same way most young girls do - stringing beads, melting potato chip bags down into keychains, coiling pieces of plastic coloured electrical wire discarded by some SaskTel worker. Whatever I had on hand would do, and I still cherish the roots of that creative spirit in me, sending out feelers into the art world.

These small bracelets and keychains and neckaces were small beans compared to what my dad could do with a nickel, though. By some magical means, my dad was able to take a humble coin and hammer it into a simple ring. I remember asking him how it was done, but the answer seemed so esoteric - containing mystical machines and apparatus that I could only imagine. Metalwork was beyond the scope of my admittedly vast imagination at the time. My dad was handy with his tools - an auto body mechanic by trade, he is familiar with the way metals behave and concerned with the asthetic sense of an object, in tune with its lines and its symmetry. Why shouldn't this sense transfer to the objects which in daily life serve an exclusively decorative purpose; jewellery? My sister's grad ring was a handmade present from my dad, and I am the proud owner of a carved and polished sandstone pendant from his imagination and hands.

Last week I showed my dad some rings that I had been working on, and he inspected the workmanship and said, "well, you sure put my little nickel rings to shame, didn't you?" I remembered those days when making a nickel ring was just a fantasy, solely my dad's arcane intellectual property. I think back on the time I spent in art school learning to smith, and I wish I could have enjoyed those classes alongside my dad and grandfather.

I am always hungry for new techniques, skills and materials that will round out my artistry. Metalwork is, by far, my favourite and most rewarding technique, but I venture into woodwork, like my grandfather, and simple stone carving, like my dad. I don't have to look far for inspiration. It's in my blood.

****jewellery by Gracebourne. Click the photo to view the listing on etsy****