I owe an apology to the calm and subdued visitors in the John Singer Sargent exhibition I visited recently. The peace was suddenly shattered by an impulsive shout of ‘Oh, yes, look at that! I’ve stood there!’ – and I have to confess it was me!
The painting that caused this strong reaction was of the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy. In a flash of recognition, I saw the distinctive summer afternoon sunlight falling on familiar paths, dark evergreens and stone sculptures baking in the heat. I was instantly in a good place – transported back to the same spot as the artist. Sargent painted the view in 1906, my visit was a hundred years later, when I stood in this beautiful Italian sunshine on my journey to study the ancient goldsmithing craft of granulation.
For the uninitiated, and I can’t blame you if you are, gold granulation is the technique of fusing tiny (some as small as 0.3mm in diameter) gold balls onto a solid gold background to make a stunning decorative surface to items of jewellery. It achieves a variety of beautiful effects, from rich golden texture to regular repeating forms. Because of the cleanness of the unique bonding process, the patterns are exceptionally crisp and clear.
At over 4000 years old, the first granulation examples originated from Mesopotamia, then the decoration dominated the jewellery of the Etruscans, Romans and Saxons. The glittering bright yellow glow, glimpsed in the mud of archeological finds such as Sutton Hoo, The Staffordshire Hoard, or The Alfred Jewel are from gold items decorated in this way. These ancient cultures shared the highly developed skills, knowledge and craftsmanship needed to create such exquisite articles, but through lack of documentation and the decline of apprenticeships we are in danger of losing them.
My first introduction to this specialist technique was a masterclass summer course for professional goldsmiths. My tutor was the infamous Italian jeweller Giovanni Corvaja, who is nothing short of a magician when it comes to crafting gold beyond all previously known technical boundaries. Granulation sounded complicated, impossibly fiddly, and painstaking. A mysterious technique reserved for the finest gifts and treasures, a rare skill that was difficult to master – right up my street!
It took me two years of practice before I felt vaguely happy with my efforts, during which time Giovanni become a mentor and friend. As well as the first masterclasses here in the UK, I spent enriching and inspiring time in Florence at the Le Arti Orafe Jewellery School and also in the beautiful town of Todi, Umbria, where he built his studio workshop in the medieval walls of the city.
Italy seemed the natural environment to be involved and associated with my studies. I think it has a closeness to the nature of gold as a raw material – Its wealth of artistic heritage, the warmth of the land, generosity of its inhabitants and its history steeped in the hand-crafting of exquisite artefacts.
To start the process, I alloy the gold and make the granules in a purpose-made gas-fired kiln. They are melted snippets of gold wire, supported and separated during melting by charcoal powder in a graphite crucible. I then arrange them individually to create patterns onto the background using with a very fine paintbrush. The paintbrush is loaded with a vegetable glue (gum tragacanth) and copper carbonate.
When the pattern is complete (this can take weeks on a larger piece) the work is fixed by firing in a reducing atmosphere. I use an open kiln and a mouth-blown air and propane flame torch. This is the most nerve-wracking point as overheating will cause everything to melt to a blob, and under-heating means you are back to square one. It is vital to remain calm and breathe (out, not in…I only did that once!) as a consistent air-supply is critical.
If all goes to plan, the tragacanth glue burns away releasing the copper salt from the compound. At the critical temperature (890 degrees Celsius) the copper diffuses into the granules and base with a bright flash, and bonds them together.
In ancient workshops the copper compound which enables the fusion, was created from a beautiful blue / green mineral found locally called Chrysocolla. The word ‘Chrysocolla’ is ancient greek for ‘Gold Glue’.
When you spend each day with bowls of thousands of tiny granules on the bench, things sometimes go wrong! There was a curious cat who would visit me to rub his cheeks around the angle-poise lamp and await an ear-rub. Unfortunately due to his swishing tail, one of my many challenges was how to pick up the granules once they’d tipped onto the floor! Brushing was out of the question, they travel as far and wide as sugar dropped from a height. So I invented a filter and suction device in the form of a nylon pop-sock on the end of the hoover pipe! This worked brilliantly and I could burn off any unwanted debris that got picked up along the way. It wasn’t so good however for my wardrobe and dress-sense!
I now use granulation in modern pieces. The Ocean pendant was inspired by the view of our world from space. Blue/green sea of the sparkling boulder opal contrasting with pure yellow gold textured sand dunes. The technique enables me to join pieces in very fine detail without losing definition – for example the leaves and blossom on delicate pieces such as the Sakura collection.
The biggest thing that I’ve granulated was a mermaid! She was the focal point of an exhibition following an artist’s residency in Cornwall. The piece is based on a ‘mermaid’s purse’ or shark egg-case that can be found on the shore. The purse is made from silver and Cornish tin and the contrasting mermaid is pure gold, with her bodice and tail covered in granulation. She took over a month to complete.
‘Erica, it is a meditation!’ Giovanni would cry, as I collapsed in despair at another unsuccessful attempt. He was right! I’ve learned much more than just how to fuse gold together. I’ve learned about patience, the value of taking time to do something thoroughly and wholeheartedly, the rewards and benefits of creating something from start to finish, not wasting resources, being still and focusing, exploring the limits of your materials and self-control. I learned that there’s more than one way to clear up after a cat and that, despite being a woman, I cannot multi-task!