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Jewelry Making Through the Ages: Ancient Artistry Meets a Modern Eye


''My original plan was to be a furniture designer, but I like things I can hold in my hand,'' says Susan Sanders, a Virginia jewelry designer who has shown her work in several countries. Transcript of radio broadcast:

VOICE ONE:

I’m Barbara Klein.

VOICE TWO:

And I’m Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

At the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia, you can see the work of jewelry designer Susan Sanders. Her many gold and silver designs have a clean and modern look.

One of her silver rings has a bold geometric design with small smooth stones inlayed into the metal.

How did she make this ring? Today we answer this question as we explore the history and methods of jewelry design.

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VOICE ONE:

People from almost all cultures throughout history have been making and wearing jewelry. Jewelry is valued for its visual quality, the richness of its materials and the expert way it is made. Since ancient times people have worn jewelry like rings, bracelets and necklaces to decorate their fingers, wrists and necks.

Ancient peoples who lived near the ocean used the shells of sea creatures to make jewelry. Other ancient peoples used materials like small colored rocks and animal bones and teeth. Jewelry often was made from whatever material was considered rare and costly. It expressed the wealth and social importance of its wearer.

Later cultures learned how to find and work with gold. One of gold’s important qualities is that it is a very soft metal. It can be easily formed or even flattened into extremely thin sheets of metal.

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VOICE TWO:

Some of the oldest and finest known jewelry comes from the burial site of the Sumerian ruler Queen Pu-abi. This Mesopotamian culture existed more than four thousand five hundred years ago. In this area that is now Iraq, archeologists discovered fine examples of gold jewelry. Many of the jewelry designs combined the brightness of gold with the intense blue stone called lapus lazuli. This jewelry shows some of the earliest examples of metalworking methods such as filigree and granulation.

Granulation is a technique in which tiny gold balls are placed in a decorative pattern and joined onto a gold surface. Filigree is made by arranging fine gold or silver wires into patterns or images. Filigree work can either be joined onto a metal surface, or left as openwork. Many cultures have left extraordinary examples of this technique. Examples include the jewelry of ancient Greeks and the eighteenth century Qing period in China.

VOICE ONE:

Several other metal working methods were developed in ancient times and still define jewelry design today. They include cloisonné work and casting. Cloisonné involves forming metal borders to make different contained areas on the surface of the piece of jewelry. These spaces are then filled with different pieces of finely carved precious stones or with small bits of glass that are melted together.

The ancient Egyptians were experts of the cloisonné method. For example, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City you can see a beautiful cloisonné necklace made more than four thousand years ago. More than three hundred small stones make up a detailed image of Egyptian symbols such as birds and snake creatures. The symbols tell about the sun god giving long life to the Egyptian ruler of that time, King Senwosret the Second.

For thousands of years, Egyptian jewelry represented a great tradition of artistic skill. Many of the pieces were not only beautiful, but also believed to be magical. Amulet jewelry was believed to protect people or give them special powers. For example, scarabs in the form of the beetle insect were believed to be the symbol of new life. Jewelers in ancient Egypt made many examples of finely carved scarab rings and necklaces that still exist today.

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VOICE TWO:

One very old technique of metal casting is called the lost-wax method. With this method, an artist carves the shape of jewelry he or she wants to make out of wax material. This shape is placed into a piece of clay, which is heated at high temperatures.

The clay takes the form of the ring, but the wax inside melts away because of the heat. This is why the method is called lost-wax. The original carved wax model is lost, but its form remains in the clay. Hot liquid metal such as gold is placed inside this clay form. As the metal cools and hardens, it takes the form left by the wax.

The rulers of Asante in modern day Ghana wore gold jewelry made with the lost-wax method. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Asante jewelers made beautiful, fine, detailed gold objects. The ruling family and other leaders wore objects as symbols of their importance, wealth and power.

Granulation, filigree, cloisonné and casting are only a few of the metalworking methods used by jewelers both in the past and today.

VOICE ONE:

Of course, not all jewelry is made by metalworking. Many cultures throughout history used other valuable materials as well. For example, in China, carved jade stone was part of an ancient jewelry tradition. This green stone was beautiful and also thought to have magical powers. In southern Nigeria during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, only the ruling family of Benin had the right to wear jewelry carved of white ivory material.

These are only a few examples of the creativity humans have demonstrated with the art of making jewelry. What kinds of jewelry traditions exist where you live?

VOICE TWO:

The methods we have described are still being used by artists today. Modern technology and newer methods have only added to the countless ways that stones, metals and other materials can be formed. Today, jewelry designers combine old and new methods with styles from around the world. Many also use unexpected materials, such as plastics, cotton and wood. The creative possibilities of modern jewelry making are limitless.

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VOICE ONE:

The Torpedo Factory Art Center is in the old area of Alexandria, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. Here, on the second floor is a workroom and store called Susan Sanders Design. Let us go back to the modern geometric jewelry we told about earlier.

“I'm Susan Sanders. I'm a jewelry designer at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia. I started making jewelry when I was in college but my desire to make things started much earlier than that. My father was a graphics designer and brought me home professional supplies. My original plan was to be a furniture designer, but I like things I can hold in my hand.”

VOICE TWO:

Susan Sanders says this ring is not the easiest of her rings to wear. It is more like a finger sculpture. She carved the main sterling silver form of the ring from a piece of hard wax material. With the lost-wax method we told about earlier, she carved the wax model to make the silver form.

Then, she used a milling machine to create a perfect circle opening for a finger. She also used this milling tool to carve out the areas where she placed small pieces of onyx and jasper stone. Once the stones were in place, she ground the surface to a smooth finish.

VOICE ONE:

Like most of her work, this ring is very modern and geometric. Susan Sanders says she is not exactly sure where her ideas come from. Some ideas come from subjects she loves such as modern architecture. But the hardest part is choosing an idea for a piece of jewelry since she does not have the time or resources to make every design she imagines.

Susan Sanders sells most of her work in her store in Alexandria. If you visit the store, you can see her hard at work on new jewelry. Galleries in California also carry her designs. She has even shown her work in countries such as Italy and South Korea.

Listen as Susan Sanders tells about an exciting show she helped put together in Russia:

“I have had quite a number of shows in different countries. The most exciting of which was a show that we had in Moscow in Russia that was called Two Capitals which was jewelry designers from the Washington, D.C., area and artists also from the Moscow area. We put together a show and went over there with it. We had a fabulous time.

"We were entertained by three of the country's best opera singers and one of their top pianists, which was absolutely incredible. We had an opportunity to meet some of the other Russian jewelers and visit their studios, so we feel like we have friends over there even though we had to speak through an interpreter.”

VOICE TWO:

Susan Sanders says to be a good jewelry maker you have to enjoy working long and hard on very small details. She says it is not work that goes quickly. Sanders feels lucky to have grown up with the choices she had. Because her father was an artist, he supported her creative goals early on. Many women did not have the same choices. Susan Sanders says she is thankful to be an artist doing work that she loves.

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VOICE ONE:

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Barbara Klein.

VOICE TWO:

And I’m Steve Ember. You can read and listen to this program on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. You can also see pictures of Susan Sanders' jewelry. Join us again next week for Explorations in VOA Special English.

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