Taking This Fine Jewelry–Making Class Taught Me More Than How to Paint a Diamond Necklace

Taking This Fine Jewelry–Making Class Taught Me More Than How to Paint a Diamond Necklace

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I’ve never had a steady hand. Whenever I hold a pen, a fork, or a delicate glass cup, I tend to shake a bit. It’s been this way ever since I can remember putting my first crayon to my first coloring book and pushing nervously on the paper. I have always been an anxious person. So, when I found out that the class I would be attending at L’École School of Jewelry Arts would involve creating our own detailed rendering, I was, in a word, shook. I thought I would be playing with emeralds or learning how to lacquer, maybe setting stones, too. Making a painting isn’t exactly the jewelry-crafting lesson I’d signed up for when I heard that the school, which is supported by Van Cleef & Arpels, would have a residency and exhibition on New York’s Upper East Side from October 25 through November 9. In hindsight, though, I learned much more than I anticipated, not only about how fine jewelry is first conceived, but also about the value in putting down my phone, softening my grip, and making something from scratch.

After walking into the school at 9:15 a.m. on Monday (slightly tardy due to early-morning work emails and being rushed, as always), I was ushered upstairs and handed a clean white jeweler’s coat to wear over my clothes. Entering the quiet, intimate classroom, I took my seat at the work table along with five others. They were all women, most of whom worked in the jewelry business with the exception of one aspiring designer. Our teachers, a visual artist and a designer for Van Cleef & Arpels, would be lecturing us about gouache, which is a type of watercolor paint used to create highly intricate renderings of high jewelry for the craftspeople of a jewelry house to work off. Outside of the initial process of choosing gemstones, the gouache is the very first step in the process of creating a one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry. It is a craft that has been done since these high jewelry houses were founded, some as long ago as the late 1800s, like Van Cleef & Arpels.

Gouache is still used today, only in the couture jewelry realm, and even as new technologies have been utilized in the workshops, these paintings remain true to their origins. The process begins with a sketch of the brass mock-up from the designer, after which the artist shades in the drawing with a pencil and later, paints a separate sketch, mimicking the lines and shading of the first, with the gouache so that the jewelry appears in an almost 3-D form. It may sound quite simple, but the technique requires training and years of practice to perfect. There is no school for gouache and as such, it’s a profession that often attracts those outside of the jewelry-making realm, like architects and illustrators.

We started our class by studying gouaches of necklaces, rings, and brooches, some that were from Van Cleef & Arpels and others from houses like Cartier and Boucheron. Currently, Van Cleef & Arpels has three in-house artists who specialize in gouache. The teachers asked us to identify the subtle differences in each image. Some were printed on light gray paper as opposed to black or white, both of which were used in the 1940s and ’50s but were later discovered to drown out the color of the stones, whereas the neutral gray lifted everything.

Next, we were prompted to explain where the light was coming from in each picture—the correct answer was the top left corner, which is always the case and is indicated by the small white line detailing on the stone. If there is too much white on the painting, the depth of light cannot be deciphered, and the actual piece won’t be finished with the correct amount of shine. In essence, the beauty of the final necklace, brooch, earring, ring, or bracelet is dependent on this artwork. Also, the table is the main facet of a stone and a jeweler in the workshop will know how to cut it based on the angles and clarity of the one featured in the gouache.

None of these images are altered digitally, save for the copying of gouaches that are now used for marketing purposes. This point the instructors made very clear: Absolutely no computers are used. It takes about a week or more for a gouache artist to sketch and paint a single piece depending on the size and detailing involved. One gouache we observed had an entire forest scene carved into the main diamond pendant, with similar motifs on a few other stones, and probably took close to a month to interpret. Our class was going to make a gouache in a little over an hour, and I, the cynic with the shaky hands, was perplexed as to how.

I took my seat again and we practiced, mixing the correct amount of water and paint (it’s tricky to find the perfect consistency) and with a thin brush, using it to trace minuscule black lines on a page. My straight line was a tad squiggly. I went on to the L-shape and still, not so smooth. I had a tough time at first and one of the instructors could tell. She leaned over my stiff shoulder, which was hunched down almost on top of the table, and whispered: “Remember to breathe.” I laughed, took a second to sigh some out air out of my lungs, and went on to the S-shape. That turned out much better, as did the square, and I realized that in this line of work, patience really is a virtue.

After the tracing, we were given a tiny brass bow, which was placed under our main light source. There was an outline of the bow on our gray paper and we were to shade it in using a pencil. Again, it was about studying exactly where the light was hitting from the top left corner, which dips and curls of that small twisty bow were visible to the light and which weren’t. Then, we went on to paint a smaller outline of the bow just next to the sketch. It required one layer of white watered-down gouache paint first, followed by a mixture of black and white for the shaded edges and later, a stark white for the surface lines. In between each step, the gouache artist must wait for the different layers to dry. We didn’t get into color, but applying the exact pigments of whatever stone or metal is to be used for the final piece would be the final task in the laborious process.

In the end, my bow didn’t look half-bad. A soft bell rang just outside the door and class was over. I was proud of myself for calming my nerves and actually taking three hours to finish something with my hands. Because who has time for that anymore? The art of craft, especially in fashion couture and high jewelry, is about making something pure out of nothing in a world where we depend so heavily on technology to guide us through our overstimulated and overworked lives. I may not ever become a gouache artist for a historic Parisian house, but learning about what goes into this underappreciated art form and how these painters are responsible for the initial concepts of some of the most exquisite pieces of jewelry in the world, I now understand why they do it.

I have never been crafty. I love art and design and fashion, but I’ve never taken up ceramics, knitting, or the like. Maybe it’s because I’m in tune with my shaky nerves, or maybe it’s because I too often refuse to slow down and turn everything else off. The L’École class gave me a chance to use my hands to create something unique, something that didn’t require an iPhone or algorithm or YouTube video. Craft is as prevalent a trend in fashion now as it ever was, and after painting that little bow shape, I realized its value.

[“source=TimeOFIndia”]