‘Translators’ help Romilly Saumarez Smith keep making jewelry
LONDON — On an upper floor in Romilly Saumarez Smith’s 18th-century home in East London’s Stepney neighborhood is a small cupboard that the Smiths understand was used to powder the wigs of the home’s original owners.
Now the 30 square meter space is filled with a jeweler’s bench and other equipment, shelving full of tools, stacks of notes and sketches, and the work in progress of her intricate, lyrical creations. But one recent afternoon it was not Mrs. Saumarez Smith but the jeweler Laura Ngyou, one of Mrs. Saumarez Smith’s assistants, who was working on the couch.
In 2002, Ms. Saumarez Smith, now 69, was diagnosed with a rare form of secondary progressive multiple sclerosis that left her paralyzed from the neck down, although she can speak without aids and has retained some sensation. At first she kept going, she said in a recent interview at her home, but when her fine motor skills failed in 2007, she thought her career as a creator was over. A few rough years followed, but in 2010 she realized that collaborations could allow her to continue to bring her creative fantasies to life.
All of Mrs. Saumarez Smith’s pieces, whether jewelry or art objects, are one of a kind, revealing another layer of detail each time they are examined. In the Best Ring, for example, a slice of dendritic agate was thinned to half a millimeter and backed with gold leaf, all the better to show off the agate’s natural curved pattern and the minute tree-like shapes within that pattern. The overall effect was enhanced by a delicate frame of small pearls, diamonds and gold.
Fossilized ammonites, shells and even tiny sea urchin spines have been transformed into earrings and brooches. These materials, however, were not shiny, perfectly beautiful beach souvenirs, but rather suggest the rocky, stormy British coastline rather than calm, tropical seas.
“I always want it to have the feel of the maker’s hand behind it,” Ms. Saumarez Smith said. “I don’t want it to look like they’re machine made.” The metal used in her designs is often left in an oxidized state and still retains the grime and buildup from the soldering process.
For the jewelry writer and historian Vivienne Becker, this blend of sophistication and the layering of materials and effect is both evocative and emotional. “To me,” she wrote in an email, “they are reminiscent of the bewitching jewels of the Cheapside Hoard, and they possess the same charm of unearthed treasure.” (The Cheapside Hoard is a hoard of jewelry from the late 16th and early 17th centuries discovered in London in 1912.)
Mrs. Saumarez Smith did not start out as a jeweler. She spent the first 25 years of her working life as a bookbinder, learning the trade at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, the London school now called Camberwell College of Arts and part of the University of the Arts London. She worked at the renowned Zaehnsdorf bookbindery before starting her own business and building a reputation for her artisan book bindings and use of historical techniques.
Inspired by medieval bookbinding methods, she began incorporating metal lugs and decorations into her work when, in 1999, a friend invited her to join a jewelery class on the Waterloo, South London, campus of Morley College, an adult education institution.
Mrs. Saumarez Smith found herself instantly falling in love. “I loved the difference between working with paper and leather and working with metal. It’s a much more forgiving material,” she said.
The reduced scale of jewelery also appealed. “I’ve always been drawn to the miniature, all the way back to having a dollhouse as a kid, or the little things on display in a museum,” she said.
Her transition into jewelery coincided with the purchase of the Georgian home where she still lives with her husband, Charles Saumarez Smith, a former CEO of the Royal Academy of Arts and a former director of both the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery.
The house, which has four and a half floors and was built in 1742, turned out to be a huge, life-defining project – so much so that Mrs. as one of her creations.
When they bought it from the Spitalfields Trust, a charity that protects historic buildings, it was a complete wreck. The roof and top floor were missing, thanks to wartime bomb damage, and the center of the house had been snatched for a drive-in auto repair garage. It took five years to build, as they juggled life with two young sons, to turn the grand house into an elegant setting for the couple’s collection of antiques, books and contemporary art and objects by the likes of Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal .
When her illness forced her to give up jewelry making, Ms. Saumarez Smith said she initially struggled with the idea of having others implement her ideas, but she came to realize that it was what artists from Michelangelo to Damien Hirst, as well as many jewelers, always done. And after meeting Lucie Gledhill, a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art, the two women decided to work together.
Ms. Gledhill, who now has her own jewelry line, said she needed to learn what she called the “unique language” of Ms. Gledhill’s work. Saumarez called Smith – and later began using the term “translator” for the job. “I tried to make it as faithful as I could if Romy, no for Romilly,” she wrote in an email. “Initially I started by directly copying some of Romilly’s pieces. I also carefully unpacked and studied all of her tools as a way to get closer to Romilly’s crafting hands, such as looking at the wear on the hammer.
Given Mrs. Saumarez Smith’s equally intimate relationship with her own home, it proved a useful environment in which to convey her aesthetic and creative approach, both to Mrs. Gledhill and to the assistants who followed her. “I always knew they had to work in the house because the house was the foundation of me,” said Ms. Saumarez Smith.
Mrs Gledhill agreed. “Not only does the home become a creative context, a frame for her jewelry, but it also helps to create the intimacy so necessary for the work,” she wrote. “During a making day, we constantly refer to Romilly because her jewelry is so process- and material-driven.”
Every morning, Ms. Saumarez Smith and one of her three current translators talk about projects for an hour. She communicates through a series of terms they adopted, such as “unicorns,” to describe small pieces of gold or silver that form a ball when heated; a number of balls are then fused into a line. The translators draw what they think she means and she then reviews the sketches and makes suggestions. “The more I work with the jewelers, the easier it gets,” Ms. Saumarez Smith wrote in a later email. “I think there’s something magical about it too, and I definitely feel like the pieces that emerge are my work, made by me.”
A lifelong love of puns means that all of her creations have a name. Treehandles is an ongoing series that uses the handles of antique cutlery to suggest tree trunks, with webs of silver, gold, vintage coral or other materials for branches. Most have been sold, but one large specimen takes pride of place over the fireplace in Mrs. Saumarez Smith’s bedroom, its branches casting tantalizing shadows against the wall.
The Newfoundland Collection featured eBay finds, from rusty old thimbles to old coins. “Romilly has the most amazing vision,” Ms Gledhill said. “She sees things in things no one else would see. She brings out beauty and potential in the strangest places.”
Mrs. Saumarez Smith’s jewelery retails for £250 to a whopping £8,250 ($311 to $10,290). Most are sold through her website or by appointment at her home, although she also exhibits in galleries and plans to exhibit during the second week of Goldsmiths’ Fair, scheduled for October 3-8 at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London.
One of Mrs. Saumarez Smith’s most recent projects is Old Masters, inspired by a bag of mismatched and misshapen nails that were removed from the frames of some 16th- and 17th-century paintings during restoration. They were a gift from Sandra Romito, a friend who works in the Old Masters department at Christie’s in London, and have been redesigned as two series of miniature objects.
Nails of religious paintings were covered with ecclesiastical symbols, such as the golden halo of an angel or a small pearl to represent the cloud that lifted the Virgin Mary to heaven. And nails once used in landscape paintings were decorated with tiny metal trees with even smaller beaded fruits and bunches of horsehair to suggest animals in the landscape.
For Ms. Ngyou, such quirky imaginations have enriched her own jewelry practice. “She taught me to be braver with the way I work, in terms of experimenting and taking more risks, design wise,” she said.
As for Ms. Saumarez Smith, the frustrations associated with physical challenges are mitigated by the richness of her own imagination: “I think my absolute salvation has been the fact that I am creative.”