i Juan Jose at work the atelier

Baelo Art: Recasting ancient jewellery for the modern world

Read time: 10 minutes, 15 seconds

Drawing on Seville’s rich multicultural history, Baelo Art and Jewellery, the partnership of Isobel Torres and goldsmiths Juan-Jose Marmalejo, creates jewellery using traditional techniques, that draws inspiration from ancient relics. Writer Mazzi Odu explores the collaboration for Goldsmiths’ Stories.

From their atelier in Seville, Isobel Torres and Juan-Jose Marmalejo of Baelo Art and Jewellery are a dynamic exposition of the power of collaboration. “I was working in economics in the energy industry. Everyday when I was at work, I didn’t feel full. One day I met Juan-Jose and I loved his art” Isabel Torres, the founder of the brand relates. For his part Marmalejo’s connection with goldsmithery is steeped in his personal narrative: a fourth generation goldsmith, and a world- renowned expert in restoring and creating jewellery and object reproductions, he has a long and successful working relationship with the National Archaelogical Museum in Madrid and numerous other institutions who called upon his expert services to make reproductions of ancient pieces.

When Torres initially approached him to collaborate he felt he had met not only an appreciator of his craft but a kindred spirit in terms of their creative intentions. “We like to share knowledge, we believe in the conservations of the methods. In their purity and in caring for tradition.” And thus a business with a profound agenda was born. Because as becomes apparent, Baelo Art and Jewellery not only exists for the purposes of creating art-jewellery pieces but also as an active crucible of the ideas, influences and developments that have developed in Andalucia as the result of migration, conquest and assimilation and as a home for reimagining them for current and future generations far and wide.

Highly decorated gold drop earrings with baroque pearls against a black background
i The 'Nemes' Earrings by Baelo Art and Jewellery

The Iberian Peninsula has absorbed a mélange of cultural influences and this is reflected in the jewellery making community past and present. Torres notes that “each Baelo Piece is linked with a true story” and the region has a myriad of them. Maritime Civilizations such as the Phoenicians who hail from modern day Lebanon and dominated trade between 1500 – 650BC brought “the techniques of filigree, embossing, and graining” notes Marmalejo. Once they had settled in their new locale the Phoenicians were quick to exploit precious metal deposits too: The Rio Tinto silver mines in Huelva were important for currency production and acted as a catalyst for a nascent metalsmith community and for further expansion into the hinterland.

However, it is perhaps the most famous collection of pieces attached to this era, the Carambolo Treasure, that have had the most significant impact on Baelo as a jewellery house. The original treasure was discovered in the 1950s outside of Seville and consisted of a number of bracelets, necklaces, pendants and two pectorals – an ornamental chest piece for oxen – as well as several plaques. Indeed the cache has such a prominent place in the region’s aesthetic history that an image of pieces from the treasure were part of the imagery of Christian Dior’s 2022 Cruise Collection.

i Reproduction of the Carambolo Treasure by Baelo Art and Jewellery

Archeologists have theorised as to the usage and purpose the Phoenicians had for the items with Marmalejo asserting “the treasure of the Carambolo and the Ebora Diasdem were used in burials”. However, Torres chose to use the treasure as a portal for creating contemporary pieces of jewellery that you could wear in the here and now, funerals an optional extra. “The difference with mine is they are a little bit smaller, but we added a rosetta flower characteristic from the Phoenician Era…it has twelve petals [and] the number twelve represents power. The piece is very complicated to make, very laborious!” Torres adds. Yet, it is precisely in the proportion play that she achieves the greater wearability as well as performing the sleight of hand of making something so undeniably rooted in the past feel fresh.

Torres and Marmalejo have also drawn inspiration from latter conquerors including the Romans, Visigoths and Moors, all of whom left their mark in Andalucia’s architecture, normative concerns and cultural landscape. Of the Visigoths, Northern European invaders who dominated the region between the 5th and 8th centuries, Marmalejo notes; “In Visigothic goldsmithing, crowns were offerings to the Church to redeem sin and and for protection and these treasures are reflected in our hanging Visigothic crosses”, elaborate and gem incrusted pieces that the brand position as objects or sculptures for the home. Similarly, the Moorish invasion which resulted in two successive caliphates between the 8th and 13th century not only left a distinct arabesque architectural legacy, but at the time of the Spanish reconquest of 1248, linguistic confluence was such that in some churches Mass was celebrated in Arabic. It is thus unsurprising that the door knockers on Seville Cathedral completed in 1528 would incorporate medieval Moorish influences, something that is reflected in the Seville Door Knocker ring and earrings which are Baelo’s jewellery tribute to the building. The pieces act as another wearable reminder of the intricate metal work techniques such as filigree, micro-soldering and granulation that were a hallmark of jewellery of that era and which Marmalejo painstakingly makes at his bench.

Door knocker made of gold
i Seville Door Knocker by Baelo Art and Jewellery

Seville remains an important home for traditional Goldsmithing and metalsmiths, but operating as a family intergenerational business is sadly in decline with younger generations seeking potential careers elsewhere. In spite of what might view as a bleak outlook Marmalejo remains robustly optimistic: “The goldsmith has always existed in Seville due to our history, and the sacred goldsmith is especially strong, but due to the successive economic crises [whilst] some have disappeared, new artists emerge since the sacred goldsmith is very important because [they]  participate in one of our most deeply rooted events in the city, Semana Santa where true goldsmith jewels are exhibited.”

The globally recognised cultural event to mark Christian Holy Week and the run up to Easter features processions where ornate crosses, and other religious paraphernalia crafted in gold are marched through the city and tourists and penitent pilgrims converge. The cross, perhaps more than any other religious symbol has become a universal motif, something not lost in Torres’ designs which draw upon the ‘sacred goldsmith’ tradition and are realised either in pendant form or as brooches. Gemstones dominate, with cabochon sapphires, amethysts and pearls set in gold or silver.

i 'Macarena Virgin Crown' by Baelo Art and Jewellery

Nomenclature has become an important aspect in the jewellery landscape predicating how work is engaged with, perceived and even priced. For Torres it was imperative that Baelo had the sub-title ‘art-jewellery’ both to acknowledge Marmalejo’s and her own artistry and role in the conceptualising and making as well as to celebrate that their pieces for the most part are situated in adorning the body. “What we are is art and I feel the world needs to know our workshe states.

It is a creative and commercial intent that has so far drawn dividends with the core clientele although geographically diverse tending to be design aficionados and art collectors and in Torres’ description “sophisticated intellectuals who are cosmopolitan”, are the very sort who would see the value of upholding traditional craftsmanship and would view the pieces themselves as wearable art. This is not to say that a younger customer is not one that is not part of the brand’s long time vision. Torres notes “We are thinking of doing a collection with less expensive metals and stones”, with future-proofing being an essential activity of any business it is a canny move as well that sees the brand making measurable steps to be seen as inclusive from a price perspective.

Decorated gold crown adorned with blue stones
i 'Rescevinto' crown by Baelo Art and Jewellery, in reproduction of a 7th century Guazarra treasure.

Torres and Marmalejo see Baelo continuing to be located in Seville, with those not able to visit in person ordering pieces via their Instagram portal. It is curiously ironic; pieces steeped in history arriving via the most modern of means but it allows for Marmalejo to continue his dual practice: “I like to do both things. Study the pieces with the archaeologists and I like to create jewellery with Isabel” he explains, and for Torres to work at the pace she likes and with her boundless curiosity untethered to a more commercial modus operandi. Recently, she has taken inspiration from the 20th century with a series of Art Deco pieces informed by extensive research into the creative visual, musical and literary renaissance that was at its zenith in the 1920s. However, she still returns to the treasures of antiquity and the early and high Middle Ages, a process that sees her dart across historical eras as a means of acting as conduit of change, tradition and contemporary tastes.

“Jewellery is a communication…it is a way to feel more you and to feel happier” Torres asserts. Self-identification and expression have become a modern religion of a sort, with how we present ourselves to the world, be it in our apparel or adornment choices, being central to that process. Yet, one sees especially in the work that Baelo Art and Jewellery presents that this is not a new concern. Whether on a macro level represented by civilizations, polities, faith movements or communities of makers such as the goldsmiths of Andalucia or on the micro-level of individuals, there is an eternal appeal of leaving our mark, both in our present realities and for future generations to decipher and enjoy, that remains quintessentially, beautifully human.