Modern Masters by Melanie Grant: David Michael Jewels on Stones

Read time: 26 minutes, 53 seconds

Following on from her first book Coveted: Art and Innovation in High Jewelry, Melanie Grant examines the evolution of jewellery as art with a new five-part series created during lockdown with some of jewellery’s modern masters. This is the final part.

Tools were our toys

Our journey started when we were four years old.  My Dad was a jeweller in New Zealand on the retail side and he had his own store. When we were little kids he had a workshop on site for doing repairs and he would take us there before and after nursery school, plonking us down in what was the quietest, most out of the way place us kids could be without making trouble. My brother David and I had our own little set of tools, which were the old worn out workshop tools to keep us entertained and we played to our heart’s content. As identical twins, these are our earliest memories. I really don’t know anything else other than that start and it was from here that David Michael Jewels came into being. 

I remember everything about the workshop, how the light fell in the morning, the rich smell of wood and fire, how the bolts felt cool to the touch. We knew very early on that this was our world and basically, I just never stopped playing with tools all the way through my life. When I was 12 years old I built a model train set, selling off the pieces to finance a basic workshop in my bedroom. I wanted to carve wax by the age of 16 and we started working weekends in the store, deciding to leave high school early to start making jewellery. We knew that was what we wanted to do and school had no real purpose to it after that.

Nothing else captured my imagination like jewellery, partly because it included so many of my loves. I always loved drawing and making things with Lego and Play-Doh. I’m really just a big kid still playing with things; it’s just that now I’m using gemstones and metal. When I was 17, I remember somebody wanted an earring made in the workshop and one of the jewellers declined. It had small little hinges and small little springs and he felt it wasn’t possible because the elements had to be commercially made by machines. I thought, well, I could make that and so I did over time, little by little in the evenings. I made and then presented it and if there was a light bulb moment, I guess that was it. I knew then this could be more than fun, it could be a career.

MAKER SPOTLIGHT
i David and Michael circa 1985.

We evolved in our own time

We are Kiwis born and raised in New Zealand but about six years ago, we upped and moved to the Gold Coast of Australia. As identical twins, we’re probably the closest two people can get, sharing the same experiences throughout our lives. When you’re an identical twin you never really have anything that’s purely your own, not a birthday or even your own clothes because you always get given the same things at the same time. So we’re very, very used to working closely together but in the early days, David was a little bit more undecided about which direction he wanted to take. He liked watches, being entranced by the mechanical nature of things so he focused on that for a while. He also had more appreciation for the retail side of things but eventually, the jewellery bug caught him too and he got into manufacturing. We went our own way for a time but eventually we came back together and things have been running smoothly ever since.

In New Zealand we had a store in a mall with mall opening hours so it was very busy and also a bit too commercial. We sold watches and also jewellery made by other people, did repairs and I made the occasional custom jewel. Over time we realised it wasn’t as much fun as we had hoped and while it was very successful, we weren’t really striving to be better. It was hard but we had to let it go. After selling that business we decided to hone it down to just the three of us.  Me, my brother and my father, without any employees. We settled on a tiny little boutique in the suburbs on the beach and focused on work that my brother and I made as well as private commissions.

We did that for a decade and loved it, sticking to mostly bridal jewellery and engagement rings but then my father decided to retire early. My mum is 10 years his senior and when they met he made that promise so off he went. I think she knew he was a workaholic! David and I really just wanted to squirrel ourselves away in the workshop and make things so when Dad retired, we sold up and boiled it all down even further to the two of us and the pure art of creativity. We don’t have much contact with the outside world now and we make what we want to. When we finish a piece, we send it to our gallery Stephen Russell in New York and they take care of dealing with the clients and selling it. We now work like artists.

i Jewellery rendering of a pink sapphire and conch pearl pendant.

Limits can be good

Living and working like this suits us.  Occasionally, Frank Everett who is SVP at Sotheby’s New York can wrestle a jewel out of our hands before it goes to Stephen Russell.  That happens maybe once or twice a year but other than that, everything, goes through the gallery and if people get in touch via email, Instagram or carrier pigeon we direct them to Stephen Russell.  I mean, we see Instagram as a little window into the workshop where we talk about who we are and what we’re doing but we like that separation between us as the creators and the client.  There is no pollution or muddying of our ideas, which we are extremely passionate about, or our creative process.  We don’t have that conversation about budgets or the use of certain stones.  We just create without limitations or guidelines in the traditional, artistic sense.  It is beautiful.

And we don’t make many jewels at all. In the beginning, when we first started, we were making slightly more but the pieces were simpler. More rings and single objects in fact. Since then and as we have gotten more confident, with an established audience for the work and over the years, we have focused more on detail. Each piece demands much more time and thought and each one presents it’s own unique challenge. We recently started making more earrings, which is obviously two pieces in one, so I would say our actual output is anywhere from five up to a maximum of ten jewels, annually. It’s not a pretend number that we make up to try and seem exclusive; it’s because only my brother and I actually touch the pieces so these are necessary constraints. It is a genuine number. Some years we decide to make simpler things or if we’re making more rings, which is just one then maybe we can get closer to the ten. But if we have a year where we get inspired and want to make a whole lot of earrings, well then it will probably be closer to five.

We do everything ourselves. We take our own images and build our own website, we write our own Instagram. We have no employees and we don’t outsource a single thing and I like that. David does all the photography, which is extremely important because while only a handful of people in the world will get to see the actual finished jewel, the image is for everyone.

Craftsmanship is everything

I’m always surprised when people recognise our work because we go out of our way not to get locked into a certain style as we find that quite limiting. We like to be free creatively but I’m told ‘detail’ is our calling card.  We rarely opt for plain or simple surfaces and I like jewellery that has a softer, feminine form with every surface packed full of pave or colour.  This in my view softens the harshness of the metal.  At the foundation of this complexity is craftsmanship, which is terribly important to us.  When you turn one of our jewels over and look at the back, there is always a lovely finish that is usually stone set.  We both love bright, vivid, saturated colour and I think that comes from growing up in the 1980s with all that neon.  There was an explosion of colour and that crept right along with us. If we are known for one thing, I think for sure it would be craftsmanship. How the pieces are finished, that silkiness to the touch and even though they are big and sculptural they are still structurally light and tactile.

I spend days cutting away metal at the back of our jewellery to allow the stones to come alive.  I’m removing weight and really I’m removing value but the stones must speak.  I’m a romantic guy and I’m a sentimental guy.  I love using antique pencils when I’m sketching and if I buy a box of 30 pencils on eBay but fewer arrive I wonder about the others.  Did they write a love letter or did they design a formidable brooch?  I have a box of white pencils that were used to draw blueprints and I think about the different buildings they brought to life.  I’m inspired by the contribution of every element.  We keep each and every sketchbook, all the original watercolour renderings and even the off-cuts of metal from each jewel because this represents their history in traceable form and I like to have this connection back to the origins.

History after all is part of the future.  I was really looking forward to this decade being the 20s because I’m fascinated with the 1920’s with everything that went on there.  Will we have the same sort of energy and creativity that spawns something completely new like Art Deco?  That hasn’t panned out yet but we still have a lot of decade to go and I think from the struggle and diversity we have experienced so far, something will push up and grow to be exciting.

i Yellow beryl and multi gem ear pendants.

Stones, stones, stones

We love diamonds.  We look at them like an artist looks at a colour palette and when we’re making a jewel and we’re selecting stones to fit, we choose diamonds for the job whenever we can.  A painter will choose paint with the best light fastness so that the painting is going to stand up to being seen for 100 years.  They will pick a canvas rather than a piece of paper because the canvas is going to last generations and a piece of paper might degrade. It is the same for us.  If I can find a diamond in the colour that I want in shades of pink, brown, blue or green, nothing is better because they have such resilience.  On close inspection you can see how crisp and solid and hard they are.  When you’ve looked at gemstones enough, even a sapphire looks soft around the edges because the facet junctions aren’t as crisp or sharp.  Diamonds have a certain energy about them because they are so permanent.  We also like to use antique cuts because if we’re spending hours making a one of a kind piece, rather than just setting a predictable brilliant cut diamond, we find a deeper beauty in the old stone cuts every time.

…Even a sapphire looks soft around the edges because the facet junctions aren’t as crisp or sharp.  Diamonds have a certain energy about them because they are so permanent. Tweet this

The value is irrelevant to be honest as is the public perception that a jewel might be special because it has a big diamond in it.  Our focus is on the design rather than the intrinsic value of the materials as the Winter Koi Pond demonstrates.  At the back of the brooch sits a two and a half carat diamond with a strong florescent whiteness that almost glows. It is large but cannot be seen from the front at all.  It’s a valuable stone and we could have used it gratuitously to add more value but most people won’t even know it’s there. We added it specifically for an extra layer of detail and to include a particular look at the back of the piece. It has it’s own unique meaning.

Aside from diamonds, amethysts are a favourite as our birthstone but really for their dark, deep, silky and intense colour. I also like Dermatoid Garnets for the history and unusual nature of the design they tend to be found in.  We don’t use treated or heated stones and there is an emerald ring I’m working on at the moment with a five and a half carat no-oil Colombian Emerald at its centre which is a good example of the power and authenticity of natural stones. The last three pieces I’ve made have each been over 500 hours of work but the emerald ring will only take around six weeks, which isn’t much for us.  I need to stagger the more time consuming projects with simpler ones like this to pace myself otherwise it can get a little overwhelming.

I made a flower once, covered in pave and I was able to graduate the stones across the petals with slightly darker shades of pink where they overlapped, and lighter shades at the higher spots.  Light and shadow where created purely with different shapes of diamonds in a variety of colours.  Being here in Australia, we have the Argyle pink diamond mine so I’m spoilt for choice.  The mine has enjoyed its last few years of production but they have a huge stockpile of very nice brown and champagne diamonds they haven’t bothered marketing when they were focused on the pinks so that has great potential.

Painting the jewels

Before the Winter Koi Pond I made a Koi Pond and each has a painted miniature at its heart.  I love painting and incorporating miniatures into the jewels because I think of painting as the purest form of art.  Traditionally miniatures would have been painted onto ivory which we now know isn’t acceptable so I paint mine onto cultured mother of pearl which has a similar look.  A company here in Australia supplies me with beautiful shells as a natural by-product of the pearl industry and I cut and shape them to my specifications.  For the Koi Pond, I painted the fish and then the water around them very thinly so that the iridescence, sheen and the grain of the pearl gave movement to the scene.

I like to use oil paints from a very small local manufacturer that, just like us, hand-makes the paint.  The right paints can withstand centuries and I like to place the miniatures behind a gemstone for protection.  The first Koi Pond included an icy blue unheated 17-carat aquamarine and the Winter Pond had rock crystal, which you can look through, like a frozen pond with tiny crystals in it to see the painting underneath.

Human connection defines the art

I find, for the most part that jewellery is made to be product rather than fine art. When you think of fine art (and I know there are exceptions to the rule like Andy Warhol who had a factory of people making his art) and when the general public think of an artist, they still think of a singular human being sitting in a studio and creating a painting or a sculpture because that’s how an artist traditionally created art. When you think of the big names in the jewellery industry nowadays, that is just not the case. It’s either a large historic brand that was once really great and now has an elite designer who probably doesn’t even actually do the designs but who has a team of nameless people working under them in factories in developing countries that are producing every piece of jewellery.  Or humans don’t do the production at all but rather computers and computer aided design with 3d printers and castings because that’s how products are made. No, that is how car parts are made and washing machines are assembled.

We have lost the art of human contact, of direct human connection and so when you think of jewellery as art, that human element is missing.  Big brands do quite a good job of trying to bring it back to a person but I think consumers are smart enough to know what’s genuine, and what isn’t genuine. If you think of a modern jewel you admire, you probably don’t know the name of the person who actually made it or designed it, whereas think of a painting or a sculpture or a piece of art in a gallery and you have a human connection. It hasn’t been printed from a picture on a computer.  There were no shortcuts.

Having something that looks great is important, but to know that it’s been crafted and handmade adds a greater depth to it’s meaning and that goes for all types of art. Tweet this

In jewellery there are shortcuts and things are being outsourced because it’s easier.  Workshops are being hired; computers are prepping pieces because it’s quicker.  I think that is why so much jewellery feels like product.  It is made to be easier, quicker, cheaper, more affordable and more obtainable and that’s just not the case with art. It’s like the opposite of art.  That’s my opinion.  Think of someone like Daniel Brush who is very much an artist jeweller with pieces made by him and whole concepts instilled within them.  It is definitely art and you can see it, in the galleries and the books filled with his sculpture.  His personality and humanity like a modern day Dali or Picasso is seared into the work.

The actual ‘doing’ of the art is probably what I admire the most.  Having something that looks great is important, but to know that it’s been crafted and handmade adds a greater depth to it’s meaning and that goes for all types of art.  There is a modern pop / street artist called Kaws in New York who does these amazing paintings and very, very large sculptures which have a vibrancy I’m drawn to.  Also Dface in England who is like a modern day Roy Lichtenstein, but really it is the colour and the dynamic flowing detail that always capture me. Within jewellery, anything made by Lalique holds magic for me.  His work is special because of all the hidden meanings and the symbolism and all the different mediums he employed including glass because he didn’t need the validation of gemstones or expensive materials.  He used what was best to simply present his ideas.  There is a dragonfly with enamel wings and a woman’s bust with Princess Leia style buns in her hair, which has this amazing delicacy, and strange tiger claws that floored me.  I feel very much a part of him and if it were mine I would hang it on the wall inside a picture frame, it wouldn’t have to be worn.

We do it all

David and I are completely self-taught.  Neither of us had any formal training.  When we started out, I’d make a piece of jewellery and give it to a setter because that is how it was done in our workshop, in the industry and around the world.  I remember vividly my Dad’s business partner one day asking me why I didn’t just set my own stones and I’d never really thought of that before.  It just hadn’t occurred to me.  He said “If you’re good with your hands, you’re good with your hands.” I guess I’ve sort of lived by that motto ever since.  That simple comment opened up a whole new world for me and broke down any of the traditional limitations I had accepted.  I thought, if I can bend metal then I could bend it over a stone.  If I can draw with a pencil, I could engrave metal.  It’s the same hand-eye coordination.  We all start out as kids, accepting what we’re told but that little comment set me free.  All the boundaries and all the fences just fell away.

We each fabricate our own pieces from start to finish.  For me the journey is everything.  We’ll take a lump of metal and hammer it out, roll it out and solder it together.  We both do our own gemstone setting and so basically we don’t work together on any of the pieces at all.  I’m designing and rendering at the beginning and David photographs them at the end but we each hand-make our own jewels entirely.  We start off together, we’re working in the same workshop but we branch off creatively.  When I’m designing he’s talking to me so that he has a reference for creating the watercolours.  I tend to get a fixed idea in my mind when imagining a new piece so don’t need the renderings as I’ve already made it five times in my head before it comes out on paper.  I love the craft of our trade though and sometimes when I’m putting things down on paper, out come unexpected ideas so the whole process has value.

Large blue ring with gold shank against a decorated blue and white background.
i Unheated sapphire and diamond ring.

Letting go

Sometimes I find if hard to let go of pieces when I’ve spent hundreds of hours making them.  We have scrapbooks full of the renderings as keepsakes from when I was a kid until now because if I didn’t have those, I’d get to the end of my career and I’d have nothing.  I need something tangible and physical, a manifestation of the original concepts to keep.  I remember saying to my dad as a kid “Do we have to sell the pieces and have a store or can we just start a museum?”  I was deadly serious at the time.  I mean, it is quite rewarding to see the pieces being worn out in public but in reality most of our jewels disappear into private collections never to be seen again.

So the renderings represent a lot.  They symbolise tradition and how the craft should be executed.  They express the history of each jewel, a connection to the past and a type of accountability because if any of it needs to be traced back to its creative roots when I’m not around anymore, there are living records.   I also keep a little workshop journal and at the end of each day, I write notes about what I did during that day.  I draw sketches of the different pieces I’ve done and because I only work on one piece at a time, when that jewel is finished I can trace every single hour of its existence via a trail of pencil and paper.  I can’t really think of many people who sit down and make it all from start to finish like us.  It’s like building a house with plumbers, electricians and plasterers all under one roof or like a family tree where everything is attached by a single strand of belonging.  As designers we can impart that meaning.  It is our gift.

 


Author: Melanie Grant | Photo Credit: Supplied by the artist

MAKER SPOTLIGHT