The Constants of Design: Catherine Mannheim and the quest for jewellery to be as individual as the maker

In the 1960s and 1970s something special was happening to British jewellery. Catherine Mannheim used the first lockdown of 2020 as the perfect opportunity to trace the origins of her enduring ethos of design.

At home in west London Catherine is flicking through boxes of old photographs and postcards going back to the 1970s. “People used to say to me – why do you want to make jewellery? There were so few of us doing it back then, it just wasn’t something people did.” She selects a photograph, from the pile in her lap, of a brooch that she designed; it depicts an etched parrot and a real silver feather, edged with gold corners, which sits under a fine Perspex sheet. “I think this piece one was bought by Wendy Ramshaw and David Watkins,” she muses – “I do often wonder where much of my work is today, who is wearing it, and if I can learn anything from its past.”

Small painting of a parrot

Prevented from working during the Covid-19 lockdown, the photographs have given Catherine the opportunity to share with people how her career started and how her work has changed over time. As she says, “I haven’t got access to my workshop currently, so I wanted to focus on doing something positive, something reflective.” Posting an image a week on social media, Catherine has been charting her journey for fans and followers from the figurative pieces of the early 70s, up to the present day, which includes smaller-scale use of gold coupled with the careful selection of stones and colour themes.

It might seem somewhat surprising now, but in the 70s and 80s design-led jewellery made from silver and gold was frowned upon.

Her early work imaginatively incorporated a mixture of materials such as glass, gemstones and even a real beetle. “It might seem somewhat surprising now, but in the 70s and 80s design-led jewellery made from silver and gold was frowned upon.” Design was always a superior consideration for Catherine and formed the central part of her creative ethos – “precious metal was simply the carrier to express a larger artistic vision,” she says. “I was influenced by painters such as Hockney and made a swimming pool brooch where the water was created by Mokume Gane -” (a Japanese metalworking procedure which produces a mixed-metal laminate).

Having spent 2 years completing the then Intermediate Course at Hammersmith School of Art, Catherine took the 3-year jewellery course at The Central School of Art & Design (now University of the Arts) and a further year under Fredrich Becker at the Werkkustschule in Dusseldorf. There were only 2 colleges in England with jewellery courses and both were part of curriculums where the apprentices came to learn at the same time. In her first year she was one of only four students.

In London, Catherine found herself part of a small gifted group of contemporaries whose collective experience was enriched by the sense of possibility and experimentation unique to that decade. “I feel that today some jewellery lacks the quality of design that defined our era – good design you recognise instantly and can attach to an individual – Ramshaw, Watkins, Flöckinger, Claus Bury, Rothman, Maierhofer, Jackie Mina.” And the formula to achieve this? “Never get waylaid,” she says, “stick to what you do best.”

Design may have taken centre stage but selling this kind of contemporary work and bringing it to market was a different matter entirely. “There were hardly any galleries at first,” she recalls, “then there was Pace Gallery, Electrum, Primavera and later Lesley Craze and the Crafts Council shop at the V&A.”

The Crafts Council arranged week long tours of four makers to put on demonstrations around different parts of England so that people could see that there were other ways of looking at and making jewellery, as well as other crafts that you wouldn’t see on the high street.

Marketing was not an instant process as it can be today – but the need to make things that would sell is as much a challenge for young jewellers now as it was then. Never getting waylaid means having confidence in your abilities as an artist – the trickier part is welding confidence in your style with an understanding of your audience.

For Catherine, one of the biggest challenges in this co-evolution of making and selling was trying to convince people to pay higher prices for pieces made in silver as she enjoyed making in that material. “People often just see the metal and not the work, so I needed to explore, experiment and keep adapting to make my style work for different markets.” Now, Catherine uses a lot of gold and in the 90s she used coloured gold to great effect, layering it on to wedding bands and never using stones, out of respect for the metal – “they were popular and each one was unique”.

Stack of gold and gray rings

In the early 2000s, the price of gold was low enough to make larger items. Remarkably, after decades of making and remaking, there is the unmistakable presence of a figurative jeweller still at work in these pieces, creating brooches based on landscapes featuring the use of flowing intersecting lines, working together to form a scene of gently curving rivers, swaying trees and layered gradients. The most characteristic elements of Catherine’s design philosophy still endure, despite new times and new audiences.

Today, there is a sculptural quality that persists throughout her jewellery. “Everything works on a three-dimensional level”, she says about her work, “nothing is ever flat.” But even through decades of building relationships and personal commissions with clients it’s difficult to keep track of every piece made and sold. Catherine may never know where her creations have ended up or who is wearing them, but there are valuable lessons to take away from reflecting on the past, not least those things about our character that remain the same.

Good design you recognise instantly and can attach to an individual.

Looking back on work, or life, there is a temptation for us to focus on that which has changed. But for Catherine, it is the things which haven’t changed that best describe her achievements, and not just through unfailing dedication to design, three-dimensional forms and the spirit of the 60s and 70s, but a passion for jewellery to be as individual as its maker. And after 35 years of teaching, it’s not just her jewellery that we wonder about the location of, but also her many students who carry with them a dose of Mannheim’s elixir of self-belief.

When life deals us sudden changes, it’s good to find our own constants.


Author: Curtis McGlinchey| Photo Credit: Catherine Mannheim, Richard Valencia