A defining moment…
I imagine most artists have one particular piece that sticks in their mind, one they marvel over and which constantly inspires them. For me that piece is Philippe Wolfers’ exquisite Orchid, hair ornament. The Belgian artist and maker created this incredible piece between 1905 and 1907 using an extremely difficult enamelling technique called 'Plique-a-jour', which translates literally as 'letting the daylight in'. The piece is composed of four gold lattice structure petals inlaid with plique-a-jour enamel, diamonds and rubies all radiating from a large central round brilliant diamond. The result is a piece that captures the light from both in front and behind, thereby creating a mesmerising and exotic luminescence and sparkle befitting of its inspiration. Philippe Wolfers was one of only a few artists to truly master this complex technique and as a result was the most prestigious of the Art Nouveau jewellers working in Brussels at this time. Heavily influenced by nature, his stylistic tendencies are similar to his French counterpart René Lalique (another of my favourite artists). The orchid was a symbol of the Art Nouveau movement and both men often incorporated orchids into their work. It was a strong visual means of communicating the movements fascination with nature and sensuality.
I remember the first time I saw this stunning piece, in the jewellery gallery at the V&A when I was quite young on a school trip. I was at secondary school, I think either in year 8 or year 9 and I was supposed to be looking at a specific exhibition. But being as I was never particularly good at doing what I was told, I’d gone in search of the jewellery gallery that a couple of friends and I had heard rumours about….
We didn’t get anywhere near as long in this room of treasures as I would have liked (teachers and their rules….!) – but I remember seeing this magnificent work suspended in a tubular case, lit to perfection. It had an aura about it – a real sense that you were standing in front of something very special. The piece has stayed in my mind ever since.
Many years later I returned to this room with my dear friend and glass artist Amy West. Together we spent over six hours in the jewellery exhibition discussing almost every piece in minute detail. But by the far the longest conversation was devoted to Wolfer’s orchid. It was fantastic to be able to talk about the piece with someone so skilled in glass, I appriciate the piece even more now knowing most detail about how complex it would have been to create. We both agreed it was piece at the pinnacle of what can be achieved in both of our arts.
The engineer in me appreciates the complex construction - technically it is a masterpiece and a display of incredible skill. The jeweller in me also appreciates this, but this side of me loves the colour, the use of stones, the way he has captured the way the light bounces of the petals of an orchid, the lines of the petals, I could go on and on. For me it is a complete piece, both aesthetically beautiful and technically brilliant.