A long narrow piece of jewellery I saw on exhibition in London intrigued me for years. I recalled words under glass domes whose hinged covers invited concealment. Was there a political or a philosophical message there?
Who made it? I couldn’t remember.
Recently, determined to find out, I contacted the British Crafts Council, but to no avail. Later when randomly researching 1960s jewellery on the internet, suddenly there it was- the brooch. Mystery solved – see Figure 1
This brooch is the work of the German-born Jeweller Helga Zahn (1936-1985), who made London her home in 1957.
She came to study, and initially did so at Leeds College of Art and later at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London.
The words in the brooch read as follows:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
– Karl Marx, Theses On Feuerbach: Thesis 11 (1845)
The use of a piece of jewellery as a medium for a message was a surprise, and completely new to me. Interesting too is the control given to the wearer, by Zahn, to choose which words to display – layers and secrets.
Zahn describes her work and process as follows:
“…to explain why I hate also making jewellery …… and I do, not only because
the actual period of creation is very short, and the process of making very
tedious, but because of its limitations in self-expression and materialistic
overtone the word “jewellery” carries.
I tried once to break that rule with a brooch I made, with a quotation by
Karl Marx inside it. I failed miserably. The piece in itself is a contradiction,
so is the quotation, and the way I exhibited … another…“
While I experienced no sense of these frustrations in viewing her work, Zahn’s perspective is revealing.
With the exception of the articulated pendant, Figure 2, the style of the brooch appears unique in Zahn’s overall output.
She is known, instead, for works combining metals with natural materials such as pebbles, shells, and bones. These were exploited for their colour and tactile qualities
A wonderful example is the dramatic silver neck-piece set with Cornish blue pebbles in Figure 3. Another example of pebble set jewellery is the silver articulated pendant in Figure 4. This also shows some influence with the colour choice in the work of Scandinavian jeweller Torun (1927-2004) – Figures, 5.
Zahn’s work was well respected, being recognised in 1973 with a solo exhibition mounted by the Crafts Advisory Committee (British Crafts Council).
Ralph Turner, Curator, writer and critic of applied art. Head of Exhibitions, Crafts Council, 1974-1989, commented that from the outset Zahn “questioned accepted values of jewellery and made decisive and often defiant statements.”
He believed her to be one of the first of the ..” important jewellers of the period who took contemporary jewellery beyond the traditional into the territory of experimentation and expression of feelings”
Now that I know about it I appreciate Zahn’s legacy of clarity, skill and originality.
In fact, the period between the 1960s and 1980s in the UK was a very fertile time for creative, innovative, and exciting jewellery. Many examples of which are displayed in the Victoria & Albert Museum – London.
The Victoria & Albert Museum – London – Jewellery collections: http://www.vam.ac.uk
Information and work re Helga Zahn: http: http://www.schmuck-zahn-helga.de/schmuck3e
The British Crafts Council – Archive online: http://www.craftscouncil.org.
Figure 1 Source: image of Brooch – Helga Zahn: http://www.danner-stiftung.de/
Figure 2 Source: image of pendant- Helga Zahn – British Crafts Council website:
Figure 3 Neckpiece: collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum: http://www.vam.ac.uk
Figure 4 Source: image neckpiece – Helga Zahn:
Figure 5 Source: imageneckpiece- Torun: http://http//collectors-gallery.com