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July 2024

Recently, the exquisite pieces created by the goldsmiths who lived at the time of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses were on display at The Australian Museum. Intricately inlaid turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian, obsidian and garnets were masterfully set in finely crafted jewels of gold. I felt surprised and delighted to see a gold chain in a pattern that I have witnessed still being made by hand in workshops around Australia.

This stopped me in my tracks and caused me to reflect on the fact that handmade denotes the essential fact that these extraordinary skills have been passed from one set of hands to the next for many thousands of years. How many generations of jewellers have we been fortunate to have had crafting jewels and handing on their skills since the times of Ramses? The legacy of thousands of years of jewellery making exists literally in the hands of our current generation of jewellers.

CAD/CAM software and technology have increased jewellery production and made fine jewellery more accessible to a greater number of consumers. Increasing the size of the market is a positive attribute of this change. The changes to the way in which precious jewellery can be produced, also calls on us as a community to think carefully about how we can ensure that the legacy of our civilization’s gold and silversmiths is not diminished or lost.

In the 1980’s there were jewellery workshops with ten, twenty, thirty jewellers at the bench. The benefit of this was the training of many apprentices who daily observed masters at work and received exceptional tuition. These larger groups of goldsmiths working in close proximity also encouraged a cross pollination of skills and ideas. In Australia, these large workshops producing high quality handmade jewellery are now relics of history. Many of the jewellers trained at this time are still working. We should feel proud of the high number of very fine jewellers, our apprentice ship system, masters at the bench, design colleges and TAFEs have nurtured. Other factors that have impacted the ability of individual goldsmiths to pass on their precious skills are the increasing property costs, rental costs and increasing insurance premiums, among other business expenses. I’m aware of some talented jewellers who have not trained apprentices because of these pressures.

Maybe now is the time to consider working more closely to support each other to ensure that the finest of our handmade skills are never lost. How can we as a community enable more goldsmiths to pass on their skills to a greater number of young jewellers? Do we also need to consider a more formal categorisation of fine handmade jewellery so that the public learn of the real differences at the point of sale?

Mary Storch, JAA Director

JAA Directors and staff - Meredith Doig  (Director), Kerrilie Campbell, Ronnie Bauer (VP), Megan Young and Joshua Sharp (President) at the JIF Melbourne (March 2024)
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