A Story From The Valley

In 2015 I was Artist in Residence at Villa Bengel in Idar Oberstein. I spent three months there researching the history of the stone and costume jewellery industries. Two years later I produced the first exhibition of work about what I discovered. My fascination with this region, its history and people continues and has lead to subsequent bodies of work including Ephemeral Phenomena.

Idar-Oberstein was legendary when I first became academically interested in Jewellery in the early 1990’s. It was said that marvels of stone-cutting happened in Idar. I was curious to get to know this place where semi-precious Australian stone had also been shipped by the tonne. I wanted to see what remnants I could find of this exchange of stones and find out why they had been sent to this little valley in the German hills, more or less the German outback. The Bengel factory and accompanying Villa were also legendary. I had the wonderful book featuring the Art Deco icons of this factory and a strong curiosity to understand this particular production. And so it was, in the autumn of 2014 I headed off to Idar-Oberstein.

The Bengel factory where I was housed was in a romantic state of seeming disrepair but it soon became clear that this was just a ploy. There was a distinct organic structure at work, carefully maintained by Frau and Herr Braun and Frau Hartenberger.  The machines were not so sleepy as they looked and when lightly oiled obligingly cut, pressed and embossed any metal that was put in their path as though they had gained autonomy through the earlier years of their heavy work. All metal in the pieces made for this exhibition has somewhere on it the mark of these wonderful old machines.

The weather was also influential. The low fronts roll across France, get stuck on the first ranges of the Hunsrück and empty their bellies. Water in the valley drove the stone cutting industry and the city of Idar-Oberstein and accompanying villages spread themselves along 40 kilometres of river and creek as a consequence. It’s a damp and rainy place with castle ruins and mist and forest. And of course everywhere stone. 

Stone was my goal, but I started first with working metal, and also with lessons in the history of jewellery. It is because of small factories like Bengel, “Metalwaren Fabriken”, that much costume jewellery looks today as it does. Through the use of non-precious metals and the clever, creative minds of the people of this region, these factories completed a product from end to end, working all the metal components in-house, constructing the tools to make new models, engraving the steel for pressing and embossing, inventing completely new machines for the production of fashionable wares; cigarette cases, mirrors, makeup boxes, compacts, purses, pens and all manner of jewellery for the burgeoning world markets of the Victorian era and then the roaring 20’s. These were products for everyone, made of brass, copper and tombac, constantly being updated with novel motives. There was evidence everywhere in the Bengel factory of the playfulness, and lack of convention in the creating of pieces including the use of new materials such as Galalith, bringing innovative possibilities of colour and scale.

Parallel I began to search for the story of my stones. The story I brought with me and the consequent story are two different things. I hunted around, looking for remnants of Australian semi-precious stone – the stuff I grew up with – jasper, agate, tiger-eye, rhodolite, but it was tricky to find a thread. And then I meet Julia Wild. Julia is the key to all things good in Idar. Her family have been involved in stone for almost 400 years. The Wild family collection of stone jewellery was a major influence on the work in this exhibition. Harold Wild supplied me with cut stone antiquities and Christian Wild became a great source of raw stone and knowledge. Christian’s gifts of local German stone became one of the crucial material sources for telling this story.

Then I really started thinking about the life of stones, their formation in our earth and their travels around it, why people get obsessed with them, cut them, trade with them, and wear them. Why certain types of stone are so interesting. German agate took a hold in my imagination, as agate was a long time favourite stone. I went back to Australia hunted down some raw agate through family acquaintances, and brought it back to Idar to have it cut. Some of the other stones I had cut I have been lugging around for over 20 years, and again I must marvel at the life of materials, and how they accompany our paths. I brought these stones together, the German stone and the Australian stone, the old ones and the new ones. I allowed myself to sink into the place, observe the detail of the city, the geography, architecture, streetscape; this influenced the construction of the work. I consciously sought influence from fashion jewellery, from the cut stones I acquired, from the marvellous Wild collection. I wanted to create a new story, pulling all these very diverse threads together, a reflection of my experience, of what I had learned.

My work is often driven by a fascination with materiality, its relationship to history and modes of production, to geographical and cultural context, and very importantly its relationship to specific people in a specific place. To use these stones and metal with their diverse histories and traces, be it the machines of an old factory, the geological processes traversing millions of years on the opposite sides of a planet, or the carefully cut designs of another era, to construct works with this in mind, to tie together this awareness of the history of all the things we see and touch and what has transpired to make this possible, to think about how materials develop and to actively participate in the profound processes that are churning through the universe, to make sense of experience and create a story not with words but with materials, consciously sought out and carefully constructed is in fact what I do as an Artist. That’s my story.

Helen Britton 2016

Originally written for the exhibition and accompanying publication Wildstone at Gallery Sienna Patti