‘Geist’ is the German word for spirit, as in holy spirit. It also means ghost. It means soul. Some jewelry has Geist—an echo of the spirit of its maker or its past wearers. And some jewelry is soulless. The more soulless it is, quite often, the more it costs, as though paying more for a piece could instill it with life.
What set me musing on this was a notorious $10,800 gold-and-diamond bracelet marketed by Ivanka Trump. She wore it for a 60 Minutes interview with her father after he was elected president, and her PR people sent out a ‘style alert’ the next day—apparently not realizing it was unethical for the new First Daughter to hawk her jewelry in a political context. A gaffe, yes. But I ask you to consider the object itself. It is utterly soulless.
Like many pieces sold by Ivanka, the bracelet is a mishmash of design elements slapped together with as much bling as possible: what affluent shoppers are supposed to think rich people wear. Nicely made—which it damn well ought to be at that price—it’s sleek on the outside and fussy on the inside, half Art Deco and half faux-Edwardian.
The elaborate interior gold work is the sort that fine jewelers used to cut by hand—a nod to the craftsmanship of yesteryear. Today, though, this stuff is designed on a computer, and the model from which the piece is cast, far from being handmade, is spit out by a 3D printer. The bracelet is not what it appears to be. It is a piece of…commerce.
Computer-aided jewelry manufacture is not always soulless. At its best, it brings well-made pieces to a lot of buyers at a reasonable price. I’m all for that.
I’m thinking specifically of Jewelry Television, or JTV, a home shopping network that could not exist without computer-aided design. JTV broadcasts into 86 million American homes 24 hours a day, selling thousands upon thousands of rings, bracelets, necklaces, and loose stones. It’s commerce on a grand scale, but there’s something sweet and homey about it, perhaps because JTV is based in Knoxville, Tennessee, and their Southern-accented hosts have names like Mandy and Misty and Nikki and Tommy. These hosts know their stuff, and they do their best to educate their customers. And unlike Ivanka, JTV sells the bulk of its jewelry at the lowest possible price.
The ring above, for instance, will set you back $35 on sale. (Here’s a link.) The stone is a cushion-cut prasiolite. What the hell is prasiolite? It’s amethyst that’s been turned green by high heat. You encounter a lot of stones you’ve never heard of on JTV, and many have been treated, dyed, reconstituted or simulated, but the network is upfront about it. I like this ring. It’s sterling silver, manufactured in Thailand through what is clearly a computer-aided process, and nicely finished. It’s very good value.
I’ve never bought jewelry from JTV, but I sometimes tune in late at night to watch the homey hosts selling their little hearts out. When Nikki signs off, she wishes her viewers ‘a kiss and a peck and a hug around the neck,’ and I think she means it.
But there is no Geist like handmade Geist, the kind that endures for centuries. I commend to your attention the rings below and at the top of this post.
They are Burmese, and they are old, from before Burma was Burma, a period called the Pyu Dynasty. The plain gold ring is from the 8th or 9th Century; it depicts two stylized Burmese lions. The ring with a little star ruby set in a lotus (a Buddhist motif) is from the 11th Century. These rings were hundreds of years old when Bach was a boy. They look to have been cast from hand-carved wax; each is one of a kind. I bought them several years ago from Sue Ollemans, a dealer in Asian antiquities, with the intention of wearing the living past. The ruby’s bezel setting has become a bit fragile, but the lions are as strong as ever.
Not much is known about the Pyu. Archeological excavations have uncovered five large walled cities and several smaller ones; their written language was deciphered barely a century ago. But the rings have a living force. Gold is still gold, rubies are still rubies, and craft is still craft.
Casting jewelry from a wax carving is a dying art. It’s exacting, time-consuming and generally unprofitable. But there’s something magical about it. The wax carving is placed in liquid plaster, which hardens. The hardened plaster gets fired in a kiln so the wax melts away, creating a mold. Molten silver is poured into the mold and centrifuged to distribute it evenly. When the silver cools, the plaster is dissolved in water. What’s left is an exact replica in silver of the original wax carving, which becomes the model for future castings…
…and that’s a whole separate process. A vulcanized rubber mold is created around the model, and from that mold, more wax versions of the model are made, which get cast in plaster via the same lost wax process. The ring above originated as a block of wax carved by Michele Berman, who still does this work. She is an artisan, and her work has a soul.
With computer-aided design, which is how more and more jewelry is made, a 3D printer creates the model (in resin, not wax). No rubber mold is necessary; they just save the computer file. The casting process is also highly mechanized. (Read more about this here.) These technologies have enabled a new kind of creativity and a whole lot of commerce. But computer programs can’t go everywhere an artist’s imagination can, and something fundamental is lost. All too often, what’s lost is Geist.