Goldsmith at Work

I wasn’t shopping for jewelry. I was visiting my chiropractor. But she knew whose sacroiliac joints she was working on, and she said, ‘The daughter of a dear friend of mine makes the most gorgeous jewelry. She’s just launched her collection—you have to see it!’ I thought: I do not need more temptation at this moment.

My chiropractor went on: ‘She uses ancient goldsmithing techniques. Her work is magical, timeless.’ I thought: I know several jewelers who use those ancient techniques. I already own too much of their work. I refuse to be tempted. I was missing the point in a major way.

The point is that every artisan—assuming she’s achieved a certain level of mastery—has a voice of her own, a voice as unique as that of a well-trained singer. It’s not the jewelry I respond to; it’s the voice of the maker. This particular maker, Jean Prounis, has a voice that’s warm and eloquent. She works in 22-karat gold similar to the alloy used by ancient Greeks and Romans; her pieces start out with a matte finish that eventually gets polished by oils in the wearer’s skin.

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Gold rings by Jean Prounis, inspired by ancient trade rings used as currency

The rings above, for example, are Jean’s own, polished by constant wear. The gold is soft enough to bear the tiny nicks of everyday use, and that’s deliberate: her pieces become more personal with time. They’re expensive. But given the materials and the level of craft, they are not overpriced.

I saw those rings on Jean’s web site (here’s a link), and was beguiled by their design. So I arranged to visit her at her Greenwich Village apartment—you know, just to look. I had to climb five flights of stairs. When I was her age (mid-20s), I also lived in a high-floor walk-up. Such, I thought, is the energy of youth—which is required in large quantities if you want to make your own jewelry and market it too.

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Jean Prounis with some of her offerings

What struck me about Jean’s work was that it looks both sophisticated and handmade, like gold jewelry unearthed from an ancient tomb. As I said, I know other jewelers who use ancient goldsmithing methods. But Jean uses them with a single-minded purity I hadn’t seen before.

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‘Ruin rings’ in diamond and garnet

The ‘ruin rings’ above have that just-excavated look, as though they’d been shaped by a wearer’s hand and lain undiscovered for centuries. The diamonds in the ring at left are of a modern cut, but they don’t seem modern in this setting.

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Sapphire rings, large and small

Then there are the sapphires. I had never seen a stone more intensely blue than the large cabochon above and at the top of this post. It’s a natural stone, not heat-treated. But it’s been backed with platinum foil, an old technique that makes the color pop. You can also see this technicolor effect in the garnet, sapphire and emerald earrings below.

 

The braided ring I’m wearing in these photos, by the way, was made by Michele Berman, who is also adept in ancient gold work. It’s the sapphire ring I wrote about here, and I wore it to ward off the temptation of Jean’s colored stones, which I was determined to resist. That 22 karat gold of hers, though, fascinated me. It had a special glow.

As I’m sure you know, pure gold—24 karat gold—is infinitely workable: a single ounce can be rolled into a sheet with an area of 100 square feet. But it’s soft. Alloying it with other metals gives it greater strength and durability. Those metals also create the various colors of gold: rose gold usually has a lot of copper in it, and white gold may contain nickel, zinc, or palladium. Most jewelry designers create their own signature blends of gold. Reinstein/Ross, for example, offers these three alloys that give their pieces a recognizable look.

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Generally speaking, the higher the gold content, the brighter the color. Twenty-two karat gold is 92% pure gold: deeply rich, and just soft enough to respond to the wearer. (For comparison: 14 karat gold is 58.5% gold; 18 karat gold, 75%.)

Jean smelts her own gold in a desktop crucible using the elements at right—gold, silver and copper—in the approximate proportions used by the ancients. Everyone who works with gold discovers that there’s an intimate magic in it: part home cooking, part alchemy.

At this writing, Prounis Jewelry is less than a year old, and basically a one-woman shop. Jean makes 90 percent of what she sells, and a few talented local jewelers produce the rest. Her brand has a sturdy identity. It’s a sweet place for a young business to be.

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Boat-shaped granulated hoop earrings by Jean Prounis

Listening to Jean talk about granulation, the 5000-year-old technique whereby tiny gold spheres are individually fused to a piece of gold jewelry, as in the earrings above, I almost want to try it myself. Almost. The granules, melted into little blobs one by one, have to be ‘pickled’ in an acid solution and plated with copper, creating a bond that adheres the granules to the gold. The process involves repeated picklings and firings and more patience and dexterity than I will ever possess. I will make sonnets instead, and leave goldsmithing to the goldsmiths.

Yes, I bought something.

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Gold ear-huggers by Jean Prounis

I thought the hinged hoop earrings above were just about perfect, small but substantial, something a person might wear every day. But I think I’m not done craving this gold.

3 thoughts on “Goldsmith at Work

  1. Smelting your own gold in a desk-top crucible sounds INCREDIBLE! (A tempting metaphor for poetry too.). I know you love silver, but I love gold. These earrings look delicious to me, and will suit you to a T. 🙂

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    1. Actually I loved gold first. Silver is a late-life affair. Nan says she misses ‘banging around with hammers, files and flames on chunks of gold’. It must be magical, smelting your own metal.

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  2. Wonderful article! I almost felt like I was right there with you being introduced to and exploring these beautiful pieces. In a world where so much jewelry is over commercialized Jeannie’s work is a most welcome breath of fresh air. xoxo

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