Alice Cicolini, master jeweller, former curator, author and all-round polymath sat down with Motley to discuss an unconventional career path, the decline of craftmanship and the influence of history on her work.
I grew up in Finchley in a house full of William Morris wallpaper.
I was raised by my mum and grandmother, so a house of three generations of women. Every day, I would come down stairs in the morning to have breakfast in a room that was covered in William Morris. It was like being in a garden. My mum and dad were both English literature teachers, and both avid gardeners. The house was an old Victorian home, and so that conceit of William Morris’ work being about bringing the garden inside the house was something that was completely apt for their lives’ passions, but obviously something that has stayed with me as I have grown older. And I think my love of pattern, my influence of textiles really comes from having been always seeped in that on a day-to-day basis.
I didn’t take a traditional path into jewellery.
When I was younger, I was much more focused on performance. I used to teach dance and my BA was in formal theatre. I was excited about this idea of narrative and storytelling, and majored in a more expressive form of theatre than your classic proscenium source of Shakespearean model. I also did a lot of costume design and I always made my own clothes. I bought loads of vintage clothing. When I did my first masters in fashion history, I wrote entirely about retailing vintage clothes and what that says about you as a person – that you’re more interested in the idea of enduring style or playing with identity in the form of clothes than in following a trend-driven approach to how you dress. I think style over fashion has always been something that I’ve found really inspiring and important.
The performative part of my early career came out in my jewellery design from the start.
The first collection I designed at Saint Martins was based on the ritual of dressing up. It was inspired by a jewellery box that I found in a museum in Jaipur, India, which was said to have contained everything that the queen required in order to present herself in public self. The Rajasthanis believed that their royal families were halfway between god and man, semi god-like creatures; but obviously they were human beings like the rest of us. This 16 step ritual to become regal really fascinated me. It felt like the confluence of all my influences had arrived in this one wooden jewellery box. The idea of performing, telling a story, dressing yourself, presenting yourself in public and creating an identity that was above and beyond you, seemed like a great place to start thinking about how I might be as a jewellery designer and what I might bring to that universe.
Jewellery is a space to locate yourself as a creative person.
It’s in the middle of this triangle of product design, craft, and fashion. As a practitioner, there’s a beautiful elasticity in how you want to play with the intersection of all of those things.
The craftsmanship of jewellery – which is a key thing for me in my own practice, but equally that it’s a product, a three-dimensional object, and that it has a relationship with your body – is something that fashion has lost a little bit. The era of Balenciaga – who considered fashion as a three-dimensional object – has long gone. It’s treated in a very two-dimensional way, but jewellery doesn’t work like that. It has to intersect with your body in some way.
As my clients get older, they become less interested in fashion.
They would much rather invest their money in jewellery because there’s a craftsmanship and ingenuity that perhaps there isn’t any more in clothes, unless you’re buying couture. The way one wears jewellery is unique to every person. One person might wear one amazing sculptural piece; one person might wear 25 at the same time. They might wear a brooch in their hair or on their waist, there are so many different ways someone can engage with a jewel in a way that is just not available in clothing anymore.
I moved to India at a crossroads in my career.
I had gone on this really amazing journey as curator, which I’d found extremely fulfilling – writing about enormously talented people’s work, but also having a constructive and creative role of how their stories are told and presented in the world. But I think there was a little bit of me that felt like something was missing, and I realized that the something missing was the making of my own work. Thinking back to costume design, to directing plays, and being a much more expressive, creative person, I wanted to find some of that again. Moving to India was part of that journey for me.
India is one of the few places left in the world that has a tangible living heritage in making things on a broad scale.
My journey was to try and find people working at the very highest level of skill in their particular field and to remind people that India also has that heritage. In Gainsborough paintings, almost all of their women are swathed in pashmina shawls covered in Indian embroidery. They were the height of wealth in those days. But now you can go out and buy a pashmina shawl at Mark and Spencer’s for £25, it’s not luxury anymore. I thought to myself – is there a way where I can reposition that kind of craftsmanship as a luxury item in an international context, that isn’t just about the materials.
For a jewellery designer, the material value can be disproportionately important
If you’re talking to an artist about their work, you never say ask why their work is so expensive. The price is the price that they have set or that the market has set. It has nothing to do with the inherent value of the thing that they have created. Whereas for a jewellery designer, the material value is a fundamental part that they are challenged to explain when people make purchasing decisions.
It’s extremely confused – as the diamond is our most celebrated stone but also is the most readily and easily found jewellery material in the world. How has that happened? A coloured stone, a spinel, something many people have never heard of, is considerably more valuable because it is considerably rarer. So these are the interesting questions of jewellery and materials. But for me the thing that is of most valuable in jewellery is the skill of the people who make it because if we don’t celebrate it, we will lose it.
It only takes two generations to lose a craft in a family.
That’s one of the things I found out when I lived in India. So what that means is if the grandfather doesn’t teach his son or his grandson, when he dies all that knowledge dies with him. And if their children and grandchildren have no tangible connection with what it is that they did, they won’t understand the archive even if they had it. And it was that, putting value on the craft that drove my story from the beginning. It was about how I can get people to appreciate the craft to the extent that they are willing to pay for it and privilege it above all of the other things that the jewel contains as a material.
In the UK, the vast majority of artist-jewellery galleries have closed.
There are very few people still working in the space where they promote, appreciate, and can articulate the value of what they might have called artists jewellery in the past. That whole dialogue about the privileging of thought and process, and craftsmanship over material value, and to an extent luxury, has completely disappeared from our jewellery dialogue. It’s a challenging moment for craft and design above all else.
You can tell the quality of a piece by the weight of the jewel in your hand.
It makes it feel like an heirloom or an estate piece rather than something commercial or disposable. There’s the craftsmanship and the level of skill it takes to make a jewel that’s also inherit in quality. You can tell when you are holding something that someone cares about and thought about when it was made, rather than something made in a factory.
I don’t read enough books, now I have two small children.
I miss reading significantly, it was something I did every Saturday afternoon. When I was living in India, my mum used to send me the Guardian rolled up and every Saturday I would lay in bed and read it. It was a luxury.
The things that I find inspiring now are fragments. I was in New York recently doing a show with a gallery there and every day I would use this old art deco lift, but the doors down stairs had this incredible detail on them; just looking at that every day was super inspiring, it has become those kinds of things that stay with me now.
Every silver jewellery brand has a heart.
There’s a lovely analogy by a philosopher called Walter Benjamin who uses the metaphor of fossils. It says that we seek out things from the past, or fragments of that past, because they have relevancy to us in the contemporary. You’re not just being an archivist; you’re bringing a contemporary need from the things that leap out at you from the world.
One of the things about that William Morris book cover, which is the genesis of this collection, is that what draws you to it is the smell of the leather, the embossing on the cover, and the beautiful tactile quality of it as an object and actually the idea of a heart. Who doesn’t love a heart?
There’s something very contemporary about it that seems really important to me. It’s bringing the two things together, taking the fragments of the past and bringing a contemporary energy to it that I continue to find inspiring on a daily basis.
When I met Motley, I knew they were people I wanted to collaborate with.
I am always really inspired by meeting other people that have a particularly dynamic energy. It’s about collaborating because my work is all about collaboration. I have to have a feeling about the people I’m collaborating with. On a more practical and entrepreneurial level, I think I was intrigued by the idea that someone would be brave enough to start a jewellery business in this way, but with new tools at this point and I just celebrate that with every ounce of my being.
It’s all about commitment.
Theo Fennel said to me when I started, that there will be people out there with half the talent that you have, and will make it. And there will be people out there with as much talent as you that will just never be able to move their work forward. I think what he was really saying is to know your path and be true to what it is that you want to do. If you aren’t, you’ll get lost and you’ll get off the bus.
It’s about resilience and it’s about not getting off the bus. And just carrying on in whatever way you can until you bring people to you. Until the integrity of what it is that you are doing becomes too difficult to ignore, and people start to see what it is that you’re trying to say.
I believe it is the past that can help inform the future.
There is this incessant thing we have about future forecasting and what’s in the future; I am not that interested in that in a way. I think that we hold within us, as individuals and cultures, all the information that we really need if we trust our instinct and we look for the right things. I hope the future holds a stronger degree of respect, knowledge, and understanding of human ingenuity, of craftsmanship, of thoughtfulness. And I think we are already starting to see that, so I have great hope that’s what the future will hold.