Moon walking and mop tops

Jewellery in the Sixties and Seventies was as transient as the fashions, a disposable form of body adornment inspired by Picasso, popart, 007 and interplanetary craft
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The Independent Online

Interiors stories hinging on the idea that minimalism is on the wane have become a cliché. The truth is that's wishful thinking. All right, most of us don't have the money to do minimalism properly - to get the look, limestone floors and stainless steel kitchens are a must, insist purists - yet today's interiors are, increasingly, less cluttered. Not so fashion. Bored with Nineties minimalism, afashionados are embracing ornamentation, particularly jewellery. And we're not talking tame silver, but brassy gold - as in "the nouveau riche look" currently trumpeted by fashion editors.

Interiors stories hinging on the idea that minimalism is on the wane have become a cliché. The truth is that's wishful thinking. All right, most of us don't have the money to do minimalism properly - to get the look, limestone floors and stainless steel kitchens are a must, insist purists - yet today's interiors are, increasingly, less cluttered. Not so fashion. Bored with Nineties minimalism, afashionados are embracing ornamentation, particularly jewellery. And we're not talking tame silver, but brassy gold - as in "the nouveau riche look" currently trumpeted by fashion editors.

Rock'n'Gold: British Jewellery and Silver, 1960-1980, a selling exhibition at London's Target Gallery, is particularly timely, then. Owner Geoff Rayner, a walking CD-Rom encyclopedia of 20th-century design (his gallery's speciality), is clearly crazy about the Sixties, an era which saw, Rayner enthuses, the "renaissance of jewellery in Britain. We were coming out of the empire. Artists and craftsmen were experimenting with new materials, like paper and plastics, luxuriating in hedonism".

He is co-curating the exhibition with Sandy Stanley, a jewellery dealer. "The show was a joint idea," elaborates Stanley. "We both feel British 20th-century jewellery hasn't been fully recognised."

But why the 1960-80 time bracket? "Britain had this amazing pre-eminence when it came to jewellery in the late 19th century, with the Arts & Crafts movement, but died a death around 1910," explains Rayner.

"The Sixties saw its revival, due to the huge influence of avant-garde silversmiths and jewellers who'd trained at the Royal College of Art in the Fifties - Gerald Benney, David Mellor, Stuart Devlin and Robert Welch - and London's Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, which pushed modern designs. At first, only the RCA and Central School of Art taught jewellery. But in the late Sixties and early Seventies, other colleges like Hornsey [now Middlesex University] began to as well. Designers then were producing work that had no precedent, influenced first by avant-garde artists like Picasso and Pollock, later by the moon landings and pop art." But this experimental period nosedived around 1980: "Most jewellery since then has been derivative."

The impression you gain, loud and clear, is that in the relatively democratic Sixties, jewellery was no longer just a bourgeois status symbol, but was enjoyed as a throwaway form of body adornment by anyone enthralled by fashion.

Wendy Ramshaw, one of the most high-profile exhibitors (she had a one-woman exhibition at the V&A two years ago), created gimmicky jewellery that picked up on every passing fad. In 1965, she and husband David Watkins produced a line of acrylic "Optik" pendants with geometric Op Art prints, just as Mary Quant was designing her Op Art mini-dresses (both were sold at Quant's boutique, Bazaar). The next year, this fickle duo moved on to chuck-'em-on-then-chuck-'em-away lime and acid yellow paper earrings. (At the time, Zandra Rhodes created a paper wedding dress, and Peter Murdoch, his iconic, polka-dot paper chair, "Spotty".)

In 1968, Ramshaw tapped into hippie fashion with a range of silver and amethyst sparklers. More glorious still were her rings with stones that lifted to reveal a stash of solid scent. "People rubbed it behind their ears at the disco," says Stanley.

While some designers bought into the transience of pop fashion, the likes of Andrew Grima, David Thomas and John Donald were influenced by heavyweight modernist artists like Picasso, and valued craftsmanship above all else. Unmoved by paper and plastic, they manipulated precious materials into organic forms. "Their jewellery is very textural and sculptural," says Stanley. Achieving this sculptural effect involved the gradual, patient, highly skilled build-up of extremely delicate forms. A typical Seventies Grima brooch combines hundreds of tiny gold rods stippled to create an organic texture which, fused together, resemble a stratified rock face. Thomas's Seventies bracelets, meanwhile, comprise a lattice of spindly gold filaments, with small blobs like nodes where these intersect. "He'd leave the soldering iron at these points a little longer to create that effect," says Stanley.

Obsessed with craftsmanship perhaps, but these last designers were hardly fuddy-duddy. Indeed, they were in thrall to the high-octane glamour of that "late Sixties/ early Seventies James Bond style," says Rayner. "Grima opened a shop in Mayfair whose interior had great slabs of rock and slate. His work was sold not just in cool boutiques, but posh outlets like Harrods and Garrard & Co." Appropriately, he accessorised the Sixties glitterati, notably Ursula Andress.

Rock 'n' Gold unexpectedly uncovers a little-known aspect of this golden age - many of its exponents were eccentrics of the first order. Susanna Heron, daughter of painter Patrick Heron, whose silver and resin jewellery features figurative elements - chiefly, images of birds - agonised over the validity of her profession. In the early Eighties, finally deeming it unacceptably frivolous, she threw all her jewellery out of a New York skyscraper. Mary Lloyd stopped making her trademark carved ivory jewellery in the late Seventies the moment the use of ivory was banned. (She is now a furniture designer.) Then there's Marilyn Nicholson, who lives in an adobe house in Mexico, where she slices and polishes chunks of agate before teaming it with acrylic to make anything from huge, clanky, barely wearable brooches to wallhangings.

Like Lloyd, these designers didn't confine themselves to jewellery. Devlin, for one, made goblets. Although functional, these looked otherworldly, surreal - like nothing anyone had seen before. The goblets' stems alone are made of silver gilt riddled with holes reminiscent of lunar craters. You can't get more James Bond futuristic-meets-the moon landings than that.

Rock'n'Gold is at The Target Gallery, 7 Windmill Street, London W1 (020-7636 6295) until 22 Dec

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