A long narrow piece of jewellery I saw on exhibition in London puzzled me for years. I remember words inserted under glass domes whose hinged covers invited concealment. Was it a political or philosophical message?
Who made it? I didn’t know, but recall being transfixed in a bright room.
Determined to find out, I recently contacted the British Crafts Council, to no avail. Later when randomly researching 1960s jewellery on the net, suddenly there it was- the brooch. Mystery solved – see Figure 1
Figure 1. Silver brooch with enameled decoration and glass. 1966/7
This silver , enamel and glass brooch is the work of German born Jeweller Helga Zahn (1936-1985), who came to England in 1957.
She studied first at Leeds College of Art and later at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. Thus she acquired painting and printmaking skills prior to those for jewellery .
Made in 1966/7 the words in the brooch read as follows:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
– Karl Marx, Theses On Feuerbach: Thesis 11 (1845)
The use of this strong piece as a medium for a message was a surprise. Interesting too is how the wearer may control access to the words – layers and secrets.
This was eye opening experience for me. I had never seen jewellery like it belore.
Zahn describes her work and process as follows:
…. to explain why I hate also making jewellery …… and I do, not only because
the actual period of creation is very short, and the process of making very
tedious, but because of its limitations in self expression and materialistic
overtone the word “jewellery” carries.
I tried once to break that rule with a brooch I made, with a quotation by
Karl Marx inside it. I failed miserably. The piece in itself is a contradiction,
so is the quotation, . and the way I exhibited … another…
I experienced no sense of these frustrations, but Zahn’s perspective is revealing.
With the exception of an articulated pendant in Figure 2, the structure and style of the brooch seems unique in Zahn’s output.
Figure 2. Silver and amber articulated pendant
Instead she is known for combining metals with pebbles, shells, and bones- exploited for their shapes and tactile qualities
A stunning example is the dramatic Cornish blue pebble set silver neckpiece in Figure 3 . Another the long silver articulated pendant, shows some influence in the choice of colours with the work of Scandinavian jeweller Torun (1927-2004) – Figures, 4, 5 . This demonstrates the enduring influence of the Scandinavian approach.
Figure 3. Blue Cornish Pebble set silver neckpiece. 1966/7. Collection Victoria & Albert Museum . M7-1991
Figure 4. Silver pebble set Pendant on handmade linked chain. 1960s
Figure 5. Pebble set silver linked pendant on neck torc. 1948
Ralph Turner, Curator, writer and critic of applied art. Head of Exhibitions, Crafts Council, 1974-1989, commented that from the outset Zahn “ questioned accepted values of jewellery and made decisive and often defiant statements.” He believed her to be one of the first of the .. important jewellers of the period who took contemporary jewellery beyond the traditional into the territory of experimentation and expression of feelings.
Zahn was recognised in her time, with a solo exhibition of her work mounted by the Crafts Advisory Committee (British Crafts Council) in 1973.
Now that I am fully aware of such a legacy I appreciate the clarity, skill and originality in the work.
In fact British Jewellers of this period in the 1960s and 1970s- were creative, innovative, and exciting
We are very fortunate to have this heritage so readily available to us, with many examples on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum – London, and other locations.
The Victoria & Albert Museum – London- Jewellery collections www.vam.ac.uk
Information and work re Helga Zahn: http: http://www.schmuck-zahn-helga.de/schmuck3e
The British Crafts Council- Archive on line: http:// www .craftscouncil.org.
Figure 1 Source for image of Brooch by Helga Zahn : http://www.danner-stiftung.de/
Figure 2 Source for image of pendant by Helga Zahn on British Crafts Council website:
Figure 3 Neckpiece is in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum: http://www.vam.ac.uk
Figure 4 Source for image of neckpiece by Helga Zahn:
Figure 5 Source for image of neckpiece by Torun: http://http//collectors-gallery.com