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Alan Craxford, Jeweller and Engraver

By Alan D Craxford (Newfloridian)

Introduction

Alan Craxford, Site Administrator

Alan Craxford, Webmaster

Alan Craxford, Jeweller

Alan Craxford, Jeweller

It is a curious sensation when you come to the realisation that there is someone else in the world that shares your name. Perhaps it's not so surprising when you happen to be called John Smith, but the likelihood of such a happening with an unusual surname like mine becomes even more remarkable. When two such individuals are cloistered together in the same room the circumstance becomes surreal.

We first made contact through the common genealogical interests of our sisters about two years ago. We have met on several occasions since then and I have become fascinated by the world of his craftsmanship. Recently Alan came to the North East to attend the opening of an exhibition ("The Silver Show") at The Biscuit Factory, Newcastle upon Tyne (1) which featured some of his work.


Magazine cover

FRESH, the magazine of The Biscuit Factory: Winter / Spring 2005-06 (1)

Lightning Bowl

Lightning Bowl

The promotional documentation noted: 'Alan Craxford has been working in the area of contemporary jewellery for over 30 years. His creations stand out for their high quality finish which gives them unique brilliant reflections. Craxford began developing his "celestial Spinning Bowls" last year. These seek to express and balance two different types of energy, on light radiating from the sun (illustrated on the front cover) the other lightning from storm clouds. Like Tibetan spinning wheels these purely decorative bowls are designed to be gently spun on their stone bases. Their highly polished centre appears to stay still while the engraved decorated rim seems to spiral out, thus animating the idea and concept that the piece represents.'

During our conversations he mentioned a booklet which was published by the London Guildhall University in 1999 (2) but which is now out of print. It does still appear in the results of internet searches. The publication consisted of a feature by the art critic Marina Vaizey (3) and photographs of a number of his designs. Alan has agreed that the contents of this booklet be reproduced here.

Further information is available on Alan's website: Alan Craxford, Jeweller


Alan Craxford - Master Jeweller

Alan Craxford: The Book

The Book

When is a jewel more than its materials? Its metals, precious or not, its stones? When does it transcend the economic value we all too readily associate with the word precious? When can jewellery become as expressive, as meaningful, as symbolic, and as emotional as other media? Jewellery after all is meant to be worn, looked at on the human body, part of an ensemble. Jewellery is ornamental and decorative, and if too heavily weighted with its cultural burden becomes too ponderous to be enjoyed.

It seems to me that the originality of the work of Alan Craxford lies in part in answering these questions. It is an originality built on tradition: his pieces are carefully worked in traditional ways, with the most precious of materials. He is particularly sensitive to the varied colours of his materials, red, white, yellow and green gold, and platinum; and beautifully cut and faceted stones precisely chosen for their particular individual quality, accentuating a perfection of shape and colour. He has an individual highly developed vocabulary, a language of shape, form and texture, with a plotting of visual incident which is subtly captivating.

We are perhaps not necessarily used anymore to the highly wrought and worked. Yet a very few jewellers are continuing to work with the most precious of metals, and stones, to produce work that slowly captivates the eye. Alan Craxford's rings, earrings, broaches and necklaces pay homage to his chosen materials. And although the materials are of course valuable, the most precious available - gold, platinum, sapphire, diamond, and semi precious stones of admirable and unexpected quality - it is the conception, the way in which they are slowly amalgamated into a work of art that is so distinctive.

Day earrings
Night ear rings

Day and night earrings

As a jeweller, Alan Craxford works with a precise yet flexible collection of his own refined, distilled visual symbols, predicated on ways of distilling our ideas into visual terms which express a wider reality, the perception of sun, sea, sky, moon and stars, microcosms of the macrocosmic universe. He plays too with the notion of complementary opposites, of, say, yin and yang.

In Craxford's own deployment of symbols, these are often carefully worked out as indications of night and day, sun and moon. In an earring a scatter of stars may cascade towards a small glittering stone, in another, carved rays emanate it seems, from a glowing jewel.

Manadala Brooch 1
Mandala brooch 2

Mandala brooches

One framework for exploration is the mandala, literally a circle, from the Sanskrit, which has many layered meanings in both Hindu and Buddhist iconography. Perhaps it is most familiar to westerners as the embodiment of a sacred diagram; a Hindu temple seen from above is often itself a mandala, whilst Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings are also mandalas, hierarchical maps of the cosmos. Another series of symbols deploys sun, moon and stars, day and night, remarkably effective as earrings based on a half circle. It is as though the wearer were subtly indicating the fullness of her character, the contradictions and complementary characteristics that make up a whole, day into night, night into day. The passage of time and its cyclic nature, the shorthand of symbolic motifs which most of us recognise are deployed to quietly insistent and disarming effect. Alan Craxford has been intrigued by the scroll paintings - thangka - and mandala imagery that he has seen at first hand in Ladakh, an area in the high Himalayas in northeastern India, bordered by China and Tibet, and often called 'Little Tibet' and Tibet itself. These are designs that unfold slowly, and to which attention must be paid to grasp what they are offering. Extraordinary and amazing elaboration and complexity is an attribute of these religious and spiritual images.

Watermelon tourmaline ring
Carved flower motif

Watermelon dress ring

Something of the sense of something unfolding, repetition with variation - almost like a chant - is also discernible in another aspect of Alan Craxford's visual vocabulary, the use of the flower - the lotus, the chrysanthemum, the sunflower - and the wave. Curves, spirals and petals are motifs which recur. Sometimes, for example, on what seems a plain ring, a band of gold with an immaculate surface, enfolding a stone of unusual glittering colour, whilst the side seen by its wearer on the inside of the hand may bear a burst of carved petal forms, or the representation of the heart of the flower. In other rings, spirals or petal forms will embrace the entire curve of metal. The geometry of square, circle, trapezoid, triangle, oval, is contrasted with ripple, wave, cascade, spiral: static set against dynamic.

18ct gold dress ring

Dress Ring.

Lest all this might seem too much cultural freight to carry in what are after all beautiful, satisfying and wearable objects, the history of jewellery is one which shows a succession of styles which do just this. The symbolism of jewellery is well known and continually explored: substantial volumes have been written on the histories and meanings of finger rings, for example, the language of stones, the precise meanings embodied in ceremonial regalia. Jewellery is also part of rites of passage, given to mark births, birthdays, anniversaries and marriages. The Victorians for example had a cult of mourning jewellery. Jewellery as meaningful adornment has of course existed for millennia. In 1976 the British Museum mounted an exhibition simply called Jewellery through 7000 Years, starting in the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt. Jewellery is one of the oldest forms of decorative art, and the curators pointed out that jewellery has through the ages served several purposes: decoration and adornment, protective purposes (amulets for example) and certainly the expression of status and power. Its history includes the victor's wreath, the king's crown, the bishop's ring.

Much of the shared language of the meaning of form has been submerged in our own eclectic and distracted age, where it sometimes seems every style exists all at once in a maddening visual static which obscures meaning.

What is fascinating about the jewels that Alan Craxford imagines and makes is a combination of three factors that make his contribution to the art of jewellery of our time so distinctively individual.

Blue tourmaline ring
Ring shank

Blue dress ring

First, there is the use of traditional materials individually chosen for their superb colour - the different golds, the unusual stones of rare hue. Size of stone is not so much a consideration as quality, shape, colour. Second, there is the absolute craftsmanship, the dedication to detail, the meticulous execution of the object, carrying out the concept with delicate finesse and formidable technique. Alan Craxford only makes some twenty to thirty jewels a year, each individual, never repeated nor repetitive in spite of his recognisable vocabulary of technique and image. Because of this almost obsessive attention to design and detail, Alan Craxford's jewels always look so valuable, bearing a value well beyond the intrinsic value of the materials; we subliminally recognise the care and time that has gone into their making. He divides his work between public and private commission, and to working on his own account; if not for the last, he would not be able to exhibit a collection, as a substantial part of his work is bespoken.

Although Alan Craxford prefers to package his work in exquisitely traditional jewel cases, they could be shown as off the body objects in their own right, as objets d' art.

Finally, there is the visual language of form and shape, of designs that are inspired by natural forms abstracted into a meaningful and shared suggestive symbolism. It is the combination of these aspects that makes of these jewels something decorative, ornamental and wearable, but also something that goes beyond. Alan Craxford's jewels have a visual vocabulary which explores the boundaries between abstraction and representation, a personal symbolism based on apprehensions of the natural world.

Marina Vaizey, October 1999


Artist's statement - Alan Craxford

Sun Moon ear rings

Sun moon earrings

I use materials valued and appreciated throughout millennia for their beauty, permanence and meaning. The technique for which I am best known is hand engraving and carving. It is a traditional process that appears effortless yet in practice requires many years of experience and complete attention to execute. It involves the removal of precious metal with a steel graver; errors are often impossible to rectify as once cut the metal cannot be replaced.

However the technique produces a brilliant light reflective "V" cut which creates dazzling reflections when repeated across a gently formed surface. On closer inspection these reflections are often quite different from the cutting which generates them. In other words the technique produces layers of meaning often in contradiction to each other yet contained within the form of the piece. My work incorporates various kinds of surface - high polish, brushing as well as my own striated and scrubbed finishes. I love colour and each piece is carefully planned around a palette of precious metal colours in relation to wonderful gem stones especially in the rings where one can be exuberantly experimental.

In the sun and moon earrings, the contrast of yellow and white gold set in opposition to yellow and white diamonds has become a signature concept. The synthesis of opposites inherent in this work makes reference to alchemical concepts analysed and rediscovered this century by CJ Jung. Yet these ideas came spontaneously from my own creative unconscious. Only recently have I understood how closely my own experience mirrors that of ancient alchemical process.

Every artist needs an audience and every client has different needs from the work. Some want to wear it everyday, some for special occasions, some to hold an idea or feeling and some simply because it's beautiful. I believe passionately in the power of beautiful things. In an age starved of meaning I set out to dazzle, enrich and inspire. The jewellery is unaffected by transient fashion coming as it does from my unconscious self. My aim is that it will also look good far into the future, taking with it the inevitable patina of the lives of those who wear it.


Lady Marina Vaizey

Lady Marina Vaizey is an art critic and author based in the United Kingdom. She is a broadcaster, exhibition curator and journalist. She was formerly Art Critic for the Financial Times and Sunday Times and editor of the Art Quarterly and Review. She has written several books on art. She now lectures including at the National Gallery and British Museum. She was a founding Trustee of the Geffrye Museum and has also been a trustee of the Imperial War Museum and the South Bank. She has also been a judge for the Turner Prize.

Lady Vaizey was born in New York and moved to Britain in 1959. She married the economist, John Vaizey, Lord Vaizey of Greenwich who died in 1984. Their son is Ed Vaizey, the conservative columnist.


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Added: December 15th 2005
Last updated: January 6th 2017



Continued in column 2...

The Black Tulip necklace

Several hundred years ago in Holland, a new flower, the tulip, was introduced from Asia Minor. The natural facility for horticulture of the Dutch developed and established the flower so that it became a passion. Fortunes changed hands over single bulbs, which claimed to be flowers of especially rare and exotic hues and forms.

In particular the one colour everyone longed for and desired was the rarest of all, the perfect black tulip. The very impossibility of producing it spurred the growers on in competition to achieve this extraordinary perfection, so much so that it became almost a national obsession.

Although a few growers produced very dark flowers under conditions of great secrecy they were still identifiable as magenta or purple. No one ever succeeded in cultivating a perfect natural black flower, and so gradually the obsession faded, remembered mainly from Alex Dumas famous novel. Yet the phrase "black tulip" carries a deep resonance we can still feel today, conjuring as it does an image of impossible perfection.

Black Tulip necklace

Black Tulip necklace

For me this story is of a profound yet enigmatic significance. One day just playing with my collection of stones and materials, I was stuck for an idea. Suddenly there seemed to be a strange relationship between two almost black stones. One of sparkling faceted darkness reflecting subtle colours, the other a smooth tactile stone of fine sheen with a star trapped inside. The idea of looking at the notion of the Black Tulip in allegorical form came from somewhere within and the piece began to be born.

The hand knitted "Sacred Knot" chain of the necklace is silver that has been chemically oxidised and although dark, is a surface treatment that is not quite black. The centre stone is a fine violet charcoal spinel of unusual magical colour and sparkle, approaching black but still not quite. The main field of the piece is a spiral Mandala of tulip buds, flowers in potential, cut in silver, yet contained in gold. The reflections spiral counter clockwise in opposition to the clockwise cutting that generates them. It is the reflection we see first, the illusion, if you like, which attracts our attention initially before we appreciate the opposite reality beneath.

From the bottom drops a cabochon star diopside, which is the nearest material to black in the piece. In it when seen under a single light source, floats a perfect four ray star. Under the right conditions we can see it and experience it and yet we cannot hold or grasp it.

This piece took over a year to make on and off, the ideas and the story unfolding gradually during this time. For a major piece with no specific client this is not unusual, diverted as one is by the pressures of life. My experience of these things is that they have to have their own time and must be allowed to develop in their own way.

The longing for perfection is a truth for many of us; The Black Tulip necklace is this yearning expressed through beauty.

Freeman of the City of London

In a ceremony which coincided with my 70th birthday, I was made a Freeman of the City of London in a ceremony on November 21st 2016. My sister Maureen shared the occasion with me in The Guild Hall. The commemorative certificate notes that I am a "Citizen & Goldsmith of London". The award of honorary freedom of the city or borough tends to be ceremonial, given by the local government in many towns and cities on those who have served in some exceptional capacity, or upon any whom the city wishes to bestow an honour. In London, Freemen are allowed to herd sheep across London Bridge, a tradition which dates back 800 years. Now in September each year an annual London Sheep Drive raising money for charitable causes is carried out by Freemen of one of the city's Livery Companies.

The following is a pictorial record of the day - which should also explain the presence of the sheep!

Freeman

Alan John Craxford, Freeman

Desk Calendar
The certificate
Sheep

L to R: Marking the date; the Certificate; The Freeman's Sheep

The Plaque

Admiring the plaque "The Declaration Of A Freeman"

The Gathering

The gathering

Selected exhibitions

The Lotus Millenium Brooch

The Lotus Millenium Celebration Brooch

1999 Oxford Gallery, Oxford, Solo Exhibition
Contemporary British Silver, Lane Crawford,Hong Kong
Table Manners, The Art of Cutlery, Goldsmiths Hall,Catalogue

1998 "Objects of Desire", Roger Billcliffe Fine Art, Glasgow
Electrum Gallery, London
Goldsmiths Fair, Goldsmiths Hall, London
"Tea and Silver" Goldsmiths Hall, catalogue
Electrum Gallery, London
Goldsmiths Fair, Goldsmiths Hall, London
"Living in Britain", Chelsea, London

1996 Goldsmiths Fair, Goldsmiths Hall, London
Hilde Leis Galerie, Hamburg, Germany

1995 Schmuckgalerie - Rudi Ritter, St.Gallen, Switzerland
"What is Jewellery?" Exhibition curated by David Poston at the Crafts Council Gallery, London
"Chain Reaction" Exhibition of contemporary chains by leading makers, The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh
Electrum Gallery, London Solo Exhibition, catalogue

1993 "The Eye of the Heart" Cecil Collins memorial exhibition at Central St.Martins
"From Paper to Platinum" A review of contemporary British jewellery at Lesley Craze Gallery, London, catalogue

1992 "British Goldsmiths of Today", Goldsmiths Hall, London, catalogue

1991 "Contemporary Jewellery", Rufford Crafts Centre, Newark, Notts.
"Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition", Electrum Gallery, London
"New Jewellery", opening exhibition, Grundy Gallery, Blackpool
Isis Gallery, Los Angeles, California

Alan Craxford regularly contributes to the Chelsea Crafts Fair and the Goldsmiths Fair and is available to commission

Acknowledgements

London Guildhall University for financial assistance through funding

My assistant Grant Braithwaite for his skill, good humour and patience

The Oxford Gallery for their co-operation, ehthusiasm and invitation to exhibit.

To Paul Hartley for the fabulous photographs

Alan Craxford's jewellery was exhibited at the Oxford Gallery from 22nd November 1999 to January 5th 2000

References

1. The Biscuit Factory, Newcastle upon Tyne
2. Alan Craxford: The Book: LONDON GUILDHALL UNIVERSITY. ISBN 1 899 764 151
3. Lady Marina Vaizey: Wikipedia

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