Holiday Newsletter 2016: The Art and Innovation of Northwest Coast Jewelry

When we think of innovations in jewelry, it helps to think of a timeline – what was considered innovative and contemporary in the late 1800’s might not appear to be so avant-garde today. However, when we consider artistic innovations in Northwest Coast jewelry in the context of different time frames, a clear picture emerges of the various ways that Northwest Coast artists and their contemporaries often push(ed) boundaries by integrating new design elements and fabrication techniques into their pieces to further the progress of their art form. It is interesting to reflect on these entrepreneurs and how their reaching beyond the boundaries of tradition contributes to the advancement of what is considered innovative in the present time.

When you look at this historic bracelet, for example, with its European foliate scrollwork patterning, some may question whether it is even a Northwest Coast piece. This bracelet, made from 22 karat coin gold, has been attributed to Haida artist Duncan Ginaawaan. Several other pieces displaying a similar use of European scroll patterning have been attributed by experts to Ginaawaan, like the handful of pieces that were included in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s 2013 exhibition, Charles Edenshaw. Ginaawaan, a Haida chief and matrilineal uncle to Charles Edenshaw’s wife, was likely one of Edenshaw’s first teachers of metal engraving.

While not a traditional Northwest Coast design element, the use of this European leaf design demonstrates how Northwest Coast artists working at this time began exploring new and foreign design components. Bill McLennan and Karen Duffek of the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology posit that this integration possibly occurred as a response to the federal government’s legislation against the potlatch in 1884, when artists such as Ginaawaan adopted Western designs as a way to sell their pieces to non-Native tourists and collectors (see pg. 128 of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s publication, Charles Edenshaw).

Bill Reid and Northwest Coast Jewelry

The works of master carver Bill Reid are synonymous with talking of innovation in Northwest Coast jewelry. Reid was descendent from a long line of Northwest Coast jewellers and silversmiths – his grandfather, Charles Gladstone was a well-known silversmith who inherited his skills from his maternal uncle, Charles Edenshaw.

Bill Reid’s path towards becoming the renowned artist we know today was shaped by both his Northwest Coast cultural heritage and his formal training in Toronto in the 1950’s and, later, in London, Montreal and Vancouver. Reid’s oeuvre is of course comprised of exceptional carved and engraved pieces, an homage to works created by his skillful predecessors, and was also shaped by the incorporation of his formal training in Western techniques that elevated the profile of his Northwest Coast jewelry while maintaining an undeniable connection to his Haida heritage.  His pieces illustrate the beautiful results that culminate when Northwest Coast design is married with European jewelry traditions to create exquisite, intricate and monumental pieces of wearable art.                                                                                                                                   
The breadth of Reid’s works – jewelry, sculpture, prints and more – were recently documented in Martine Reid’s publication, Bill Reid Collected. This thoughtful assemblage features high quality photographs of Reid’s most memorable and invocative works and is available for purchase through the gallery.

Repoussé Jewelry: A Melding of Worlds 

In the 1970’s, we saw the influence of European repoussé techniques impacting the Northwest Coast art world. Repoussé is a process that involves the hammering of material on the reverse side to create a front surface of the piece that is ornamented with designs in relief. Bill Reid was perhaps one of the first Northwest Coast artists to integrate this practice into traditional Native designs, and many artists who worked under Reid took to this technique, including Haida artist Gerry Marks, who has focused his entire career predominantly working with jewelry.

The use of this repoussé technique in Northwest Coast art is quite illustrative of the innovative coming together of two highly developed art practices that, when combined, elevate both the beauty and complexity of the works – traditional Northwest Coast designs become vividly animated through the exaggerated relief created by repoussé, and the European technique is simultaneously invigorated through its affiliation with world-renowned Northwest Coast art.

Lost Wax Castings Small and Large

Similar to repoussé, the lost wax casting technique is another method that allows artists to bring significant relief and depth to their pieces which could not be attained through traditional carving practices. This process involves creating a mold from an original piece – often carved in wax, sometimes in wood – and then filling the mold with molten gold or silver. The piece is cooled and the wax mold is peeled away to reveal the metal work underneath.The lost wax casting technique proliferated in the Northwest Coast jewelry world in the 60’s and 70’s and is a practice that is continued today.Two cast pieces by Tlingit artist Dempsey Bob that recently came into the gallery beautifully illustrate this technique in practice. Dempsey has created many original works in 18 karat gold using this casting technology; these original cast works, created in the late 1980’s, were made as 1/1 editions.

Castings can be done as a 1/1 original, but once the mold is made there is no reason not to create an edition. The advantage to an edition is that the piece is now able to reach a wider audience as there are several pieces rather than a single. Some editions are set as limited series – for example, Haida artist Jim Hart created this Dogfish pendant in 2000 using the lost wax cast technique. This pendant is number one in an edition of twelve, so as to maintain the exclusivity of the piece.

These closed editions will also include one or several “Artist Proofs”, or “AP”, created at the conclusion of the series, as a means to ensure the artist keeps a copy of their work, though AP’s are often also sold through the gallery at a premium price. Sometimes, a cast edition can be left open-ended.

The Intricacies of Inlay

Inlay is another technique that Northwest Coast jewelry artists use to create depth and dimension in their works that requires precision and patience – the inlayed material must be cut to exact dimensions and is often quite fragile, as in the case of abalone inlay.

Recently, Kwakwaka’wakw artist David Neel has been creating some unique jewelry, working with 24 karat gold and silver. The silver is cut out to make room for the inlay, and the is gold pressure-inlayed (the inlayed pieces are cut so exactly that they fit perfectly into the piece without the use of an adhesive product) so that the gold is flush with the metal. The whole work is engraved, and then oxidized, and has a touch of abalone inlay as well.

Inlaying can also be combined with other jewelry techniques, such as casting, to create truly remarkable and multidimensional works. These Moon pendants by Rick Adkins are a great example of this combination of practices.

Haisla artist Hollie Bear Bartlett also produces beautiful, delicate and well-crafted pieces in silver and gold that often feature precious stone and gold inlay. Hollie is perhaps best known for her unique Whale Tail pendants!

Silver and Gold is not always Jewelry… 

Northwest Coast metal engraving is not limited to wearable pieces. Traditionally, many every-day usable objects in Northwest Coast cultures were elaborately adorned with designs depicting the many clan moieties and coastal creatures spoken of in oral traditions. Two such exquisite pieces recently came to the gallery by renowned Haida artist Robert Davidson, who celebrated his 70thbirthday earlier this month. Both the Dogfish Lighter and the Killer Whale Spoon were created in the early 1970’s, hearkening back to an earlier phase in Davidson’s career.

A Note on Shipping

All jewelry pieces fit in a small FedEx box, so it is easy to give guidelines on pricing. The prices listed below are for FedEx Economy Air, a 2-3 day delivery service.

Western Canada:$25 CDN

Eastern Canada: $35 CDN
Western US: $30 CDN/$22.50 USD
Eastern US: $40 CDN/$30 USD
Europe: $50 CDN/€35

As we approach Christmas, FedEx Economy services may be longer than expected, as weather and demand can delay delivery. If you need your package delivered by December 24th, we recommend shipping prior to Monday, December 19th.