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  • Romilly Saumarez Smith, Five Thimbles, 2013-2014

Unearthing gems

Romilly Saumarez Smith’s meticulous jewellery is shown for the first time

In 2014 Romilly Saumarez Smith exhibited a new collection of jewellery in the studio of Edmund de Waal. For many visitors the show was a revelation: the meticulously made rings, earrings and pendants, each a tiny sculpture of elements, some ancient, some new, some dark and matt, sharp and off-kilter – others gleaming and proudly baroque – offered jewellery that was resonant with history, full of poetry and feeling.

Her pieces incorporate small items of mediaeval or antique metal – belt buckles, nails, charms, buttons, thimbles, clasps – dug up by people with metal detectors, which she buys on eBay and then transforms into miniature landscapes, palimpsests of time and memory. Now, in Newfoundland at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, Saumarez Smith’s exquisite jewellery will be shown for the first time in a public gallery in Britain. 

Romilly Saumarez Smith, Gertrude's Jewel, 2013-2014

For 25 years Saumarez Smith was a bookbinder. Then, in 1998, she began to experiment with metal, creating poetic, one-off pieces of jewellery, often using vintage stones, embedded in gold or silver, which might be granulated, twisted, woven, sewn, heat-treated or oxidised in techniques drawn as much from bookbinding as silversmithing. In 2004 the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut hosted a solo exhibition of both bookbindings and jewellery. Ill-health intervened, however, and, no longer able to use her hands, Saumarez Smith gave up making altogether.

But in 2009 she met the jeweller Lucie Gledhill and together they found a new way to realise her ideas. Saumarez Smith says: ‘Slowly we developed a vocabulary in common, a way of giving names to the pieces we worked with.’ For this latest collection she collaborated not just with Gledhill, but also with Anna Wales and Laura Ngyou. So intuitive now is the process that she says, ‘I am convinced these pieces are by me.’

Romilly Saumarez Smith, Gold Caddis, 2013-2014

The first point of inspiration for her are the eBay finds. ‘It is very moving – all this stuff that has lain for all those years underground and then it comes to me.’ Each piece takes its character from an item of antique metal, and, combined with silver, gold, seed pearls, tiny diamonds or an antique gemstone, they take on new life. But the exhibition also owes its title to a journey she took in 2001 with her family to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia.

Most memorable was a boat ride to a remote island, where they walked to a distant lighthouse, ‘across this ground which was completely virgin, a black lattice of roots, lichens and moss with low bushes covered in cloudberries and cranberries’. Her new-found jewels, chthonic treasures brought into the light of the present day, map this territory of the imagination.

Newfoundland: Romilly Saumarez Smith is at Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, until 10 April 2016.

scva.ac.uk

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