When the theme of this year’s Handmade exhibition was set, we wanted to celebrate with a precious symbol – a contemporary talisman setting out our divine design aspirations. Because specially commissioned seals have been a regular Handmade motif, the idea of a signet ring – a classic liturgical jewel – took hold. Having settled on the illustrator Kam Tang and graphic designer Darren Wall’s 2011 seal design, we approached Rebus, a traditional goldsmiths’ studio and signet ring specialist based in London’s famed Hatton garden jewellery quarter. With Rebus director and master engraver Emmet Smith at the helm, here’s how the Wallpaper ‘Holy Handmade’ signet ring and seal took its superbly unique shape...
The first stage of the process involves securing the ring in a specialised clamp, so that the engraver can score the design outline into the metal using a scriber. Using a microscope, the craftsman carves metal away – the design is created in reverse so as to create a 3D impression – and meticulously engraves the design according to the drawing before him. In effect, he is interpreting a 2D design into a 3D relief. ‘The Wallpaper ring had to be really large so that you could see its very fine detail – it’s almost like a wearable desk seal, a sculpture of sorts,’ says Emmet Smith, Rebus director and master engraver. Photography: Aylin Bayhan
The process of creating a precise detailed relief means the engraver must first simplify the design on paper. ‘The seal needs to be instantly recognisable. That’s an editing process where we focus on elements that give better definition. We create a silhouette profile because it’s easier to read than a straight-on one,’ says Smith. ‘The design is then brought down to scale and placed on the ring to see how it might look.’ When the engraver is satisfied, he starts the metalwork, using putty to finesse the relief as he goes. Photography: Aylin Bayhan
Smith admits that the ‘Holy Handmade’ signet ring is one of the biggest pieces he has ever designed. ‘There’s so much detail in the original seal design that we had to go for a sizeable scale to replicate it as best we could as an engraving.’ Smith liked the idea of its form being like a modernist building, reflecting Wallpaper’s design credentials. ‘I created the W-shaped shank as though it was a window, highlighted by a touch of enamelling, in white.’ Five of Rebus’s studio craftsmen worked to create the finished jewel. Photography: Aylin Bayhan
When the engraver is satisfied that the seal design is replicated to the highest standard, he uses the ancient wax intaglio process to refine the jewel design further. Moving the engraving to and fro under a lit candle (cheap domestic varieties are preferred as they give off more smoke), he presses it into the hot wax, where the soot allows for a highly detailed smoky imprint. Photography: Aylin Bayhan
‘The Wallpaper* seal design had really deep lines, which proved particularly tricky to engrave, as you can only cut in one direction and you have to be mindful of the structure of the piece, so we we had to make special tools for the job,’ continues Smith. ‘But the restrictions proved necessary as they kept us focused. We all came together to find solutions and everything fell into place. There was a real buzz in the studio. Our chance to design the Wallpaper* signet ring has been a challenge and a privilege.’ Photography: Aylin Bayhan
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