Of the five primary senses, smell is perhaps the one we take most for granted. For the millions of people who have suffered temporary or long-term loss of smell as a result of contracting Covid-19, however, the ways in which smells enhance and inform the human experience have been made sharply apparent by their sudden absence.
Scented Metals is therefore a very timely collection by Polish-born jeweller and artist, Maria Gower. Conceived and crafted in the thick of the pandemic, it consists of metal perfume flacons in both free-standing, handheld and pendant form, and is an attempt to unpack every aspect of this olfactory sensation - the molecular processes involved in our perception of scent, and the industry that has capitalised on our love of pleasurable smells for centuries.
Maria explains: “Perfume is a time-based material, you open a flacon of perfume and the molecules start escaping their lightest first, and their heaviest, the base note, can linger for days. I wanted to find a representation of this property in my collection.
We also often don't notice our scented world until we lose it, as was one of the symptoms of Covid. I would like, as a maker, to encourage the person who is wearing my jewellery to consider the importance of our sense of smell, and to perhaps notice the ordinary smells around him or her; the smell of cut grass in the neighbour's garden, or the rain on the pavement, which releases a chemical called Petrichor.”
Until recently, soft synthetic clay was the material of choice for Maria. The proprietor of a successful London business, she specialised in life-like, pastel-coloured roses that adorned bridal tiaras, ornaments and jewellery. After forty years of working in this medium however, Maria experienced an artistic crisis; believing that she had begun to stagnate creatively, she felt a pressing need to explore new ground. Jewellery and silversmithing presented the fresh possibilities that she craved.
“Towards the end, I became restless and dissatisfied with what I was doing. I had this feeling that I had lost my creativity. I started looking for something else, and I found it in the form of a BA course at the School of Art, Architecture and Design, London Metropolitan University in London, in jewellery and silversmithing.”
Although the transition from clay to metal was transformative for Maria, it was initially a difficult adjustment. Unlike the extremely malleable nature of clay, precious metals ask a lot more of their handler in order to be manipulated, shaped and formed. The moment that the veteran artist began to master her new medium was therefore nothing short of revelatory.
“I thought metal was a very unfriendly material; it was hard, unyielding, very sharp at the corners, you could cut your finger on it. When I discovered that given certain conditions, it is a very pliable material, it was a revelation. I found that actually, it has got very similar qualities to clay, which I was working with for such a long time, and in my work at the moment, I'm trying to explore those properties.”
Maria’s growing sense of competency in her newfound craft was sealed by the completion of her degree in 2018, followed by the inclusion of her Scented Metals collection in Shine 2021, the Goldsmiths’ Centre’s annual exhibition of new talent. The creation of Scented Metals signified even further technical and creative growth for Maria, providing her with ample opportunity to hone her skills, and become more intuitive in her interactions with metal.
“I gained lots of technical knowledge whilst working on this collection. I was, as I said, new to metals. There was a lot to learn about metal properties, techniques, and about the tools used in metalsmithing. I also learned to listen to the metal. Every metal has got different properties and as you work with it, you have to be able to understand the language. Sometimes it says ‘oh yes, I can go for a little bit longer’, and other times it screams to you ‘no more, you have to stop now’. This is something that you have to recognise.”
For a maker who made her first foray into the industry just a few short years ago, you might imagine that experimentation would pose a daunting prospect. This is not so for Maria, however, who is keen to distinguish herself by establishing unique ways of working. This desire to break new ground in her pieces is perhaps most evident in the Perfume Flacon necklace, which features mottled, silver-plated plumes escaping from a textured rose-copper bottle - a stopper designed to represent scent escaping into the atmosphere. The effect is striking and unusual.
“Because I'm new to silversmithing, I'm very keen to find my own way of working with metal to establish my own techniques. I observed old silversmithing techniques and processes, but I'm always trying to find my own interpretation on them. As an example, I often use wax to make the stoppers for my bottles, and I wanted to find a way of representing a cloud of escaping vapor, and almost whip the metal into that cloud. After lots of experimenting, I found a way of doing it first in wax, and then it was transformed into metal. It's such an interesting piece, you can look at it for a long time and find these little caves, and every time you look at it, you discover something new in it.”
Whilst vessels are a longstanding staple of the metalsmithing industry, fully functional perfume bottles are an unusual twist on a familiar form, and the perfect object for expressing Maria’s themes relating to smell and scent. Each bottle also includes a subtle detail within its twisting mechanism:
“I’ve hidden a little feature. Every bottle is functional, you’re able to unscrew the top, but where typically you would only turn three, maybe four times, I have added more - so you have to turn it six, maybe seven times. That feature is hidden, but it is there.”
The use of perfume flacons adds a further historical element to the work; these small, decorative vials were popular in Roman, Medieval, and even ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian societies, and Scented Metals is a modern continuation of this age-old tradition. Moreover, due to the longevity of metal as a material, Maria’s pieces have the potential to one day be counted among the historical artefacts that helped inspire them.
“I realised that because of the properties of metal, I'm creating objects of permanence, and that carries with it a responsibility: my bottles will still be there in 200 years’ time. Will they still be desirable in 200 years’ time, will they inspire curiosity?”
This referencing of the past is also evident in the collection’s choice of metals - copper and bronze for example, are often seen in ancient artefacts and crafts.
History is just one of three major concepts that Maria seeks to explore in the collection, however. She explains;
“I researched our sense of smell extensively in making this collection and that led me into three distinct avenues. First of these is our sense of smell in itself. We inhale a molecule, and where does it go - how does our brain process it? The second is “the juice” as it's known in the trade - perfume itself - and all the wonderful ingredients it incorporates, and the interesting, sometimes weird processes, involved in obtaining those fragrant molecules. And the third area is the vessels themselves, the beautiful flacons to hold the precious scent, which have been made for such a long time in history, and it made me realise that this is where my work belongs, it stands in this long line of perfume flacons made throughout history.”
Although the choice of which perfume to add to each falcon will ultimately fall to the wearer, when browsing Scented Metals and learning of its carefully researched and conceived themes, it’s possible to imagine rich and contrasting odours emanating from the various, beautifully crafted vessels. It is overall a highly distinctive and unique collection, produced with considerable technical skill in spite of Maria Gower’s relative newness in the industry. That it represents a kind of rebirth for the maker, once dogged with creative frustration, gives it an added poignancy.
“I enjoy the process of working with metal full stop, I find that joyous. For me, it's not work at all - it's play. With making, there is also no room for selfishness. You can’t just make things and put them in your bottom drawer when you finish - you have to share them with the world.”