Silversmith Alice Fry: capturing the chaotic beauty of rock formations

Posted by Rae Gellel on

Alice Fry has always possessed a unique appreciation for the rugged, atypical beauty of rocks. An avid metal detectorist as a child and a lifelong collector of every kind of stone, mineral and crystal imaginable, she began channelling this passion into her signature style as a maker in 2020, when she earned a first-class degree in Jewellery and Silversmithing from Glasgow School of Art.

In particular, a visit to the Blue John Cavern in Derbyshire, a favourite childhood haunt, has proven a catalyst for Alice’s work, inspiring her latest fine jewellery collection, Hidden, which was chosen for exhibition at Shine 2021, the Goldsmiths’ Centre’s annual talent showcase. The cavern is named for Blue John, the purple hued fluorite which is still mined from its 250-million-year-old walls.

The Blue John Stone cave

By anodising the seldom-used metal niobium, Alice has been able to recreate the stunning shades of mauve that naturally occur in the ancient cavern. Working from a sample of Blue John, she has also translated what she describes as the "chaotic beauty" of rock formations into jewellery and precious objects.

Silversmith Alice Fry anodising a piece of metal

“I sat the rock down on a table and drew from it, using the ancient techniques of chasing and repoussé to translate it into metal,” she explained in a recent interview with the Goldsmiths’ Centre. The result of this creative process is a collection that features uneven textures, jagged edges and jutting crystalline shapes, to stunning effect.

Silversmith Alice Fry chasing

Like many of her artistic inclinations in the present day, Alice’s attraction to niobium, a rarely seen refractory metal, has its roots in her youth; “I was fifteen when I first discovered niobium, at a Desire jewellery and silversmithing fair in London,” she recalled. “I met a jeweller called Brian Eburah and he is the only jeweller in the UK who uses niobium. I saw it and instantly fell in love with these beautiful, iridescent colours that you can’t really see in other metals, apart from titanium.”

Silversmith Alice Fry's sketchbook

After the Goldsmiths’ Company funded research into niobium in the 1970s, it enjoyed a brief surge of popularity among jewellers and silversmiths. It soon fell back into obscurity however, perhaps owed to its high resistance to heat. “It’s a very difficult material to work in - you can’t anneal it under normal working temperatures, so it isn’t very accessible,” Alice explains.

By opting to use the ancient techniques of chasing and repoussé, Alice has avoided the need to anneal her pieces and has therefore dodged this common complaint about her metal of choice. As a result, she is counted among just a handful of makers working in niobium in the UK, quickly finding a unique selling point at an early stage in her career. An alumnus of Bishopsland Educational Trust, she won a grant in 2021, the Jane Goodman Award, which gave her the chance to learn new anodising techniques from Brian Eburah, the jeweller who introduced her to niobium all those years ago.

Silversmith Alice Fry chasing a piece of silver

“Niobium is really soft, and it work-hardens very slowly. It’s kind of similar to titanium - you can anodise it, but titanium is very, very hard. So for me, it’s the perfect metal for chasing and repoussé. Using niobium, I started chasing onto the surface of the metal to form these 3D crystal shapes, which I then anodised to different colours, such as purples and blues. A big part of my collection is these pops of colour that contrast really nicely with silver, in addition to the texture from the chasing and repoussé, and these sharp, crystal edges.”

Though perhaps not as obscure as niobium, chasing and repoussé is also an increasingly scarce technique within the industry. Mastering these skills not only furnishes Alice’s work with another unique angle, it’s also testament to her commitment to keep traditional crafts alive.

“There aren’t that many people using chasing and repoussé, it’s an ancient technique and a dying craft, but there’s been a bit of a revival recently, particularly among silversmiths, so it’s the perfect time to be using this technique.”

Whilst the jewellery pieces featured in the Hidden collection are more focused on highlighting the potential of niobium as a material, the silversmithing objects successfully showcase the decorative capabilities of repoussé and chasing. A hand-raised copper beaker, adorned at the base with irregular diamond shapes that resemble sharp shards of rock, is a good example of this. Like all of the pieces within Alice’s body of work, this beaker is also very effective at drawing images to mind of a rough, weather-worn cliff face or the craggy walls of an ancient cave.

“For this collection, I delved into different fields of chasing and repoussé. The beaker I created was very much about surface texture, whereas my pieces of jewellery were more about exploring niobium as a material and the anodising process, and how far I’m able to push both of these techniques.”

Nonetheless, Alice professes a similar approach both to creating both jewellery and silversmithing objects, often describing her jewellery as “wearable sculptures”;

“I think I apply the techniques I use on both a small scale and a large scale, but I kind of approach it with a similar mindset - as if my jewellery pieces are miniature silversmithing pieces. I don't do a lot of small construction soldering for jewellery, so I think it's really interesting to have a different perspective on jewellery making. I want to show a range of pieces all using the same techniques and ideas.”

The Fool’s Gold brooch is a good example of the combination of these two disciplines - being jewellery that nonetheless required skills like the hand-raising of niobium sheets to create. It is also the piece that Alice unabashedly names as her favourite in the collection, in part due to the technical challenges the young maker overcame in creating it. It consists of a square within a square; a sterling silver “frame” that supports the brightly coloured design within.

“Making the Fool’s Gold brooch required me to really challenge myself, and the finished result is more of an art piece. It took a long time to chase because it’s very technically difficult, you’ve got to raise the metal from a flat sheet, all the way up and all the way back down again, at these really sharp 90-degree angles. It really helped push me into different areas of this technique. I wanted to convey the sense of it being a wearable sculpture by putting a frame behind the niobium to elevate and frame it like a piece of artwork. To create it required so many different techniques, with the main technique, on the front, being chasing and repoussé. The back is also really special, it’s constructed by hand using tiny cubes that mimic the front. Although I’ve got a functional brooch back, it ties into the cubes on the front.

It was hard to perfect, but I absolutely love overcoming challenges. Part of being a jeweller is about asking - how do I fix this? How do I overcome this obstacle? A lot of the time, the answer to that question is intuitive.”

The brooch is also favoured by Alice because she feels it is successful conceptually - it is an attempt to raise questions about the high esteem in which we hold gold. The design features bright flecks of the precious metal juxtaposed with the similar-coloured niobium. These protrude in cubes and angular shapes, and contrast with a textured, deep blue background.

“It’s inspired by iron pyrite and how it was known as Fool’s Gold because it looks similar to gold - so it’s a bit of a play on words. The niobium yellow cubes are supposed to resemble the iron pyrite, because it was often found in cubes and doesn’t look dissimilar to the tiny flecks of gold amongst the niobium rock, and they form rivets that connect the niobium to the silver backing. It’s questioning the material value that we ascribe to gold. Why do we consider it valuable, is it the colour, or the material properties? For me, it’s a piece that pushes concepts, which is something that brooches are great for. I’m very proud of it.”

The Fool’s Gold brooch is not only sophisticated both in terms of its concept and technical elements, it is also highly unique looking. This is consistently true of the pieces in the Hidden collection, and that is perhaps the result of several distinctive things happening at once, such as the choice of metal in niobium, and the use of techniques like chasing and repoussé.

“My style is not one that you see very much, because I've kind of gone with a really unique technique and material and ran with them both. It's chaotic and beautiful textures and shapes. It's really eye-catching, I suppose, quite over the top and not very simple. It's taking these crazy structures, and really going for it.”

The inspiration behind Alice’s work is also uncommon. Whilst it’s true that many artists draw from nature, rock formations are often overlooked in favour of more overtly pretty and feminine symbols of beauty, like flowers.

“The collection is inspired by the natural world, but the inorganic natural world, so obviously rocks, not biology. It’s a part of nature that it's not used very often in the jewellery industry, we use materials derived from rock like gemstones, but it's a part of the natural world that’s perhaps used less often as a source of inspiration. It was a very niche route that I decided to go down. The pieces incorporate themes of geology, history, gemmology, science, in addition to the physical process of making. A lot of different ideas feed into it, and they all interconnect.”

Hidden is a collection that draws our attention to a truly remarkable material; the material that forms the foundation of our planet, and indeed all planets. Although rock may manifest in shapes and patterns that are brutal, irregular and unpredictable, this body of work highlights just how breathtakingly beautiful this naturally occurring material can be. It evokes images of caves and caverns that have silently held for millions of years, and although it is crafted by a relatively new maker, it is as successful technically as it is aesthetically.

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