Episode 213 Part 1: The Inspiration Behind Esther Brinkmann’s Shapeshifting Rings

Episode 213

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • How Esther’s experiences in China and India continue to influence her work today
  • Why different materials have different meanings, and how that impacts the wearer
  • Why the relationship between a jewelry artist and a customer is particularly special and intimate
  • How wearing jewelry influences the way we move through the world
  • The most important qualities a jewelry teacher should have

About Esther Brinkmann

Esther Brinkmann is an independent jewelry maker living and working in Switzerland. Her work has been exhibited in galleries throughout the world and is held in the collections of the National Museum of Switzerland, Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Museo Internazionale delle Arti Applicate Oggi (MIAAO) in Torino, and the V&A in London. She established the Haute École d’Art et de Design (HEAD) in Geneva, the first jewelry education program of its kind in the country.

Additional Resources:



7 rings made of anodized aluminium, rubber ring. A multiple

2-Double Ring

« fragments of flowers »

Enamel « champlevé » on gold 916


3 Rings constructed and hammered gold 750, silver and iron


Ring constructed and hammered gold 750, knitted silk

5-Red Face and Double

A pair of brooches

Oxidized cast silver, red thread, resin and pigment, oxidized silver


Jewelry artist Esther Brinkmann makes her rings with intention, considering everything from the meaning of the material used to the way the shape of the ring will change how the wearer moves their hands. She has passed this perspective down to hundreds of students at the Haute École d’Art et de Design (HEAD), the jewelry program she founded in Geneva. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how living in China and India made her question her identity and influenced her work; why many of her rings are designed to fit different sized hands; and what makes the relationship between artist and wearer so special. Read the episode transcript here.

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is the first part of a two-part episode. Please make sure you subscribe so you can hear part two as soon as it’s released later this week.

I recently went to Switzerland with Art Jewelry Forum. One of the afternoons we had was at Esther Brinkmann’s home. It was a very memorable lunch and afternoon. We got to see her studio, and on top of that, we had an unforgettable luncheon cooked by her husband, Warner. Esther’s work is very well known, although it’s not known so much here. It is found in prestigious museums. She was influenced by culture, especially in India and China, where she lived for more than 20 years with her diplomat husband. We also met a collectors’ club, the Magpies, which you’ll hear about. She’ll talk more about her philosophy and her jewelry. Esther, welcome to the podcast.

Esther: Thank you very much, Sharon, for inviting me to talk about my practice as an artist and as an educator. Thank you.

Sharon: You’re welcome. I’m glad you’re here. I was going to ask you why you think there are only certain areas of the world where your jewelry is known. For instance, I don’t think it’s known here. I don’t know it. I haven’t seen the jewelry here. If somebody said to me, “It’s an Esther Brinkmann piece,” I wouldn’t know what that meant.

Esther: That’s a difficult question. I guess it’s because I have never been collaborating with an American gallery, although I think I have a few pieces in American collections. My focus was, for many years, on European countries. As you were saying, we were living in China and India for 10 years, so I could show my work in those two countries. But America, it was a little bit far away, I think.

Sharon: Do you have more work in China and India and Europe than other places? I guess I’m asking that about China and India. Is your work more well-known there?

Esther: China and India are huge countries with numbers and numbers and millions and millions of people. I’m not very known in those two countries, but I am known in different universities, in different cities, as an ambassador for jewelry. When I was living in China and in India, I was given the opportunity to have a lot of lectures and workshops with students there, so I could introduce this idea, which was quite a western idea of artisan jewelry. In India as in China, it was not at all a topic.

Sharon: The lectures or conferences you had, was it because you were part of a school? Was it just private?

Esther: No, it was because when we lived in those two countries, I contacted different universities that had jewelry departments or fashion departments, design departments, and I offered to give lectures and workshops about art jewelry. I was welcomed with open arms.

Sharon: So, you basically made your niche, I want to say. You created it. You weren’t asked, but you created it.

Esther: I would not say I created it, but I participated, and I stimulated young people in those two countries to go into individual creative and experimental jewelry. Things happen also because there is something in the air. The time was right to do that, and they were interested in it.

Sharon: If you had come 20 or 10 years earlier, would they have been interested?

Esther: I don’t think so.

Sharon: Your favorite piece, the one most written about, is a ring that’s a double ring. It’s not made of two rings, but it’s comprised of two rings.

Esther: Yes.

Sharon: How did that come about?

Esther: That came in the early 80s, when I started as an independent jewelry maker. It was the trend at that time. All of us tried to make multiple pieces. That means a big number of pieces, inexpensive pieces, for everybody. At that time, I had the idea of a ring. It was made of an industrially made aluminum tube with an incision on top where I introduced a rubber ring. This ring could regulate the size of the inner hole. I realized that I created this ring for a functional reason. Many people could wear the same ring and they filled the same space more or less.

At that time, I suddenly realized how interesting it is to have a ring with space around the finger. I focused on this concept, on this idea, and developed many different other shapes from then on. That’s how the double ring came, a ring which is too big for your finger and a second ring which is open. The tubular ring is open and leaves space around the finger, and you fit in a second, smaller ring which holds the thing on your finger. That is quite complicated to explain.

Sharon: I didn’t understand the big ring was supposed to be big and the little ring—

Esther: The big ring is too large for your finger. The smaller ring inside fits and is held back on your finger. It’s an aesthetic decision, but it’s also functional because the bigger ring can be worn again by many different sizes of hands because the smaller ring fits inside. I can adapt to different sizes.

Sharon: Do you have blanks you use, where you cut and these rings are this size and these rings are this size?

Esther: With the many years of experience I have, I know more or less the range of sizes of rings and fingers. I know, for instance, that women in China usually have very small hands and fingers, whereas in Holland, women have much bigger hands. Also in America, you have bigger hands and taller people. I don’t send very, very small rings to Holland, for instance. This is the experience of many, many years. So, you get a feeling for what range of sizes is fitting to different women.

Sharon: Why do you think it is that different nationalities have different size hands?

Esther: I think it’s not about nationalities; it’s about the body shape.

Sharon: I tried on one of your rings which actually fits. You could slip a ring underneath it. I was surprised because I have large hands and mostly, they don’t fit me. I was really surprised. You started making those rings when?

Esther: I started around 1985, something like that. That makes a long period of time.

Sharon: What did you do with the rings or the jewelry when you were in China? Did you just keep on?

Esther: In the beginning, I was a little bit lost, not in translation, but lost in this very different culture. I had many, many experiences of being the alien within a huge group of other people. That was a very special experience for me. That’s when I had the idea to create this series of brooches called “Red Face and Double.” That was really a Chinese idea. I would not have had this idea elsewhere.

I had the idea of the “Red Face” because I was wondering, “How do these people perceive me? How do they see me? I see them like this and like that, and they are looking at me; they are staring at me. Who am I for these people?” Also, I didn’t know anymore exactly who I was. There were a lot of questions. That’s how I started to draw these faces. I thought, “It’s a brooch; it’s like wearing another face of mine.” It’s like showing that I’m not a person who is only one. I am multiple. With different people, I might be a different person. I think that is a reality. It depends on with whom we are. We are different people. Luckily, we are not like a stone or something which would not change. That’s how I got the idea of those brooches wearing another face.

Sharon: Do you think people understood what you were trying to do?

Esther: I think so. I think they could feel that it has something to do with who we are and how we see each other, how we look at the world, how flexible we are or what our competences to adapt in certain circumstances are, etc. What was certainly surprising for them was to see that you could express such ideas in a piece of jewelry. That was completely new for them. That was something very—not disturbing, but it was somehow questioning them.

Sharon: Did anybody ever say to you, “That’s unusual,” or “That is really making me think twice,” or anything like that?

Esther: Many people said it is unusual. I had a lovely experience with a very young student. They came to see my first exhibition in Guangzhou in the south of China. I explained to them about this idea of having another face on me, and she said, “But you know, you are new here. I’ve lived in Guangzhou for 20 years and I have never had this idea.” So, I said to her, “Yeah, you see the fact that I am a foreigner here. I am a person who is in a new surrounding, in a new environment, so I have a new perception of myself. I have also so many emotions, so many things that I discover every day and every instant.”

Sharon: Did you continue to make the rings while you were there?

Esther: Yes, of course, I continued to make the rings, but I introduced a new material. I started to work with jade. I was very much fascinated by this very Chinese stone there. You can see it everywhere. It’s a very popular stone. I was really fond of starting to work with and realizing pieces with jade. The second thing is, in doing so, I could start to collaborate with Chinese craftspeople, which is an interesting way to get into another culture, by doing things together, developing things together. Not only observing or being a consumer of artifacts, but sharing knowledge, sharing skills, sharing ideas and concepts is extremely enriching. That was a fabulous experience.

Sharon: Did you make the rings out of just jade or other things?

Esther: I made the models and then I got them carved by Chinese craftspeople. I couldn’t have done this myself. I don’t have the skill for that.

Sharon: How did you communicate with these people?

Esther: By bringing them a model. The first time I went to one of these carving studios with a drawing. I went with a translator. I could not speak Chinese in the beginning at all, so I went with a translator, and he said, “Oh, no, I cannot do this.” It was a very simple shape. They are able to carve Buddhas and cabbage and absolutely crazy, very complex forms and shapes, and he said, “Oh, no, I cannot do this,” and I said, “O.K., I have to find another way to communicate.” So, I went home, and I made the ring of wood. I went back and asked him, “Could you please copy this ring for me in jade?” and he said, “Of course, no problem.”

Sharon: The same person?

Esther: The same person. It was just the way to communicate. When he saw the drawing, he was not sure he was able to interpret the right thing, whereas with the model, he could measure. He could copy exactly the same thing. It wasn’t a problem anymore.

Sharon: Did you produce a few in jade?

Esther: Yes, I produced a few in jade. It’s getting dark here, Sharon.

Sharon: O.K., all right, I’m sorry.

Esther: No, that’s why I turned on the lights, so you could see me again.

Sharon: Yes, I can see you. How long ago did you start making rings on a continuous basis?

Esther: 35, 40 years. It’s a long time.

Sharon: Can you tell us about your experience with the rings in India?

Esther: When we arrived in India, the first impressions that I got were the fabulous world of colors and patterns on textiles, on temples, on saris. Wherever you look, you will see fabulous combinations of colors and ornaments, motifs and patterns, flowers, birds and things like that. I thought, “This is the moment for me to try to introduce motifs and decorations to my very simple shapes.” So, I started to draw flowers and birds influenced by these jewelry pieces from the Mughal Period, which I find absolutely fantastic. I was lucky to find an enamel master, a skilled craftsman in Rajasthan, in Jaipur, who could realize my rings. I made the metal ring gold or silver. I drew the pattern on it, the motif, and he realized the enamel.

Sharon: Was there any problem in communicating with them?

Esther: There were many problems because our temperaments are completely different. Of course, our sense of aesthetics is also different. In the beginning, he said, “Esther, I will draw you things in a better way. I can do this for you. I can make much better motifs than what you are drawing,” and I said, “This is not the deal we did. I have my own ideas. I don’t want to make Indian jewelry. I make my own jewelry, and I want you to realize, with your fantastic skill, the best enamel I can get.”

It also took some time to discuss and to find how to communicate. In the end, it worked very well, but it worked very well because I went to his studio. I stayed a few days there; I worked together with him. I could not work with him from this distance now from Switzerland. That would not be possible.

Sharon: We will have photos posted on the website. Please head to TheJewelryJourney.com to check them out.

Sharon Berman