Episode 213 Part 2: 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 second part of a two-part episode. If you haven’t heard part one, please head to TheJewelryJourney.com.

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. Welcome back.

Do you think you were taken by the design, the motifs and everything, because you’re a designer? For instance, would I be taken by it?

Esther: You would be marveled by all these beautiful things, and you would love to buy these things, but maybe you would not have the desire to do your own designs, whereas I immediately got the desire to introduce these new inspirations. I was really stimulated to introduce these things in my own designs and to evolve to develop new ideas.

Sharon: For those of us that were interested in the enamel rings, I think you said we had to be careful if we dropped them or banged them. They were like glass.

Esther: Yeah, enamel is a glass-like material. It certainly it is not the best idea to make rings with enamel, but I could not resist. As I love rings, I just had to do a few of those rings. This was a period when I did realize maybe 20 of those rings, but they are difficult to sell because they are difficult to wear. You have deal with them very carefully.

Sharon: What other jewelry did you make while you were there?

Esther: In India, besides these enamel rings, besides this collaboration, I also started to do pieces with some stones. I discovered, for instance, the polki diamond in India. You can find it only in India. It’s a diamond; let’s say it is not the best quality. It’s a piece of diamond with many, many cracks. They split it into very thin plates, very roughly faceted, not as we have the idea of a diamond with many, many facets. It is a very flat stone with a lot of cracks. It looks like broken ice or something like that. I love this kind of diamond. I started to make rings with that. I also started to purchase a number of not very precious stones, like peridots or topaz, etc. I started to introduce stones as a color element in rings especially.

Sharon: They call them polki diamonds? How would you spell that?

Esther: P-O-L-K-I. This might be the Hindi word for this specific diamond, but when you put it on Google, you can find it.

Sharon: That’s interesting. From what you’re describing, it’s what we consider Indian diamonds. Along with the monograph that was put out by Arnoldsche for some of your exhibits, you also have a book that just came out about your jewelry.

Esther: Yes.

Sharon: A lot of it describes jewelry provoking feelings or provoking people. Could you talk about that a little? How do you see it provoking people?

Esther: I think this is the main reason why I am so interested in jewelry, because jewelry is something I create. I make a piece that has a relationship to a body, to a person. I don’t know who the person wearing my piece will be. That depends on my practice. I work with galleries, but I create a piece with the idea that another person will choose it, and this person will wear it. This person will be like an ambassador of what I have created. This person will adopt what I have created for herself. She or he will wear it and show it, will translate it to others around her or him.

That is a very special thing, a very special relationship between an artist and a customer or a collector. When you buy a sculpture, the sculpture will have a relationship to a space, to your garden or your living room, but a piece of jewelry is something very intimate. When a collector buys something I have created, it’s not mine anymore. I am absolutely comfortable and very at ease with this idea, to give this away. What I know and what makes it so rich is that this person will adopt something and use it as an intimate mirror of her thoughts, of her emotions, of her mind, of her attitude. I think this is a very special thing. The piece of jewelry influences our gestures, especially the big rings. They influence our gestures. They influence our body language. We experience our body in a different way when we wear a piece of jewelry.

Sharon: Any piece or are you talking about larger, significant pieces?

Esther: No, any piece, any. I’m talking now about any piece.

Sharon: Oh, wow! That’s something to think about. You mentioned that you make the rings in gold and jade and silver. Do they have different meanings, the different materials?

Esther: Absolutely. I think any material has its own meaning. Of course, gold, silver and jade are so-called precious materials. They are considered by everybody as precious. I like them not because they are considered precious worldwide, but I like to work with them because of other qualities. For instance, gold and silver are very plastic materials. You can hammer volumes out of a flat sheet of gold or silver. You cannot do this with a simple hammer and iron, for instance, but gold and silver have these plastic qualities.

Then, of course, the color is a very important aspect. The weight of silver is very tender. Yellow gold is much stronger. I also know that silver is linked in many, many cultures to the moon and the feminine, and gold is linked to the sun and to the male aspect in us. Whether we know it or not, it is like an ancestral knowing that is within us and that we can feel. That’s also why different people are attracted by different materials. Not everybody likes to wear gold. Not everybody is able to have a big ring made of gold because it’s a statement you make.

Sharon: Do you think you’re influenced in these thoughts by your living abroad or living in different cultures?

Esther: I think so, yes. Of course, I learned a lot. For instance, jade has a strong symbolic meaning in China and for the Chinese culture. It’s a very strong material, which we may not understand immediately, only if we learn about it. I think living in other areas of the world, you become sensitive to how different materials are used. As a person who likes to transform material into something, into an object, or to transform very simple materials like a thread or a string into something precious, into something which has a specific character, it gives you another relationship to different materials. I choose my materials very consciously by what I want to transmit as a feeling.

Sharon: Would you call yourself a jeweler?

Esther: Yes, absolutely. I’m a jewelry maker, yes.

Sharon: I guess a jewelry maker is different than a jeweler. I have my own understanding of what a jeweler is. You’re a jewelry maker.

Esther: I have to say English is not my language. I might not make the difference between jeweler and jewelry maker. I know the difference between a jewelry maker and a designer. I’m not a designer because I make things myself. I create and I make. I realize things myself. So, I’m not a designer. I don’t consider myself a designer.

Sharon: What possessed you to start a whole department in Geneva, a jewelry department at the university there?

Esther: That was a very happy, glad circumstance. It was in the beginning of 1980. Switzerland joined the European Space for Higher Education. Art schools and schools for applied arts were things then, not universities. They had no universities for art. In the beginning of 1980, we joined the European Space for Higher Education. At the school where I studied between 1974 and 1978, and where I started to teach in 1982, we, the teachers, were asked to make a proposal for a new education program.

At that time, I was already very active as an independent jewelry maker. I could participate in international exhibitions, and I absolutely wanted to open a department for experimental and art jewelry in Geneva because we didn’t have that. We had this excellent program for luxury jewelry. That is what I learned. For four years, I had this education for luxury jewelry, and I thought it was the time in Switzerland, and especially in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. In this very luxurious environment, we needed something breaking this up. This is another idea of what luxury can be. It’s not only luxury and precious metals and very expensive stones; it can be something very different. That is the environment where I could start this jewelry design department at the school in Geneva, which is now called the School for Applied Arts, which has the same status as a university.

Sharon: As a university, did you first study basic university courses?

Esther: I was never in a university. I just knew them from my colleagues I met when we exhibited. I knew the Rietveld Academy. I knew the RCA in London. I knew Otto Künzli in Munich. I had this dream of doing something like that in Geneva, and I was given the opportunity and the confidence to start and create this department. It was a very lucky situation. I am a very lucky person in general.

Sharon: Well, you must be a good teacher because there are people all over that I met who said, “Oh, I studied with Esther Brinkmann.” You must be a good teacher. They wouldn’t have chosen this, would they?

Esther: I’m very much able to transmit my passion. I’m also able to support young people to find their own way, to express ideas, to find their own materials and, maybe the most important, to find the energy to develop and to not give up, to stay with an idea and to follow your intuition, to give you the skills and the force to realize something until satisfaction. This is a very, very important thing. Everybody has ideas; everybody can have excellent ideas, but you have to have the energy and the endurance to follow your way and follow your idea until materializing something to achieve a piece. That is something you need support for. I think that is a very important thing the teacher has to give, to transmit to her students.

Sharon: Was there a competition or was there stress in choosing you? Were they going to choose somebody for this position?

Esther: No, there was nobody. There were different people to propose different programs. I had a colleague who also proposed a program for watch design. We had a very small department for watch design open at that time, but nothing in the field of creative jewelry.

Sharon: Creative jewelry being contemporary too?

Esther: Yes, being contemporary jewelry.

Sharon: Tell us about the Magpies. We’ll finish with that. What about the Magpies?

Esther: I met the Magpies more or less at the same period. I met Theresa, who was the founder of this club called the Magpies. It was a small group of friends, of women. They were just fond of jewelry, although not of contemporary jewelry at that time. Two or three of them were involved in archaeology. They were fond of tribal jewelry, of jewelry from the Middle East. They were just interested in jewelry. When I met them, I could introduce them to contemporary jewelry. Since then, they were very supportive of my students as a group of women who were just enthusiastic and following what we were doing and also, of course, buying work, which is always very important. That’s how we kept going in parallel together until now.

What happened is that I would say in the last 15 years, this group has become less and less active because the women are getting elderly. They stopped organizing activities. Only recently a group of younger people are starting this group of collectors again and trying to organize activities around this topic. It depends always on people and privileged relationships that we can have with collectors, but also galleries. It’s the same with students. People can stimulate each other to excellence, to create things and to do activities which they would not do when they are alone.

Sharon: Do you see that happening with Magpies? Do these stimulate?

Esther: The fact that we were friends and that I could include them in our activities at the department, I think that was a very stimulating period of time for them. Somehow with my successors, it did not happen in that same way. But it seems that now, with the new generation at the school in Geneva, they are trying again to create this link and this relationship with collectors. They might succeed. I think so. It’s about transmitting your passion, and it’s about exchanging ideas. It’s about generosity from one part, and the other that makes things can make things happen.

Sharon: You certainly have made things happen. Thank you for being with us today. I greatly, greatly appreciate it.

Esther: Thank you for having me, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about all this. Thanks.

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

Thank you again for listening. Please leave us a rating and review so we can help others start their own jewelry journey.

Sharon Berman