Inspired by the world-famous King Tut Exhibit at a young age, Stefanie Walker decided to turn her jewelry making hobby into a career. Starting with an apprenticeship in Munich, Germany and then obtaining her Ph.D. in Art History from NYU, Stefanie has gone on to be a well-known curator, teacher and author. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to discuss her fascinating career path, the dark story behind Lalique jewelry designs and much more. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome jewelry historian, Stephanie Walker. She received her Ph.D. in art history from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Her specialized fields are European sculpture and decorative arts from the 16th through 18th centuries with an emphasis on the history of jewelry and Rome art. She is a teacher, curator and author. Stephanie is a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome and an honorary member of the Roman Goldsmith’s Guild. I could go on, but I’m going to let Stephanie tell us more about her jewelry journey. Stephanie, welcome to the podcast.
Stephanie: I’m so pleased to be here, Sharon.
Sharon: So glad to have you. You have a very interesting and unique background. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey?
Stephanie: Yes, well, I love that you call it a jewelry journey because that’s exactly what it feels like for me. So when I was about ten, our family moved from the New Jersey countryside to Munich, Germany and growing up there, I was always making things from pottery, craft, sewing, knitting, crocheting—you name it—and then in 1980, the famous King Tut Exhibition came to Munich. I was simply enthralled by the beauty of the jewelry and the incredible level of craftsmanship and I had always loved jewelry, but now after seeing that exhibition, I really wanted to learn how to make it too.
The way jewelers were and, in many ways, still are trained in Germany is by doing an apprenticeship. It lasts three years and that’s what I did. I found an apprenticeship position with a Munich master and our workshop specialized in antiques and liturgical objects for churches. It was kind of an unusual training and it gave me a real appreciation for historical works. After three years, I was certified as a journeyman goldsmith and then I thought I would be a conservator in objects of precious metals and in pursuing that career move, I stared studying art history and my first sort of cosmetic professor convinced me to take the academic route and so I eventually applied for graduate school at New York University, NYU, and after getting my Ph.D., I started teaching at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts Design and Culture. That’s where I developed my specialty in jewelry history. I taught a survey class on jewelry history. I taught a class on European gold and silver and in 2004; I curated an exhibition on the Castellani family, a 19th century Roman goldsmith family who were renowned for their archaeological revival-style works, including gem cameos and really some of the finest micro-mosaic jewelry ever known. So that’s the shorter version of my jewelry journey.
I still lecture widely and teach classes occasionally. I now live in Washington, D.C., and one of my favorite places to go is to the National Museum of Natural History and just spend some time with the Hope Diamond and the other beautiful objects.
Sharon: That’s good company. So, in Germany then you became a journeyman goldsmith? Is that it or do you work for a few more years and then go on to the next level? How does that work there? If you had gone that route, how does that work?
Stephanie: Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s still essentially the same structure as the medieval guild system. You are an apprentice for three years, then you take a detailed technical and practical exam over several days. You make a journeyman piece under the supervision of your master in your workshop and then you are certified as a journeyman. With that certification, if you want to become a master yourself, you have to work at least three years I think for a master goldsmith or you can go to specialized goldsmith’s schools, master schools they’re called, and then you have another exam and you make your so-called masterpiece and with that, you get the title “goldsmith master” and you can open your own business and train apprentices yourself.
Sharon: Wow, that’s interesting! Who knew that system still existed? That’s interesting. It’s interesting that when the King Tut Exhibit came, it was the jewelry that grabbed your attention. For so many people it’s Egyptology that they want to pursue or something like that. Was it just the bling of it all? That was a young age to be impressed by the craftsmanship.
Stephanie: Yeah, no, it was the colors and the design and just how beautifully it was put together. During my apprenticeship, one of the things I learned was enameling and I made my own little imitations of Egyptian jewelry with enamel on gold and silver. Actually, my master was so pleased with my own designs that he had me make a few for sale, some of them.
Sharon: You’ve had so much experience as a hands-on goldsmith; really hands-on in detail. How did that impact the research you did later of getting your Ph.D. and all the research you did in the decorative arts; how is that impacted? Do you think you see things from a different perspective or what are your thoughts about that?
Stephanie: No, absolutely, I think hands-on experience you don’t necessarily have to do a three-year of full education, but hands-on experience is invaluable. You just handle, look at, feel an object and piece of jewelry in a completely different way and I would highly recommend that any of your listeners, be they jewelry collectors or just serious enthusiasts, take one or more courses—there are so many offered now—to get a feel for the materials and a new level of appreciation for excellent work they might see otherwise for sale or at museums.
Many people I think are dazzled by gems and of course gems are beautiful, but they can detract from what I tend to appreciate and that’s the metalwork in gold, silver, platinum and the importance of design in a piece of jewelry. That’s also definitely influenced the way I’ve done my own research and teaching is I’m always interested in how things are made and what did the maker, whether or not we know that person’s name—much of historical jewelry is anonymous—how was the maker inspired by the materials or the techniques they used and having made things myself, like I said at the beginning, you have a completely different feel and appreciation for it.
Sharon: Yeah, I bet you would. I bet it would have had such a different dimension. I took some basic silversmithing and it just really—I had never done anything like that before and even just looking at some pieces, I go, “Oh, now I understand how they did that.” I mean not that I could ever do it, but—
Stephanie: Yeah, exactly.
Sharon: In the sense of like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” We had talked a little about your psychoanalysis of René Lalique’s jewelry, that the women emerging into bugs or women emerging out of bugs, I should say—can you tell us a little bit about your thoughts about that? I know you’ve done some research on his life and his relationships. What can you tell us about this?
Stephanie: Sure, well, let me just say this is definitely pop psychology. I wouldn’t claim any true insight, but it is based on actual historical research, so I’m not just pulling this out of thin air either. I don’t know if people generally—when they think of René Lalique, they think probably of Lalique glass because that business still exists, but inside the jewelry world, people know that in just the twenty years that Lalique was active in the jewelry business at the beginning of his career, he really changed the design of jewelry and its making dramatically. Not only can he be called the co-creator of the style known as art nouveau around 1900, he was also the first, I would say, true art jeweler—an artist for whom design and creativity were more important than gems or mass production or just appealing to a customer base. He really poured his soul into his works. You can tell that when you look at them and so that’s what got me interested.
Right from the beginning when he started making his own jewelry around 1890 or so, he started creating startlingly new pieces, sort of pendants and neck pieces with kind of dreamy landscapes and where opals made glittering beaches, enameled lakes and exquisite flowers, and often these flower jewels had insects incorporated and birds, but also at times more sinister animals like bats and snakes and into these jewels, into this enchanted world that he created, he would incorporate female figures, either heads, profiles or half-figures, bust figures or actually tiny, complete figures, but I noticed that they were often sort of caught up in this dream world. Their eyes were usually closed and then if you look more closely, there’s sort of a sense of melancholy dream world, foreboding. They’re often enclosed or entrapped by the flowers or creatures they are surrounded by and I began to wonder about that. For example, perhaps his most famous piece, the dragonfly lady, which is a large pin or brooch from the late 1890s; initially, she just looks like a woman with dragonfly wings instead of arms, but if you look more closely, she’s actually emerging from the mouth of a very scary-looking creature with huge claws and their long insect-like tail. Beauty and danger are always closely mixed, and we also talked about this fabulous corsage or breast ornament that Lalique made around the same time that consists of nine writhing snake heads with their mouths open, ready to strike. What kind of woman would wear such a piece and what was the artist saying or yapping to with jewels like that?
That led me to investigate his life and I realized that his relationship to women was, to say the least, complicated and conflicted. He loved his mother. He was estranged from his father and at his mother’s urging, he married a woman whose wealth helped him to establish his business and by 1888, he had a daughter, Georgette, who was born from this marriage, but very soon afterwards, in 1890, Lalique fell madly in love with a woman named Alice Ledru. She was the stunningly beautiful daughter of a sculptor friend of Lalique and by 1892, Alice had given birth to another daughter, Suzanne, and at that point, Lalique committed himself openly to this affair and he began divorce proceedings from his wife, but in late 19th century Paris—remember, we’re still in the Victorian Era—this was socially very fraught and the proceedings took a long time, ten years. This must have been a very stressful time for the artist.
After Lalique’s divorce, he continued to grow his business and jump from success to success, but his family life and relationship with Alice also deteriorated over time. She turned out to be very moody and jealous and depressive at times. I think this whole period was very stressful for both Lalique and Alice and this is surely reflected in his works, and I think has a lot to do with the strange or troubled women who appear in his works.
Sharon: Yeah, that would make a lot of sense. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt you. That would make a lot of sense, yes.
Stephanie: After 1910, Lalique turned away from jewelry and never returned. In just a few years—his mother died in 1906. Alice died after a botched medical procedure in 1909 and his oldest daughter, Georgette, died in 1910. This is a case where jewelry and trauma go together.
Stephanie: It’s pretty heavy stuff.
Sharon: No, that’s interesting. I mean we all appreciate the beauty in his work and the craftsmanship. I mean yes, your life can intertwine there along with the women and the insects intertwined and the fauna. You can see how life also was reflected or—
Stephanie: Yes, jewelry with a much deeper story than—
Sharon: Exactly, so we also talked about your work as a contributor to The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s catalogue and the exhibit on Silver Caesars. Can you tell us what those are and what research—
Stephanie: Sure, “The Silver Caesars: A Renaissance Mystery” is the title of the exhibition and the accompanying book that came out with it. This refers to a group of twelve large silver bowls on tall feet. This kind of shape is sort of a wide bowl on a foot is known in Italian as “tazza,” the word that means bowl or cup, so these tazze, as they’re called in the plural, are heavily decorated and, Sharon, since you know some silversmithing, you’ll know what they’re saying is chasing. They’re heavily decorated and date from the 1590s or the late Renaissance period. It’s a set of twelve with a Roman emperor in the middle. That’s why they’re called the Caesars and then scenes from the emperor’s life are depicted in the wide shallow bowl of the cup of the entire piece and I was able through archival research to find out who the first documented owner of the entire set was. He was a Roman cardinal named Pietro Aldobrandini and his fabulous silver inventory from 1603 includes a detailed description of these tazze, and we know that they are these specific objects because the inventory included a weight measurement that matches exactly the weight of the twelve surviving pieces and the descriptions are also very detailed and accurate.
So just the fact that twelve large, magnificent silver pieces from the 1590s survived to today is a miracle because silver was usually melted down when the owner needed cash or when the pieces were just too old-fashioned, but today, these twelve cups with the Silver Caesars in the middle are disbursed in different private and public collections. It was 2017 that The Metropolitan Museum was able to get loans from all the other—The Metropolitan Museum owns one of these cups or tazze, so The Met was able to pull together this exhibition and also published a catalogue or a scholarly book to accompany the show.
By the way, that was the first time these cups were seen together for over 150 years and I contributed an essay to that catalogue that described the set in the context of Cardinal Pietro’s fabulous collection. He owned over 1,600 pieces of silver that, because the weight was also meticulously recorded, I added up the weight of all of his silver and it comes to almost 3,000 pounds of silver and I found all of this interesting information while I was on a research trip to Rome and the other Brandini, the princely Aldobrandini family, still exists. They own one of the most beautiful Renaissance villas just outside of Rome called Belvedere in the town of Frascati and I was given access or permission to look at the archive and it is housed under the eaves under the roof of the Villa Belvedere and it was just an amazing experience to be there and leaf through the books and papers from the fifteen and sixteen hundreds. It felt like time travel to me.
Sharon: Wow! So, was this something that you wanted to pursue as part of your only research or did The Met commission you to find what you could or how did that come about?
Stephanie: Yes, what started this all off was actually when one of the silver tazze or cups was sold at Christie’s at the time almost twenty years ago, various people I knew in New York knew that I was interested in European silver and I was able to go see that cup with the one at The Metropolitan Museum and I then learned about what was so mysterious about them because they are not hallmarked and so we don’t know who made them and what the date is, and at the time it was known that only six of the twelve had the Aldobrandini coat of arms on them and so it wasn’t clear whether Aldobrandini ever owned them and how did they acquire them and which family member might have acquired them. So that started me going on the research.
As you so kindly mentioned, I had a Rome prize. I was studying a different topic at the time, a Roman Baroque designer, but I had the opportunity to be in Rome and therefore, also pursued this Aldobrandini research for the Silver Caesars. That exhibition came about much later, but by that time, I was known to have done this research, so I was invited to contribute to the catalogue.
Sharon: Wow! I can’t even imagine the patience it must take to go through the archives like that.
Stephanie: Yes, just reading the handwriting. After a while, I felt like I knew the scribe who was doing this inventory.
Sharon: No, I can imagine that. I’m sure you would get to know that, but to me being so meticulous and having to go through it and in Italian that was written hundreds of year ago, so it must have been a really—
Stephanie: Yeah, that’s why I like to describe it as time travel and actually kind of wonderful and exciting. It doesn’t seem like work at all. It’s more like an adventure.
Sharon: Well, that’s why there are different people in the world, people who like to pursue those things and can tell us a story of where we’ve come from and then others who, like me, don’t have the patience to act. I’d love to hear about that. Stephanie, thank you so much for being here today and to everybody listening, we’ll have Stephanie’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com and that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you would like to hear more, you can subscribe at iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts and please review us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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