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A bench jeweller in the olden days
A bench jeweller in the olden days
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Past and present

Key historical forces have shaped the development of the Australian jewellery industry and will continue to do so. STUART BRAUN reports.

In 2007, the world's oldest diamond was discovered in the remote north of Western Australia. The finding was symbolic of Australia's pivotal role in the global market for precious stones and metals, from the Gold Rush years and the opal discoveries of the late-19th century to the Argyle diamond finds of the 1970s.

Australian jewellery retailers have long benefited from this rich natural heritage but the history of the local jewellery trade has been marked by both triumph and tribulation.

A taste for Continental luxuries, geographic isolation, and the advent of mass-produced imports from Asia, has forced the local industry to struggle for its identity, and market share. This is not to deny the rich legacy of Australia's maturing jewellery industry as it forges a place in the nation's cultural and economic life.

For thousands of years, the decorative arts were a central part of Aboriginal culture in Australia, reflecting the bright landscape, the abundant natural resources, and distinct cultures of myriad tribes spread across a diverse land. Harnessing local materials like pearl shells, cockle, nautilus shells and bird plumage to craft necklaces, pendants and headdresses, Aboriginal people developed a rich jewellery tradition that reflected their unique environment.

When Europeans settled the Australian continent a little more than 200 years ago, their transplanted decorative culture was quickly re-interpreted and adapted to local conditions, creating a unique idiom. In the early colonial period, ex-convict artisans - often illegally obtaining silver by melting down currency - were the pioneers of the jewellery trade. The incipient industry was bound by its social and economic context, meaning many colonial jewellers and craftsmen were infamous for trading in stolen goods.

According to Ronnie Bauer, director of Klepner's Fine Antique Jewellery and Valuers of Melbourne, "ticket of leave" convicts had very little substance: "Nearly all jewellery was brought into Australia by the free settlers from England and Ireland; therefore, the style in Australia at that time was a reflection of the styles in England."

Bauer says the majority of crafted pieces at that time were presentation items like trophies. He says there was a bigger silver crafting industry due to the lack of gold at the time.

Georgian-period styling came into vogue during this time. This period was characterised by simple design and the use of semi-precious stones such as coral and garnets set in cut steel or brass. Also influential were neo-classical styles drawn mainly from Italy in which classical mythology adorned cameos and pendants.

Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 and reigned till 1901. So the majority of the Colonial period was influenced by styles and craftsmanship that flourished during the Victorian era.

According to Bauer, Australian Edwardian (1901-1915) jewellery generally seen in shops today was mainly created in Melbourne. This was due to Melbourne's proximity to the gold fields.

Good examples are bar brooches, colliers with drops, half hoop rings with filigree underbezels, and single and double bar motifs.

As with other movements throughout history, Regency, Baroque and Rococo Australian jewellery items were created to reflect the styles of their time. The late Colonial and Federation periods (1880-1915) were therefore influenced by the Art Nouveau movement (1880-1920).

Across Australia's eastern seaboard, the rapid discovery of gold in the mid-19th century generated great wealth and population expansion, especially in Melbourne, a young city that would soon become the cosmopolitan centre of Australian cultural life. "Marvellous Melbourne", as it came to be known, was soon marked by teaming boulevards like Elizabeth and Collins Street, where banks and trading companies built a financial capital and jewellers and luxury stores supplied the growing needs of their middle and upper class patrons.

But Australia's small jewellery-making industry could not cope with demand. Along with many other luxuries, jewellery was largely imported from Britain and Europe by the growing retail stores in Melbourne, Sydney and Hobart.

Blessed with invaluable raw materials, local jewellery making would finally blossom with the influx of skilled immigrant jewellers and goldsmiths arriving from Europe, the US, and Britain.

Anne Schofield and Kevin Fahy, authors of Australian Jewellery: 19th and Early 20th Century (1990), note that these professional jewellers "created jewellery in the naturalistic style then popular in Europe, using local gold, silver and gemstones, and incorporating decorative motifs of Australian flowers, plants, birds, and animals."

In fact, an Australian vernacular style first emerged on the goldfields when jewellers in booming mining towns like Ballarat adorned gold brooches with figures of proud diggers flanked by the Eureka five-pointed star.

Altmann and Cherny Opals made a 203-carat opal necklace to present to Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Australia in 1954.
Altmann and Cherny Opals made a 203-carat opal necklace to present to Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Australia in 1954.

While simple goldfield brooches might display a crossed pick and shovel, a growing number of city jewellery makers would use more elaborate designs on signature pieces - often including native animals and plants - to advertise their broad range of locally-sourced and crafted gold wares. Such was typified by the "Diggers' Darling" brooch - a shield filled with mining ephemera and flanked by an emu and kangaroo. Bauer argues that the pick and shovel goldfield brooches were most common, while the more elaborate miners brooches remained rare.

Many of the great jewellery houses of today can trace their roots to mid-19th century émigrés from Europe and Britain who were initially attracted to Australia by gold. Frenchman Sylla Denis had visited Ballarat before setting-up shop in Melbourne and, with his brother Victor, founding the jewellery manufacturer Denis Bros.

Meanwhile, John Hardy arrived in Australia from Nottinghamshire England and established his first jeweller in Hunter Street, Sydney in 1854. Today, Hardy Brothers remains one of Australia's great jewellery houses. It is the only Australian holder of a Royal Warrant and has produced the Melbourne Cup - comprising 34 handmade, 18-carat yellow gold segments - since the 1980s. Generations of the Hardy family were directly involved with the company for over a century until it was bought out in 1997.

In 1851, Simon Kozminsky, a Polish immigrant, established a jewellery business on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. More than 150 years later, Kozminsky claims to be the oldest registered business in Victoria and the longest running jewellery business in Australia.

Kirsten Albrecht, the current co-owner of Kozminsky (Ben Albrecht being the other co-owner), notes that Isadore Kozminsky, younger brother of founder Simon, believed so strongly in the "mystical, spiritual aspects of gemstones" that he wrote The Magic and Science of Jewels and Stones, a text that typified old-world fascination with precious stones. Quality local handcrafting and superior raw materials was still unable to sway the belief that imported was better, and European product continued to attract higher prices and prestige. Leading retail jewellers like Drummonds and Kilpatricks in Melbourne, or Fairfax and Roberts and Hardy Bros in Sydney, were clearing houses for popular English jewellery brands like Hunt and Roskell.

Local gems like the opal, though a fad in late Victorian England, were mostly regarded as unlucky by the superstitious masses, while sapphires were badly undervalued. As quoted in Schofield and Fahy, the Sydney Morning Herald praised the Hardy Brothers in 1862 for jewellery comparable to "the foremost jewellers in the mother country", while the strength of Australian gold made local gold chains far superior to their English cousins. Alas, Australian jewellery remained little more than a curiosity.

Such incipient cultural cringe gave way to a wave of patriotism at the time of Federation in 1901.

"Patriot jewellery produced around 1901 included Southern Cross brooches, brooches with maps of Australia, coats of arms and tokens of appreciation from local councils and family members to soldiers who served in World War One," Bauer says.

Australian jewellers were also regaling their jewellery with nationalistic symbols based on the island continent's unique flora and fauna. This continued through to the Australian arts and craft movement of the early 20th century, itself a response to the impact of mass-

produced fashion jewellery.

The movement's leading exponent was Rhoda Wager, a Sydney jeweller trained at the Glasgow School of Art who made thousands of pieces using Australian bush motifs. Sydney jeweller Percy Marks, who become an international promoter of local gemstones, shared her love of sapphires and opals. Having discovered a black opal at Lightning ridge in 1907, Marks went on to win the Grand Prix at an international expo in San Francisco in 1915 for his Australian opals.

The Australian opal also attracted jewellery professionals from around the world. Rudi Cherny migrated to Australia from Germany in 1938 and, in 1948, formed Altmann & Cherny Opals with friend John Altmann. Soon after, they presented Queen Elizabeth II with a 203-carat opal during her 1954 Australian tour.

Writing in Contemporary Jewellery: The Australian Experience 1977-1987, Patricia Anderson notes that many Australian jewellers again found inspiration in local flora and fauna in the late 1970s and 1980s, producing abstract works from feathers, stone, grass, bleached tree roots, palm fronds - as well as gold and silver - to revive the Australian bush idiom in local jewellery.

Yet the continuing evolution of an Australian jewellery style could not overcome the overwhelming influence of European styles throughout the mid 20th century. Kurt Albrecht moved to Australia in 1955 from Germany, having been trained as a silversmith in Hamburg. Purchasing Kozminsky in the late 1960s, Albrecht reasserted the styles that inspired him in his homeland.

Miners at work
Miners at work

Kirsten Albrecht, who took over the store in 1997, notes that her father brought a "sophisticated understanding of beauty and culture to a country that has historically been very conservative." Having survived World War II in the German army, and imprisonment by the Russians in Siberia, The Age called Albrecht a "brilliant trader and dealer, having breathed new life into Kozminsky and extending its scope to include antiques and paintings."

This helped instil Australian jewellery retailing with a more cosmopolitan approach. "Now we're part of the world; we buy much more bravely," says Kirsten Albrecht.

By the 1970s and 1980s, Australian jewellers had developed the confidence to forge their own distinctive, contemporary style. Barbara Noble founded Distelfink Gallery in Melbourne in the early 1970s as a space for jewellery artists and, by 1977, had opened Makers Mark at Chapter House in Flinders Lane as a place to sell cutting-edge Australian jewellery. Located alongside a band of upcoming Australian jewellers who'd made a home in the art nouveau building, Noble was part of a handcrafted contemporary jewellery revolution - fuelled by the cashed-up 80s - that would be expanded by the likes of Stefano Canturi. Also fuelling the booming 1980s was unprecedented demand from Japanese and American tourists that saw a massive expansion in the Australian opal trade.

For over a century, the 'Paris end' of Collins Street has been established as the epicentre of jewellery retailing in Australia. Today, Georg Jenson, Makers Mark, Jan Logan, Franco Watches and Rutherford's Jewellers - along with a large ring of hidden jewellers in the iconic Manchester Unity building - comprise one of the world's great jewellery centres. Similarly, York and Castlereagh Streets in Sydney are geographic hubs of Australia's venerable jewellery tradition.

By the 21st century, a combination of tradition, skill and innovation had landed the Australian jewellery industry on the world stage. The simple yet luxurious designs of celebrated Sydney jeweller Stefano Canturi have been embraced by the global elite - he supplied Oprah Winfrey her legendary "O" necklace, Nicole Kidman with a stunning, million-dollar diamond necklace for Moulin Rouge, signed a deal with world leader Cartier and opened a salon in Las Vegas in January this year.

Part of a growth strategy for the Canturi brand in the US, there are also current plans underway for a New York opening in early 2009.

But while the top-end of the trade has flourished, traditional jewellery retailing has been turned on its head by an unprecedented influx of cheap, mass-produced imports. Leo McPhee, an acclaimed Melbourne diamond setter who each year adorns the Grand Prix cup with precious stones, believes the industry has changed drastically in only the last decade: "It's changed so much; everything is so generic, we're losing so many jewellers."

Kirsten Albrecht agrees: "In the past, there was nothing like the competition there is now," she says, remembering the 1960s as a time when competition was limited to the established stores like William Drummond and Co., Hardy Brothers, Paul Bram and Catanach's.

"We all had a good ride of it then," Albrecht says, noting that even the suburban jewellers and watchmakers were making custom pieces for their regular clientele. "In the 1970s and 1980s, we had no problem with customer loyalty," Albrecht adds. "But today, the fact that we are family business is only important to older generations. Gen Y doesn't have loyalty. They shop according to best price and least time."

Kozminsky remains a pre-eminent purveyor of Australia's once-venerable fine jewellery tradition - hand-delivered and handmade pieces of the highest quality - but Albrecht says they've had to "contemporise" via the internet and a more competitive marketing regime.

Indeed, many established houses including W.M. Drummonds - established in the 1850s - have closed down in recent years.

With such a relatively short history, Australia's post-European jewellery industry can't be compared to its English or European cousins. As Anne Schofield and Kevin Fahy note, the great jewellery empires like Cartier or Castellani never took root in Australia; nor has this young country been endowed with vast riches of ancestral jewels, or with high profile patronage of the decorative arts. But throughout the first two centuries of European settlement, Australia has established a unique and heralded jewellery industry, one that found true standing in the 21st century as jewellers try to reclaim the quality, service and distinctive styling upon which the industry was founded.

Stuart Braun
Contributor •

Stuart writes for magazines, produces documentaries for ABC radio, once wrote a Ph.D, was a writer in Tokyo for a few years, and hankers to one day write his own stuff.
Australian Diamond Trading Corporation (ADTC)

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