Fire and stone
THE ART OF LISA ROCHFORT
Essay by Anna Johnson
Every jewel begins with a dance of remote probability. Gems are a geological mystery; to be born they must first be found. Dormant within the rough is the hidden fire of light and hue that can only be revealed by artisans. From the first hand drawn design to the final finishing hundreds of intricate steps serve to animate and frame the raw beauty of a stone.
Considered this way, the birth of an important piece of jewellery relies on a perpetual chain of release: from the excavation inside the hard earth to the life that gems assume upon warm living skin. From heart to heart, great jewels confer power and keep secrets across time. Obviously they are a luxury. A cultural currency steeped in astute discernment. Yet to the artist’s eye jewels are mystical as well as physical. Their rarity dwells in the material realm and in a magnetism that cannot be quantified. Anima. Poetry. Soul.
In the hands of Lisa Rochfort couture jewels become intensely personal and potent. Her aesthetic is based on deep observation: of history, tradition, gemmology, structure, antiquity and naturally occurring patterns in the living world. The code that sets her apart is both complex and simple: The link between nature and culture is never broken.
The achievement of her design is that every element holds its own. While some jewellers seek to merely frame an important stone, letting detail recede around it, Rochfort believes that the entire expression depends on every detail and aspect of the piece.
“Viewed from beneath, within, above or below, my designs must be a complete work of art, otherwise they are failing to honour the treasure that nature yields.”
Rochfort manifests her visions by finding deeply skilled artisans capable of working completely by hand. In her view there is no technology that can surpass the eye and her engagement with a piece is total, guiding every step in her own private atelier. Her rationale for refusing to use advanced software is not sentimental or archaic for its own sake. It is, she argues, a matter of taste.
“There is a science and there are certainly mathematics to cutting but perfect symmetry is also soulless. Aesthetic choice is personal choice and that is what imbues a work of art with identity. You have to live your truth, especially in taste. Your aesthetic has to be your skin; it has to become your consciousness. As a result I know what to ask of my jewellers and my gem cutters because I know what to ask of myself: I’m trying to bring a standard that is utterly singular.”
This philosophy comes into play in a reversal of approach that is driven by art rather than commerce. Every gem that she chooses, no matter what scale, stars in its own narrative. Her settings are not conventional; they defy tradition and sometimes gravity. Often the convention of setting following a stone is totally reversed. “The question” she asks instead “Is how can my gems serve the vision of the setting?” Each piece is conceived to be cherished and studied from every angle. Tiny maple leaves cradle the base of a heady champagne yellow Beryl cocktail ring and platinum filaments as slender as a spider’s web form the Fleur de Lys of a teardrop Aquamarine earring. Impossibility is surmounted and...the imagined is made real.
Lisa Rochfort has kept an art studio from the beginning, both painting and developing elaborate woodblock carvings inspired by the Australian bush and the art and antiquities of Japan. Her passion for history and ritual blossomed into full time jewellery design in 2006. From her first collection to the present, a period of prolific creativity has embraced so many facets of her creativity: fastidious drafting, arcane knowledge of gemmology, a honed fashion instinct and an abiding respect for the great innovators in jewels and precious metals.
Artwork below: 'Asparagus Blossom' by Lisa Rochfort, Sense of Place Exhibition, 2019
Rochfort’s aesthetic is not literal or hemmed by conformity. An imposing couture necklace might be inspired by a Romanov choker or a ghost gum branch glittering with rain. An abiding study of nature creates a language that belongs to this artist alone, creating forms with a refined geometry steeped in decades of drawing and dreaming.
Like a sonata her designs are shot through with light and shadow, meditative subtlety and show stopping theatricality. No more so than when she engages high voltage gems of scale and museum quality. Her approach to big gems is to sculpt them for even greater drama. Inspired by the Rococo her couture Chandelier Aquamarine and diamond earrings commanded the poise of a Queen, as the gems were over 5cm long, with a total earring length of over 12cm. Worthy of Marie Antoinette, their sculpted form had a musical allegory, somewhere between a harp and the bottom of a cello. The top of the earrings were fluted in platinum, like the strings of an instrument and the platinum wirework had over 1000 solders that created the contoured base of the aquamarine.
Within Rochfort’s signature are imperceptible yet vital details. Woven into the technical finesse of every collection and every piece are the artists’ private symbols:
“You will notice a very fine yellow gold diamond garland at the neck of the earring. Symbolic and repetitious of the marquee and pear pattern which you will find continually throughout my designs and carvings. Essentially, it’s the symbol of life. Pear shape like a drop of water and the marquee bearing the seed of growth.”
These earrings have an otherworldly almost fairytale quality that fuses centuries, and it is a quality shared across all her work. The art of blending the modern with the ancient is her griffe. Rochfort attributes her training in painting, drafting and historic antiques to the depth of her designs and she has always worked across mediums.
As a result the way she treats her precious materials is somewhat unusual. Rochfort understands that diamonds are not static or merely ornamental instead they are fluid and mobile. Using diamonds like tiny precise brushstrokes, she paints with light.
In the delicate lines of her ‘Constellation’ collection, tiny diamonds graduate in size like rain drops on a stem. Bearing her experience working with Faberge the geometry in these pieces are astonishingly intricate. Echoing the perpetual spirals of nature, each radiating graduation of diamonds springs from a central point with an outer diamond garland of foliage, joined by a tulip like motif reminiscent of lily of the valley flower. The D internally flawless diamonds traditionally are set with hand milgraining and saw piercing that levitates the pattern and creates movement in the negative space. Other pieces in this collection bear a direct lineage to Royal suites and pay homage to Tiaras and crowns, a gesture of grace.
To generate every design, she prefers to draw by hand. Designs of great complexity often begin in a simple moment: studying the pattern of a flight migration or counting the petals on a flower. Like the Japanese artisans of ancient Kyoto, Rochfort observes and honours the seasons. Flowers are the wellspring of her personal memory and her symbolism. She describes her ‘Peony’ ring as “constantly moving and opening. An expression of perpetuating energy.” To express this idea of the unfolding blossom she makes opulent use of different shades of gold. The layering of the petals express this artist’s endless meditation upon the patterning of nature.
Artwork: 'Chinoisery' by Lisa Rochfort, A Sense of Place Exhibition, 2019
The mood of this ring is meditative, others are bolder, more imposing. Evoking an image of Elizabeth Taylor by the pool or Empress Eugenie playing cards, these are designs for living “out loud” and not waiting for nightfall to dress up. On this point Rochfort is unrepentant. To her eye, every moment is THE moment and in every moment is a chance to be exquisite. Her view is that seductively straight forward: waiting for the right occasion is like waiting to breathe:
“Jewellery enables us to cherish ourselves, wearing beautiful jewellery everyday is like a blessing. Allowing yourself to be adorns deepens your sense of ritual and amplifies your presence.
It is a philosophy that sits light years away from popping on some safe little diamond studs for day. Instead, her pieces lay down the gauntlet- shine or perish. High glamour is high risk but the rewards are deep:
“Jewellery is a reckoning because if it is beautiful, it is demanding. It has its own energy and its own persistence. Sometimes a stone also has a powerful history and that adds to its magnetism and power. When you wear a magnetic gem you take on the aura and soul of the stone and it becomes a third entity. Jewels are intimate. They become your hallmark.”
In this spirit Rochfort’s approach is always personal. Her private commissions are deeply studied portraits and her collections possess an atmosphere of history unfolding. There is some decade dancing involved, as her use of different design epochs is concentric. Some pieces combine Georgian lines and Art Deco Geometry. Others indulge the high romance of the Belle Epoque and the heady curves of the Art Nouveau. Sometimes her diamonds are chosen for their age in order to deliberately evoke the power of a particular moment in history.
“I search the world for stones that are true to their time. Whether it’s Georgian or a Victorian cut diamond I prefer to see it in its origin form, not reduced for its carat weight or ‘modernised’. If I am presented with a stone that was cut before the invention of electricity then I will work with the truth of that stone and let it tell its story without breaking the lineage.”
Much of the drama of Lisa Rochfort’s design is imbued by contrast, so her romantic, somewhat heady central stones are offset by the pale fire of D internally flawless diamonds that are premium cut and perfectly calibrated.
In Rochfort’s view diamonds are art materials as well as being art unto themselves, individual entities of mystical compressed energy rather than mere commodities. Her preference is for stones “of deep cultural integrity” and unusual major diamonds in subtle hues of colour such as a hint of peach or cream. Often she compares these exquisite tones to watercolours. In her handmade couture a deft hand is applied to rich materials. Her response to the natural world is both an echo and a refinement:
“When I draw on nature, I see forms that are universal and in harmony. This is where I am drilling down to an art nouveau characteristic and distilling the relationship between scale and weightlessness. The butterfly repeats itself through history. For me, it characterises the spirit of an ancestor and the most remarkable inspiration behind butterflies is that in capturing them you kill them. The pigment and dust of their wings transfers. There is a metaphor for the fleeting nature of the ephemeral. Beautiful things are vulnerable and fragile as is jade and rubies and the frame of a butterfly.”
In a career marked by creative daring. Lisa Rochfort has made dexterity and structural complexity almost seamless. In every piece there is always two acts: the first impression, followed by unseen details that reveal themselves. This is true of an Aquamarine bracelet than conceals rubies within its diamond links or the trailing petals, as frail as a dewdrop, nestled beneath a cascade of diamonds. With deep awe for her materials, Rochfort unlocks the potential of every facet and deepens her symbolism through detail. Hers are pieces that you want to touch and hold, study and understand but above all live with as an article of faith and a talisman of self. The strong seam of fantasy in her work drives home a singular reality: the fact that nature adorns itself and makes itself sacred through beauty. Gems beat at the heart of truth, as once their light is released, they shine forever.