They say diamonds are a girl’s best friend – for Julia Obermaier that certainly seems to be true. In her cosy studio, the German jeweller creates all sorts of pieces out of gemstones, including brooches, necklaces and earrings. However, she doesn’t just make accessories – each one of her works tells a unique story about the stone and what it symbolises. In this interview, Julia discusses her fascination with gemstones, making process, and her recent success at the Loewe Craft Prize finals.
Firstly, could you please introduce yourself and what you do?
My name is Julia Obermaier. I am an art jewellery maker from Germany. I live and work in one of the oldest cities in Germany and have my own little studio in a beautiful little lane, where I follow my passion – making jewellery with and out of gemstones. I am obsessed with the world of these precious materials. I love to research about each special stone, either theoretically or physically with my hands.
What made you decide to start making jewellery?
That’s a good question. At the beginning I was sure that I wanted to study interior design after getting my high school degree. So, I went to a professor of interior design at a well-known university in Germany to show him my portfolio with drawings and sketches to get some feedback. He looked at them and told me, “I don’t see you in interior design, but I do see you in the field of Fine Arts.” At first, I obviously was not amused at all with his statement and did not realise how precious his feedback was, but then I looked up what he meant by Fine Arts and there I found the field of Goldschmiedekunst (Goldsmith’s Art aka art jewellery) and thought wow, that’s interesting! So, I did an internship in a family friend’s goldsmith studio, and I totally fell in love with jewellery. Ever since then, it’s been my passion, my life.
Your work primarily features gemstones, especially diamonds. What is it about these gemstones that inspires you?
In my work, it’s always about gemstones. I either explore the semiotic charge of gemstones – especially diamonds in our society and its changing values ­– or the gemstone material itself, such as quartz, lapis lazuli and all their amazing relatives. Gemstones are just fascinating. Every little part of them is unique and an embodiment of unswayable nature. One is not like the other. You don’t really know where they come from and how this beautiful material can possibly grow just by itself. They contain so much history from the past million years in them – it’s just incredible. Gemstones have something majestic. It’s a hard-bitten material – heavy, stable but also light and fragile. They tell you how to treat them, and you have to listen to them. When working with them, we say, the stone screams before it breaks. As a result, stonecutting needs patience and resembles meditation. It is as if the stone holds eternity in itself to thwart the fast pace of our time. It is a material that is loaded with fascination, myths and symbolic charge by humans. Gemstones are simply a never ending source of inspiration.
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Obviously, no two gemstones can be exactly the same, and that can be interesting to work with if you make something in pairs, such as earrings. How do you embrace the uniqueness of your material in your work?
A main aspect in my work is that each stone is unique. I especially emphasise this aspect by making asymmetrical earrings. Earrings do not look like their other halves, but they still make a paired couple through balanced use of colours, shapes or arrangement. Also, our whole body is not symmetrical on both sides either – the left part of the face does not look the same as the right part. Even the pierced holes in the ears are not equal on both sides, so some earrings also fit the best if you keep the specific one on the left and the other on the right side. I just love the playfulness of asymmetry. Furthermore, a pair of earrings is meant to be worn, and between these two pieces is the face. A good fitting pair of earrings caresses the face of the wearer (and no, not every pair of earrings fits everyone.) When I am making my earrings, they are always unique. Maybe some earrings look similar to another pair, but as they are always different because the gemstone material is very unique and I always start from a new beginning with the stones, colour combinations and forms. They all have their own character, with no twin siblings, but other brothers and sisters.
Unlike many makers, your work uses the gemstone to create the entire piece of jewellery rather than simply featuring it as the centrepiece. Why do you do this?
Firstly, I want to say that I also love the little facetted sparkling gems. But, for me, gemstones are more than just a centrepiece – the material itself is just so fascinating and contains so much beauty. Starting to cut a raw stone is a bit like opening a Kinderüberraschung ­– you don’t really know what kind of surprise is hidden inside, like inclusions, colour gradients or cracks. To reveal this kind of beauty, I love to use the stone as a material to build my entire piece. Furthermore, within the piece, I love to show the different facets of the stone – smooth, soft, matt, broken, cracked, polished, shiny etc. – so the viewer can get a closer view and feeling of the gemstones’ inner life, being and soul.
Also, the working process is very special. You have to slow down because gemstones don’t like rapid working. The working process contrasts with the result – cutting stones is a very dirty and dusty task, but the result is just enchanting and clean.
Many of your pieces experiment with dynamic shapes and forms. How do you see structure playing a role in your work?
Structure is a main part of my work. On the one hand, I create with the gemstone pieces themselves and on the other hand, I highlight it with visible coloured resin lines, when putting the stone fragments back together. For me, it’s a tool to bring some movement to the piece, to keep the eyes following the lines to experience the whole piece. The viewer is guided to discover all the little corners, to look at the whole piece from all sides – front, back, sides, upside down – and maybe to discover more about it, the more they look. In my work, I often play with the second view. You can discover something inside or underneath by looking really closely. Often, only the wearer knows all the little secrets of the pieces.
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Let’s talk about your latest works. Your collection, Verborgen, uses very small pieces of stone to create intricate brooches. How do you make something so complex yet small? What does that process look like?
Verborgen are pieces that are created in an intuitive working process. When I start a new piece, I do not know how it’s going to look at the end. Making this body of work is a very meditative process for me. I start with the raw crystal. I observe its natural growth form with its sometimes broken off corners, inclusions and other marks. After that, I decide where to set the main cuts for the slices and I start slicing the stone up in different thicknesses. Then, I cut the slabs into different-sized bits and pieces. I smooth them in different steps of grinding to get a soft surface. Sometimes, I also leave one side of a slice with its natural structure and surface, when I feel it’s a nice complement, to show the different languages a gemstone speaks. Finally, when I have a pile of various sized pieces, I start building up again. I let the piece grow like a puzzle.
My playing hands are the tools – through them, I feel the surface and outlines of the material. It’s a mutual process of touching, grasping, changing my ideas and perception. When I am satisfied with the composition of the piece, I start putting it together with resin, in which I add the pigment in different colour gradings. The process of bringing the piece together is not done in one step – it’s also necessary to make this in several steps, in several days, as the pieces has several layers. Sometimes I also take some pieces apart again, when I am not happy how the composition and colours look. Other times, I also need to recut stones for a specific position on the piece. Most of the time, I don’t use all of the stones I prepare. Because I don’t know before how this piece will look in the end, I need way more cut gems to be able to play around with.
I also want to say that each and every piece of stone I use in my pieces is cut by myself, with my hands, in my little studio. (And sometimes, I also do cut my fingers badly– accidentally, of course. So my pieces are really made with passion!).
In (Sur)face the space, you cut slices out of stone and create space. Often, with something as small as jewellery, we want the stone to take up more space whereas you do the opposite. What do you think is the value of space, especially in something that is already so small?
I’m not sure what you mean by the opposite because I do think that in my jewellery, the stone gets quite a lot of space, as in this series, the pieces are made mainly out of gemstones. The stone is the main character on the jewellery stage.
The topic of space is really important in my pieces, as the stone fragments are building up new spaces, boxes, containers with nooks and corners. For me, I build new little worlds. A kind of body for your soul is generated, which can be loaded up with the wearer’s own personal feelings, perceptions and sensations. So, for me, it somehow protects the wearer’s inner space, like a second skin. I always imagine myself zooming in to my pieces, as if I am a little person, walking around on them and discovering all the little corners and nooks. Maybe that sounds a bit weird, but I just love to dive in to other little worlds. So, space is purely a matter of definition – if space is seen in a physical way, then yes, wearable jewellery is smaller. However, I think that jewellery takes up a lot of radiant space and opens new worlds – it is loaded up with lots of emotions, memories, status and other stories. For example, a simple gold ring on someone’s ring finger gives you the supposed assumption that this person is married, might live a family life and has a settled job. But in reality, all this person is doing is wearing a ring. Here, we can see how jewellery actually takes up quite a lot of space.
In recent years, there have been discussions on the ethics of diamonds, particularly on where they are mined. Your project, 6th C, draws attention to this topic and supports workers in diamond mining. From the maker’s perspective, why is it important to be aware of the ethics of your work?
I started this project in 2019 with my final master thesis. This project was about the various semiotic charges of diamonds and their changing values. As a result, along with others, this project of the 6th C was born. Firstly, it is very important for me to say, that I don’t want to say that diamonds are bad, and no one should use, buy and work with them. Not at all. A lot of people do rely on them to make a living, to buy food and pay their rent. However, I think, as diamonds are mostly part of the luxury sector, we have to give more attention to those who are suffering from the diamond industry – for example, from bad working conditions. So, the aim is to start to raise awareness, as diamonds are nearly always presented in the media as something shining, sparkling, wonderful, precious and clean, but they also have some darker sides as well. Some things are maybe not as strikingly bad as they previously have been (for example, through introducing the Kimberly process, which states that there are no so-called conflict or blood diamonds allowed on the market), but still there are more ways to improve existing situations through the choices we make. Also, in general, I think nowadays it is in everyone’s position – not just makers, but also consumers and everyone else ­– to be aware of our choices, on what we are doing and using in every situation of our life, not just in making and consuming jewellery.
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You also use your work to address other social issues. For example, your collection, Betongold, is about inflation in the real estate market. Why do you think jewellery is a good medium to discuss these kinds of issues?
In general, I think that jewellery is a very good medium to discuss these kinds of issues, because when it is worn, it is connected directly to the body and invites your counterpart to start a conversation. Jewellery is an opener for discussions, questions and stories – it always has been more than just an accessory, it was and still is always bringing status, power, affiliation. So, why not also discuss or bring up other topics through it?
With Betongold, I create little houses made out of concrete, which you can wear in your daily life to have your own little space always with you. So, even if you might not have the best residential condition in your current situation, you still can wear and carry your affordable little house with you. Hold it tight in your hand and know that you are the house for yourself. All pendants have a fine gold nugget in their core, not visible for the wearer but still there, to resemble the importance of your own space. A really interesting and touching part of this Betongold series is, that some of the owners of these houses, were giving me their story – the feeling of being at home somewhere or not feeling at home is a big topic in their lives, and they love to wear this piece in times of uncertainty.
Recently, you travelled to Seoul as a finalist for the Loewe Craft Prize, and you also received a special mention. What was that experience like?
This whole experience was just wow! It was incredible! Everything still feels like a crazy daydream, and I barely can fathom that this really happened. Firstly, it took place in a country that I had never been to before, so it was an amazing cultural experience. Also, it felt so good to see my work in an environment that has such a sense for art and craft. Furthermore, the selection of finalists was at an incredibly high standard, and I am so happy that I was one lucky person amongst them. We all saw ourselves as winners as we had a beautiful time together and made amazing memories. Even though there was quite limited time we could spend with each other, I enjoyed all the funny talks, artistic exchanges and beautiful conversations. It was so lovely to talk to so many fantastic artists from different artistic fields, cultural backgrounds and experiences.
Moreover, the whole setting of the Loewe Craft Prize Foundation was just excellent. They took very good care of us and the whole event, to enhance the value of Craft. I think they did an amazing job and I am very happy that the Loewe Foundation was so brave to take the path to create this Craft Prize. Overall, it was a really heart-warming and encouraging event. The feeling of winning the Special Mention is still incredible. It means so much for me, as it is a confirmation of my work and of what I love doing so much. It spurs me on to believe in myself, in my dreams and of course in my artistic work in the contemporary art jewellery field. A huge thank you to the Loewe Foundation.
Lastly, what new things would you like to experiment with in the future? What direction can we expect your work to go in?
That’s a good question. I am always open to new projects and adventures, and love to walk unknown paths and try new things. But what I know, is that I am obsessed with gemstones – the material and the semiotics, the play on words and perception. I think that there is so much more to develop and discover in the field of jewellery and especially of gemstones, diamonds and all its precious little friends. Sometimes my work is intuitive, sometimes it’s conceptual and sometimes it’s quote unquote just fun. But the most important part for me is to always keep the joy and happiness of creating. Currently, there are some things in the making and I hope to be able to show them soon. In general, as human beings we live through changes, there are always things coming up, so I also don’t know what will come next and I am very curious to see which straw I draw. I hope I will walk new paths, try unknown things, challenge myself and always enjoy whatever appears on my desk.
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