April 16, 2014

Making a Northwest Coast Native Bracelet


Take a look at the above photo. This is a Northwest Coast Native cuff bracelet, comprised of 14k yellow gold overlaid atop sterling silver. Many cuffs like this can be seen in galleries and museums along the West Coast, but they are presented to the public as perfect and polished works of art. Few people truly understand all of the labour and precision involved with producing a high quality hand-engraved piece of jewellery. Lattimer Gallery recently used the commission of the above cuff bracelet by Ojibway/Haisla artist Kelvin Thompson as an opportunity to document and share the way in which such a piece is created.

First, a design is sketched by the artist. This sketch is then carbon transferred to the metal. After the basic outline of the design has been transferred to the silver or gold, the artist uses gravers to incise these lines. 

Second, the design needs to be fleshed out and given dimension. Texture and depth are created through the process of engraving with chisels and gouges. In addition to providing the piece with dimension through the removing of metal, Northwest Coast Native artists often indicate negative space through the use of crosshatching. This criss-crossing pattern helps the primary figures in the design stand out.

Third, cuff bracelets are often shaped, polished, and then buffed before they are brought to the marketplace. Some of the West Coast's more experienced artists incorporate overlay and cut-outs before shaping and finishing their works. For the bracelet depicted here, Kelvin has cut-out and filed the negative space, instead of crosshatching it. These cut-outs are made into the 14k yellow gold.

Fourth, the edges are cleaned up and the top layer is flipped onto the bottom layer when an overlay bracelet is being made. The top layer is then painstakingly soldered to the base layer.

Fifth, excess metal from the overlay process is trimmed and final embellishments are applied. You can see here that Kelvin has engraved extra lines in the head and wings of the Eagle, and he has started to meticulously decorate the border of the bracelet with a single-hatch pattern.

Finally, the cuff is shaped and finished. Most standard cuffs and overlay bracelets are buffed and polished, but Kelvin has yet again taken this piece one extra step by chemically oxidizing the base silver layer. Oxidization, often achieved through the use of liver of sulphur, turns silver black, and all raised areas are polished. This results in recessed areas remaining dark, which emphasizes the depth of the piece and helps the design stand out.

Lattimer Gallery prides itself on working with customers to complete custom commissions. We work with a wide range of artists, who offer a wide range of skills, and we are always happy to facilitate unique orders. Contact us via phone or email to make any inquiries you might have.

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