The boundless joys of Surrealism
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Born in Singapore and raised in Nepal, Gurung launched his eponymous womenswear label in 2009, two years after graduating from Parsons School of Design in New York. Named creative director of the Japanese jewellery house Tasaki in 2017, Gurung, 40, splits his time between womenswear and fine jewellery
“The process of creating jewellery is poetic,” says Prabal Gurung, womenswear designer and now also creative director of family-owned Japanese pearl company Tasaki, the number one producer of Akoya pearls in the world. It might seem a bizarre leap to take up the helm at a jewellery brand that is 65 years old and has a meticulous and well established way of cultivating and producing pearls, but it was exactly that which enticed Gurung to accept the role. “In 2016 I went to visit the pearl farms. The way in which these precious natural creations are nurtured and cared for was incredible, I knew I should be a part of it.”
Pearls are often thought of as stuffy, one thinks of the necklace left in your grandmother’s jewellery box. Gurung is on a mission to change this attitude. “I try to create something new, I want to break the myth around them. It’s all about how we present them and who wears them.” According to Gurung there are two key components to creating the perfect pearl-based piece: women and surrealism. “As a ready-to-wear designer I’ve always found women inspiring. And at the pearl farms in Japan it is women who dive down to collect them, and who sort through and categorise the harvested pearls. To the untrained eye the pearls all look the same, but these women can see any imperfection, the process is so technical and they make it look easy. It’s breathtaking to watch.”
Surrealism has long had a place in Gurung’s life. “I was not like the other boys at school, I loved to draw, sing and make music. I think my first encounter with Surrealism was Salvador Dalí, I love all of his work, especially his melting clocks image. I remember looking at that and feeling lost within the painting. There is something so joyous about Surrealism. You have to have a ridiculous imagination, that’s a joy that needs to be shared.”
The basis for his current collection, London Exclusive, and also for his earlier Atelier Surge range was a show he saw at London’s White Cube gallery. “I visited Dreamers Awake,” says Gurung, “an all female artist exhibition that featured surrealist works by Tracey Emin, Kiki Smith, Julie Curtiss and many more. It was one of the most incredible exhibitions I’ve ever been to.” Featuring more than 50 artists, the show brought together sculpture, painting, collage, photography and drawing from the 1930s to the present day. “So often Surrealism’s focus is through the gaze of men objectifying women,” says Gurung. “Here it was being observed through the female gaze, it felt like a direct response against a patriarchal society. It was magical.” Gurung was particularly taken with an Emin abstract bronze of a female body curled up on the floor. “It was so moving,” he says.
“The moment I left the exhibition I started sketching designs to present at Tasaki,” says the designer referring to the whopping 500 ideas he was inspired to come up with. “I just kept on going,” he laughs, “but Surrealism challenges the way we engage with the world. There’s no boundary to the imagination.” In London Exclusive you can find necklaces that snake around the neck in seaweed-like fronds of white diamonds paired with gold Akoya pearls. Atelier Surge is perhaps more obviously Surrealism influenced: minute rows of pearls adorn earrings that hang in arching waves, necklaces appear to float away from the body and rings studded with diamonds and pearls curl around the fingers like claws. Their creation was a technical challenge. “I’ve now designed about three or four collections, all have been influenced by Surrealism and all have needed a lot of back and forth with the design team. But what’s great is there is never a ‘No.’ It is always, ‘OK, let’s see how we can do this.’”
Will Gurung continue to draw upon the movement for his pearl creations? “Naturally! I have the ability with Tasaki to really challenge notions of design, I can be outlandish and crazy . . . I guess that is surreal in itself, no?”
Based in Rome, the 32-year-old designer launched her eponymous brand in 2007. Known for her surreal and Gothic designs, Delettrez enjoys exploiting the marriage of classic goldsmith techniques and Italian craftsmanship in her work.
“I think it was written in the stars,” says Delfina Delettrez, 32, when asked why she became a jewellery designer. Her tongue-in-cheek take on fine jewellery — “gold eyes” and “red lips” motifs which she applies to necklaces, bangles, earrings and rings — are instantly recognisable thanks to their sapphire or emerald set pupils and little gold lashes or shocking scarlet enamel.
Since launching her eponymous brand at the celebrated and now closed Paris boutique Collette in 2007, Delettrez’s abstract designs have become a cult favourite among the young arty types of Paris, Rome and London. Now stocked worldwide with almost every luxury etailer, a multicoloured Delettrez diamond eye necklace or floating pearl earring is guaranteed to twinkle among the crowd at any notable arts event.
A scion of the Fendi family who grew up between Brazil and Rome, Delettrez was always surrounded by art and multiple cultural influences and so never felt the need to formally study jewellery design. “I went to the best fashion school ever: my family,” she says. “I considered the jewellery world too traditional and not evolving with time as fashion was. So I applied the fashion rules to jewellery, bringing in as much creativity, freedom of expression and experimentation as I could.”
For Delettrez, fashion, jewellery and Surrealism are one and the same. “They are all about being able to invert the order of things. Allowing you to associate images freely. I love this sense of liberty and surprise. A constant daydreaming attitude where everything is possible.”
Her favourite Surrealist works are by the German-Swiss artist Méret Oppenheim. “I love her fur objects,” says Delettrez, “they always give me such inspiration.” But Surrealism, she says, always play into her designs “in different ways. There is the more figurative Surrealism which I employ — I have gold eyes shaped earrings which crawl from your ears — or there is a sharper Surrealism where I play with illusion, where stones and pearls almost seem suspended on your body, as if they are floating.”
How long does it take her to create these intricate pieces? “From conception to production? It depends on each piece. But a minimum of two and a half months are necessary to see a collection born,” she says. “Usually I am both manual and cerebral in my way of creating. Every piece is a result of a constant dialogue between me and the goldsmiths trying to find a compromise between the idea and the wearability. Working and experimenting on new mechanisms as well as on new styles. I rarely sketch, I communicate a lot with my team. I often use a gold wire and play with it around my fingers to find the perfect shape. I like to feel the smell of metal, or the coldness of stones.”
Much like Delettrez herself, there is something rather magical about the way she discovered the Surrealist movement. “I remember playing cadavre exquis [exquisite corpse] with my friends when I was young and then realising that it was one of the Surrealists’ favourite games!” The game involves three or four participants each adding a drawing, collage or sentence to a piece of paper folded to hide the previous contribution resulting in the end in a mix-matched artwork.
And why does Surrealism work so well for Delettrez? The answer she gives is simple: “Humour.” The designer says, “Jewellery has always been so serious, so traditional, and when you speak surreal you speak the language of freedom, of dreams . . . Irony and humour are fundamental in creativity and Surrealism is the essence of freedom in art.”
Faris Du Graf
Seattle-based Du Graf studied architecture while taking design courses on the side. Her sculptural jewellery was an instant hit with the fashion crowd when she launched her brand in 2012
Faris Du Graf says that at the heart of her work “is the sincere desire to imbue wearers with artfulness and audacity”. If this is perplexing, it’s little wonder: Du Graf herself is an enigma within the industry.
The 31-year-old’s jewellery journey started with humble beginnings: beads. “As a child, I loved my bead kit. I spent hours making symmetrical daisy chains, organising my bead box and losing myself in the focus and meditation of beading,” says Du Graf. “And I loved wearing beads too; it was a highlight of back to school shopping. When my mom was trying to buy me something sensible, I’d be at the earring rack, begging her to buy me a pair with fake pearls and lace bows.”
Du Graf never had any formal training, learning her craft alongside the day job. “I took classes from great artisans in the Bay Area [of California]. I took an intro to jewellery making class maybe a half dozen times because I really liked the teacher. He’d let me do my own projects, and would help me work through problems.”
She has moved on since her childhood beading days and today creates far more abstract, delicate and refined pieces from her neighbourhood studio: earrings of thin bronze or silver that drop from the lobe in spiralling threads, perforated by pearls and crystals, or rings that appear almost liquid as they curve around the index finger.
“All my collections incorporate Surrealism in some way,” says the designer. “I like the way that they value chance as a way to access the unconscious. I also value the wisdom of the accidental in my work. Many of my products came from some sort of accident. For example, as I was polishing an earring I’d made, the lathe caught it and twisted it. I thought it was a beautiful shape and decided to produce it as was. It became the Vinea, one of my favourite earrings.”
While Du Graf has no particular favourite Surrealist artist, on a recent trip to Paris she discovered the works of Swiss sculptor, painter and printmaker Alberto Giacometti whose elongated figure sculptures she finds surreal. “There’s something deeply human about his work, so imperfect, unpretty, dark,” says Du Graf. “The exaggerated limbs, the almost creepy texture that’s so raw it seems unfinished.” But Surrealism does play into her own output. “A lot of the forms and shapes are imaginative. They aren’t necessarily dream derived but sometimes they’ll be sparked from a form in my periphery.”
Whatever her methods, Du Graf’s work is proving a hit, especially among younger buyers who appreciate her inclusive price range, with pieces costing from $30 to more than $1,000. She believes it also helps that her website is “authentic, you see who I am”. Du Graf says her most popular designs are “the Vero Stud and the Vero Ear Cuff. In jewellery, practicality still prevails.”
To what does she attribute the growth in her business? “More than ever, jewellery buyers want to invest in jewellery as art, jewellery as sculpture, jewellery that distinguishes the wearer as being artful. Jewellery is inherently sculptural. Jewellery lends itself well to abstraction and randomness, much more so than clothing.”