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Slowly sauntering through the medieval stone streets of the old city of Tallinn on a sunny April afternoon, Terri Dentry couldn’t help but linger just a little while at the shop front of A-Galerii, a picturesque gallery of Estonian jewellery. What she didn’t expect was to be surprised with the gracefulness and creativity of the pieces bubbling over with the same sense of humour that abounds the whole city and its people. Terri and Rowena Robertson talked with some of the designers about their works.

Written by: Rowena Robertson
Original interviews: Terri Dentry
Header images: Born Into; Optical Itzak 2; Estonian Jewellery; John Lewis/The Boy who Wanted to Touch the Moon; John Power/VJ Mix
Original publication: Design Graphics: DG Magazine 2006
Republished with permission
A-Galerii, a jewellery showroom run by Kati Kotselainen and located in Estonia’s vibrant capital, Tallinn, is a space rich with resonances. Most significantly, it seems a logical culmination of, if not a tribute to, Estonia’s centuries-old tradition of handcrafting metal.

Estonian metalwork’s more recent history can be traced back to 1924, when professional artists began to be trained in metal at the State Institute of Applied Art (now the Estonian Academy of Arts). Since the 1960s Estonian jewellery making has thrived, with jewellery artists being quick to capture the zeitgeist in their work, while still harking back to their metal crafting heritage.

The whimsical pieces on display at A-Galerii capture something of the Estonian spirit. This is a spirit that has endured despite a history of tugs-of-war between various nations, notably between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia in the 20th century. These periods of instability have left the Estonian psyche curiously unscathed. This can perhaps be attributed to a strong sense of national identity developed during an earlier period of cultural advancement in the 19th century, as well the 22 years of independence the country enjoyed early in the 20th century, a period during which cultural and artistic life flourished. Whatever the reason, a visit to Estonia today reveals a levity in the natives’ character, and an idiosyncratic humour and outlook on life which translates into their art.

A-Galerii features the work of around 60 Estonian artists, one of those being Tallinn-born Anneli Tammik. A 31-year-old graduate of the Estonian Academy of Art, and with an MA in art theory from Tallinn Pedagogical University, Tammik is the seasoned winner of a number of jewellery-making prizes, including the Ede Kurrel prize in 2004.

In mid-2006 she exhibited at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design. The exhibition, Informed Shadows, was a collaboration between Tammik and Swiss jewellery designer Christoph Zellweger, with whom Tammik first came into contact in 1999 as a student at the at the Sheffield Hallam University, where Zellweger was the director of the Masters’ program in the Department of Metalwork and Jewellery. Informed Shadows showcased the two jewellery artists’ interest in technology, and how it can be used to create new aesthetic forms. Symmetry and motif, and the varying implications and meanings of ornament that are revealed once one looks beyond the basic aesthetic form, were among the concerns of the work featured in the exhibition.

Some of Tammik’s most affecting work reflects the ideas explored in the Informed Shadows exhibition as well as a theory set out in her masters’ thesis. The theory concerns the spiral as one of the “fundamental patterns of the Universe. Spiral motifs have played an important role in arts and mythology. Spirals have served as a symbol of any kind of cycle and as a metaphor for the path of life. … We recreate a spiral in both a direct and indirect sense in our daily life; figuratively speaking, we live in it”

These ideas are made manifest in Tammik’s delicate, etched work in stainless steel. A set of earrings comprised of three main spirals, two of which sit over the earlobe as if attempting to fuse intimately with the wearer, recall the natural world – the intricate patterns we see in wood, or the soothing whirlpools created upon throwing a stone into a stream. The central ‘stem’ of the earrings evokes plants and growth. All parts of the earrings merge and flow together, and are redolent of the perpetual cycle of life Tammik is interested in.

A dainty metallic necklace is a tightly coiled hoop of spirals when laid flat, but when worn stretches out to become beautifully three-dimensional, almost floating above and around the neck like the fronds of a delicate fern or a barely-there cirrus cloud.

Tammik’s ‘klip’, or brooch, is a single spiral that comes in larger or smaller sizes and which can be attached to the straight edges of a jacket to give the impression of something winding up the fabric from underneath. The ‘klip ramaat’, or bookmark, subtly and organically twines itself between the pages of a book.

A set of rings based on the spiral theme are the most contemporary-looking of Tammik’s works. Rings within rings fit together like particularly beautiful, symmetrical cogs, or fold out into shapes beyond the circle. The pieces recall both spiral sea creatures and the yin and yang, into which most forces in nature can be broken down. The fact that the rings can be worn separately or together in a whole, tight spiral seems to highlight the interconnectedness of everything in nature.

For Tammik, rings are replete with meaning. “[The] ring has always been appreciated as an adornment of the body which bears symbols and signs. Symbolism is the basis of mind and thinking; a perfect symbol satisfies one’s spirit, as well as emotions and intellect.”

A-Galleri is also home to the work of Katrin Veegen, a 27-year-old self-employed jewellery designer based in Tallinn, who works in a variety of materials as well as metal. For her, jewellery-making started as a form of rebellion – at her high school, metalwork was only taught to boys. Veegen broke away from the standard curriculum to do her final diploma in metalwork. From there she went on to do a bachelor’s degree at the Estonian Academy of Arts. Veegen spent some of the six years of her degree course at the University of Central England in Birmingham. She sees the time spent there as being crucial to her development as an artist and in defining her approach to jewellery-making.

After her studies Veegen spent some time working as a head designer and goldsmith at a jewellery company, but left after she became frustrated at not having enough time for her own creative work. Now, she is completely immersed in creating jewellery that encapsulates the Estonian joie de vivre, and that brings back colour into an absurdly fast-paced and often bleak world.

“Sometimes life tends to get too serious,” she says. “We lose control over time … At this point it is important to step off the highway that our life has turned into and take a deep breath and just watch it for a while … Make time non-existent and bring back the colours and the light into the greyness.”

Veegen is concerned with the rhythms of humans and nature and how they intertwine. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her ‘In a Heartbeat’ necklace. A striking piece made out of silver, acrylic and wood painted a blood red, the necklace, with its droplet–like adjoining parts, evokes the pulses running through our bodies, and our very cellular makeup, as well as the pulse of nature. In spite of these complex references, the piece still contains some of that Estonian humour – after all, it takes someone with a highly developed sense of fun to wear a bright red necklace made of what look like blood drops made solid.

Veegen asserts that in her work she “strives towards cleanness, searching [on the] one hand for purity and lightness and on the other, joy and fun.” Her ‘folded 2’ silver ring captures this desire for “purity and lightness” adeptly. Atop a traditional ring base, delicate forms in pristine silver fold over one another, creating the effect of slightly askew butterfly wings, or petals and leaves. These folding forms seem weightless; almost as if they are about to float off into the ether.

The ‘Play White’ ring, in silver, wood and acrylic, is an amusing and quirky piece. A disproportionately large pine cone-like shape is set onto the ring; it looks slightly odd, but somehow it works. As Veegen says, “I experiment with colours, different materials and surfaces and often … [the jewellery] turns out to be quite wearable, although maybe a bit weird and unexpected.”

The white ‘Pollen Flight’ necklace is more understated. Made of jesmonite and silver, it evokes the intricate, inner sections of flowers, and the porousness of coral or honeycomb. The ‘Transformation’ set of brooches, in gold leaf, silver and a luminous pink resin, look like delicate flecked rose petals, or clear puddles with autumn leaves floating on top.

One is tempted to attribute something particularly Eastern European to the way these artists approach their work, and perhaps extract from that a ‘truth’ about all artists in Eastern Europe. The responses of both Tammik and Veegen to this question of what it is like to be to be an artist in Eastern Europe, however, suggest that it is something not easily defined, or even not especially relevant to the field in which they work.

The purity and beauty of these jewellery artists’ work speaks more of a universal creative urge which goes beyond geography or politics, and which resides in a place that could be described as the seat of the soul. As Veegen says, “I am just a designer and artist, no matter where I am situated geographically. And sometimes I am not even that, I am just someone who is feeling, searching and expressing through jewellery. I don’t like to be defined.”

Rowena Robertson is a freelance writer, a former editor of Poster magazine and a subeditor at Metro and Screen Education magazines.

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Necklace, headpiece