My Grandmothers’ Hands

My Grandmothers’ Hands. Brooches, 2019. Jo McAllister.
Photograph: Alexander Brattell

Amelia Maud: Fine silver 999, heritage gold, sterling silver, 22ct gold wedding ring, cameo, diamonds, red gemstone, silk, steel pin.

Irene Beatrice: Fine silver 999, heritage gold, platinum, sterling silver and glass eternity ring, ruby, diamonds, rock crystal, silk, steel pin.

My grandmothers were not wealthy women and their jewellery was of little material value; too small for my large, maker’s hands; too worn, too dated and yet so evocative of the women who wore it, and so important to me.

I look at the worn cameo and the tiny ring settings, repaired and worn thin, that I have now presented as jewels in their own right and can again see my grandmothers’ hands. Hands that had been busy darning socks and making pastry, hands that had taught me to knit or to make cinder toffee, hands that had held mine, rubbed bruises, tended grazes and embraced me with so much love and care. 

Re-using sentimental and fragile jewellery is not always a straightforward matter. We may think that we are able to let go of the pieces of jewellery as they were worn by those beloved of us, but sometimes we are not quite ready. This is the process of the making of My Grandmothers’ Hands.

Over three decades ago, I inherited a tiny, very worn cameo ring from my maternal grandmother and the promise of her ruby wedding anniversary ring that she kept for special occasions as it was her best ring. I later inherited several rings from my paternal grandmother, one of which had been her mother’s engagement ring.

Five years ago, my mother asked me to cut a small band of gold off her finger as it was uncomfortably tight. I threaded my saw blade backwards through the ring and sawed through it, not something to do unless the person trusts you. She was able to remove the sawn ring and handed it to me saying, “That was my mother’s wedding ring, would you like it?”.

I added it to the other rings and locked them away again. A couple of years later I got them all out, cleaned them up and photographed all of them. I wanted to do something with these rings, but could not envision a way of making small gemstones, tiny diamonds and diamond chips sit happily on my hands, even in much larger settings. I also realised that having a photographic record of the rings was now enough to preserve my memories of them and that the only way I would make a start on using them in a piece of jewellery for myself was if I removed the stones from their settings and looked at them separately.

There were two tiny gold and platinum settings with tiny diamonds in them, both very worn, and one being much repaired (front L and R). I found them so evocative of my paternal grandmother’s hands that I removed the settings from the ring shanks, deciding to treat them as jewels in their own right.

I scrapped any 9ct gold (it contains only 37.5% gold and is not suited to my method of hammering metal with stones), and kept 18ct gold (75% gold content) to reuse.  Only the 22ct gold sawn wedding ring and an engraved silver eternity ring containing glass stones remained intact.

I took a fresh look at the gemstones, the rings and the worn settings, separated tiny diamonds and a small ruby from a cross-shaped setting and made many sketches of different arrangements and configurations within several differently shaped brooch formats. I was getting close, but there was a dissonance between the elements and too much going on.

When I separated the elements according to whom they had belonged, things began to make more sense. I realised that I should make two brooches.

My maternal Grandmother’s selection contained only the worn cameo and the sawn wedding ring because the ruby wedding ring promised to me was taken by my aunt and then given to my cousin who had lost our grandmother’s engagement ring. Wanting to complete my memories of my grandmother Maud’s hands, I remembered that my husband had given me some stones that he had bought when travelling, before I met him. Luckily one of the stones is red and rather beautiful making it a suitably symbolic replacement for stones from my grandmother’s ring. It’s not a ruby. It may be a garnet (our shared birthstone) or it may be a tourmaline, it does not matter to me, its colour is symbolic and it has another attachment for me. I added two small diamonds.

My paternal grandmother’s jewels contained the engraved silver and glass ring, the two worn platinum settings, a very small ruby, some tiny diamonds, three oval amethysts and two pale opals. It needed editing. I removed the opals and amethysts so that the selection made more visual sense, putting them aside for use in the future. I decided that I would contain the diamonds loose under a piece of rock crystal so that if they should move near the crystal they would be slightly magnified.

Once I had settled upon the components for each brooch, I gave myself a couple of weeks to play. I needed this time to experiment with melting down the 18ct gold to reuse it, and to play with the configurations and the shapes for the brooches.

Here I made an 18ct yellow gold alloy from 24ct gold, copper and fine silver. The process of recycling gold is very similar. Lower R: Recycled gold from my grandmother’s 18ct rings is used in settings for the cameo and the red gemstone.

It is so important to make time to play within a creative practice; to make time to explore new or seldom used techniques and approaches.

When thinking about my grandmothers I envisaged oval or curved forms. These forms would have been more evocative of the period from which my grandmothers’ jewellery came, however I had to settle on a shape for brooches that I would wear.

I decided to enclose the elements in box frames, echoing the boxes that have been a constant presence in my practice.

When these rings on my grandmothers’ hands made such an impression on me, I was very young. This has influenced the scale of the brooches and the configuration of the elements within each frame. I realised that I was working towards a sense of the miniature or perhaps the dolls’ house in the scale of the pieces, whilst still giving them a fresh and contemporary feel.

In order to give a clearer sense of presentation, I wanted no visible solder around the settings contained within the frame of the brooch. As suggested by a colleague, the stone-set elements are riveted. Looking at the brooch Amelia Maud, there is definitely something of the miniature interior about it. A friend suggested that it would not look out of place above a mantelpiece in a Victorian or Edwardian interior.

In each brooch a ring is simply stitched on with silk, the colours chosen to reference colours beloved of each of my grandmothers. The stitching alludes to my memories of ever-present knitting and sock darning.  

Not many of us inherit serious jewels. We inherit worn and broken or odd pieces of jewellery that has sentimental value and resides in drawers for decades. I have found a way for my much-loved but unworn pieces to have another life and to give me the pleasure of wearing them, to experience the poignancy of memories whilst adding to the story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *