To celebrate the opening of Iridescence, on view through March 24, 2019, Object of the Day this week will feature iridescent objects in the collection.

William Harper’s hand-crafted jewelry includes brooches, pendants, and necklaces, each telling a story of their own. Harper specializes in cloisonné enameling, an ancient decorative technique that has remained virtually unchanged over the centuries. In this technique, delicate strips of metal, shaped into a design, are attached to a metal base and act as barriers for the vitreous enamel (a form of glass) that fills the spaces in between. [1] In addition, Harper often utilizes precious and semi-precious gemstones, as well as more unusual materials, such as bone, shells, and teeth, in his work.

Conceiving of himself as a sorcerer, Harper approaches jewelry as if conjuring a spell, mixing and matching different ingredients to create work that he hopes will act as talismans, in the manner of the “great jewelry of the past [which] had power [and] transmitted a kind of force field” [2]. Harper pours countless cultural influences, materials, and ideas into a single work in an attempt to strengthen that “power.” The final result is more than just a piece of jewelry, but a meaningful design that aims to convey ideas about the world around us and reveal the beauty in dichotomies, especially through materials both expected and unusual in the realm of jewelry.

In this particular work, a brooch titled, “White Worm,” Harper uses gold, cloisonné enamel on silver, citrine, and pearl to create an abstract and mesmerizing image, the materials magnifying its luminescence. The long, organic form is striped with earthy, yet light-toned enamels, and strips of gold highlight its narrow width and border the wriggling shape. A large baroque pearl is attached at one end with twisting gold wire, and a square citrine sits just to the side of the larger pearl, its formal, geometric shape and golden hue serving as a counterweight to the otherwise amoebic form, completing the piece. With the “White Worm” brooch, Harper has created something that seems almost alive, fashioning a piece of jewelry that is not only beautiful, but something one could almost believe is indeed magic.

This object is currently on view in Iridescence.

Jenny Shin is a Curatorial intern in the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and is a 2017-2018 Hunter Mellon Arts Fellow.

[1] Benjamin, Susan, Enamels, The Smithsonian Illustrated Library of Antiques. New York: Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 1983, p. 14.

[2] Cerwinske, Laura, “Mystical Images: Powerful Jewelry by William Harper,” in By Southern Hands: A Celebration of Craft Traditions in the South, ed. Jan Arnow. Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House, 1987, p. 42.

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