A Sampling of Modern Canadian Jewellers

(1960-1980)

By Roberta Peach 

"Canada has, alas, not enjoyed the same scale of development in contemporary jewellery,...Perhaps its close proximity to the United States has had an intimidating effect on the artists, or perhaps, the great distances within the country proved an inhibiting factor." (1)
When I read the above statement I knew that the reason it was made in 1985 was not because there existed a vacuum or lack of talent in Canada, but rather because there was a lack of knowledge that such talent did actually exist. Generalizations are exceedingly interesting and challenging to me as I find there are always examples to debunk the myths and attitudes that such statements generate. Far from being the shy and transportationally challenged individuals that one would be led to believe, Canadian modern jewellery designers and studio jewellers had not been recognized either abroad or at home due only to the paucity of information and documentation.
That changed, thankfully, in 1997 when Anne Barros published her excellent book on the post-war history of Canadian jewellery designers in "Ornament and Object: Canadian Jewellery and Metal Art". Her historical research into the start of the metal guilds of Ontario and Nova Scotia covers the early pioneers of Canadian modern jewellery and metal art and has given Canadian jewellery historians the ability to document several early Canadian designers which have up to this point been unknown to the Canadian public.
The "eureka" moment I had when reading the book and remembering a necklace signed "Nancy Meek"    (Figure 1) in my collection will always stay with me. It was like reuniting a child with its mother, and to close the gap between now and then was thrilling. Currently out of print, this book presently stands as the most concise history detailing  modern  jewellery designers in Canada and is the premier reference in any historical research of Canadian modern jewellery.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Nancy Meek, hand fabricated reposse sterling silver pendant on hand made chain, hand signed "Nancy Meek" in block print, circa 1940 Toronto, Canada.

Beyond the historical documentation, the one of a kind pieces and the avant guard design of the Canadian studio jewelers in precious metals and gemstones that are the focus of Barros' book, is another genre of designers. These four modern Canadian "jewelsmiths" started out as small operations but the popularity of their work soon propelled them into larger scale production. These jewelers include Rafael Alfandary, Robert Larin, Gilles Vidal and the husband and wife team of Micheline de Passille and Yves Sylvestre. Their expressive and original jewels gave Canadian women a design choice totally apart from the ubiquitous Sherman rhinestones of the 1960s and the Sara Coventry home parties of the 1970Ős and brought home a Canadian expression of the modern style.

Rafael Alfandary

Rafael Alfandary was a recent emigrant to Toronto, Ontario, Canada from Israel in 1970 when he enrolled in an English class at George Brown College. As a thank you gift to his teacher he designed and presented a necklace to her. The striking design and movement of the necklace soon created a demand for similar jewellery from other women who were enamored of the style and originality. Taking up the opportunity that the life process had laid before him, Rafael set up shop in his basement and started production on the kinetic designs made of hammered brass or copper, and bezel set with natural stone or glass cabochons.

Figure 2: Rafael Anfandary, a picture that was included on the hang tags that were attached to the jewellery sold in the 1970's.

His work is very recognizable and examples of some of his most popular and striking styles are pictured in Figures 3-6. The chains on the large necklaces are as elaborate as the pendants themselves and balance it with an aesthetic symmetry. He soon discovered Murano glass which provided colours ranging from brilliant orange hues to the most earthy translucent purple I have ever seen (as if one can ever describe purple as "earthy"). He loved melting and combining different colours of the glass, and as such no two cabochon colours are exactly the same (2). Thus, it was very challenging to match cabs of the same colour for the multiple cabochon necklaces and he estimated he had an array of colours numbering over 1200. The rippled nature on the reverse side of the glass also created some amazing reflections seen against the metal backing through the top of the transparent coloured glass.

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 3

Figure 6

Figure 3-6: Rafael, hand made hammered brass necklaces bezel set with Murano glass cabochons, stamped "Rafael" in script and "Canada" in block print, circa 1975 Toronto, Canada.

Figure 7: Rafael, hand made brass and sterling silver rings set with Murano glass cabochons, hand scribed "Rafael Canada 2003", circa 2003 Toronto, Canada.
Rafael closed his shops in Canada in 1980 to pursue other business and personal opportunities but is now back in Toronto, Canada where he and his wife Eriko are creating clocks and his one of a kind rings. He very kindly sent me two examples of his new work which are signed "Rafael, Canada 2003" (Figure 7).

Robert Larin

Robert Larin was creating pewter jewellery as early as 1968 based in Montreal, PQ and selling across Canada. Born in Montreal, he was in his mid 20's in the late 60's and had a factory on rue Papineau. Here he employed approximately 25 workers most of whom were deaf, which worked perfectly in a noisy shop where communication even between those who could hear, had to be in sign language (3).

Most of Larin's production jewellery was made of pewter, which was cast by the lost wax process and then filed by hand to remove the rough surfaces left by the casting. The piece was then oxidized or plated with silver or gold and then, finally polished (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Robert Larin, examples of metal finishes employed by Larin, gold plate, oxidized and polished pewter, and silver plate, Circa 1970, Montreal, Canada.

His style defies generalization; the designs range from these totally organic forms on the left and right in Figure 8, to the architecturally designed elements displayed by the bracelets in Figure 9. Not only were the shapes and dimensional forms of his jewellery unique, the surface textures that he employed were amazing.

Figure 9: Robert Larin, examples of Larin's architectural style, Circa 1970, Montreal, Canada.

Figure 11: Robert Larin, Robert Larin bracelets left and right, Finnish bracelet center, Circa 1970, Montreal, Canada and Finland.
For example: these pieces of silver plated pewter (Figure 10,below) all support brass spheres but the pewter's texture ranges from the look of slaggy cast iron (Figure 10, right) to a more refined reticulated surface texture (Figure 10, bottom center). There is definitely no one word or select group of words that can define his artistic style except modern eclectic. To help put his designs in context for other modern jewellery collectors, I find some pieces remind me of Finnish jewellery of the 70's; the three bracelets in Figure 11 are all circa 1970 with the middle being signed "Made in Finland" and the flanking bracelets being Robert Larin designs. The jewellery made by Larin rivals Bjorn Weckstrom's in size and topography; the top bracelet in Figure 11 weighs over 110 grams and is 1/2" in depth.
Figure 10: Robert Larin, a grouping of cast pewter jewellery displaying different surface textures, Circa 1970, Montreal, Canada.

Bracelets, broaches and pendants are the most common Larin pieces I have come across in the secondary market, with earrings and rings being rather rare. Figure 12 displays a lovely oxidized and polished pewter collar the design being a sub parallel grid of pewter "stitches" that seem to hold the metal together. I spoke just last month with John Duncan, the sales manager for Robert Larin in 1971, and he mentioned that the huge collars didn't sell very well but were made more to draw attention to the showcase that housed the more modest sized jewellery that was in demand.

  Figure 12: Robert Larin, cast pewter collar, Circa 1970, Montreal, Canada
Robert Larin ceased production around 1972 according to the information I have (3).

Gilles Vidal

Gilles Vidal was also a Montreal based designer, who worked in pewter and was in production at about the same time as Larin in the late 60's to early 70's (3). It was thought among the jewellery fraternity that Vidal's designs were somewhat more sophisticated and daintier than Larin's and it was also said that Vidal had concocted his own pewter formula which provided an ability to work finer designs that still held their strength, as pewter, a lead alloy is very soft and finer work can bend easily and be damaged.


Figure 13

Figure 15


Figure 14
Figure 13-16: Gilles Vidal, cast pewter alloy cross, earrings, pin and chain, Circa 1970, Montreal, Canada

Design wise, Vidal's pieces are visually and physically lighter in weight than Larin's however to assign them to a certain style is difficult for me as I have seen such a limited number of them. The jewellery pieces that I have seen are all cast (Figure 13-16) and for pewter, do seem to have an "airiness" about them that gives them a feeling of delicacy not seen in Larin's work.

Figure 16

Figure 17: de Passille-Sylvestre, a picture of Micheline and Yves supplied on a hang tag that went with their jewellery. Circa 1970 Quebec, Canada

de Passille-Sylvestre

The talented team of Micheline de Passille and Yves Sylvestre began their shop in St. Adele PQ in 1960. Talented enamalists, their work embodies the most prized elements of colour and form related to modern design. They not only designed and enamelled jewellery, but tableware as well, though I have not had the pleasure of seeing any. Their early work is all hand done and enameled on both sides where it was signed by also by hand.

Figures 18-20 show the earliest jewellery all hand signed "de P-S". The flower in Figure 19 is somewhat unusual for their style as it is more naturalistic than abstract.

Figure 18


Figure 20

Figures 18-20: de Passille-Sylvestre, early hand enameled and hand signed pins with glued pin backs, Circa 1960's, Quebec, Canada

Figure 19

As their work grew in popularity they switched to more automated production, which is not enameled on the back but is stamped with their name and Made in Canada/Fait au Quebec. This later production was cast and had the enamel filling in the cast channels of the design rather than being painted on the surface, which was the earlier technique they had employed.

 
Figure 21: de Passille-Sylvestre, later production piece of enamel and gold plate, Circa 1980
Figure 22: de Passille-Sylvestre, later production piece of enamel and gold plate, Circa 1980
Figures 21 and 22 display the bright metallic nature of the enamel and metal finishes they used in this later production which ceased as the demand for enameled jewellery declined (4).


Conclusion

The talent of Canada's modern studio/production jewellers is finally being recognized and my research has only just scratched the surface of the talent that resides north of the 49th. There are a number of Canadian fine art colleges with wonderful jewellery arts programs including the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, Alberta; the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax, Nova Scotia; Georgian College, Barrie, Ontario; George Brown College in Toronto, Ontario; to name just a few. This will ensure the continuation of imaginative design from the minds and hands of the future.

All jewellery from the collection of Roberta Peach

Footnotes

(1) Twentieth-Century Jewelry, Barbara Cartlidge, 1985 Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, New York. Page 111

(2) Personal communication, Mr. Rafael Alfantry, July 2003.

(3) Personal communication, Mr. John Duncan, July 2003.

(4) Ornament and Object: Canadian Jewellery and Metal Art, 1946-1996, Anne Barros, 1997, Boston-Mills Press, Erin, Ontario, pg 38

Acknowledgements:

My thanks go out to Rafael Alfandary who spoke to me of his work and his history and to John Duncan, a former sales manager and business associate with Robert Larin. Thank you also to Marbeth Schon for asking me to write this article and being able to share some of the history of several amazing artist jewellers that are from Canada.

 
Figure 23: Roberta Peach, Barrier Lake Lookout, Kananaskis Country, Alberta May 2003

Author Biography:

Roberta L. Peach: A collector and jewellery lover from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Roberta has collected jewellery for 17 years. She received a B.SC. in Geology from the University of Calgary in 1982 and a Gemmologist Diploma from the Pacific Gemmoligical Institute (now the Canadian Gemmological Institute) in Vancouver in 1987 where she was the top placed student that year. She is currently employed as a geologist with a major oil and gas company in Calgary and continues her research on Canadian jewelers past and present as well as being a jewellery consultant and writer.

Text and photographs copyright 2003 Roberta Peach

Select Bibliography

Barros, Anne, "Ornament and Object: Canadian Jewellery and Metal Art 1946-1996", Boston Mills Press, Erin, Ontario l997.


Article by Roberta Peach
photographs by Roberta Peach
Web design by Matt Molinary
 Copyright © 2003 Roberta Peach

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