The Art of the Gouache

In the last 20 years, jewellery has experienced an explosion of creativity and innovation not seen since the heady days of the Belle Epoque, when new diamond cutting techniques and the innovative use of platinum for setting raised the look of jewels to heights of dazzle and delicacy never seen before.

An important emerald, turquoise, sapphire and diamond necklace by Van Cleef and Arpels pictured next to its working gouache.

The three main reasons for this have been the great strides made in manufacturing technology, the enormous increase in interest in unusual coloured stones and a surge in demand for bespoke pieces.  This has allowed a new generation of designers, or artist jewellers, to proliferate.  In a world where so much is mass produced and computer generated the jewellers’ gouache is increasingly becoming viewed as an art form in itself.

The gouache is the final design the jeweller draws up in order to give their client the most faithful possible representation of the piece they are commissioning and is the document the workshop will work from in order to create the piece.  It is not supposed to be a painting or a picture; in many jewellery circles it is also known as a render, a term which embodies the sense of accuracy the design is trying to convey.

Pink sapphire and diamond earrings in rose gold by Luis Miguel Howard pictured with the working drawing.

The process of creating one is quite straightforward, but it is time consuming and requires some skill. Most are painted on vellum, tracing paper or coloured Ingres paper.  Shadows are painted in Chinese ink, metal and stones in washes of gouache of varying intensities, often leaving areas unpainted to give a sense of lightness and delicacy.  Most jewellery houses keep impeccable archives and their head offices are usually filled with albums of painstakingly rendered jewellery.  Sadly, with the advance of jewellery rendering software the art of the gouache is declining.  This seems to be the case in every field: a well known architect recently commented to me that mine would be the last generation ever to render designs this way and that the new intake of architects in his firm could not even draw, being totally reliant on computer software.  However, some jewellery houses, such as Van Cleef and Arpels and Boucheron insist on doing it the old fashioned way.  In the same way they would never machine set precious stones (and believe me, no one would ever know) they would never stop rendering their jewellery- it would represent a decline in standards.  The same ideal applies to some artist jewellers who insist in working this way.

Working drawing by Bolin for an important emerald and diamond 'devant de corsage' recently exhibited at the Sotheby's 'Jewellery Drawings' exhibition.

The presentation of a gouache to a client who is commissioning a jewel also creates a special bond with the piece they are paying the jeweller to bring to life as it is so much more personal and less mechanical than a computer model on a screen.  Certainly the resale value of a signed jewel accompanied by the original working drawing is much higher- it can up add up to 20% to the hammer price at auction.  Jewellery designs by some of the great masters, especially uncommercial artist jewellers such as Rene Lalique often change hands for as much as £1500 each.  Sotheby’s last week closed an exhibition starring the jewellery drawings in the archives of Cartier, Van Cleef and Bolin.  The gouaches in their collections have only recently started being celebrated as works in their own right- my own workshop once told me how in the late 80s they often used to see discarded drawings in the dustbins of Cartier’s London headquarters.

As technology marches onward ever more relentlessly, the charm of things imbued with uniqueness, personality, and most importantly, a little humanity, will continue to grow and claim special places in the lives of discerning buyers.