Helen London designs and makes bespoke, high quality silverware and jewellery. All pieces are handcrafted from her workshop based in Gloucestershire. She studied at the London Guildhall University and later at the Bishopsland Educational Trust in South Oxfordshire.
"The way our brains work defines who we are - mine is part artist, part engineer."
Helen London was brought up in a family of designers, from stained glass to architecture, and was immersed in the art world from day one. Herself, parents and brother regularly comprised half of the local life drawing class, so affirming her desire to put pen to paper.
"It fills me with so much energy to see something visually beautiful and striking. It is a personal experience because the specific image or structure that inspires you and makes your heart sing is different for everyone."
The engineer is ingrained within her though. As a youngster Helen would daydream about the technicalities of constructing a tree house or a go kart. How would the steering mechanism work, how would it brake? Now she satisfies both passions by creating visually beautiful pieces but pushing herself technically.
"To make the work interesting I like it to be tricky, raise some problems and give me a lot of fun along the way."
Filigree is a technically demanding skill requiring a rather large amount of patience and resilience. At the same time it is visually striking. Filigree has been described as captured air and Helen considers this to be a beautiful illustration of its aesthetic quality.
In terms of artistic influence Helen admires highly decorative eastern craft and architecture because of the awe inspiring focus on details which complement the whole. She also sites Art Nouveau and Japanese prints as inspiration for their graphic like qualities of pattern and form. Both of these influences can be traced in her designs, obviously for their decorative quality, but also in the simple shapes and sweeping lines of their construction.
Aside from filigree jewellery and silverware Helen makes chased wall pieces that are heat treated and textured to add further surface interest. Here she is able to explore her love of form and pattern by tracing simplified and abstracted images of life drawings and other studies of nature. Chasing is a technique of drawing in metal and harks back to some of her earliest and most enjoyable experiences in art.
The word filigree comes from the Latin ‘filum’ meaning thread, and ‘granum’ meaning grain or seed. The thread element of filigree is an obvious reference to the delicate wires but the grain comes from its once regular combination with small balls of silver known as granulation. This is another decorative jewellery technique that is truly beautiful in its own right.
We don’t know a precise origin of filigree as a technique as it is present in articles from across the globe including Greece, Cyprus, Russia, India, Egypt, Yemen, the Malay Peninsula and Europe. However, archaeological finds in ancient Mesopotamia (between Iran, Syria, Iraq and Kuwait) have suggested that filigree has been incorporated in jewellery there as early as 3000 BC.
I make filigree wire from scratch using an alloy of silver with a purity somewhere between that of Sterling (925) and Britannia (958). The reason for creating this alloy is to use a silver that will curve smoothly in to the delicate swirls required but also to retain enough strength to offer some tension in the material.
The first step in the process is to melt scrap silver in a crucible using a gas torch. The molten silver is poured in to an ingot mould where it solidifies in to a finger of silver about 1 cm in diameter and between 5 and 10 cm long depending on how much metal has initially been melted.
Next comes the lengthy process of drawing this ingot down in to a long wire. I start the process using the rolling mill until the wire is fine enough to pull through a draw plate by hand. A draw plate is a flat rectangular section of steel about 5 mm thick with a series of holes drilled through it. The holes degrade in size and will form your wire in to ever decreasing diameters.
I use a couple of different draw plates for this process to get my wire really fine – eventually it will go down to a 0.1 mm diameter wire measuring up to 40 metres in length. Of course every time you make the wire finer, the silver has to go somewhere – and so you end up with a really long length of extra fine silver wire. Throughout the process the wire must be annealed (a process of heating and cooling the metal) regularly to prevent it from becoming brittle and snapping.
Once the wire has been drawn down to size it is cut in to manageable lengths so as it can be twisted. Two lengths of wire are twisted together using a hand operated drill with a hook in the chuck. It is important that the wire is twisted very tightly so as gaps do not open up in the next step when the wire is flattened.
In this final step the familiar bumpy edge of the filigree is created by flattening the twisted wires. I use the rolling mill again to do this so as to ensure an even thickness of wire. The thickness of the final wire is important as it will determine the ease with which the wire will curve in to decorative swirls and also the look and delicacy of the finished piece.