review by Elka Karl
At first glance, jewelry makers Elisa Bongfeldt and Chris Neff, featured in Shibumi Gallery’s current show, Visual Cadence, share many common factors: extensive use of oxidized silver; a near-obsession with repetition of simple forms, and a surprisingly gender-ambiguous aesthetic. The more compelling story, however, isn’t in the shared qualities of the work, but in how these two artists and their work diverge.
Berkeley-based Elisa Bongfeldt creates her jewelry pieces using a mix of 22 karat bimetal and sterling silver tubing, resulting in pieces that are decidedly forward-looking, modern, and minimalist in nature.
When Bongfeldt does add stones to her work, her careful selection and placement of the diamonds, sapphires, or pearls she commonly uses creates a distinctive look, such as in her Open Circles with Diamonds Ring, which combines oxidized silver with five 1.5 mm white diamonds. This ring showcases this most feminine of stones in a pared down interpretation of a floral pattern. The minimalist floral, rendered in oxidized silver, creates a handsome juxtaposition with the diminutive polished stones.
About 10 years ago, Bongfeldt began using 22 karat gold bimetal in her work. “It was a more inexpensive way to use gold without making solid gold pieces,” she explains. The contrast between the 22 karat gold bimetal and the oxidized silver possesses an undeniable frisson, adding a compelling element to the collection.
While the majority of jewelry collections target a female audience, Bongfeldt’s pieces are pleasingly gender ambiguous. Bongfeldt admits that she has never favored traditional jewelry, explaining, “I suppose I have never liked overtly feminine jewelry. I'm very interested in other forms of design (such as furniture and lighting), and perhaps not making feminine jewelry reflects that. Or perhaps it's more a love of minimal design than anything else? A bit less embellished...I've always looked at very opulent jewelry more for the structures of the pieces and sculptural qualities.”
Bongfeldt earned a degree in metal arts from CCA, and then established a studio in Berkeley. The accomplished jeweler was invited to the Smithsonian Annual show in 2005 and 2008. When asked about her influences, Bongfeldt cites Norwegian jewelry artist Tone Vigeland as an inspiration, noting “I think what got me about Tone's work was the simpleness of it — easy techniques to master, but done over and over you get these very complex and interesting forms.” This reverence for repeated, complex forms and patterns is perfectly exemplified in Bongfeldt’s current collection by pieces such as her Large Sapphire Stacked Circle Necklace, which boasts 34 1.2 mm blue sapphires set in oxidized silver.
While Elisa Bongfeldt’s jewelry designs are arguably her most defining characteristic as an artist, Oakland-based goldsmith and jeweler Chris Neff has always self identified as a craftsman with a major focus on fabrication.
Neff began his career while still in high school, apprenticing with a jewelry maker in Cincinatti, Ohio. At San Francisco’s Revere Academy, he studied jewelry fabrication, and over the last two years 85 percent of his work has focused on stone setting. “People come to me with the complicated projects that other people turn down,” Neff notes. “One of the things I really enjoy is being able to reproduce the same bead size in metal and in each stone — if for instance there’s 40 stones, one little slip and you break a stone. There’s very, very little room for error. There’s no room to recover from most mistakes. That’s what appeals to me.”
In the current show, Neff’s obsession with working with dozens of intricate stones is exemplified in his Quatrefoil Pendant, which is one of his favorite pieces in the show. The piece required extensive fabrication work on the lathe for milling out the arches in the pattern, as well as almost three dozen black rose cut diamonds set into the oxidized silver and 18 karat gold metal.
Nearly all of Neff’s jewelry work is based on a factor of six or a spacing of 15, 30, or 60 degrees. Neff notes that this design is influenced largely by the fact that milling reproduces those angles exactly, with more options present in a factor of six than a factor of four or five. “The angles break down really nicely,” he explains.
Neff’s interest in design has grown in the past two years, spurred in part by the goal to show a small collection and launch a website of his own by the time he turned 30. The thirty-one-year-old Neff, whose fabrication skills are decades beyond his physical age, has accomplished both goals in admirable fashion.
Unlike Bongfeldt, whose designs favor a more industrial-influenced or overtly modern look, Neff’s designs look back sometimes centuries or more for inspiration. The Globe Ring in the current show was inspired by a 19th century ring; Neff then used modern fabrication techniques to re-create the inspiration piece as crisply and perfectly as possible.
While Bongfeldt’s work showcases a repetition of circle patterns, several of Neff’s pieces incorporate an oxbow pattern, which he first saw in a 1908 Sears catalog illustration. Like many of his patterns, this one is deceptively simple. The curve and taper in the oxbow has to be replicated perfectly, or the entire piece looks unbalanced.
Neff notes that while the oxbow and other simple patterns may not be groundbreaking shapes, “[T]o mill it out that small and to get the curves right and the shapes right is challenging. That’s where I get really nerdy.”
For Neff, this challenge means that he relies on more analog methods to create his work. Computer programs are much too easy of an option, and he prefers to know — and master — every step of the fabrication process. Neff noted that when he overheard a guest at the show opening hypothesize that one of Neff’s pieces must have been made with CAD, he had to let him know about the backstory on the piece, including the absence of computer-aided design or drafting. For Neff, the design is important in his work, but on equal footing is process. “When I get to my studio and sit down there’s a shift that happens. My everyday life is so quickly paced. I love to put blinders on and slow down.”
Elisa Bongfeldt and Chris Neff’s show, Visual Cadence, runs through September 30th at Shibumi Gallery.