If you really want to see how well a piece of jewelry is made, take a look at the back of the piece. While the front of a jewel enchants us with sparkling gemstones, precious metals, and overall design, the back of a piece can be just as important. A really fine piece of jewelry will often have a back as compelling as the front, but usually only known to the one who owns the jewel — an exchange between the artist and the collector. There are different ways to finish the back of a jewel. Backs may have engraving or grillwork to finish the piece or an au jour setting that allows stones to fully catch the light and sparkle outrageously. Even an earring closure can be a part of the art of the jewel.
[Cover image: Back details of the Fire Empress Fire Opal pendant]
“Fundamentally, I’m a sculptor and I think about things three-dimensionally. The backs and sides of my pieces are very important,” comments jewelry artist Naomi Sarna. “With my jewels, the back becomes a very private art gallery that only the collector knows about. It’s a private communication that I have with my collectors through my jewels.”
Sarna cites Mughal jewelry from India as an influence for her desire to make the backs of pieces as beautiful as the front. In Mughal jewelry the front of a piece is heavily embellished with gemstones and gold. Turn it over and the back has intricate enameling that makes it as spectacular as the front even though nobody sees it.
Having “secret” jewels and other embellishments on the back of a piece dates back to ancient times, Sarna says. “A bejeweled back is wonderful. It makes sense to me and it’s necessary. It’s like wearing beautiful lingerie. The whole world doesn’t need to know about it. It’s intimate. The back of the piece is an intimacy that I have with the collector and that the collector has with the piece.”
One of the ways to finish the back of a jewel is by having it engraved. Engraving is an art that is thousands of years old. It is the physical act of removing small bits of metal to create a design. Hand engraving is a highly skilled technique using a “graver”, a very small tool with a sharp point — it looks a bit like a tiny icepick — that allows marks to be made in the metal to create a design. There are different sizes of gravers that can be used to create very intricate and detailed patterns.
Machine engraving is a much quicker process and can be done using either a laser or diamond bit that is connected to a computer that holds the template image to be engraved. Hand engraving tends to go deeper into the metal than machine engraving.
“The inspiration for the engraving always relates to the theme of the piece,” explains Sarna, whose pieces are meticulously hand engraved by an expert craftsperson. “The Fire Empress pendant (top of page) is hot, so I had a frosty pattern engraved on the back to cool it down. The Angel Wing brooch has a feather pattern on the back.”
Grillwork is another way of finishing the back of a jewel. It is a decorative grating that covers the back of a piece of jewelry. It gives the back of the jewel a more finished look by covering the open setting. Grillwork or grills (also spelled grilles) can be designed to carry over a motif from the front of the jewel, such as the grill on the back of Sarna’s petal brooch which represents the rain that makes flowers blossom.
“A grill is a finishing for jewelry,” comments Sarna. “It’s like putting a frame around a painting. It’s another level of art enhancement. My first grills were inspired by Japanese etchings of grasses blowing in the wind. Now they generally carry through the motif of the piece.”
Sometimes instead of a grill, the back of a jewel is specially finished to complete the story of the jewel. The pearl brooch, Caught by a Wave, has hand hammered gold on the back that flows around the pearl like seaweed floating through the waves with little gems tucked away like treasures under the sea. “My mentor always told me, ask yourself what you can do to make your jewelry better. Adding that hand hammered metal set with just a few jewels on the back continues the story and finishes the piece.”
AU JOUR SETTINGS
The way gemstones are set has a big impact on how the stones look in the finished piece. Au Jour is a French word that literally means “open to the day”. It’s a good description of an Au Jour setting, which is an open work back created by cutting the metal where the stones will be placed to allow light to come through the gem giving it a brighter, more lively, and more sparkly appearance.
“The au jour where a stone sits can be cut to allow more light in. It’s another level of craftsmanship that brings a piece up in artistry. The back of a piece is a place of serious craftsmanship that falls into the world of couture,” says Sarna, who notes that couture clothing is in museums not just because of the design of the apparel but because of the detailed fabrication of the item and the skill of the craft. It’s the same thing with jewelry she says. The details in the construction of the piece — that may not be seen — are important to the overall quality of the finished jewel.
Sarna’s Maple Leaf earrings have specially cut au jours on the back to accommodate the sections of the leaf which are going in different directions. The specially cut au jours create more shimmer in the stones.
A clip earring back is a very secure clasp that is large enough to be embellished. The clasp can be decorative and adorned with gemstones, or it can be plain metal in the shape of initials, for example. Either way, decorative earring backs make a very personal finishing touch.
“Why have a beautiful handmade pair of earrings and then use a commercial clip? I want something Art Nouveau and beautiful. It’s another secret in my jewels and it identifies my pieces,” concludes Sarna. “They are elaborately designed on the back so that no one will copy them because it’s too labor-intensive.”
Next time you’re looking at a piece of jewelry, flip it over and explore the back, you may be pleasantly surprised by the secret jewels that you find hidden away, a little message between you and your jewel.
By Amber Michelle