Redefining tradition

A major retrospective exhibition of the jewellery of Kobi Bosshard opens in Gore on Saturday. Shane Gilchrist examines craft, pride and a pioneering spirit.

Kobi Bosshard, who has enjoyed a career in jewellery spanning more than 50 years, knows only too well the dangers in overworking a piece of silver or gold.

A self-described ''craftsman jeweller'' who followed his Swiss father and grandfather into a world of precious metals and stones, he was brought up to do things well, to deftly conceal the catches and clasps, the working elements.

Yet over time he has come to embrace the functional. Take the hanging mechanism on a brooch; why hide it? Or the delicate marks of a hammer used to shape a silver ring; let them be.

In short, Bosshard's work might be highly crafted, yet it is ultimately unpretentious.

''That's how I would like my work to be treated,'' he says from his Middlemarch home.

''There is an expectation that things should be original all the time. Well, that's not possible. I just set out in the morning to make a ring that will be the best at that time. If it is a new design, then it is new, but that's not the ultimate aim.

''I see myself as a goldsmith; a tradesman. This hierarchy of artist-jewellers ... to me, it doesn't exist. I make good things, but that should be expected of a tradesman.

''I'm modest, but I think I'm realistic about my work. I know when it is good.''

Others do, too.

Damian Skinner, curator of applied arts and design at Auckland Museum and a Newton International Fellow at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, has recently completed a book celebrating Bosshard's work.

Kobi Bosshard: Goldsmith, published by Bateman NZ, was released in conjunction with Auckland arts entity Objectspace and its Masters of Craft exhibition, which ran for 10 weeks late last year and will tour nationally this year, including a two-month showing at the Eastern Southland Gallery, Gore, starting on Saturday.

According to Objectspace, its exhibition aims to ''celebrate the achievements of outstanding New Zealand practitioners working at the highest level in the fields of craft, design and the applied arts whose practice is distinctive, enduring, influential and redefining of tradition''.

The exhibition acknowledges Bosshard's significant contribution to New Zealand jewellery, which is examined through a series of installations, from the 1960s to the present. The exhibition includes works loaned from leading public and private collections around New Zealand and overseas, including Auckland Museum, Te Papa and the Dowse Art Museum.

In Skinner's book, which includes a range of interviews conducted in recent years, Bosshard states his jewellery should not be regarded as museum pieces, nor should his work be elevated to a higher status. He can only laugh then when asked of his thoughts on a book that celebrates his work - and an exhibition that has borrowed items from museums.

''I'm comfortable with that. I know my work is OK - actually, sometimes it is very good. ''I think when I first sold something to the Auckland Museum, I had said all my pieces should be worn by a person first, that they need to have a life before they go to a museum. Then when I had an exhibition, the museum people asked if they could buy something. ''I must say I was very flattered. Though I still hold to that belief, I definitely let them have it.''

Bosshard insists people should use their own judgement when viewing his work. Ultimately, he'd want a person to like a piece so much they'd buy it. ''People should look at themselves, at what they like. Don't think just because there is a book out about this guy that he must be good.

''I think it is about communicating my view of the world. I think everyone does something that others can relate to, but in art or craft this is just more pronounced, more visible. ''When I look at things, I might think, `Gee, that person cares about the detail; they care about what they are doing.' Lots of things come out that reveal what a person thinks of the world.''

Bosshard's pursuit of the unpretentious extends to his insistence that the photographs in Kobi Bosshard: Goldsmith be reproduced at real-life scale. Not bigger, nor smaller, just as is.

''I find we live in a time where pretentiousness is dominating,'' he says.

''You see jewellery books in which pictures of rings are the size of a hand. It just doesn't mean anything. Of all craft objects, jewellery is one we can reproduce in its original size. I think that is important - it reminds you that it is something to be worn.''

Bosshard moved to Middlemarch with wife Patricia in 2001, having decided to do ''less jewellery than I did before'', he says in reference to a career that has, significantly for Dunedin, included the establishment in 1983 of co-operative and exhibition space Fluxus (first in Dowling St, then in Lower Stuart St, where it remained until 2004).

''Basically, I am fading away ... gracefully.

''I have no plans to reinvent myself. I just go to work and try to improve on what I did yesterday.''

Bosshard says one of his most enjoyable current projects is of a human kind. Every second week, he opens his studio to an Otago Polytechnic jewellery student.

''I feel a responsibility to pass on to her the information and skills that I have. I like to deal with young people,'' the 73-year-old says.

Bosshard might possess an understated personality, but there is more than a hint of pride when he recollects his decision to shun the potentially comfortable arrangement of remaining in the family jewellery business in Switzerland in favour of a journey to New Zealand in 1961.

''Our family had made its living from jewellery for two generations already. I don't think I was consciously pushed to do jewellery but I think there was a hope I would take over the business one day. ''Initially, it was just my grandfather on his own, then my father worked with him. Then under my father it grew and he took on more of a management role. I saw my father becoming more and more like a businessman and I definitely didn't want to do that.''

In his book, Skinner describes the development of Bosshard's craft as crucial to the development of contemporary jewellery in New Zealand, a ''pivotal link between the modernist jewellers of the 1960s and the following generations of contemporary New Zealand jewellers, a maker who, steeped in the tradition of modern European goldsmithing, came to New Zealand and built upon his inheritance to make works that are of this place and time''.

Bosshard explains his foundations: ''Although we were just taught what we were taught, in retrospect I think this was modernism. It comes from the Bauhaus movement in Germany: it's about truth to the material, truth to the function. It's very simple.''

The difference, Bosshard says, between modernist and contemporary jewellery lies in personality, being self-conscious about the work, exploring an idea.

''I think in the beginning it was straight design. Very little of my personality came into it. But later on I became more interested in the materials and I was more interested in my attitudes; the work became closer to me.''

In light of the fact a major retrospective exhibition of his work is now touring the country (Gore is the closest it comes to Dunedin), it seems fitting to allow Bosshard the final word on his career: What does he regard as the most important aspect of his work over all these years?

''For me, it is important that I have held up the tradition [of crafting jewellery]. I haven't tried to replace it, though I have added my little bits to it.

''I haven't let myself down. And I haven't cheated anybody.''


See it
The Objectspace Master of Craft exhibition will open at the Eastern Southland Gallery, Gore, on Satrday, February 2, and will run for two months.