Alexandra Raphael’s recent “Lace” plique-á-jour bowl, bought by the V&A Museum at Collect 2019, is the perfect example of her jaw-dropping dedication to technical excellence.
The conversation oscillates between the technical and the sublime. Award-winning enameller and jeweller, Alexandra Raphael, is telling me about her work, describing on the one hand the painstaking and highly-skilled processes involved in making it and, on the other hand, her endless fascination with the luminosity of plique-á-jour enamel pieces. A notoriously tricky technique that can be traced as far back as the Byzantine Empire, plique-á-jour is a process by which enamel is applied in ‘cells’, often created by a network of carefully shaped fine silver and gold wire, but without a backing so that, when completed, the light can pass through the enamel.
Largely self-taught, Alexandra has perfected this ancient craft over many years but, like all enamellers, has had to accept the capricious nature of such delicate materials.
“I sometimes ask myself, ‘Why do I enamel?” she says, “A second too long in the kiln and – disaster. A colour that has always been fine – for no apparent reason – goes wrong. But when enamel works – what joy! Is there any other medium that gives you such glorious colours? Brilliant reflections of coloured glass across the silver and gold beneath, like a watercolour using glass and metal.”
Her choices of subject matter for many of her designs lend themselves very naturally to this technique of letting in the light, turning what are delicate but ultimately solid vessels, into diaphanous and vibrant scenes. She seeks out the luminous, the intricate and the translucent in nature, with dragonflies, fireflies, butterflies convening in dream-like sequences. It is as much the technical challenge of recreating these elements as it is their beauty that attracts Alexandra however.
Pushing the boundaries of her craft is a driving force in her work.
“I like to challenge myself every time,” she says, “I like to do things that will make people look at the finished piece and say, ‘How did she do that?”
Her recent ‘Lace’ plique-á-jour bowl, bought by the V&A Museum at Collect 2019, is the perfect example of her jaw-dropping dedication to technical excellence. With the notion of lace as a starting point, the challenge of creating a vessel with an intricate pattern of holes began. The bowl took over a month to create and comprises 22 feet of 24ct gold wire. Alexandra used a Japanese technique to achieve the infamous holes. Tiny white dots, deliberately under-fired in the kiln to make them sit slightly proud of the rest of the surface, complete the impression of the texture of fabric.