Eric Loubser: forging a place for contemporary jewellery
The Johannesburg-based jewellery maker and co-owner of Tinsel gallery brings biting wit to an ancient art.
Contemporary jeweller and Johannesburg gallery owner Eric Loubser sits comfortably between artist, designer, craftsman and curator. His one-off, conceptual pieces border on art jewellery although his work is very much designed to be worn.
Classically trained in jewellery design at Stellenbosch University his explorations into fine art have led Eric to combine precious materials like silver, gold, diamonds, pearls and precious stones with less traditional materials like plastics and found objects.
He loves making bespoke jewellery pieces and is partial to a commission with whimsy (and unlimited budget, of course!). From brooches with names like ‘First World Problems’ and ‘Prison Changed Her’ to earrings made from paper clips and push studs, to a necklace that tips a hat to the Surrealists entitled ‘I identify as a necklace’, Eric’s acute sense of humour and concept rings true to his biting wit.
And then there’s his “wedding stuff”. Ranging from classic with a creative twist to his more bold, contemporary statement pieces, Eric’s engagement and wedding rings are some of the more unique out there – which is kind of the point, he posits, if you’re looking for something a bit more personal on your big day.
Inspired broadly by art and the creative fields, Eric cites designers like UK-based jewellery artist Lin Cheung and goldsmith and object designer Kim Buck from Copenhagen as jewellers whose work he admires. For his own work, he’s wary of the term ‘art jewellery’ for being confined to academic institutions, as his broader vision is to grow the audience for an industry still relatively niche in South Africa. The studio and gallery that he shares with his jewellery-designer wife, Geraldine Fenn, called Tinsel, is a space in which this vision breathes life. Together they’ve been forging a new future for contemporary jewellery in South Africa since 2006 through the many solo and group shows that they host showcasing handmade, bespoke jewellery.
We chat to Eric to better understand the sharp mind behind the intriguing designs.
What goes into making a one-of-a-kind piece, from start to finish?
It all starts with the client and knowing what they would like so there is usually a meeting or two to understand them and what they want better. Then it goes on to the making process. Every job is different, so the making isn’t always the same, which is something I really enjoy about what I do. It’s ever-changing and there is always something new to learn. I’d rather not go into the details of the making process because I wouldn’t know where to stop and it could take a while. I then give the piece to the client and hope they like what I did.
The “Kak” ring. Tell us about that one?
The ‘KAK’ ring I made for a British client of mine, whose dad was Afrikaans, and she could remember him always swearing in Afrikaans. She is also a collector of classic intaglios and she didn’t like how all modern intaglios are machine carved and all the old ones usually have some Greek myth engraved on them. So, she asked me to make her a classic ring with semi-classic proportions but with a funny twist, and so the ‘KAK’ ring was born.
You say you love commissions. What’s the best kind of brief for you?
My favourite brief is when someone knows what they want and there is some sort of whimsical twist to it – and like all designers/artists, to have no budgetary constraints.
Wedding rings. What makes your approach unique?
A personal relationship, I just don’t think you see this in design anymore. The fact that I can make a ring for you personally and I’m there every step of the way.
This is not like buying a car where you get to add some extras to an existing product. What this is, is if some old guy sat with you and built a car from the ground up, every element forged uniquely just for you, so that no one on the road has that car. Only you. So, imagine that, but in jewellery.
But then again you could probably go to the store and get yourself a Yaris – I’m sure it will be very special, just like your wedding day.
What’s the best thing about being married to another jeweller? And the worst?
She gets my passion for something that not a lot of people understand. But as a creative person I would recommend it that someone in the family makes money – so it would have been great if she was an accountant or successful lawyer.
How has the pandemic affected business and life for you? Any major learnings?
So, it turns out that if you are a sole proprietor, working as a micro business in fine goods, in an emerging market and you are not a big brand – well that’s not that great, even when there is no pandemic. But then when the economy decides to kind of stop and go on holiday, I do hope you have your wits about you. Actually, I think what really helped me in this situation is that I started working in 2008 so there is that. Having children, I learnt that if you never have sweets you don’t know what you are missing. In all seriousness, I do think being unique actually helped me because I can offer something only I can offer.
How does life in Joburg inspire your work?
There is a certain je ne sais quoi about Joburg, it has a great energy. People like to work here and generally I find it a very friendly city. There is also a type of freedom to working in Joburg. It feels like there is less red tape here, and that is great for a creative person.
What gets you up every day?
A 5 and 7-year-old.
What’s a normal work day look like for you?
I think my work day is very similar to everyone else’s. I get to work round-about 9am every day except Sunday (so yes, I work six days a week), and then leave at 5pm (or 2pm on a Saturday). My only strict rule is that I don’t work outside those times, because as an artist or designer you work in your head 24 hours a day, all year around, so I had to force myself to have boundaries.
What do you do for fun?
Firstly, I’ll say that I’m a collector of things like art and wine and that brings me a lot of joy, but then the one thing that most people find weird about me is that I also really like to play golf.
Any favourite materials to work with or combine?
Not really, I like to experiment with all different types of materials. But let’s just say I’ll take gold over silver any day of the week.