September 08, 2015
For many years I have admired the sculptural gold and stone labrets of Prehispanic cultures. A few years ago I started toying with the idea of creating a sculptural eagle head piece. After several drawings I decided on a form and started carving. I wanted the material to be light in color with no noticeable pattern or otherwise distracting elements, so my initial choice was warthog ivory; a material that I had been carving a lot of at the time. I worked on the piece for a few weeks, carving for short periods here and there and got to the point where I had a rough model of what I was going for.
Then it came time to figure out how to work the eyes, and that's where things got tricky.
Never one to take the easy way out, I was interested in doing elaborate eyes without the use of glue, which I am very much opposed to the use of in body piercing jewelry. Some years before I had developed a method for doing hardware settings into the faces of labrets that involved drilling through the piece to create a riveted setting which was capped off at the back with a metal plate sealed with a silicone o-ring.
(Warthog ivory, gold, silver and blue Guatemalan jadeite hardware set labret)
However, this was not a perfect solution because I do not like the idea of introducing a potential failure point into an assemblage. Despite being precisely carved and sealed off to prevent the entry of saliva and other foreign bodies, the backplate solution could, in theory, eventually fail. The eagle head also introduced a unique problem that I had encountered before and never fully solved - how to do multiple independent settings into the face of a labret (or anything else, for that matter). All of my projects up to this point had been created with one central point for the hardware connectivity, and multiple settings that are independent of one another of course need multiple points of engagement with the base piece of jewelry.
After about a year and a half of pondering ideas, I solved the problem on paper and the next step was to do a proof of concept piece. I used a project for a bezel set inlay onto the face of a small jade plug (essentially a top-hat style single flared plug, with a bezel set gemstone as the face) as a sample. To my surprise it worked the first time, and was surprisingly sturdy. After that I got pretty excited about the prospects for finishing the eagle head and it became a priority once more.
(Hardware setting into jade with no exit hole)
I recently started attending the annual Association of Professional Piercers conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. Every year there is an innovator's showcase of new jewelry objects submitted by the various vendors. I decided that I would submit the eagle labret for inclusion, and it was time to get busy. I made a few changes to the project, with the first being a change of material. I did not want the piece to be taken in a negative light because it was carved from an animal material, so I switched the material to one that I had been working quite successfully over the previous year, and that I thought deserved more recognition: porcelain. The color is similar to that of warthog ivory but a more pure white, and it is a very rigid, hard, and predictable material that would work well for these experimental stone settings. Because the piece was to be devoid of color and pattern, the focus would be on line, form, and light play. Porcelain fit the project well.
(sorry for the photo quality, some of these were late night cell phone shots)
I also made changes to the eyes themselves. My original concept drawings show eyes with a floral motif and I came to the conclusion while I was carving the original piece that they couldn't be as elaborate simply due to lack of space. I decided to focus on stone settings and chose the materials gold and Guatemalan jadeite to complement the porcelain and to pay homage to the original Mesoamerican eagle head lip pieces which had inspired my project.
I used the original model as a basis for shaping the head and carving the beak. Working from a reference is always easier than working from paper for me, especially if I carved the original reference. I am not a fan of carving the same thing multiple times (you'd never guess, considering I have to make almost everything I touch in pairs) but having a master model is extremely helpful for working out shape/angle issues, and having a real world object to measure with calipers makes things go much more smoothly.
I changed the original shape of the area where the eyes were to be placed to create as much open space as possible for them, and designed the stone settings themselves on the fly as the piece was taking shape. One of the nice things about porcelain is that when you carve it with fine grits, the unpolished areas take a lovely matte finish, which I used to my advantage for the interior of the beak opening. It provides a nice contrast against the higher polish of the surrounding areas.
With the beak finished, I then had to tackle the hard parts - creating the areas for the stone settings, forming the metal, building the hardware, and getting everything set without breaking anything. Doing complex labrets is tricky because the wings of a piece are extremely fragile, so it makes sense to wait until you don't have to do anything crazy to carve them. At the same time, because they are so fragile, if you wait to carve them until you've invested a lot of time in other facets of the piece, you run the risk of losing all that time if the wings break and the piece has to be started again. Because the setting method I've developed for these "single point" stone settings involves getting a little rough with the material, I chose to leave the wings as a solid block at the back of the piece and finish them last.
I knew I wanted the eyes to be inset into the piece rather than floating on the surface, which required removing material to sink them in. I started simultaneously carving those depressions while forming sample pieces from copper to serve as the oval bowl-like bases for the stone settings. I would later recreate these pieces in gold for the final settings.
While I was test fitting these inserts, I actually broke the edge of one of the eye sockets but was able to salvage the project by reducing the wearing length at the corners and making the area for the eyes slope backwards more. This actually fixed an issue that I was a little hesitant to address, which was that I wanted the eyes to face out at angles rather than straight forward, but I knew the stone settings would be more complex. I ended up having to do it anyway to carve past the fracture and create new eye sockets.
I won't go into detail about how exactly the stone-in-stone hardware settings are executed since it is a very new idea that I intend to refine further, but I will say that the biggest challenge of the project was getting the two independent eye settings finished at the same angle so they looked correct when viewed from the front. I was terrified that after all of the effort, a small mistake in measurement would lead to a piece that looked "googly eyed," so I devoted an entire work session to verifying all of the measurements in and around the eye sockets in preparation for setting the gold and jadeite.
(Final test fit of all of the components before the setting process started)
It's very difficult to convey scale in a photo, so for the sake of visualization, the gemstones in the eyes are exactly 4mm in diameter. They are carved from a lovely deep blue Guatemalan jadeite, which is a material that I carve frequently and love dearly both for its beauty and historical significance. Because it is sourced from the same jadeite deposits in Guatemala that Mesoamerican cultures used for all jade artwork and trade throughout the Americas, I found it quite suitable for this project. As for the rest of the dimensions, the labret has a wearing size of about 19mm and flares out to the larger front face, which is 20.5mm in diameter.
I am exceptionally happy with the outcome of this piece for a number of reasons. First of all, I'm just happy that it's done, because it was an old project that I was able to resurrect. Also, nobody makes anything sculptural as far as labrets are concerned, so I was thrilled to be able to nail that. Last, this project fulfilled several requirements that I considered when I was trying to figure out a new, better method that allowed more creative freedom. My new setting method meets the following goals:
- It can be used in a variety of materials
- It eliminates drill-through, making it ideal for labrets
- It can be done at almost any location on the face of any style
- It can be done at almost any angle into the base material
- It can accommodate multiple independent settings on the same plane
For literally thousands of years body jewelry construction has not changed much. In particular, jewelry from natural materials has suffered from a reliance on adhesives, which are not generally found in fine jewelry (the exception being traditional pearl post settings). This particular stone-to-stone attachment method is ideal for applications that should not be drilled through (labrets) or cannot be drilled through due to style or material constraints. It offers a surprising amount of freedom while making a serious effort to move away from glues. In my opinion that is an important step for fine hand-craft in body adornment. We wear jewelry that we must change our bodies to accommodate, and I think it makes sense to push boundaries and create truly unique and interesting pieces of the highest quality to honor that journey.
Jared Karnes, Onetribe