LONDON — The British artist-jeweler John Donald couldn’t find anyone to showcase his work when he began designing in London in the early Sixties.
Establishment jewelers didn’t believe in “funny, modern jewelry,” as Donald himself put it, and the fashion was still for antique or faux antique pieces.
Now Donald, 78, is considered a father of modern British jewelry design, with his experiments involving gold and his handcrafted pieces featuring organic shapes and genuine and synthetic stones.
Donald’s work is the subject of a major retrospective at Goldsmiths’ Hall in the City of London. Goldsmiths’ Hall is the seat of the London livery company that has been hallmarking gold since the Middle Ages, and that continues to support the craft and industry of silversmithing and creating precious metal jewelry.
The show, which opens Friday and runs through July 1, will feature some 120 pieces, all of which have been lent by Donald’s fans in the U.K., U.S., Middle East, Hong Kong and Japan.
On June 13, the designer will be in the spotlight again when Christie’s London puts 15 of his pieces up for auction in the much-anticipated sale of the late Princess Margaret’s jewels.
“I can still remember Princess Margaret and her mother picking their way over the cobblestones to my mews house in Bayswater, where I used to work,” Donald said over coffee in the Goldsmiths’ vault, where his jewels are stored. “And it wasn’t a nice mews either. It was very scruffy, Victorian and cobbly.”
After meeting the princess in 1964 — thanks to her photographer husband, Lord Snowdon — the two became friendly and Donald regularly crafted pieces of jewelry for her. He also has made jewels for Prince Charles to give as gifts.
In 1968, Donald eventually quit his mews and opened a small shop at Cheapside, in the City of London. Donald made most of his jewelry for private clients on commission.
Donald’s designs often look as if they’ve washed up on the shores of a magical island, or grown among the greenery of a fantasy forest. His iconic pieces include a white and yellow gold brooch inspired by the corona resulting from the eclipse of the sun, crown shapes with tiny colored gems that look as if they are floating inside the hollow, and a gold bar brooch that resembles a cluster of twigs.
Since he first began, Donald has experimented with gold, pouring the molten metal into cold buckets of water and watching the formation of cornflake shapes, or tiny cups and beads, which he would later gather up to form a brooch or bracelet. Donald also would cut and shape bits of solid gold to mimic the crystal formations of malachite or iron pyrite, and create corrugated or nubbly effects on the precious metal.
Although his influence has been far-reaching, Donald never intended to spark a revolution.
“I started work at the end of a very sterile period in this country,” he said. “There were still food and clothing ration books, and overall, design quality was at a low ebb,” he said. “It was easy to come up with new ideas.”
Donald, who closed his Cheapside store in 2004 and retired to country life in East Sussex, continues to design. Lately, he’s been working with wax. He creates shapes, makes a plaster cast and then pours gold into the cast.
“I’ve built a new workshop in the country,” he said. “I’m not spent and I certainly haven’t said all I have to say.”