The history of the metalworking technique known as granulation stretches back some 5,000 years, to when ancient goldsmiths in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean began fusing tiny ornamental gold balls onto jewelry surfaces using a painstaking invisible soldering process. It was used to decorate the rings of the queen of Ur in the Bronze Age, perfected by the Etruscans in the 7th century BC, and resurrected in 1933 by a jewelry maker looking to copy pieces from the British Museum’s collection. Yet only when the contemporary Belgian silversmith David Huycke began experimenting with the obscure technique in 1996 did it feel like granulation had finally evolved — beyond the realm of fussy antique jewelry and into the world of modern design. For Re-Thinking Granulation, Huycke’s show of granulated vessels and atomic sculptures on view now at the design museum Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium, he’s worked on a blown-up scale and forsaken the idea of ornamentation in favor of letting each object’s form grow organically from the process used to make it. It takes an expert with years of practice to be able to pull off this kind of metalwork — Huycke’s been at it for 30 years — but we were so taken with the idea of putting a modern spin on a forgotten ancient technique that we figured our readers could learn something from hearing the project’s backstory. We interviewed Huycke about the Z33 show, and how he managed to drag granulation into the 21st century.
What properties did granulation promise for goldsmiths in ancient times? What did it afford them that other techniques didn’t?
The fact that they used little spheres to decorate surfaces — mainly of gold jewelry — isn’t a coincidence. When a piece of metal is heated until its melting point it automatically takes the form of a sphere, through the cohesion and capillarity of the liquid metal. The same phenomenon exists with every liquid; think about a drop of water, or mercury, for example. That property gave the ancient goldsmith the possibility to make, quite easily, thousands of identical forms. The ancient technique of granulation also uses a very specific metallic binding process, one that doesn’t use traditional hard soldering. Instead they used copper oxide, which has a lower melting point, as a surface-binding agent. So when the whole piece is heated, only the surface of the metal will melt while the core stays solid. It allowed them to make metallic seams between the granules that were nearly invisible with the naked eye.
Closeup of “Pearl Spheres”
Was it a particular object from the past that caused you to want to explore granulation in your project? What work was particularly inspiring to you in this genre?
There wasn’t one object that influenced me. The first time I came in contact with granulation was when the German Association for Goldsmiths Art organized an exhibition and competition in 1996 where they asked artists to find new ways to use the technique. Since I’ve always been interested in difficult techniques and I have an ambivalent attitude towards ornamentation — and since at the time I was mainly making vessels — I tried to build a bowl solely with granules, so the little spheres would form both the structure and the artistic impression of the piece at the same time. The structural use of granulation and its application in larger-scale silverwork turned out to be two important innovations in the field. But when I developed the very first objects in the series I only knew a little bit about the process.
What were your first experiments like? And what aspects of the technique did you struggle with?
The bowls I sent in for that exhibition — the “Pearl Spheres” — were my first experiments. And amazingly this very difficult technique didn’t seem so difficult at all. In hindsight I think I got very lucky that day. The major struggle had to do with the fact that I wanted to make large objects with little particles and without a supporting base, as in traditional granulation: One of the objects, “Fractal Piece” [top], consists of more than 10,000 granules, which takes a huge amount of work and is very fragile.
Can you explain the granulation process? How exactly did you make the “Pearl Spheres” bowls?
First I had to make the granules themselves from small identical parts, then I electroplated them with copper, which is necessary for the reaction soldering process I explained above. I put the granules in a fireproof concrete mold and fuse them with a flame [above] — not the whole object at once, but maybe 10 by 10 granules each time. The object grows bit by bit like that. When the copper-plated granules are heated, the surface melts while the core of the metal stays solid, and the fusing is done in a few critical moments. Heating them too long makes them melt into each other, but not enough and you end up with seams that are too fragile. When I leave the surfaces of my objects black with oxidized copper, it gives them more of a sculptural character: Black silver can be seen as dirty, like unused silver that hasn’t been polished, so it makes it clear that the objects are not supposed to be functional. The white objects, on the other hand, have been pickled to take the copper oxide away.
Obviously you weren’t employing granulation in the traditional ornamental sense, but the objects you produced with the technique still have a very distinct aesthetic quality. What choices did you make about their form?
With “Pearl Chaos,” I tried to create a certain level of disorder in a system that tries to re-organize itself constantly. When single silver spheres — or in this context, granules — of an identical size are placed on a two-dimensional surface, they order themselves in a simple hexagonal pattern that can go on endlessly. When the same spheres are put on a three-dimensional surface, in a bowl for example, this straight linear rhythm is disturbed; straight lines become curved and the pattern evolves in a new, more complex order. This is a kind of self-organization, a process in which the internal organization of a system increases in complexity without being guided by an outside source. This is what we see in the ordering structures in a lot of plants. It’s also one of the reasons why throughout the history of the art of granulation, you always see the same patterns, based on the honeycomb — these patterns aren’t necessarily a signature of time or place, which ornament usually is. It seems paradoxical, but it was much more difficult and time-consuming to create chaos than to make a nice rhythmic pattern.
One half of your resulting objects don’t necessarily use granulation, but attempt to express the idea of granulation in an abstract way. What was that process like?
During this research it became clear that granulation not only had a technical quality, it also had a lot of conceptual and poetical qualities, too. So the second group of objects used granulation as subject matter and focused on its identity. The objects made within this framework extremely magnify the whole micro world of granulation and its technical, functional, formal, and conceptual features, presenting them as metaphors for more universal ideas. For example, the crucial moment of granulation — when the spheres melt together and fuse — is explored in “Kissing Bowls,” in which two black silver spheres push against and appear to pass through one another to create a new dynamic form. I particularly like the kissing imagery because it’s the basic expression of constructive granulation, and it shows the poetry of techniques and mathematics.
Can you talk about your use of scale in this project? You’re working with millions of tiny objects, and building them into larger objects that seem like tiny particles blown up with a microscope. Was that an intended effect?
This was an idea I discovered when I first made a sphere built up from little spheres: it’s a fractal quality where each part is identical to the whole. I used that idea to make the object “Fractal Piece,” where small granules are made into larger spheres that are in turn constructed into a spherical object. This object could be used as a part again to make an even bigger sphere, which could then be a part in another bigger sphere — you could go on and on. I tried to visualize this idea in the movie “Digital Fractal Piece” that I made with the artist Ken De Keyser. Is was definitely an intended effect, and the whole idea of fractals is also part of chaos theory, a modern science that’s inspired my work a lot: Fractal theory, developed by the French-Polish scientist Benoît Mandelbrot, was considered a new kind of geometry that allowed us to see order, whereas in most cases, Euclidean geometry could only distinguish chaos.
“Kissing Spheres #2″
A view of the exhibition at Z33
Huycke’s studio space in Belgium