Handmade Dreams – A must-see exhibition of contemporary Czech fashion jewellery at Prague’s Czech Centre

'Handmade Dreams', photo: CTK

Handmade Dreams is an exhibition of contemporary costume jewellery inow on at the Czech Centre in Prague. On view, are pieces by some of the Czech Republic’s top fashion and costume jewellery manufacturers and designers.

'Handmade Dreams',  photo: CTK
I spoke to curator Petr Nový of the Museum of Glass and Jewellery in Jablonec nad Nisou. The first thing I asked was how it was that Jablonec, historically, had become so central to the jewellery-making business.

“It is still a mystery: why, concretely, Jablonec nad Nisou. Why did this place become, in the past, the biggest centre for jewellery-making in the world in the 19th century? The roots go back further, and roles were probably played by fortune, by Nature and by close and long-established routes to neighbouring Germany. Production really came to a head in the 1860s: at this point many businessmen were travelling to Jablonec from Berlin, from Hamburg, London, to agree deals in this town.”

Ahead of the opening of Handmade Dream’s at the Czech Centre in Prague you mentioned that between the wars Czech jewellery was still one of the biggest export items from Czechoslovakia…

“Costume jewellery made up 11 percent of all of the country’s exports between the wars.”

“That’s right. Costume jewellery made up 11 percent of all of the country’s exports between the wars and the amazing thing was that on the world market 80 percent of costume jewellery was from Jablonec. Only 20 percent came from Venice, the US, England and Germany. So it was a very, very successful period and it is one of the reasons costume jewellery from Jablonec is still well-known and remains popular around the world. Today, though, the percentage of the global is five percent.”

What contributed to the decline? Did the communist period after 1948 have a negative impact?

“It wasn’t just the impact of communism; before that you had the stock market crash in 1929 and the Great Depression, there was the Second World War, and afterwards the greater competition from domestic producers in foreign markets: in Japan, in China and India. All those factors had an impact and saw the global market share go down.”

'Handmade Dreams',  photo: CTK
The terms ‘fashion jewellery’ and ‘costume jewellery’ are often used interchangeably: how is costume jewellery generally defined? Is it cheaper, not in terms of design, but in terms of materials used in ‘fine’ jewellery, not making use of real gemstones or rare metals?

“That is one definition, certainly. Costume jewellery is not as expensive but, on the other hand, you have pieces or collections made especially for fashion house like Jean Paul Gauthier, and then the line between costume jewellery and jewellery becomes more blurred, more uncertain. The difference of material is not the only factor and the division is perhaps similar to the line between, for example, glass design and glass art.”

If we turn to the exhibition, what was the main principle established, early on?

“Costume jewellery is not as expensive but you can also have pieces or collections made especially for fashion houses.”

“The first thing was design: for the quality and beauty of individual items to come across. Because Czech costume jewellery is exported worldwide there are pieces for the French market, for US customers and I think the overview will be very useful for visitors. The message is that jewellery from the Jablonec and the Czech Republic is colourful, varied, full of invention, not only traditional but moving forward. Designers are not copying just what came before in the 19th or early 20th century.”

There’s that expression to ‘push the envelope’, to expand what something can be. Seeing the exhibition, some of pieces had a classic and very refined feel, but there was also a great deal of original and striking ideas. Considering one of keywords of the show is handmade, is originality seen as important?

'Handmade Dreams',  photo: CTK
“Absolutely. What you have is combination of mostly machine-made semi-products which are completed by hand. Using the fantasy by the creator.”

One striking aspect of the exhibition is the design of the display stands by Jakub Berdych: you have large black display cases which are evocative of spotlights used in Hollywood, or, one person suggested, targets. The cases are raised on tripod stands which can be turned, raised or lower or modified. I imagine there are practical implications, as this will be a travelling exhibition…

“The idea of the mobile stands, from the very beginning was Jakub’s; my idea, as curator, was to show individual pieces, as opposed to large collections. And the two work together very well. The practical side in this kind installation is very important: there is no need for the items to be hung, no need for walls – the stands, can be set up anywhere depending on the room and also can be easily compactly packed for shipped by air or boat. That will be important when the show tours abroad. The stands are combine practicality and aesthetics. And there is a certain film-like glamour because of the film spotlights evoked.”

“Big central pieces are popular right now, elements of Nature, and the translucent glass opaline is very much in fashion at the moment.”

There is a glamour to them… In terms of the companies represented in the show, there are top, really top firms… ate there any dominant trends right now, either in the mix of materials being used or dominant shapes?

“Very popular are imitations of natural products, also in the glass in the industry, also large or central pieces, big bubbles, some of them reminiscent of either the 1950s or 1970s. Opaline, a translucent white glass, is very popular right now.”

You said that every piece of jewellery has a story: are there any interesting stories connected with this exhibition?

'Handmade Dreams',  photo: CTK
“Some, certainly. One of the pieces on display was made specifically for the famous actress Sophia Loren, given to her a few years ago, another was made for a Saudi Arabian princess. Works by glassmaking and other design schools are very well worth mentioning and one piece this year, part of the Virus collection, was worn by Gabriela Gunčiková, who was a finalist at the recent Eurovision Song Contest.”

Handmade Dreams lasts through June at the Czech Centre at Rytířská 31 (around the corner from Můstek). Learn more at www.czechcentres.cz