Steel necklaces screen-printed with ghostly black-and-white photographs. Amber chunks affixed to slabs of bright violet-hued wood. Stering silver texturized to resemble the surface of alien tree bark burned to chards.
These are only a few examples of Polish jewelry designers’ forward-thinking artistry on display at the 15th annual Gold Silver Time Fair (Z?oto Srebro Czas)—one of Poland’s two major jewelry trade shows (the other being the Gdansk International Fair of Amber).
This year’s trade show, which is organized by MCT International Fair Center, rolled out at the Expo XXI venue Oct. 2–4 in the charming capital city of Warsaw. Roughly 6,000 attendees toured the fair, with most hailing from Europe, said organizers.
Drinking in the designs of the fair’s nearly 300 exhibitors, which included fashion and fine collections, an unshakable impression of the domestic industry formed: Polish jewelry designers possess an undying dedication to innovation and modernism. And, in Warsaw at least, personal expression and artistry trump all—sometimes even commerce.
Even a cursory understanding of the nation’s history reveals why. In modern times, Poland has suffered severely in wars and has endured a number of brutal occupations. The simultaneous occupation of Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during World War II reduced Warsaw to rubble. The city rebuilt many of the lovely landmarks in the 1950s and 1960s, but a feeling of newness remains, even in the quaint, cobblestoned Old Town. The city was also home to the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The past is not something the country’s designer’s are keen to reinterpret in their work. And many of Poland’s veteran designers, who grew up in Soviet times, came to jewelry with almost no training.
“Poland is a post-Soviet country,” explained jewelry designer Marcin Zaremski, who has two branded jewelry boutiques in Warsaw. “We didn’t have the formal education, so we had a lot of artists that created jewelry. And I think we developed in that direction very well.”
Polish designers may not be fond of the fluid, feminine lines found in classical jewelry, but even the edgiest makers embrace the national gem: amber.
The fossilized tree sap is mined in and around the Baltic Sea’s coastline, and Poland is one of the most prolific exporters of amber and amber-and-silver jewelry in the world. Poland’s seaside city of Gdansk is considered the world capital of the amber trade, but the honey-toned stone is also big business in the Baltic states: Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
A round-table discussion with Zaremski and a handful of other award-winning jewelers revealed that former fervor for amber jewelry in Asia, China in particular, has recently transformed into a desire for amber stones, not finished jewelry. But retailers in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and, of course, around Poland, remain enthusiastic exporters of Polish design.
“I have Chinese clients, and they are buying small collections, but they are coming back again and again,” noted Marta Wlodarska, designer for boutique brand Amberwood.
The United States is considered an untapped market, though many designers said they sell to a handful of retailers stateside. And many of the top designers show at JCK Las Vegas or JCK Tucson, including Evastone, which trades in impossibly detailed, industrial-feeling silver pieces, and Lewanowicz, which makes over-the-top, colorful jewelry that mixes semiprecious stones with plastic and fabric elements.
Zaremski is among a group of designers doing really interesting things with amber. His current collection includes heavy, gorgeous necklaces and bracelets that alternate slabs of raw-ish amber with meaty rectangles and squares of gleaming sterling silver.
Amberwood’s wares are also showstopping, but in a quieter way. The collection specializes in streamlined pieces that mix amber with driftwood the designer collects herself from the beaches in and around Gdansk. Slices of amber and wood are carefully composited to create simple sculptural forms; the results often recall beautiful African tribal creations.
“My works are very geometrical and very symmetrical,” said Wlodarska. “I’m fascinated with simple shapes, some tribal motifs, and African art.”
One of the ateliers pushing innovation the furthest at the GST show was jewelry designer and metal artist Arek Wolski.
The former oceanographer and self-taught designer showed a collection of subversive pieces, including a brooch that spells out BLOOD sparkling with chunky black stones—“I don’t know what they are, they’re just stones,” he said dryly, when asked—and public restroom-sign symbols of men and women stuck together but with limbs missing: his brand’s logo.
Wolski stopped working with amber two years ago, explaining, “I don’t like it now. In these [metal-only] works, you start from the beginning. And amber stones always show you that you have to do something.”
His tiny rebellion is emblematic of the glorious lack of parameters—and historical baggage—that defines modern-day Polish jewelry design. In a city where reinvention is a way of life, all doors are ajar.