The Lady of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings, the blockbuster $270 million film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic about hobbits, elves, wizards, and battles between good and evil, had a cast and crew of thousands—but only one jewelry designer.

Her name is Jasmine Watson, and for this film trilogy (one released annually from 2001 through 2003) in which jewelry plays highly visible roles, her designs and creativity were crucial.

A 1995 jewelry design graduate of the Unitec School of Design, Auckland, New Zealand, Watson, 28, recently relocated her jewelry design studio to London, launched a Web site about her jewelry (www.jasminewatson.com), and served as advisor to New Line Cinema on reproduction of jewelry in the films.

Following the film’s London premiere, in an exclusive interview with JCK, Watson told senior editor William George Shuster what it was like being the jewelry designer for three of the biggest and most anticipated films of the 21st century.

JCK: How did you land the plum job as jeweler for the three-film
Lord of the Rings
project?

Watson: I was extremely lucky. I began producing my own jewelry six years ago. Four years ago, I also began making jewelry and costumes for the Hercules and Xena syndicated TV series [filmed in Wellington, New Zealand]. That gave me experience with large-scale costume jewelry and working in a film environment, including fittings to meet the actor, do measurements, and make alterations.

When I learned The Lord of the Rings would film in Wellington, I set my heart on being its jewelry designer. I was set to send my resumé, but then Ngila Dickson—costume designer for the TV series—with whom I had a good professional relationship, was named the Ring films’ costume designer. She asked me to join her team of key people.

JCK: Were you familiar with
The Lord of the Rings
trilogy?

Watson: I read parts of it as a child and absolutely loved it. Then I read it in its entirety before I started the project, noting references to specific pieces of jewelry in it and other related Tolkien books like The Silmarillion as I went. Eventually I came to know the The Lord of the Rings backwards, because there is so much jewelry in the books.

JCK: How does designing jewelry for a film differ from TV?

Watson: With the TV series, you had eight working days [per episode]. You must make things quickly, they must look fantastic, but since they’re for the small TV screen, you only have to work to a certain standard [of quality and precision]. However, with The Lord of the Rings, a brooch in close-up on a movie screen can look as big as a door! So, all jewelry must be perfect for close-ups. But I had so much time allocated for research and design, I spent weeks ensuring that.

JCK: What jewelry did you create for the films?

Watson: There are approximately 80 original items that I designed. Every character has his or her own custom-made jewelry or accessory, even if it was only a hand-made buckle, brooch, or cloak attachment. But we [Watson and her staff of five] actually made over 300 pieces.

Some are one of a kind, such as Galadriel’s jewelry for [actress] Cate [Blanchett]. More often, there was a “Hero” version of a particular piece—that is, the “perfect” version, made with precious metals and gemstones—for the lead actor to use in close-up. Then we would make the stunt double/body double versions, and, depending on the piece, reproduce it many times.

We made 17 versions of the Evenstar pendant, which Arwen [the Elven princess] gives to Aragorn to wear, because in the films [actor] Viggo [Mortensen, who plays Aragorn] must wear it all the time—in the mud, when he’s fighting. So, it was constantly getting lost or broken. We also did 18 versions of his “ring of Isildur.” For close-ups, we used the one of 22k gold with a real tourmaline. For long shots, we used “rougher” versions. For the Elven archers, I designed one brooch and had 150 copies cast. At times, it seemed like a production line in the jewelry workshop!

The only [pieces] I didn’t design were the One Ring itself [which propels the film’s plot], and the rings worn by [the wizard] Gandalf, [the Elven king] Elrond, the Witch King, and the Ringwraiths. Alan Lee [noted Tolkien illustrator] did them before I joined. I was devastated when I learned The Ring was already designed, because it was the one piece I really wanted to make. But then I learned the jeweler who made it [from Lee’s design] was Jens Hansen [who died two years ago], a founding father of the contemporary jewelry movement in New Zealand and one of my tutors at art school! If I couldn’t do it, I was happy he did.

JCK: Do you have a favorite among the jewelry you designed?

Watson: My favorite piece is Galadriel’s ring, called “Nenya.” It is hand-carved from sterling silver with a pure silver surface—achieved by quenching it in a solution of acid—and set with a very large (2.2 cm. diameter) clear crystal cubic zirconium. The ring itself has a band of interwoven leaves and a filigree top of tiny overlapping dragonflies, revealing glimpses of the stone beneath. Its design is inspired by the Art Nouveau movement.

This ring was also one of the most difficult pieces I did. The design was complex, and the technicalities of making it were even more so. The difficulty was in how to set the stone securely in place in the band while having it sit beneath the filigree top—that is, so it was enclosed from beneath and above. It was a challenge, but I got the best result I could have wished for. I was pleased with the design, and I enjoyed making it.

JCK: Did you work on the set, or in your own studio?

Watson: I did all of the designing and making of the jewelry in the wardrobe workroom, which was part of the studios we shared with the art, makeup, and props departments. The area also included several of the actual shooting studios. Sometimes, I also went to the film set on the first day of shooting [a scene] to establish a character’s costume, position the jewelry and ensure it looked right. Other times, I was called to the set to carry out emergency repairs or alterations.

JCK: What limits were put on your designs or materials?

Watson: None. They said, “Whatever you need, we’ll get for you.” We had so much time to do research and designs, and such beautiful materials, including precious gems, to work with. For most jewelry, we used sterling silver or we electroplated big pieces. Most jewelry in the books is wrought of mithril, a fictitious metal made up by Tolkien, but [which appears] like very white silver. So in the film, most of the jewelry is made of silver and is very “white.” [To achieve that look] I used an acid surface treatment, which formed a fine layer of pure silver, giving the metal that beautiful “pearlized” luster of pure silver.

JCK: How do you design jewelry for a film project like
The Lord of the Rings
?

Watson: The appropriate jewelry design is crucial to a particular scene or to enhance or accompany an actor’s performance. It’s one more piece in creating a convincing narrative. So, I needed to know the concept of the set, where a character would be, what colors he or she used, so I could design to keep the look cohesive.

That [information] usually came from costume meetings with costume designer Ngila Dickson and conceptual artist Alan Lee to receive their input and ideas, and to discuss the specific distinguishing styles of the characters and the overall look we wanted to create. For example, the Elves’ leaf-like brooches had to have an organic handmade quality, but also be finely crafted, complex, and clever. I was given a design of the costume (a cloak) and a swatch of the fabric as a color sample because the brooches had to be the same hue.

Once I had such information, I went to the library, various bookstores, and anywhere I could source good books to research specific historical periods and/or styles, such as Gothic, Romanesque, Celtic, Art Nouveau, or the Middle Ages—various design styles and techniques. I also went to nature, gathering leaves and leaf skeletons. I often start a design by drawing directly from found objects, such as butterfly wings or leaf skeletons. Then, I would make 50 to 80 drawings of possible designs and ideas. We would all look at the drawings, decide which worked, and when the final design was approved, I would make the “Hero” version, used in close-up, with precious metals and gems.

JCK: Did Tolkien’s writings influence your designs? Are there many references to jewelry in
The Lord of the Rings
?

Watson: Yes. His references are beautiful and very specific. I used them as much as possible, even putting them on a computer disk to refer to. In describing Aragorn’s “ring of Isildur,” for example, he wrote: “For this ring was like two twin serpents, whose eyes were like emeralds, and their heads met beneath a crown of golden flowers that one upheld and the other devoured …” That was the kind of quotation I could specifically design from. He wrote with such attention to detail. For me, that was a fantastic help. There’s so much there in his books.

JCK: Who or what else influenced your work?

Watson: Alan Lee was very influential. He was the conceptual artist for whole film—designing the overall look, concept, sets, and props—and we took what we did from that.

My absolute “mentor” [as an influence on her designs] is one of the leading lights of the Art Nouveau movement, [French jewelry designer] René Lalique [1860-1945]. In the films, different characters and groups have different and often quite contrasting design styles assigned to them. For the Elves—who wear most of the film’s jewelry—it is Art Nouveau, [a movement whose] use of organic forms and flowing lines I really admire. Examples in the film include Galadriel’s delicate wreath-like crown and the Evenstar pendant.

I am also endlessly inspired by the forms and textures of nature, dragonflies, moths, butterflies, the complex yet fragile wing structures, and the intricate surface patterns and colorations. I am always finding and collecting things to use as visual references. For me, there is so much to learn by really studying something and drawing it from all sides. This way, you get the very essence of the object coming through in the design, without being too literal.

JCK: Was director Peter Jackson or any of the actors involved in creating jewelry?

Watson: Peter wasn’t very involved in the initial stages, but always gave final approval on a design before it went ahead. Actors sometimes were involved. Liv [Tyler, who plays Arwen], Cate [Blanchett, who plays Galadriel] and Miranda [Otto, who plays Eowyn, a lady of Rohan, in the third film] had clear ideas of what looks good on them. Because there wasn’t time to fabricate jewelry while [they] waited, we took head casts of Cate and Liv, and molded the crowns [they wear in the films] to those so they were ready when they came for final fittings.

JCK: What’s your opinion of the finished film—and its jewelry?

Watson: Having seen the movie in its entirety at last, I was overwhelmed by the overall impact of the amazing sets and costumes, the beautiful scenery and fantastic visual effects. Despite my “behind the scenes” involvement, I was still completely captivated by it. I was very pleased with the overall “look” of the jewelry and actually quite surprised at how prominently it is featured.

JCK: Is there a “Jasmine Watson Collection” based on the films’ jewelry?

Watson: New Line Cinema may reproduce some pieces from the film, but I don’t know which ones specifically or how they will sell them.

For myself, I don’t have a collection based on the film’s jewelry, but the original work I do is similar, because both are in my own style. Now, I am putting my own work into galleries and shops again, and I hope the films’ success will make people aware of who I am as a designer and will make my style very recognizable.