Wedgwood and Webster

Wedgwood’s traditional blue jasperware is a familiar sight to most, but many people are unaware that Wedgwood is a company with both a rich history and a constant eye to the contemporary. From its establishment in 1759 by Josiah Wedgwood I, Wedgwood has adapted its product—which is by no means restricted to blue pottery—to suit both changing tastes and new technologies.

While cream-colored earthenware was already being made in Staffordshire during the first half of the 18th century, Josiah I was determined to perfect the medium. He was born into a family of potters in 1730 and showed from a young age both an affinity for the potter’s wheel and a desire to improve and evolve his craft. He began to carry out extensive tests, keeping constant notes on his experiments.

In 1759, he established his own pottery in Burslem, England, and it was there that he began to produce creamware of exceptional quality and variety—quality that attracted the praise of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, who allowed Wedgwood to brand himself “Potter to Her Majesty.” Charlotte also granted him permission to call his creamware “Queen’s Ware”—a name still in use today.

Driven by the shift in popular taste toward the Neoclassical style, Josiah set out to develop a ceramic body suitable for more ornamental pieces. He conducted and documented thousands of experiments and eventually developed a formula for black basalt—an unglazed black pottery that he used to create large ornamental vases, busts, and other pieces.

But Josiah was particularly interested in formulating wares of various colors, so he began to experiment with mineral oxide stains, using them to color white stoneware clay. His testing resulted in the creation of jasperware, and by 1775 he had perfected the production of jasper pieces in a range of colors including yellow, black, and green—and that famous blue. He also began to create low-relief pieces—including cameos—that perfectly suited the current taste for anything with a Greco-Roman aspect.

In her book Cameos: Old And New, Anna Martin notes that a Wedgwood design catalog from 1787 listed 1,764 cameos and 400 intaglios. Their subjects were both influenced by and drawn from classical ornaments, and some of the designers and modelers working for Wedgwood traveled to Rome for inspiration. From Rome they sent back drawings or molds based on their observations of ancient pieces.

Wedgwood cameos were created in both black basalt and in jasper and were often set in gold, silver, cut steel, or alloys used to imitate gold, such as ormolu or pinchbeck (an alloy of copper and zinc). The cameos were used in a variety of jewelry pieces, including brooches, bracelets, rings, pendants, and hat pins as well as in jasper bead necklaces. Cameos also were used to decorate objects, and in addition to their use on vases and urns, they were set into plaques on tea caddies, ornamental boxes, and furniture. One can even see Wedgwood jasper at Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson had cameo inserts set into the dining room’s fireplace mantel.

Josiah I died in 1795 and was succeeded by his sons Josiah II, John, and Thomas. The company continued on through successive generations of the Wedgwood family, and as the generations evolved, so did their output. More extensive bone china settings, majolica ware, hand-painted floral pieces, and Art Deco earthenware were some of the new goods offered to suit the changing tastes of each age, and a modern jewelry-making facility was created in Wedgwood’s Barlaston factory in 1970. Until that time, the mountings used for cameos had been provided by outside jewelers throughout England.

In recent years, the company introduced “Blue,” a line of jewelry that pairs sterling silver with blue or black jasper in sleek, contemporary designs.

In 1986, Wedgwood was bought by Waterford Crystal, resulting in a blockbuster crystal, ceramics, and cookware company that today comprises four divisions: Waterford, Wedgwood, German porcelain maker Rosenthal, and American kitchenware company All-Clad. Each brand is marketed separately, carefully preserving the individual style and quality that makes each unique.

Wedgwood’s newest effort enlists the expertise of award-winning English jewelry designer Stephen Webster. Already well known for his line of “Crystal Haze” jewelry, Webster also endured a media blitz when Madonna and Guy Ritchie commissioned him to produce their wedding rings. Renowned for his beautifully crafted, innovative, and flamboyant designs, he recently created jewelry collections for GUESS? and Dom Pérignon Rosé.

“Wedgwood has been making jewelry for over 200 years,” says company spokesperson Julie Bukalders. “So although it doesn’t have the same high profile as some of the other areas of our portfolio—particularly in the USA—we have a long-established pedigree in the category. We wanted to do something to bring the image of Wedgwood jewelry up to date and make it relevant to a younger consumer. Working with a designer such as Stephen confirms to people that we are serious about the category.”

Webster met Waterford Wedgwood chairman Tony O’Reilly at a dinner, and from there the partnership grew. “I like to take risks,” says Webster. “Tony is great—he said ‘Don’t hold back!’ ” The designer is delighted to have free rein to incorporate his own design sensibility—in whatever way he sees fit—into the collection.

“We felt that a collaboration with Stephen was particularly appropriate because of the style of his previous work, his very contemporary image, and his ‘quirky Englishness,’ ” says Bukalders. “He has proved the ideal partner to help us reinvent our Jasper cameo into something modern and fashionable.”

Undaunted by the company’s long history, Webster took Wedgwood tradition and boxed it about the ears. “We made it about cameos,” he says, but the woman appearing in his cameos is decidedly contemporary—he calls her the “china girl.” “Instead of the classic Greco-Roman profile that you usually see in a cameo, this is a modern woman’s profile. The idea would be about changing the design as time passes,” he says.

“And the ducks,” he adds, referring to a triple drop pendant in the collection that features three cameos, each representing a portion of a flying duck. “The pattern on the frame plays on a sort of classic English wallpaper, but then you have the ducks—certainly flying ducks are a traditional image, but we thought, ‘Why not have them flying through the piece?’ ” he says. “It’s about establishing the English ‘thing’—the eccentricity, the heritage, and certainly the sense of humor.”

The line includes 34 pieces and incorporates four colors of jasper: light blue, light pink, black, and the newest color, burgundy. Retail prices range from £125 to £350 ($204 to $571), and Webster plans on adding to the line with pieces inspired by two other Anglo icons—the London Underground and Savile Row.

“We launched the range in the U.K. in April, and it is also rolling out around the world,” says Bukalders. At press time, a date had not yet been confirmed for the U.S. launch.

“We have had a very positive reaction from consumers toward our designer collaborations—not only Jasper Conran [bone china] and Paul Costelloe [earthenware], but in the USA we are enjoying enormous success with Vera Wang,” Bukalders says, referring to the company’s recent china, crystal, and giftware collaboration with the fashion designer. “Consumers see this as making Wedgwood more relevant to them and the way they live, and it has not alienated older consumers,” she says. “We find it is more about attitudes rather than age—consumers of any age who are design-aware and appreciate style, quality, and craftsmanship have responded very positively to what we are doing.”

Note: For more information on the history of Wedgwood, go towww.wedgwoodmuseum.org.uk, or, if in England, visit the Wedgwood Visitor’s Center. Located at the company’s Barlaston factory, the center offers in-depth factory tours, historical exhibits, and an invitation to try the potter’s wheel. Visitwww.thewedgwoodstory.comfor more info. Stephen Webster’s Wedgwood pieces are not yet available in U.S. stores, but they may be purchased through the Wedgwood Web site atwww.wedgwood.com.