If fashion isn’t art, then why do so many luxury brand stores across the globe mimic the monolithic pomp of the contemporary art gallery? From Salzburg to São Paulo, glossy, ethereal white rooms serve as blank canvases primed to peddle expensive goods. However, ‘a white box that’s neutral in order to make what is in it special, rich and valid is a totally antiquated notion,’ counters jewellery designer and gallerist Julia Muggenburg. It is a space that by its own clinical detachment leaves even the most beautiful of objects looking abandoned.
Muggenburg presents her own line of jewels under the name Belmacz at an elegant two-floor gallery space nestled opposite Claridge’s in London’s Mayfair. ‘We all have inhibitions, hang ups, predisposed opinions and levels of naiveté and the only way to get anywhere and to make things interesting is to bounce things off one another,’ she says. ‘We need emotion and we need reasons because we are human. Everything is about context. For example, whether someone with tanned skin wears an emerald, or someone with pale skin, everything is the relationship between things; you cannot be neutral. Everything should have an emotion.’
Muggenburg moved to London from Germany in 1991 to study sculpture and painting at Central Saint Martins, but soon began working with goldsmiths as a natural progression of her skills. She established Belmacz in 2000 to show her one-of-a-kind gems and the work of other artists and the gallery currently hosts up to 12 shows a year. Her decision to come to England was in part related to its vivid cultural, social and aesthetic heritage: ‘There is a sophistication and a largesse here where people let you be,’ she says. ‘You can put things together in your own way and there isn’t a common denominator – that is what I find exciting. There is a strong idea of romance in Britain and this is the reason why I like it. It was never a matter of me staying here after I finished college – I just never left.’
The gallery at 45 Davies Street is the showcase for her playful, cerebral collection of bracelets, earrings, pins and necklaces, fusing contemporary materials like gold and oxidised silver with antique Roman and Indian coins, Zambian mopani wood, amber, sky-blue chalcedony and maw-sit-sit from Burmese Matsu. It isn’t a white box brimming with polished, costly trinkets and stands as testament to Muggenburg’s unflappable curiosity for the artisanal.
Suspended in the middle of the first floor room is a circular, tiered cabinet inside which lie several pieces from the collection. Downstairs the walls are covered in pale, moulded leather; behind glass sits a modular hanging system that uses a deconstructed version of the Belmacz logo to create varying displays for bangles, necklaces and talismans. A specially installed swing – carved from English oak with a padded, laser-cut ponyskin wall rest – gently sways opposite an opaque pink blown-glass sculpture by the Venetian artist Massimo Nordio. The room manages to be both eclectic and utterly focused at the same time. The art and the jewellery coerce in a way that is subtle and exacting.
It is invigorating, in an age of generic beauty ideals, bland fashion collections and millions of Instagrammers asserting their own humdrum brand of good taste, to find Muggenburg’s raffish, ethnographic style. ‘I love grit; I love to rub against something. I like the pieces I create to have a joy. I want them to be enigmatic and also symbolic, but the symbolism has to be specific to the person that picks it up. I don’t want everything to have the same meaning for everybody,’ she says. ‘I want them to be picked up by a person whom it wasn’t made for, for them to carry on the story. It’s a little bit like a relay. I like the retelling of a story, of a piece of jewellery and how it can be recreated.’
Born in Mettmann, near Düsseldorf, as a child she spent a lot of time in the countryside of Wuppertal on a large piece of land that has been in her family since the 14th century. Her father was a philosopher and gentleman of leisure who broke in horses and collected guns, and her mother had a small department store that sold quintessentially charming things like cashmere sweaters from Italy and glass jewellery from Venice. From an early age, Muggenburg would travel with her on buying trips. ‘I don’t get bored easily, which probably has something to do with the space I had to myself growing up. I was always looking at things and trying to come up with my own ideas and my own opinions on why something interests me. Thinking about what is important to show or to make, to look at or talk about.’ Muggenburg was never going to be a minimalist. The house she grew up in had Indonesian show puppets on the walls, burgundy and gold wallpapers, oriental lights, its own smoking room and of course her father’s vast collection of Purdey guns, with their exquisite engraved handles. It was, she says, ‘quite full on.’
The name Belmacz was conceived to unite ‘bel’ and ‘maximum’ and partially stands as homage to the iconic French jewellery designer Suzanne Belperron whom Muggenburg discovered on a family trip to Paris. Belperron pioneered a new aesthetic in jewellery in the thirties, leaving behind the rigid lines of Art Deco to carve stones into organic shapes drawing on motifs from a range of cultures from African, Cambodian, Celtic, Egyptian, Indian and Mayan. She also designed the badge for the French Resistance. ‘I like her jewels because she turned things around and used the stone as a base, rather than using the metal with a stone on top. I thought that was very smart of her. There is always this point of view with her work that they are things to be worn – they’re not something that is holy.’
Muggenburg’s own pieces are sturdy. They are not adornments or merely articles for decoration. ‘I don’t want to make things for the sake of just having them sit somewhere. I want to make things that go to interesting homes and go to new owners,’ she says. ‘The worst thing is dead jewels; when you can look at something and know immediately what season it is and how many people have it,’ she says. She is an avid collector of tribal African jewellery, which she says nourishes her fascination for objects that make a statement. ‘I’m looking for something that’s strong, and of course, that is what tribal jewellery is. It is often worn by people who might not be wearing any other clothes but have things on their bodies that are ceremonial. They are things that are meant to lift and signify and are imbued with meaning. This is the climax of what something can be, no matter how small.’
Holding an ivory ring that has a deep hairline crack running through it as a result of its age, she says: ‘what is interesting about us humans is that we have a story. If you bleach it all out to make it perfect, then you have nothing left to talk about. Ageing in objects is totally beautiful. I like undulating things. I like things that make sounds!’
‘I like how things interact and bounce off each other and how everything blends and melds. If you wear this ring...’ she says, taking off a hefty 18ct gold Zeppelin ring of her own design, ‘it will be yours. You should contain it and it will become yours. This, is what I really like.’