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Designer Interview

Josephine Bergsøe

Even as a young child, she was attracted to jewellery as a craft, letting curiosity drive her forward. Today, she uses that curiosity to create impressive and intricate handcrafted pieces.

Few people know their craft as well as Josephine Bergsøe, who has run her eponymous jewelry line since 1989. A cancer survivor and mother of two, her life has not been without its complications. But for the Copenhagen-based artist, a Zen-like relationship with her art, a voracious curiosity and an amazing team are the stuff artistic originality is made of. Handcrafted and unique, her creations are abstractions of the world that she truly enjoys exploring.

Finematter: Did you always know you wanted to be a goldsmith? 
Josephine Bergsøe: Yes, I’ve always known. Ever since I was a child. I went to a very creative grammar school, and you could always find me in one of their workshops, melting glass. In that way, melting and forming is something I've always been preoccupied with. I would melt tin and do enamel and stuff like that. I was lucky to find an apprenticeship straight after high school. I was 18, so it’s always been what I wanted to do. 

FM: And then you started your own company right after your apprenticeship? 
JB: I started out within the same year that I finished. I still remember my first customer. It was not about the money, but about the fact that someone, a real human being, wanted to purchase something that I had created. It was always my ambition to tell stories through my jewelry, to arouse curiosity. I believe that to be the most essential driving force in human beings: our curiosity. When we’re curious; we’re alive. The moment our senses are satisfied, we get lazy and bored. Curiosity drives us forward; it creates progress. That is the primary reason that I’ve never wanted to use molds. I’m spoiled in that way, but I lose interest if everything is identical. It needs just a little bit of crookedness to catch the eye. It doesn’t even need to be immediately evident to us; you could call it a non-detectable crookedness. Optically, it is even, but your eye gets caught somewhere, right there. 

FM: Some sort of breaking point…  
JB: Something that keeps you hanging for just another moment.  

FM: So from the very beginning, you could focus on just your own creations?
JB: Yes, after about one year. I was very fortunate to be able to do so. Very early on in my career, I was asked to do the jewelry for the movie The House of the Spirits, which was again very fortunate. I worked with a lot of people from the film industry, that’s why I was asked to create jewelry for the movie, and then Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons purchased my stuff too, which of course opened a lot of doors for me. Back then, I did a lot of jewelry art, and one of my ambitions was to exhibit my creations. I was asked to exhibit at the Autumn Exhibition at Charlottenborg [prominent Danish exhibition space, red.], which meant access to new customer segments. 

FM: Who formed or influenced your work the most; a special client or some other goldsmith? 
JB: When it comes to the craft itself, it was definitely my former master. I knew what I wanted to create, but I did not have a remarkable talent when it came to the craftsmanship. But Klaus, my former master, taught me. He is one of the best craftsmen there is.  

FM: So you’ve always known, aesthetically, what you wanted to do? 
JB: Yes! I’ve always experienced these physical sensations. Some of my very first memories are of sensations of the tactility in things. I still remember when I was five and my mom had put down an earring on a leaf. I was so little, but it was almost like a physical sensation, I could feel it in my mouth, you know that feeling? And another thing, I remember, which leads back to your questions about influences, was an article about Thomas Hardenberg [Danish goldsmith, red.]. He made these insane creations; you could call it grotesque renaissance, using nautilus shells, corals, skulls and faces. It was not what I wanted to do, but as an inspiration, it was wild.

FM: How do you experience your aesthetic evolution over time?
JB: The evolution has primarily been that I’ve become freer from restrictions in my craft, because I’ve become better at it. Now, I can pretty much do what I want to. If there’s something, I cannot do, I know who’s the best at it in Denmark. 

FM: That must be one of the finest realizations about oneself: to know your limits in order to set yourself free. 
JB: Indeed. And then sometimes it’s worth taking up the fight because it’s fun. To work through the obstacles and difficulties will push you to evolve. 

FM: What does a typical day look like? 
JB: A happy day is to go to the workshop. I’m very spoiled because I have amazing employees, so I mostly just do the pieces I really want to do, and I constantly get to develop new stuff. A typical day means arriving at the workshop, go make myself a cup of coffee, and then look at all the beauty surrounding me. I feel this sense of Zen, when I work, when I am one-on-one with my material.

FM: Now that you mention your workshop, how do you distinguish between work and leisure time? 
JB: 10 years ago, I moved my workshop out of my house. When I had my workshop at home, I could never let go of it. Often, I would work till very late or I would get up in the middle of the night to work. I cannot do that now, then I would have to get up and drive to the workshop. Now, my ideas have to take shape and I have to refine stuff in my mind instead of just through my hands. I would call it a creative obstruction, but it has been incredibly enriching for my work. 

FM: How do you feel about deadlines? 
JB: Deadlines are very motivating! Motivating, in the same way that I find working with titles very motivating. Sometimes, I’ve been part of exhibitions with no working title, and I do not like that at all. It needs to have a name, like Storm or The Absolute… I’m part of an exhibition right now called Jewels of the Ocean. I love being part of exhibitions that make you relate to something specific and give you certain materials to work with.  

FM: Now that you mention a storm and the ocean, is nature an inspiration in your work?
JB: To me, that’s a very banal thought, because nature is everywhere. I never do anything naturalistic. It’s too boring. Copies of nature can never be complete. If you look at that flower over there, it is perfect, and I can never make anything as refined as that flower. I can make an abstraction of it. That way, I can agree that I am inspired by nature, but I make my own sense of it. 

FM: So it travels through your sensory receptors to come out as something completely different?
JB: Exactly. And it can be a fragment of something. Once, I traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, and after having seen nothing for weeks, we first noticed these huge oil rigs. It was incredibly inspiring. All we had seen was sea, and then out of nowhere, these man-made constructions came into view. After that experience, I noticed how I would create pieces of jewelry inspired by it. Luckily, we could use them for an exhibition, because you couldn’t really wear them. 

"Copies of nature can never be complete. If you look at that flower over there, it is perfect, and I can never make anything as refined as that flower. I can make an abstraction of it."

FM: Do you always know what the end result will be? 
JB: I can have an idea, and as I’ve grown over time, I have developed a familiarity with my material that makes it easier to envision what it will look like. At the same time though, I work with a material that is full of surprises. Sometimes, the starting point is a specific stone, and sometimes a form, or a construction. 

FM: And customers and their ideas, I assume, can be starting points too? 
JB: Yes, and I love that. It’s an instruction in the same way that an exhibition can be. And you need to give people the space to be who they are. When they order something, it’s their story you tell. That’s one of the finest parts about making jewelry; you become part of people’s storytelling. It’s a huge honor and a huge responsibility to help tell that story. In this way, we are primitive creatures; we do exactly the same as the Neanderthals did, 40.000 years ago. Back then, when you killed an animal, you would wear their claws around your neck in order to endow yourself with the animal’s spirit or what it is that they believed in. It told a story. 

FM: How is it different creating jewelry for people you love? 
JB: It’s amazing and vulnerable at the same time. I make a lot of jewelry for my daughters, and you put your emotions and your soul into it, and then, if they don’t wear it… you really have to be careful. But this is also where I get to tell the greatest stories. When you get to include them in the process and they know exactly what it’s like, it becomes part of the story, and I get to be part of the story. Normally, I have to stay out of the storytelling, because it’s someone else’s, but here, it’s mine too.