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The Sorcerer Of The Stones

7 minute read
JAMES GRAFF

Jeweler Thierry Holemans gently pushes a biscuit tin across his desk at the back of his workshop on Brussels’ prestigious Avenue Louise. Once the top is pried off, there lies a necklace of 3,987 diamonds set in a filigreed latticework of platinum. Despite its glitter and heft — it is thought to be the largest single piece of jewelry made in Europe in recent decades — the piece exudes a quiet elegance. But this necklace also has a talent usually found in living things: it can move of its own accord. The heat of the wearer’s skin causes minute mechanical mounts hand-fashioned from a special alloy to alter their shape. Gemencrusted petals then slowly open to reveal three massive yellow diamonds. They close again and reopen once every half-hour or so. Even when draped around a less than swanlike neck, the piece — aptly named Metamorphosis — is bound to elicit awed gapes and whispers.

Yet despite having taken five jewelers two years to fabricate, Metamorphosis is not for sale. “Today no, tomorrow maybe, eventually for sure, but now I need it myself to understand it,” says Holemans, 41. He has shown it on the Avenue Louise and at his atelier on Paris’ Place Vendôme, and there has been no shortage of potential buyers willing to shell out an estimated $2 million for it.

Holemans has agreed to make a few custom designs along similar lines, but he insists his business is the antithesis of cookie-cutter commerce. “We’re not in this to please people, but to express a personal vision,” he says. “I’m happy when people tell me they don’t like a piece. That means it has something personal to it.”

In an age in which most purveyors of even luxury goods kneel before the gods of marketing, Holemans insists he’s different. He has integrated the technology behind Metamorphosis into a few more affordable pieces — a brooch of peacocks whose tails slowly spread and fold, boa-like bracelets that snake their way tightly around a favored wrist — but swears he’ll never use methods that move the artistry of jewelry into the realm of industry.

He says he flatly turned down an offer from an American company to make 2,000 of the bracelets in a one-shot deal. Money, no doubt, will come, as it has until now. But the point, Holemans grandly says, is “to liberate the jewel from its functionality and return it to its roots as an expression of fundamental feelings.”

The Holemans company, now in its third generation, has origins both earthly and celestial. Henri Holemans, Thierry’s grandfather, learned to work metal while in the trenches of World War I, pounding the copper of spent shells as part of an occupational training program sponsored by the Belgian King, Albert I. After the war Holemans set up a shop in Brussels to make bejeweled chalices, scepters, crosses and ecclesiastical jewelry for the Roman Catholic Church.

He was so driven to master the jeweler’s art that at one point he went so far as to shut down for three years to learn the Japanese skill of lacquer ornamentation. His son, Jean, came into the business and began serving more private customers, which proved prescient — especially after 1975, when Rome took a more rustic tack and began favoring less ostentatious church décor.

Like any scion worth his heritage, Thierry initially balked when the time came for him to take over. “I just couldn’t imagine myself doing the same thing for the next 50 years,” he says. Eventually, fealty to his grandfather’s commitment to “artistic research” moved him to accept the challenge for the sake, he says, of creativity rather than money.

The idea for a range of moving jewels came to Holemans about five years ago, when he was engaged in what is still his favorite part of the job: scouring the backcountry of Burma and Thailand for precious stones. A nervous co-passenger on a rickety plane flight over the mountains started talking about special alloys that alter their shape as temperature changes. When Holemans returned to Belgium, he made contact with Jan Van Humbeeck and Rudy Stalmans at the Catholic University of Leuven’s Department of Metallurgy and Material Engineering. Their work on “shape memory” alloys had until then found application mostly in the biomedical field, for instance as archwires for orthodontic braces.

Egged on by Holemans, the scientists developed a special alloy that not only has the malleability and strength necessary for fine jewelry, but also responds to variations in temperature; refinements still being pursued could make a variation of as little as a single degree centigrade enough to move a gem. The possibilities, Holemans believes, are limited only by the imagination: he envisions, for instance, a piece made of metallic frogs that stick out and retract their tongues. The jeweler dubbed the material Orichalc after a mysterious metal that Homer said had adorned Aphrodite and that Plato linked to the lost city of Atlantis. He picked the name from a classic Belgian source: the widely beloved fantasy comics of the La Marque Jaune series.

As a Fleming who now does most of his communicating in French, Holemans thinks Belgium is a natural place for his peculiar vision to take form: the spot where Latin imagination gets a Teutonic finish, helped along by the proximity of the world’s diamond capital in Antwerp. But in fact the men — and they are all men — who fashion Holemans’ jewelry come from as far away as Turkey, Armenia and Lebanon. “Their only true nationality is that of the steady and gifted hand,” says Holemans. He tries to hire them as apprentices at age 15 or so; it can take 10 years before they have completed their apprenticeship. It is their work, done at benches scuffed and hammered by decades of metalworking, that lies at the heart of his enterprise. A few years back Holemans was tempted to open a showroom in the mecca of high-cost custom jewelry, the Place Vendôme in Paris. “It was a great pleasure for me to say to the French, ‘Hello, you’re not alone!'” he says. But customers there didn’t stream in until he laid off the sales personnel and converted the showroom into a workshop. “Now they talk to an artisan, and they like that,” he says.

Holemans figures that just as he responded to the lure of the family business, so too will one of his four children. “It turns out not to be limiting at all,” he says. “For my grandfather it was all about administration, for my father the stress was on drawing jewelry designs. For me it’s the concepts, and fighting for just the right jewels. One of the children will develop in a way that fits.” Since his children are still young, it will be many years before he hands down the family business. But by the time he does, perhaps Holemans, who says he’s still “too young” to wear jewelry of any kind himself, will have started sporting, say, a ring of his own design. Chances are it will be moving in ways that he has yet to imagine.

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