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Master jeweller Walter Schluep created wearable works of art

By on April 23, 2016 in Articles with 0 Comments
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Jeweller Walter Schluep (right) with Quebecois filmmaker Claude Jutra. (La Cinémathèque québécoise)

 

Walter Schluep, who trained as a jeweller in Switzerland, liked to think of his work as art and of himself as an artist. Most of what he made and sold in his Montreal shop was small and whimsical, including brooches, rings and bracelets that were crafted like miniature sculptures, but he also produced larger pieces as well, such as a silver goblet currently on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Pieces fashioned by the master jeweller, who died last month at the age of 84, are exhibited at museums and prized by collectors across North America. When French president Charles de Gaulle visited Expo 67, the world’s fair in Montreal, Mr. Schluep was commissioned to make a silver box as a souvenir for Madame de Gaulle.

“[Mr. Schluep] was part of the whole revival of decorative art after the Second World War,” said Rosalind Pepall, the former director of decorative arts and design at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. “Walter and a few other jewellers had the European training that set them apart in Canada.”

Many of his pieces are whimsical, featuring labour-intensive details that required careful craftsmanship. His designs were often quirky, such as an elephant whose hinged ear moves to reveal a heart. “Schluep was always interested in the artistic movements of his era,” wrote Valérie Côté in a research paper written for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He was influenced by many modern artists, she added, including Andy Warhol.

One Montreal collector, who asked to remain anonymous, owns dozens of Schluep pieces including one that the jeweller described as a self-portrait, an example of his pop art style. He produced numerous brooches of birds with jewelled eyes, and a one-off silver pendant – a portrait of a young woman with curly hair and pinprick bumps in the metal for breasts.

The auction house Waddingtons has sold about 30 of his works. In a promotional video on YouTube, the company’s director of jewellery, Donald McLean, praised Walter Schluep, as part of his pitch:

“We all know the big names in jewellery: Cartier, Bulgari, Tiffany. There’s another name you should know, a Canadian name: Walter Schluep,” Mr. McLean said in November of 2011, before an auction of Mr. Schluep’s work. “He works in resins, silver, gold and some of them are wonderful, eccentric pieces.” He then went on to describe the major piece in the auction, a sculpted 18 karat gold bracelet that weighed more than six ounces. It sold for $7,800.

Although Walter Schluep was a gregarious person, he was also private and protective of his work. He called Mr. McLean when Waddington’s first auctioned one of his pieces. “You have no right to sell my work,” an irritated Mr. Schluep said. When he realized they were being sold at auction, however, he accepted that was the right of the people who owned his work.

Walter Schluep was born in Sant Feliu de Guixols, Spain, on Oct. 13, 1931, of a Spanish mother and a Swiss father. The town is on the Mediterranean in Catalonia and came under fire in the Spanish Civil War, which began when Walter was 5. During this period, the family returned to Switzerland, where Walter was raised. He studied at the École des Arts et Métiers in Berne, then worked with jeweller Albert Weber in Geneva from 1951 to 1954.

He moved to Montreal in 1954, when he was 22, starting in the workshop of Gabriel Lucas, one of the city’s top jewellers. There he had the opportunity to meet and work with other European-trained jewellers, including Hans Gehrig, with whom he formed a brief partnership.

In 1964, Mr. Schluep went out on his own, with a workshop and store at the corner of Ste. Catherine and MacKay streets.

By Expo 67, just 13 years after he arrived in Montreal, he was at the top of his game. Not only were Mr. Schluep’s works displayed in the Canadian Pavilion of the world’s fair, they also appeared that year at Montreal’s Galerie Agnès Lefort.

“His pieces are both objects to be looked at as sculpture and jewelry to be worn,” a review in the Montreal Gazette said.

Another review of his work appeared in Time magazine that year under the headline: All that Glitters.

“Schluep designs for his own pleasure and produces work that is not so much jewellery as ready-to-wear sculpture. If some of his pieces are not the most comfortable to wear, caveat emptor. ‘People,’ he says, ‘owe something to a piece of art the way a king once owed something to his crown.’”

Mr. Schluep was one of the first people to mix plastic with silver and gold to make bracelets and small sculptures. It was a complex process using polystyrene and laying it on the outside of the metal. His clients were fond of the unusual colours he would come up with.

On at least one occasion, Mr. Schluep did a giant barter deal. Around 1970, he traded three of his goblets, similar to the silver goblet on display at the Montreal museum, except these were gold. In trade he received a Porsche 911, which would have been worth about $6,500 at the time (equivalent to more than $40,000 in today’s dollars).

Mr. Schluep was an outgoing man with the outsider’s gift for merging into any social milieu, so he moved easily in English and French Montreal. He spoke four languages: Spanish, German, French and English, learned in that order. In French Montreal he mingled with the artistic elite, film directors and performers, including the actress Monique Mercure, with whom he was close friends. In anglophone circles, he knew many members of the city’s old moneyed class, who were among his best customers.

In the late 1970s, Mr. Schluep moved to a workshop in Place d’Youville in Old Montreal, where he stayed until he retired a decade ago.

“One of the things that struck me about him was his energy. He was always moving. He had a spontaneity that attracted people to him. He was wiry and athletic and took part in long-distance bike races,” Graham Nesbitt, a close friend, said. He said Mr. Schluep was a delightful companion and very generous.

When one of Mr. Nesbitt’s sons was five, the boy drew a fish and gave the drawing to Mr. Schluep. The jeweller smiled and later made a fish brooch based on the drawing and gave it to the boy’s mother, Elise Nesbitt.

Walter Schluep died in Montreal on March 23. He leaves his wife, Quebec actress Markita Boies.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts.

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