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Success story: Dazzle exhibition at Oxo Tower

Dazzle Oxo Tower

In 1981, Christine Bola was a Theatre Manager at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and Tony Gordon was running the Portland Gallery, the first contemporary commercial art gallery, which introduced such artists as Josef Albers, Sidney Nolan, John Piper, Salvadore Dali, David Hockney, Tim Mara and Maurice Cockrill to Manchester.

A random trip to Goldsmiths Hall to view the annual exhibition of contemporary jewellers saw Tony making his first fateful purchases of contemporary jewellery, then an applied art form with little or no exposure other than in two or three specialist galleries, such as Electrum and the Oxford Gallery.

Talking to Graham Hughes, Director at Goldsmiths, Tony conceived the idea of a big selling exhibition of British contemporary jewellers, something that, although an occasional event in the now defunct Crafts Council Gallery, had never been known to happen.

These talented designers had few enough outlets in which to sell their work. There were virtually no commercial outlets and those that existed tended to work behind closed doors and only showed a small selection of established and often expensive precious metal work.

Alternative materials, now widely shown (such as plastics, wood, paper and anodised aluminium), were in little evidence. Perhaps the only “new” material around was the ubiquitous titanium. Even base metals, such as brass and copper – now used widely – were rarely seen as a material for jewellery making.

The general public was unaware of the New Jewellery as it later became known. Goldsmiths Hall, however, was trying to show these talented younger jewellers, who were coming through the expanding college system, but the audience was inevitably an ageing and very wealthy, elitist one.

Meanwhile, Christine, in her role as a theatre manager, had been trying to persuade a reticent Royal Exchange Theatre management that an active foyer was a good use of an otherwise unemployed, large space.

Jewellery by Ruth Leslie

A dazzling success

Exhibitions in Manchester City Centre were a rarity and restricted to art galleries. Yet, the idea of using the Royal Exchange Theatre foyer for a ground breaking exhibition of the best of British contemporary jewellery was encouraged by the then Director of Manchester City Art Galleries, Timothy Clifford and by Graham Hughes, who donated all the display cases.
These would shortly be filled by the top jewellery designers of the time, plus the pick of recent jewellery college graduates, in a massive, unprecedented showcase of 180 exhibitors, which was opened by actress Eleanor Bron and was an immediate and spectacular success.

Sales targets for the whole period of the exhibition were hit within hours of the opening. Manchester people had never been exposed to New Jewellery and the resultant panic to buy was quite unheard of at the time.

Fortuitously, Tony, in his role as Gallery Director, had twice organised an exhibition of his artists at the then National Theatre in London. When the NT heard of the Manchester show, they suggested a similar jewellery exhibition in London. Days later, the prestigious Bede Art Gallery in Jarrow, near Newcastle, also asked if they could be involved in a three-way exhibition.

Dazzle’s unforeseeable impact on an entire artform

All three exhibitions were roaring successes, garnering massive press coverage and introducing tens of thousands of people to this exciting branch of the contemporary crafts; as well as professionals and gallery owners, who hastily added craft spaces to their content and cherry picked the best of the jewellers to add to their list of gallery artists.

More students began applying for the courses at art colleges and, though there were other influences at work (particularly in the national press, who were also discovering this new art form for the first time), the Dazzle exhibitions – soon to be held in Leicester, Sheffield, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Wigan and all over London – had a significant influence.

Colleges geared up to the burgeoning demand for places, and new courses, such as Edinburgh, Middlesex and Glasgow, joined the established Royal College of Art in producing exceptional talent: the best in Europe and arguably the world.

Still today, Dazzle exhibitions and lovedazzle present a testing ground for makers, allowing the buying public unique access to fresh and innovative ideas. Over the years this has included the introduction of titanium, niobium and tantalum, even paper, plastic and wood; as well as such techniques as the oxidisation of silver and patination of copper and brass.

Jewellery by William Sharp

Snakes, semen and gratuitous nudity

Ever the trailblazers, Dazzle’s first exhibition in Newcastle and in Manchester used live tarantulas and snakes to guard the exhibition, which attracted a full page in the Sunday Times and extensive BBC news coverage.
Since then, Dazzle has regularly courted controversy for its daring exhibits, from major jeweller SIMON COSTIN, who showed a range of glass jewellery filled with the semen of his then boyfriend, to the complaints which raged around the expletives incorporated in TIMOTHY INFORMATION LIMITED’s politico-punk badges. And occasionally for its daring exhibitors: CATHERINE HILLS, for example, who posed naked for a poster campaign on the Glasgow underground. Dazzle has even broken culinary ground, from edible jewellery by FIONA FORDER to setting up an entire Anton Mossiman restaurant at the Chelsea Town Hall.

Aided by its geography – and late opening hours – the Royal National Theatre exhibition, in particular, has become a stomping ground for numerous loyal celebrity buyers – from Judi Dench to Susan Sarandon to JK Rowling to Whoopi Goldberg. And for politicians taking that easy trot across the river for a sure-fire, original Christmas present for the wife … or mistress.

Interestingly, the Rocking the Boat brooch (notably bought for her by her husband!), which tipped Hazel Blears into such hot water at her resignation, is by Dazzle’s NICK HUBBARD.

The rest is history

In the intervening 29 years Dazzle has grown and settled into four exhibitions a year in Edinburgh at the Festival, where it has been a Fringe fixture since 1983, Glasgow’s Merchant Square, the Royal National Theatre in London and Manchester Town Hall. The latter becoming the replacement venue after the IRA Bomb blast in 1996 closed the theatre.

In that time, many hundreds of thousands of people have visited the shows and Dazzle has generated, directly and indirectly, millions of pounds of sales as it continues to strive to show a mix of the best established jewellery designers and the most exciting new innovative talent.

Almost all of the jewellery designers who showed with Dazzle in the early years are still showing today, alongside a new brand of maker, often using a very different approach to jewellery making. New materials are not just popular with the designers but are now actively sought by the buyers and a growing number of enthusiastic collectors worldwide.

Jewellery by Emma Calvert

Breaking talent

Dazzle’s policy is a clear one, advertised on its own exhibitions website to nurture and support the most exciting of the younger designers, at a time when they are most in need of that support. Dazzle recruits from the annual body of graduates, aiming to choose 10-12 of the most talented every year, each hand-picked by Tony Gordon and Christine Bola – now leading authorities in the field. An invitation to join Dazzle is like a golden ticket to new jewellers, trying to make the break.

With both customers and jewellers alike, loyalty defines Dazzle’s relationships. JANE ADAM, now a world leader in anodized aluminium jewellery, has been with Dazzle and now lovedazzle.com since her graduation 25 years ago. Dazzle was also the first to show KIM ELLWOOD and MIKE ABBOTT individually before they teamed up, and, in fact, were instrumental in persuading them to make their now sought after clocks (at the Royal Festival Hall exhibition IN TIME WITH DAZZLE).

While, SOPHIE HARLEY (designer of the pivotal jewellery in Bond films: Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale), was given an early break by Dazzle and is now designing for the likes of Naomi Campbell, Kate Beckinsale, Saffron Aldridge, Jerry Hall, Jodie Kidd and Joss Stone – and still, notably, exhibiting and selling through both Dazzle and lovedazzle.com.

Equally, GRACE GIRVAN, now a major name in jewellery, was a Dazzle protégé, much promoted by the exhibitions in the early days; while MARK NUELL first showed in the UK in Dazzle after arriving “off the boat” from Australia. He arrived at 8pm in the evening, twenty years ago, and walked into the London RNT exhibition, folders in hand…..

He is now a key player in the field of contemporary jewellery. Nuff said.

2010 and Dazzle has a lovechild

Though the Dazzle Exhibitions website is widely followed, with an average of 350,000 visits per year, it is mainly used for reference, for viewing images and for looking up the dates and details of forthcoming exhibitions. Here was a huge opportunity for Dazzle to extend the visibility of the best that British and European contemporary jewellery had to offer to all four corners of the earth.

So, lovedazzle.com was born: selling directly to an international public (which currently ranges from Hong Kong to Iceland), without the geographical or time constraints of the physical exhibitions; and featuring work by jewellers who have one thing in common – they have exhibited in a Dazzle.

lovedazzle.com offers the opportunity to buy online, 24/7, hundreds of pieces by some of the most talented makers available, from cutting edge to contemporary classics. The aim is to offer a cross section of work in a cross section of materials at all prices.

This year’s 38th selling exhibition

Dazzle returns with over 4,000 handmade, unique pieces for sale, by a 90 strong, international line up of design talent; selected, curated and often discovered by Tony Gordon and Christine Bola themselves.

Each year they welcome 16 new jewellers to the Dazzle family which includes five handpicked graduates in Edinburgh College of Art’s Millicent Bradbury and Cat Dunn, Eleanor Whitworth, Emma Morris and William Sharp, all from Glasgow School of Art.

Scarves by Green Thomas

Dazzle Extras

Over the years, the Dazzle Extras section of the exhibition has showcased the handmade accessories, textiles, leather bags, prints, wall hangings and ceramics, selected for their exceptional craftsmanship and artistry.

Dazzle selling exhibition will take place at gallery oxo, Oxo Tower Wharf, Bargehouse Street, South Bank, LONDON SE1 9PH and will be  open daily: Sunday 1st December 2019 to Sunday 5th January 2020

Private Views: Friday 29th & Saturday 30th Nov 2019

For more information please visit Dazzle’s website: dazzle-exhibitions.co.uk

Cover: jewellery by Lynne MacLachlan

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