'An alchemist who could coax light': Delve into Daniel Brush's high-jewellery world with Vivienne Becker

To the art world, the late Daniel Brush is somewhat of a modern legend. His work of art, which crosses boundaries between jewels, painting, and sculpture, was rarely traded on the market, but rather “passed from warm hand to warm hand”, as he put it. By choice a well-kept secret, he was kept afloat by a tight circle of devoted and wealthy collectors who shared emotional connections to his art, some of whom were royalty, and almost all of whom Brush knew personally.

And he never accepted a straight commission, nor was represented by a dealer. When prestigious museums sought to acquire his work, he would turn them down because he didn’t want his art to end up in a basement.

For nearly half a century, Brush led a hermit-like life secluded in the labyrinth of antique lathes that fills his Manhattan loft, eschewing most normal outside influences. Like a Buddhist monk, every morning he would sweep the wooden floors for hours, before working with diligent devotion, only breaking for lunch (which was always pea soup).

Just as how secretive he was, many of his works have never been seen, lying in the drawers of the map chests in the loft. But now, for an extremely rare chance, 73 pieces of gold, aluminium, and steel, all hand-crafted by this single man, will be showcased at L’ECOLE Asia Pacific in Hong Kong until 2 October.

On the occasion, The Value caught up with Vivienne Becker, jewellery historian and the curator of the show, to learn more about the reclusive genius.

Daniel Brush passed away in November 2022

Mosaic brooch

Initially a painter and a professor teaching art philosophy at Georgetown University, Daniel Brush first turned to jewel-making as a hobby and a respite from the physical demands of his large-scale paintings and sculptures.

His first piece of jewellery is a gold wedding ring for his wife and lifelong creative partner, Olivia. After they moved to New York City in 1978, Brush began focusing intently on his art, and, he says he simply carried on from that point, every day just the same.

“Gold mesmerised him from a young age, he always said he had to work in gold because he didn’t understand it,” wrote Vivienne Becker.

“Aged 13, on a visit with his artist mother to the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, he spotted an Etruscan gold bowl with its frosting of minute gold granules. The effect, he recalls, took his breath away, and from that moment he determined to learn how to work gold.”

Vivienne Becker (left) and Olivia Brush (right) at the exhibition

Working in virtual seclusion, Brush would spend months, years, or even decades on a single piece of work. He frequently went months without leaving his studio-home, exploring the ancient techniques of Etruscan granulation, and practising the noble art of the goldsmith.

A famous piece named Second Dome, which has 78,000 hand-made gold spheres perfectly positioned on its domed top, took him six years to finish. Each gold ball, Brush once wrote, “is .008 of an inch in diameter, plus or minus .0001 of an inch. I made them all. Individually placed them all.”

“He lost his nerve when it came to fusing the grains to the base of gold, a few seconds less, the grains would fall off, a few more and they’d melt into a blob. He let the lid sit for two years before Olivia gently persuaded him, one morning after his usual breakfast of Cheerios, to have a go,” added Becker.

Flowing and Tendrils 8, made of stainless steel and rose-cut diamonds

Having taught himself and mastered the near-mystical skill of granulation, he moved on to more conceptual, sculptural works using steel and aluminium – the humble, mundane stepsisters of gold.

“I was fascinated by his work in steel, the way in which he was challenging perceptions of preciousness and transforming a tough, industrial material into silky fluidity.”

Becker emphasised, “Light was a driving force in his creativity. In his jewels, he painted with light. He was a magician, an alchemist who could coax light and enlightenment from his materials.”

“You can see this very clearly in the aluminium brooches, and in a different way in the Cantos For a Thousand Miles Series. His engraving on the steel hand-held objects plays with ambient light, generating colours, an iridescence which is enthralling.”

“I love the way in which the light of the sky and sea outside of L’ÉCOLE, the changing light of the harbour, is reflected or refracted in the engravings of Cantos. It is an emotional, even spiritual experience. You understand that they are objects of contemplation.”

Cantos Series, made of stainless steel and rose-cut diamonds

Cantos Series capture the changing light of the sky and sea outside of L’ÉCOLE

Perhaps most thought-provoking of all, through his work Brush questions the very meaning – or as he terms it the “total construct”– of preciousness and value.

Becker explained, "For many years Daniel considered the question of whether the rigidity of framework, that gives boundary and structure to a jewel, allows him to express poetic fluidity within that framework. Could his ideas dance freely within that structure? Would he be limited by the practical structural necessities of a jewel?"

"So the result was this series, Apollonian and Dionysian. Apollo, the Greek god of order, Dionysus, god of wine, lyricism, poetry.  Each is cut and carved from a single piece of steel, the framework entwined with a lyrical, lilting, twirling line of diamonds."

Flowing and Tendrils 4, made of stainless steel and rose-cut diamonds

Apollonian and Dionysian Series

While Brush possessed extraordinary skills, he deplored the idea of virtuosity or craftsmanship for its own sake, feeling strongly that the workmanship or technique should entirely disappear, leaving only a sense of the soul of the maker.

“He loved finding and refining techniques through which to express his ideas, to give form to his visual poems, to give voice to his concepts and stories,” stressed Becker.

In Brush’s words, “If I get the chance to show something or share something, let the viewer make it themselves, with their eyes and their heart. My signature on it doesn’t mean anything to me. If there’s some sort of great dialogue that happens, how cool is that?”

Daniel Brush, An Edifying Journey: Gold, Aluminum, Steel

Date and Time: Now until 2 October 2023 | Daily 1pm - 7pm
Venue: L’ÉCOLE Asia Pacific, School of Jewelry Arts
Address: 510A, 5F, K11 MUSEA, 18 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
Free admission for the public