The Rossini Ring, 20 karat gold, oriental pearl, diamonds, 1988
Pendant, 18 karat gold, blue cabochon sapphire, 1980
Bølger necklace, 18 karat gold, 1973
Arje Griegst started his career as an award-winning apprentice at Copenhagen-based jewellers Just Andersen during the peak of functionalist modern Scandinavian design tradition. The jewellery pieces he created in the very beginning were truly in sync with the contemporary style that surrounded him. His “Silleben” necklace from 1959 and the “Trinity” ring from are remarkable modernistic pieces with clear references to the prevailing design movement in the Nordics. However, by incorporating movement or introducing an unusually large element, both are illustrated in his “Egg” piece from (1958), Arje Griegst early on managed to play with the boundaries of the goldsmith scene in Denmark.
After qualifying as a goldsmith and setting up his own studio, a young Arje Griegst travels to Spain and is captivated by Gaudí’s fantastical architecture. The buildings tap straight into his imagination and formative years spent reading 1001 Nights and roaming the halls of Copenhagen’s decorative art museums. Griegst subsequently completes a series of Aladdin’s Cave-worthy pieces shown in 1963 at the Design Museum Denmark, his first solo exhibition.
Each of the thirty-five works signals a major split from restrained modernism – the Danish design religion of the time. His lavish language – organic, jewel-filled trellis rings shaped using a customised cire perdue technique – baffles the critics. An upturned 20 karat gold finger, pierced by 120 light-reflecting opals, sapphires, oriental pearls and rubies punctuated by a large opal nail is pretty much blasphemy to Danes who are all about reducing rather than adding.
For Griegst, the collection is a confident statement that sets the tone for a lifetime of doing his own thing. It also shows an artist ahead of his time. In Griegst’s Paribanu’s Tears, a seductive jewel veil suspended from gold chains where rubies and emeralds dance across the face and become part of the body
Building around precious stones in wax using the ancient cire perdue technique he created rings for his first eponymous collection, Arje Griegst spends time in Paris in the mid-sixties working on twenty rings for Georg Jensen, who have noticed his talent and supplied him with a bag full of precious stones. He adopts and modifies the cire perdue technique – the ideal way to free himself from the static shackles of modernism. Moulding the wax creates a spontaneous expression and allows him to freely place the stones so they shine with maximum impact.
Griegst is rediscovering art nouveau via the Paris art scene but does not translate it directly. Rings appear like diamond-encrusted lava or abstract flowering branches. One ring, Solopgangssøjlen (The Pillar of Sunrise), is a highly detailed miniature rock formation with a cool lake of water at the top in the shape of a green opal – a predecessor to his later Cosmic period. The decade’s psychedelia comes across in a series of surreal jewelled pendants that look as if the gold is still in its liquid form. Faces are melting, dripping like a dream that is about to become a nightmare or vice versa.
During the seventies, Arje Griegst takes his sixties ‘melting’ gold theme in a refined yet utterly nonchalant direction. Using his own wax mixture and cast technique, he traces energetic, ribbed lines in 18 karat gold spirals, like locks of golden hair – or Roman jewellery on acid. The gold quivers and comes alive: coiled springs clasp ruby pearls, a slithering pendant threatens to melt and drop its cabochon cut blue sapphire down the wearer’s cleavage. At once organic and stylised, the Spiral series is hypnotic in its fluidity and warm glow
Continually depicting the natural world but not as we know it, Griegst works on a series of rings in the second half of the nineties that bring a new and highly articulated language to his ongoing fascination with the ocean. Opposite currents collide in 21 karat gold crests and troughs, with rubies emulating rosy sunsets or diamonds suspended between rocaille swells – sumptuous symbols of always being carried by the current of life.
In 2000, 62-year-old Griegst wins the Copenhagen Goldsmiths’ Guild’s anonymous ‘Silver on the Edge’ competition ahead of much younger designers with Wave, a silver jug of crashing waves caught in a moment of perfect harmonious disharmony. While the hyper- decorative, handle less piece looks seemingly impossible to use, its concave surfaces allow a perfect grip, making it a masterpiece of subtly ironic commentary on Scandinavian functionalism.
Few things are more mysterious than the universe, and for an artist like Arje Griegst whose entire body of work is about strange, mythical kingdoms, the launch of the 1990 Hubble telescope is an instant gravitational pull. Its images of glittering galaxies and nebulas – like the Pillars of Creation rising from interstellar gas and dust like some divine primordial life force – send Griegst on a cosmic journey resulting in a series of celestial rings. Crafted in cire perdue, they look as if the gold has been bombarded by showers of meteorites or like distant asteroids, luring us with craters filled with raw diamonds and cabochon cut sapphires.
Faces appear throughout Arje Griegst’s work as part of his self-styled fables. Finely detailed in cire perdue, pieced together from the mysticism of precious stones or cast as miniature busts displayed on a finger, they explore his fascination with metamorphosis in Greek and Roman mythology.
Many are self-portraits depicting Griegst’s anxieties or fiery emotions, like a merman ring from the early eighties: a masterpiece modelled in solid beeswax, cast in a hard wax shell and finished in cire perdue to bring out all the lifelike, furious details. If sound came out of its mouth, it would be waves, wind and rolling thunder.
In 1971 Princess Margrethe handpicks Arje Griegst to make a piece of jewellery around one of her gemstones: a deep green facet-cut tourmaline. The result is the pendant Dansk Skov (Danish Forest, 1971-73), an intricate, sculptural cire perdue gold tree, which wraps its mysterious crown around the stone and reveals a stag hunting a wood nymph hiding in the foliage. A Danish interpretation of the Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo, it is a fitting motif for a princess who has studied archaeology and who, like Griegst, takes a keen interest in fairy tales and nature.
Following her coronation, HM the Queen commissions a tiara. Wanting to portray a summer meadow swaying in the breeze, in 1976 Griegst dreams up a piece unlike any traditional tiara. The short-lived beauty of the poppy is frozen in time but executed with such lightness and animation that it almost vibrates. Cut moonstone is caught mid-dewdrop, a black opal beetle perches on a petal and a crystal spider stretches its legs between the delicate 21 carat gold stems, sewn on with needle and gold thread. Between the poppy leaves, diamonds and oriental pearl pistils emerge. With its amber pendants, it is a modern tribute to the Nordic heritage, harnessing an elegant renaissance spirit.
Arje Griegst’s superior craftsmanship shows in the way he seamlessly moves from gold to porcelain and not only retains his extravagantly detailed language but also gives it new life. In 1971, Royal Copenhagen invites Griegst to be part of its newly established collaborative studio with silversmiths A. Michelsen (now part of Georg Jensen), set up to experiment with porcelain and silver.
The jewellery and belt buckle collection debuts in 1975 for Royal Copenhagen’s 200-year anniversary and is Griegst’s highly personal and playful take on Greek and Roman masks, showcasing his love of fusing the grotesque and the beautiful. Each piece, from the naughty cherubs based on his children to the devilish self-portrait Egemand (The Oak Man, a present to HM the Queen of Denmark), is a work of art: modelled first in plasticine and wax, then cast in plaster from silicone moulds before emerging from the plaster mould as lively porcelain faces, glazed in painterly colours and mounted in pewter and silver. It is while working on this collection that Griegst is asked by Royal Copenhagen to do the now legendary Triton dinnerware.
The Triton dinnerware – or Konkyliestellet in Danish – remains one of the most sought-after archive dinner sets from Royal Copenhagen. Launched 1976-1978, it grew from Griegst’s profound fascination with the sea and also consists of a coffee and tea service. Every piece is a fanciful, regal work of art in its own right. Together, they form a table worthy of a water god. It is an abstract, otherworldly take on sensual pink-lipped conch shells or a sandy seabed rippled by the current. The design looks almost soft, an effect that’s created by pulling caramel-like wax into thin threads and attaching it to the plaster mould to create the pattern’s rhythmic movement.
To begin with, Triton is rose-tinted – a hue that’s achieved by adding in real gold – and the costly colour is subsequently changed to white. Additionally, the complex technique makes it nearly impossible to produce in the quantities needed without compromising on the craftsmanship, and manufacturing is halted on the collection. At this time, Triton is available from antique dealers and at auction.
Dining from plates conjured from the bottom of a mythical ocean calls for glass that evokes a similar emotion. In 1983, Griegst releases Xanadu in collaboration with Holmegaard Glass Factory: a series of hand blown glittering crystal that swirls gently as if you’re swimming underwater and looking up at the reflections on the surface. Because of the way the crystal is twisted into shape and how it varies in thickness, it becomes almost liquid and alive – the glass embodiment of the movement Griegst always pursued across all his mediums. The artisanal process eventually makes Xanadu too costly to produce and the collection can – for now – be sourced through antique dealers and auctions.
To complement a table set with Triton dinnerware and Xanadu crystal glasses Arje Griegst creates Spire (Sprout): a set of sterling silver cutlery for Georg Jensen. It is underway for 22 years and finally unveiled in 2002, rewriting the rulebook on what cutlery should look like.
As a symbol of growth, knives curl at the ends like baby ferns about to unfold while spoons and forks have bud finials. The comfortable handles wind asymmetrically like flower stalks before stretching out into utensils proper – an elegant bending of what we think characterises utensils. Currently, the collection is out of production and can be found antique and at auctions.
Arje Griegst’s bronze fountain masterpiece from 1989 is a particularly enchanting installation in the Tivoli gardens, Copenhagen. It is inspired by baroque Italian fountains and a crooked Danish tree, but seen through the Griegst looking glass those things become something else entirely.
Writhing upward from black granite shaped like giant rock crystals, Konkyliefontænen (The Conch Fountain) branches out into eight large gilded mussel shells from a twisted bronze trunk. Sculpted first in clay and then wet plaster, slices of wax were added and pulled at to create a ribbed bark effect, a technique similar to the Spiral jewellery pieces.
Looking at it, you fully sense Griegst’s idea that everything should have a function and a spiritual dimension. It is a magical fountain of life, like something King Triton would want if he walked on land. A 1996 version of the fountain sits in the Kurashiki Tivoli Park in Japan. Griegst also produced a fountain study in patinated bronze at Pietrasanta in the mid-2000s – a powerful self portrait showing Griegst as a water deity.
In Arje Griegst’s hands, candlesticks become dynamic works of art. Freely reinterpreting rococo, surrealism and art nouveau, his unceremonious take on the genres produces a series of influential pieces in the eighties that go against the decade’s cold, steely lines.
From his first 1963 cire perdue bronze candlestick that almost melts across the table to his dramatic 1984 Konkylievariation (Variation on Conch) candelabrae, which sits on a raw rock crystal mountain and sprouts a water agate egg from its gilded, twisted ribbons – opulent enough to make Louis XIV blush – they all embody the idea of metamorphosis.
For the Association of Danish Pharmacies he dreams up a seven-branched bronze candelabrum for their Copenhagen mansion in 1986. Like a magic beanstalk on the bottom of an ocean it writhes into shell candleholders and crystal buds, strikingly lavish and organic in contrast to the classical architecture. Later matching wall lights almost seem to grow straight out of the walls as if it were a fantasy castle.
Early cire perdue pieces like Egemanden and Bøgepigen (The Oak Man and The Oak Girl, 1976- 1984) whose arms stretch into tree branches are examples of Griegst’s magical transformations and riffs on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a theme also found in jewellery from the same period like the porcelain Oak Man. In other works, he uses plaster and wax techniques from jewellery to trace organic lines along a candlestick surface, wrapping the bronze around the candle like a crisp leaf.
When you are not an artist who favours things in moderation, there is hardly a more sacred object than the crown symbol of opulence: the chandelier. During the 2000s, Griegst completely re-imagines the chandelier with two seminal pieces, born from his fascination with cosmic wonders and crafted at the Bel Fiore bronze foundry in Pietrasanta, Italy – one being Galaxi, which hangs at Design Museum Denmark like a giant, crystallised Big Bang. Its spiral galaxy is forged in copper adorned with wavy filigree bronze loops, sparkling with crystal glass prisms made from Griegst’s Holmegaard glassware production leftovers. Seemingly lit up from within by invisibly placed halogen spots, every single piece of glass has been placed and considered individually.