Posted on 02 July 2020
OSS jewellery, courtesy of the artist
In conversation with the Argentinian artisans behind OSS Jewellery
Buildings do not bloom from beds of concrete tilled by humankind. They are, to nature, interruptions, taunting the landscape with the hope of sublimity while threatening to leave it scarred. As French-Swiss architect, Le Corbusier once wrote, ‘Our world, like a charnel house, is strewn with the detritus of dead epochs.’ Despite the harshness of his words, such carnage can be plainly seen, within the landscapes of our cities and upon the landscapes of our bodies.
Just as our world has been littered by ill-fitting fancies and long-deceased facades, so too have our physical beings, due largely to the entrancement of the must-have mentality that is motored by mass production—a consequence of which has been the onslaught of many deceased (or dying) artistic disciplines. Thankfully, Argentinian artisans Josefina Varela and Pablo Fonteina of OSS are helping to resuscitate the art of handmade jewellery, one slowly-cast creation at a time.
Born and raised in Buenos Aires, the couple have taken the traditional art of jewellery making to a place of pure abstraction, infusing conventional methods with unfolding experimentalism and unconventionality. From their Paris-based atelier, Varela and Fonteina cast their futuristic sculptural pieces by working with melted wax, believing errors made in the making to be a crucial part of their process, each fortuitous inconsistency a key component of the final creation.
‘The great task incumbent on us is that of making a proper environment for our existence,’ Le Corbusier reminds us, ‘and clearing away from our cities the dead bones that putrefy in them. We must construct the cities for today.’ Rather than dismissing the reality of this decay, Varela and Fonteina take inspiration from the imperfections of our haggard, hyper-industrialised world, re-injecting it with mindfully-made pieces created at a pace that once pulsated at the heart of long-gone yesterdays.
Le Corbusier was right, we must construct the cities for today. But as Varela and Fonteina remind us, we must also adorn the primal landscapes of our bodies with pieces that are born to bare our skin, pieces made to properly compliment the environment of our existence.
OSS jewellery, courtesy of the artist
KATHRYN CARTER: How did you both learn your craft?
JOSEFINA VARELA: We did a two-year wax carving course, where we learnt a non-conventional technique first developed by an Argentinian sculptor. Unlike traditional wax carving methods, we work with melted wax instead of carving solid blocks of wax. One of the most interesting things about this method is the surprise variables you see, the “errors” that appear during the creation of the piece. These errors happen as the wax is very sensitive to the atmosphere, ever-changing due to external factors such as the weather. Heat makes the wax softer, the cold makes it drier. As it ages, the wax also becomes darker, changing its consistency. With time it becomes thicker, dirtier, and so small holes may begin to appear in the casting process.
We were taught to work in ways which avoided these mistakes, but after finishing our course we started questioning whether or not we wanted to avoid or “fix” these so-called mistakes. So instead we set up a small studio in our apartment and started to cast in a way that allowed the wax to behave more organically, we wanted to explore the perceived errors created by the medium. So we sometimes like to say we’re also self-taught.
You obviously had a strong idea of how you wanted to distinctly create from the very beginning. Did you feel like something in the accessories industry was missing before you officially launched OSS in 2016?
Yes, at that time we thought there were not enough men’s accessories brands, or if they existed, they only really offered traditional jewellery.
Speaking of tradition, the jewellery trade from the early 19th to mid-20th centuries in France—where you’re currently based—was dominated by artisans such as Lucien Falize, a French jeweller and writer in France who is said to have been responsible for pioneering and driving the Art Nouveau movement with his firm, Falize. Innovative and intricate, his designs were often characterised by materials such as gold, diamonds, tourmaline, and pearl, all hallmarks of Renaissance jewellery, a style that was enjoying a revival at the time. In this way, Falize’s pieces stood as a reflection of the aesthetic of the time, mirroring the mood of his city. Do you feel as though your own collections—oftentimes characterised by beauty and brutalism in equal measure—subconsciously reflect the mentality of a certain subculture of your native Argentinian culture?
We both feel as though Falize expressed the feeling of Renaissance France through his work in a perfect way, in his use of colours, materials and textures. His pieces are a clear reflection of their time. Contrarily, we find it difficult to see our home of Buenos Aires in our pieces. Buenos Aires has many brutalist buildings—reflective of our aesthetic—but it is not the architecture that dominates. So when we imagine the city, it’s not this brutalism that we picture, necessarily. Even so, if we pay closer attention, Buenos Aires is beautiful in its imperfection, and this is where we might start to find a connection between our work and the city’s soul. We connect with the philosophy of a certain subculture in our birthplace the most, a collective that has learnt how to see the beauty in chaos. The city itself can be chaotic in many ways—from nothing working to broken streets—but we’ve learnt to feel the folklore element of its present state. The people of our city complain, but they’re always friendly, always trying to help.
We grew up surrounded by unpainted walls, undone public works, near-destroyed public buildings. But don’t get me wrong, we are definitely not complaining about this, we are thankful for having been able to see and experience Buenos Aires in such a way. We saw beauty in the different layers of materials, the broken walls in subway stations. We both bless the imperfection of our city. So in this way, we believe our pieces do reflect the mood of our city, but perhaps in a more conceptual way that Felize reflected his mid-twentieth-century France.
OSS jewellery, courtesy of the artist
So true, when I look at your pieces I’m often reminded of this Brutalist architecture you speak of. From an ideological perspective, buildings of this style often honour and highlight the honesty of construction, allowing all materials used to speak for themselves, sans the distraction of excessive structural decoration. Do you feel as though your work is as much about honouring the materials you work with, as it is about honouring the landscapes that they will live upon—in the instance of jewellery, those landscapes being bodies?
We 100% agree with this statement. We feel that by honouring the materials we use we are also honouring the process, something that is so often forgotten in the industry today. In our opinion, honouring this process is a way to remind people that these magnificent objects—or buildings—were made by people, they did not magically appear. We also like to remind people that our pieces are not perfect, that they have flaws, and that these imperfections can be beautiful, too. Pablo and I also remind ourselves constantly that jewelry is made for bodies, and that the piece and its wearer need to live together in harmony. Just as there must be a balance between the building and the landscape in architecture, both components need to be integrated in a way that allows them to learn to live together. The same thing happens with nature and humanity, in a way. We believe that the shapes of buildings or humans should not simply “invade” a space, instead, we need to find a way to be a part of the space, to find a point of integration. We apply this same line of thought to our pieces, jewellery needs to be integrated with our bodies, to respect the human form’s shapes and functionalities.
I can imagine that an architect who stands back to admire his creation sitting in symbiosis with the landscape would find such satisfaction in the vista. How does it feel to see one of your pieces on the body of its wearer?
There’s nothing more gratifying than to see a piece you made with your own hands—literally from nothing—being worn every day by someone. This is something that happens a lot with our rings, there’s a moment in which the ring starts to become a part of your finger, just as a building is part of the landscape.
French author Guy de Maupassant once wrote: Words dazzle and deceive because they are mimed by the face. But black words on a white page are the soul laid bare. His sentiment, I feel, speaks to the difference between that which is done for show and that which is done with intention. Pointing out that there is a certain depth that is lost when we filter the imagination through the lens of a flaunting personality. Your creations seem to radiate a rare authenticity, much like the black words on the white pages de Maupassant speaks of. Is maintaining this sense of truth in your work something you have to remain conscious of as you create? Or do you feel you’ve come to a place where your practice is protected against the whims of the ego?
We’re in the middle of both of these states of being, at the moment. We wish we could say we’ve arrived to that place of protection, but we’d be lying. We’re definitely growing, but we still have a way to go—we still experience many fluctuations and turbulences on our journey.
There are moments in which our practice is protected against the whims of the ego, and everything seems to just flow, and as a result we can see ourselves and our essence in our creations. But then there are other moments in which we need to stop ourselves, breath, and remind ourselves who we are. What’s our story? Why are we doing what we do? It’s usually in these moments when we go back to our basics.
To return to the inner self is something many artists must remind themselves to do from time to time, I feel, no matter what their discipline. It can become more difficult to do when the commercial becomes a part of the creative process, though.
Yes, we believe that, in fashion and accessories, the flaunting personality reflects the commercial aspect of what we do. When a channel of expression becomes a business a certain depth can be lost when the artist starts to see their work through the lens of the business alone. Sure, these flaunting personalities can be attractive, and sometimes it can be difficult to ignore them, they also cannot be ignored when you want to do this for a living [in today’s world]. But in the end, our soul is what matters. So we hope the time will come where our truth is always there, naturally. But for now, there are certain moments in which everything starts going too fast, and we need to stop for a second [before we lose ourselves completely]. We are lucky to have each other in these moments.
OSS jewellery, courtesy of the artist
Your dedication to your truth is evident in the consistently distinct nature of your work. Earlier we touched on the appreciation of the imperfect in your pieces; how flaws are as vital as form. How would you describe your aesthetic?
We think of our aesthetic as brutalist, industrial, and reflective of dystopian futurism.
I love that, and it sounds as though you really did develop this aesthetic distinctly over time. Japanese dressmaker Yohji Yamamoto once said: Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy, you will find yourself. Do you feel as though your journey has followed a similar path, one that began, perhaps, by taking inspiration from other sources before those initial inspirations guided you to the root of your own unique style?
Yes, of course. We are visual beings constantly searching for inspiration, seeing shapes almost everywhere. Sometimes these shapes are just inspiration for future new shapes, others we love [as they are] and adapt them into the bodies of our pieces. For example, our latest series MSKRA is 100% inspired by fictional Japanese robots called Gundam; we literally copy body parts of these robots—arms, feet etc—and adapt their shapes to create our pieces. However, with this series in particular we always knew the shapes wouldn’t be as clean and perfect as the robot parts themselves. But this has been the interesting thing about creating this series, we knew that, with our technique, the pieces would look kind of “old” or “used” and more closely akin to the feeling of a dystopian future, not clean and geometrically perfect.
Well, you could say that your pieces are borderline industrial in their design, each making its own strong statement—an item designed by you rarely goes unnoticed, much like a Gundam robot. Is a part of your intention as designers to empower the individual who wears your pieces?
It’s interesting that you should say that, we’ve received many messages from our clients telling us they feel empowered while wearing their pieces, mostly their rings. It’s very gratifying to see the emotional power a jewellery piece can create within a human being, and it’s also something that bonds us with our clients. But, to be honest, this was never our spoken intention, it’s just something that started to happen. We enjoy it, but it was not something that is done on purpose, more something we discovered [started happening] with time.
In your practice, errors and malformations are used to transform imperfections into beautiful textures. In this sense, do you feel as though the pieces you are making play just as much a part in their own creation as you do? As though you are engaged in a collaboration with the materials themselves?
Yes, of course, the materials play a very important role in the creation of our pieces. However, the extent of the influence of the materials depends a lot upon the series we’re working on. For example, our series Cannibalism is all about 100% material experimentation. Everything created was born from the process itself, rather than being planned ahead. The entire series is essentially a response to the question: what if? And so, all errors and malformations became the focus of the work. Then, in time, we slowly let other concepts in, but the process was still there, the errors and malformations were—and always will be—still there, but maybe to a smaller degree, because in time the new focus is not only on the process, but the process in addition to something else. It’s as though we create a base, and then use that base to explore new and different aspects. We learn how to live together, or how to just let the material be while we discover how to express different ideas that may arise along the way.
And when you begin a new piece in a series, do you ever envisage what it may look like as you work, or do you prefer to let the materials guide you?
We always envisage how the piece might look, but in the end, the piece is never what we envisaged. So we believe our process is rooted in the idea of what we want, while always being open to allowing the materials to guide us to the final result.
Sounds a little bit like my way of writing, often my stories start with a clear intention, but the words inevitably take me elsewhere as I write. Given that your process is so deeply experiential, how important is it to work with materials you feel connected to?
Ours is a very experimental and tactile process, so it’s very important for us to feel connected not only to our materials but also to the tools we’re using, as well as the atmosphere of the space in which we are working. We’re very lucky to have a home studio, so we work in a very cosy and intimate atmosphere.
Beautiful, I too feel blessed each day I get to write from the comfort of my own environment. Speaking of creating the perfect atmosphere, working with one’s hands can be an incredibly intimate experience for the maker. Does it ever feel as though you’re forming relationships with your pieces as you craft them?
The process of creation can be very long, and requires concentrating on a very small object for an extended period of time. So, as you said, it’s a very intimate experience. We’re a couple who work together, so most people imagine we talk together all day long. But that’s not how it is at all! The truth is that we spend all day in the same room, but we’re both at our own tables working on our own pieces in silence, with concentration. So, the answer is yes, at the end we do have a relationship with our pieces. They are like our babies.
OSS jewellery, courtesy of the artist
OSS was created with the intention of exploring the process of jewellery production, to create what you refer to as unique and multifunctional body sculptures. Do you feel as though your pieces, in this sense, tend to be worn with more intention that other items of jewellery maybe? Worn on the body, if you will, with the same intention as one might hang a piece of art on the wall?
We believe that the connections formed between a person and their pieces of jewellery are much more intimate than the connections we make with pieces of art on the wall. Mostly because, as you’d said, they are pieces made to be worn on the body. And not only on the body but directly in contact with the skin. So, from the very start, the piece of jewellery and the body form a very close relationship. We also always try to tell a story with our pieces, so most of the time we tend to generate bonds with our clients. So when our clients receive their pieces, they know who we are, what we do, and they’ve also often received photographs of the process that went into the creation of their piece. We feel this is what allows our jewellery to be worn with such care and intention.
This more intimate way of working is such a rarity in the world today, and yet this is how meaning is made, these are the processes that replenish the industry with the very element of sacred it has been so wrongly starved of. How does it feel creating handmade pieces in a world that has been dominated by the force of mass production?
It’s more complicated than you can imagine, very difficult in many aspects. Everything in this world—or, at least, in the world we used to know before the pandemic—goes so fast, and all that Pablo and I do is the total opposite. So, a lot of the time, we feel we’re going against the tide. But at the same time, this way of being and creating is what gives more value to our work. We also feel that more and more people are becoming interested in buying higher-quality pieces, and in wanting to know who made what they are wearing.
In the beginning, it took us some time to realise we needed to communicate all this because so many people were used to buying things online and receiving products in only a few days. We learnt it was important to tell people, hello, we’re going to produce this piece you bought exclusively for you, it’s going to take us some time, and this is in turn how we began to bond with individuals who were interested in our work. So though it took some time, it was worth it. Even today, however—despite most of our clients understanding that artisanal pieces take time—we have to constantly remind ourselves that not everyone appreciates how much work goes into creating just one ring!
Rumi once said: Ignore those that make you fearful and sad, that degrade you back towards disease and death. Do you feel as though staying inspired is as much about one’s mindful disconnection from toxic external influences—people, places, or politics—as it is about connecting with forces that compel you to create?
We think it is, yes, but also no at the same time. Staying inspired is about being connected 100% with our reality—people, politics and places. The difference is, we try to be connected to what our bodies feel and think of them. It took us some time to get here, but we believe that people, places and politics are not toxic, it’s us [as individuals] who allow them to get to us, thereby making them toxic to our lives or our creative process. It’s all about boundaries and perspectives. People are just people, we believe that we are the ones who need to stay strong so that we don’t allow external influences to have a negative or toxic effect on our lives. We’re the ones that have the power to transform situations into a force to create. Inspiration can be everywhere, we think it’s just about being connected [enough] to be able to see it.
Very wise, I’m reminded of something Nietzsche once said that I try to remind myself of: there are no facts, only interpretations. We do have the power to create our own reality. Speaking of using what we have and shaping it into something that can serve (and not hurt) us, you and Pablo craft your jewellery by hand, creating each piece the way jewellery was once always made. Do you feel as though the studio environment in itself helps to keep you inspired—its space, its tabletops, and the aromas of metal and polish?
Well, our studio is in our apartment, so we also enjoy the aromas of our home. Since we work with melting wax, one of our tables has a small can filled with wax alongside a flame that is burning almost all day long—we need the medium to be really melted to work with it. This wax has a very particular smell. There are a few things that almost feel as though they’re a part of the DNA of our brand: the smell of melted wax mixed with coffee, or maté—a traditional Argentinian drink—along with windows to let in the far off noises of the outside world, and the sound of Argentinian radio suddenly interrupted by the sounds of hand motors. Comfy clothes, too, always comfy clothes!
I can relate to that, definitely. I have to be comfortable to write, and always have incense burning. That combination of sounds must almost feel like the score of your creative process.
It’s interesting, usually, it’s like a fight of sounds. The wax tale generates smooth, relaxing notes for long periods of time, but then this calm is suddenly interrupted by cold and short noises from our metal table.
It’s almost as though this symphony is the pulse of your studio, I love that. Just as it seems there is never one sound you’re surrounded by, there is also never a single source of inspiration. Even so, what would you say drives you to continue doing what you do?
OSS has already become a part of our lives. It’s something we created together, so it’s like our son, it’s part of our small family. Not one day goes by where we do not talk about it, whether that be us talking about a new series, or discussing how to improve a piece we’re working on, or just business communication matters. This work has become natural to us, we’re always thinking of how to grow and evolve. In one way or another, our series are always expressing what’s going on in our own lives. What we feel, but also what we see, and how we see it.
You can browse the artisanal creations of OSS at www.oss-oss.com/, hand made by Josefina Varela and Pablo Fonteina in their Paris atelier.