SOFIE BOONS

ON VISUALIZING THE INVISIBLE AND THE LATEST INVENTIONS OF ALCHEMICAL JEWELLER

sofie portrait

Sofie Boons is a jewellery designer with a conceptual approach to making. Her simple yet clever pieces are the outcomes of obsessive and meticulous research, and long-term collaborations are fundamental to her creative process. Passionate about finding new and innovative alternatives for the traditional, her jewellery tells stories about visualizing and capturing the invisible and the ephemeral. Sofie has graduated from MA in Jewellery and Metal from Royal College of Art and works from a lab or from her studio in London.

WORDS Nina Thorstensen
PHOTOS Rosaline Shahnavaz

When and why did you become a jewellery designer?

After graduating from an art-based degree when I was eighteen, I happened to walk into the Jewellery Design and Silversmithing department at the Academy of Fine Art in Antwerp, Belgium, and was instantly drawn to tools, workshops, materials and processes that I’ve seen there. The first time I handled a file and saw the frame I knew this was the trade for me. After my Bachelor’s degree in Antwerp I also completed a Master’s degree at the MAD-Faculty in Hasselt where I started exploring my interest in the alchemical and more specifically in the relationship between jewellery and scents, before moving to London in 2013 for further studies at the Royal College of Art.

As an Alchemical Jeweller you have an interdisciplinary approach, your creations are inspired by science as well as the lush world of scents, perfumes and smells. How do dynamics between the two play in your work?

Many things related to the worlds of science, substances and scents inspire me. What ties all my collections together is that each one is always an answer to a question that I asked myself, or is a visualization of an idea or a concept. Visualizing invisible gold or appointing a shape to a certain scent can have very different end results but what excited me about both of them is the approach and the working process, which are similar.

I am obsessed with finding different techniques and materials and determined to find solutions for the visualization and containment of invisible substances, through design of jewellery and objects. Therefore my work is not restricted to a certain material or technique and I love to collaborate with others for the development of the work. The collaboration with scientists, nanotechnologists, bacteria-experts, glassblowers, ceramicists, cooks, perfumers, and other experts in a variety of fields allows me to look for new and innovative alternatives for the traditional, whilst exploring the boundaries of the medium and trade.

What is your definition of contemporary Alchemist?

My definition of an alchemist is a crazy, creative, rule-breaking, scientific maker looking for new inventions and realizing the impossible. Many of my colleagues and friends kept calling me The Alchemist because of my interest in materials, substances and scents. Soon the title ‘The Alchemical Jeweller’ became the only title that suited my creative practice. I therefore found the definition:

The Alchemical Jeweller [adj. + n.]
A maker of objects and adornments; who finds inspiration in substances, scents and science.
Pronunciation: /alˈkɛmɪk(ə)l/ /ˈdʒuːələ/

“We do not have a suitable lexicon within our language to analyse and discuss scents.”

Can you say something about how you think value, appreciation and meaning of scent and the sense of smell has changed throughout history and how do you anticipate it will in the future times?

The scents have once represented connections with the gods, and in some cultures were even as precious as gold, but in the modern times this has all changed. During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there occurred a change in the domestic sphere, and there were some drastic interventions into the sensory landscape in order to deodorise. Alongside the massive battle against the physical presence of miasmas,the sense of smell also got criticised on a theoretical and philosophical level. Philosophers such as Kant, Condillac, Hegel, and later Darwin and Freud decided that the sense of smell was one of the ‘lower senses’ and proclaimed its dismissal. Parallel with the philosophers’ disinterest in the sense of smell was the scientific uncertainty about the status of scent as a carrier for diseases. Few scientists were interested in the topic, and when germ theory finally released scent from its poisonous status no one continued the research, which led to a retardation compared to the knowledge that was already available on other senses.

Smells are sensory stimuli are very inaccessible to the methods of science; they are hard to capture, measure, detect, recreate and study, which made them no more popular for scientists. René Descartes had already pointed out during the sixteenth century that the interesting sense for science is that of sight, and this was acknowledged during the following centuries. The disinterest of scientists led to an unfinished study of the sense of smell. Whilst the functioning of all other senses had already been unravelled, the functioning of the sense of smell would only be discovered in 1991 by Linda Buck and Richard Axel, who received the Nobel prize for their study in 2004. This arrears of knowledge concerning the sense of smell, I feel, contributes to the disparagement of it. Because the general public up until today is still not aware of what the sense of smell contributes to our daily lives, they are less likely to estimate its value and therefore the value of scents.

Alongside the sense of smell’s denigration due to its cultural history, I believe the fact that we do not have a suitable lexicon within our language to analyse and discuss scents, which might contribute to the under-appreciation of the sense. Numerous theoretical texts have been written about the blue used for Yves Klein’s work, a single note in the world of music has its own symbol, doctors have invented dozens of words to describe the tactile sensations of pain and uncountable discussions have taken place about the contribution to taste by singular elements on a plate, but rarely are we able to discuss scents in depth. We can only talk about scents by using alternative solutions. For example by naming the source that emanated the smell; rose smells like rose and lemon smells like lemon. We also borrow words from the other senses; this is a heavy, high, sweet, green smell. We describe whether we find the scent pleasant or unpleasant, or we might even connect the scent to an experience and describe the experience and feelings we felt whilst experiencing, which is often done in literature. The reason for the underdevelopment of a language for scents might be a result of the fact that there is not a real connection between the part of the brain that deals with scents, the limbic system – one of the oldest parts of the brain – and the part of the brain that deals with language – which is the newer part of the brain. On top of that there is the fact that most scent-signals are predominantly registered on an unconscious level whilst using language is very conscious. Writing and talking about scents for this reason is very difficult, and although non-Western cultures are more advanced in their language about scents, there is no common public vocabulary available. I say available, because there is a language invented for scents, which is used by the perfume industry. This language, however, is not accessible to the general public because the perfume industry is afraid of losing its profession by allowing the outside world to gain the knowledge that it has.

The sense of smell is in many ways different from the other senses. The indescribable sense is insubstantial, pervasive, emotionally loaded and immediate, which makes it appear as a treat to our Western culture in which distance and objectiveness are key. If the general public is not made aware of the importance of scents, and the language on scents continues to be inaccessible, I don’t see an immediate change in our appreciation of the sense of smell and scents. If however more people realise the importance of the functioning of our sense of smell and spread this knowledge until it becomes general knowledge there might be a changed world around the corner.

Collaboration has been integral part of your working process; you’re always on a look out for new and alternative methods. You’ve been interested in exploring gold, which is a traditional jeweller’s material but looking beyond the visible; at Nano gold particles. The result was a collection of NauNo and NagNo beads made out of dispersed gold and silver particles in resin, which you made in collaboration with Imperial College London. Could you describe different stages of the project?

Jodie Melbourne and I met during an event organised by the Imperial College Committee called ‘Artifact’. Our first collaborative approach was focusing on the concept of inhalable jewellery, and this led us into research on metals on a nanoscale. By learning more about these tiny particles we became determined to find a way to contain them and showcase their amazing optical effects in a safe and wearable material suitable for jewellery.

Stained glass windows of medieval churches have alternate-sized gold and silver particles, which create colours since hundreds of years ago. The artists back then just didn’t know that the process they used to create these beautiful works of art actually led to changes in the composition of materials they were working with. Modern day nanoparticles are created in the laboratory by scientists and are generally used for many medical uses, from imaging and aiding diagnoses to delivering therapies. Using this form of gold and silver for the creation of jewellery, however, is a novelty. For this project we did not use glass to disperse the particles but our own resin recipe. The advantage of using resin is that it is easy to work with in the lab environment. It also has a long enough setting timeframe in which we can add the particles, disperse them by sonication and precisely cast them – limiting wastage. Resin also has the advantage that it can be exactly measured and we could therefore accurately monitor the results.

We have spent over a year on the research on how to develop the casting process and experimented with different quantities, sizes, surface capping and quality of nanoparticles. The result is a range of different coloured beads displaying remarkable optical properties.

With ‘Eternalised Scent’ collection you have created a set of glass rings where essential oils have been captured inside the glass, the ring becoming a kind of wearable scent container. Where did the concept originate from and what kind of story did you wish to tell?

Scents are incredibly precious and a drop of essential oil can need, in some cases, over a thousand flowers to be produced. Yet the time we enjoy an essential oil is incredibly short. By encapsulating these oils in a glass piece I give them a new lifetime as a piece of jewellery, which can be enjoyed as long as the piece is not broken. These essential oils are incredibly beautiful, their heaviness and their natural depth of color are aspects that are not noticed otherwise. If at some point the wearer decides that she wants to smell the oil she has been wearing, she can sacrifice the ornament and smell its content.

What kind of things is influencing your work right now?

I am still interested in the same things I was when I started designing jewellery; scents, science and materials. I am continuing my quest to make interesting jewellery that tries to visualise the invisible and spreads the word on the importance, beauty and awareness of scents in all its shapes, forms and applications. Reinventing ways in which we wear perfume is still very much a topic of research in my practice, alongside playing around with new materials, and pushing the boundaries of the traditional.

What do you want a viewer to walk away with after seeing your work?

First of all I want the viewer and wearer of my piece to connect with the work. When I hear a wearer passionately talk about my jewellery piece and its story, I feel I have achieved my aims. I want my pieces to evoke conversations, carry meanings and most importantly inspire a need to share these with others.