Rudolf Heltzel: In Precious Metal and Bounded + Unlimited | Opening Night Speech by Mary Mullin

Posted 08.02.18

Rudolf Heltzel: In Precious Metal and Bounded + Unlimited | Opening Night Speech by Mary Mullin

We were delighted to welcome Mary Mullin, Design Consultant, Chair of Sir Misha Black Awards and Trustee of the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation, to the National Design & Craft Gallery to launch parallel exhibitions Rudolf Heltzel: In Precious Metal and Bounded + Unlimited: Contemporary Jewellery on Thursday, 1st February 2018. Below is her opening night speech in full.

What a joy to be in Kilkenny on St. Brigid’s Day. The day we Irish are optimistic or foolhardy enough to believe marks the first day of spring. So I come, like the poet did, with ‘a heart uplifted’ and, as you know, St. Brigid is the Patron Saint not only of poets but of all ‘smithworkers’. An auspicious day indeed!

We stand in what once were the stables of Kilkenny Castle. Castles evoke tales of mystery, romance and legend: tonight we are here to celebrate a modern legend. This is my contemporary version of a story associated with this castle from almost a thousand years ago. It goes something like this: a 20th century knight with a vision of how to make Ireland prosperous through commerce and good design, invited a talented stranger, a strongbow of a man, to come in peace to teach a modern generation lost skills, for which their ancestors were once renowned. This handsome, tall, red-headed modern strongbow brought with him, from a far northern country, his own very beautiful and gentle princess Eva and they lived in the shadow of the castle where, to this very day, you will find them. With imagination and magic they formed from metal and stone a collection of dazzlingly, breathtakingly beautifully crafted ornaments, fit for the fairest in Ireland and many lands beyond the seas. One day, these ornaments were brought together. They sparkled and shone and people gathered in great numbers to gaze in awe and wonderment at such treasures. 

We here tonight are the privileged ‘advance guard’ of the hundreds who will come to see this exhibition. It marks the anniversary of the arrival of Rudolf and Eva in Kilkenny 52 years ago and, especially,  the establishment of Rudolf’s goldsmithing workshop, 50 years ago this year. We are the first not only to see the exhibition but particularly to offer our congratulations to Rudolf, Eva and Christopher.

Gold has always been the stuff of alchemy and magic. Found in rushing streams, dug from seams below the earth, its allure has not failed since it first fascinated early man. But, as found, it is dull. It is only when it is released from surrounding stone, melted to remove impurities, exposed to heat, beaten, sawed and chiselled, bent and shaped by a master, who has the vision for what it might become, that ordinary folk can see its magic. The exquisite ornaments we see here were forged through artistry, vision, determination, and dedication to perfection by a true master.

In another thousand years these pieces will be as perfect as they are tonight, like those in the Broighter and Ardagh Hordes in the National Museum in Dublin. Or indeed, as were found in the grave of the First Emperor of China in Xian, or the El Dorado gold in Bogota. Rudolf’s pieces will still be admired for their artistry and skill.

However, I venture to suggest that the legacy which Rudolf has created is as precious as this gold. He came to Ireland at the invitation of William Walsh, under the aegis of Kilkenny Design Workshops, as a teacher and master. He recruited young people to train as apprentice goldsmiths and silversmiths. He was uncompromising in the standards he set for them. The apprentice training scheme produced, for the first time in centuries in Ireland, highly skilled gold and silversmiths who undertook examinations set and judged by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London.

Today, many of these teenage apprentices (some now grandfathers!) have trained their own sons and others in their art. So, what Rudolf began is being carried on to the next generation. Great teachers are rare and should be honoured. They give unselfishly of time and energy and enthusiasm to encourage and guide their pupils. Yeats said: "Education is about lighting a fire, not filling a bucket." Rudolf lit a fire in the spirit of his first apprentices. This fanned into a flame of talent which is reflected in the work produced in specialist gold and silver workshops in Kilkenny and other parts of Ireland. 

When Kilkenny Design Workshops closed, long after Rudolf had established his own business, and the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland, perceiving the need and knowing the demand, set up the jewellery and skills training programme here, Rudolf was closely connected with its establishment and continuing success. This is surely the great gift that Rudolf has given Ireland… the secrets of his craft, the handing on of skills and the mantra that perfection can only be achieved by dedication and hard work.

The pieces exhibited here - a fraction of his output over 50 years - are works of art. They evoke echoes of far away cultures and countries. The Pharaoh like geometric bands, the pre-history Celtic ornament, the clean Nordic lines or the Arabic and Persian traditions of beaten metal. But most of all, what I love about Rudolf’s work is how we see the natural world in virtually all his pieces. The quartz stones with inclusions give us a window into the inner earth from whence they came. Or they appear as tiny gardens seen through a secret door, frozen in time but, to the eye, still growing. The deep ebony black Druzy crystal framed in brilliant gold... had me speculating if this was Rudolf’s sub conscious tribute to Kilkenny... the black and gold of the hurlers’ jerseys! Then there are the butterflies with tourmaline wings in delicate gold settings... they  weigh multiple times a whole flutter of butterflies and yet, so delicate and light, they look as they are about to rise from the display and fly off to new pastures. Instead of imprisoning stones in cold metal, Rudolf’s mastery makes his pieces come alive and they demand that we think about the hidden treasures that this universe holds, if only we have eyes to see them.


It is indeed appropriate that Rudolf and Eva’s son Chris is one of the four younger generation jewellers represented in the parallel exhibition opening tonight, Bounded + Unlimited.  Two Irish jewellers and two of their counterparts from China show their work in a harmonious coming together allowing us to simultaneously view, for the first time, work of craftsmen from, literally, the most western tip of Europe to the most Eastern tip of the Northern Hemisphere. But it is NOT the first cultural exchange between Ireland and China. I was very privileged to be the Director of the Emperor’s Warriors exhibition which was held in what is now the Museum of Modern Art in 1986 which marked the signing of a cultural agreement between the two countries. I learned much working with the distinguished Chinese professors who came to Dublin.

Here, we see the work of Professor Hu Jun who is particularly interested in exploring the differences between Eastern and Western visual thinking and I hope he will share the results of this exploration with us.

Binju Chen is from Beijing.  Her delicate work draws inspiration from traditional Chinese culture and technology. Her beautiful pearl and gold bracelet evokes the Empresses of ancient China. It is easy to imagine those pearls gently moving with the wave of a royal hand.

Eimear Conyard has the future of Ireland’s jewellers and goldsmiths in her hands as she directs the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland’s courses here in these stables. She brings to that role a wealth of experience teaching and learning in many countries. She produces minute sculptures which might also be worn.

Chris Heltzel’s work demonstrates so clearly and exquisitely that he has indeed followed in his father’s footsteps. It is a fitting tribute to both that his work should be part of the very first jewellery exchange between this tiny island of Ireland and the great and still mysterious and yet, very modern, land of China.

Great celebrations are about looking back and being grateful and we are more than grateful to Rudolf for the beauty he has brought into our lives, and for the legacy he has left us. Tonight we are also celebrating the future and the handing on of skills, as the four teachers featured in the Bounded + Unlimited exhibition will do. My wish for them and for all of the craftspeople in Ireland and China is that 50 years from now they will be celebrating together friends made through sharing ideas, creativity and skills.  

My very great thanks to Rudolf and Eva for their friendship which has stood the test of separation and to all those with whom I worked here in Kilkenny and who I am fortunate to still call friends, and especially to the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland for inviting me to be here tonight.  So on this night of the Feast of St. Brigid, Patron of all Smiths and as we approach Chinese New Year,  I raise my glass to designers, craftspeople, to international collaboration and most of all to friendship. May these prove to be as valued and as lasting as gold.


Mary V Mullin,   February 1, 2018

Both Rudolf Heltzel: In Precious Metal and Bounded + Unlimited: Contemporary Jewellery exhibitions run in parallel at the National Design & Craft Gallery until 18th April (free admission). A full schedule of accompanying events, from family days to ring-making workshops, will take place over the coming weeks. Full details are here

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