Kinetic finger ring with cone-shaped bezel and sphere. Dorotheum / YouTube

Jewellery in motion

Jewellery does not have to be static. The jewellery artist Friedrich Becker was also of this opinion and created fascinating pieces of jewellery with moving parts. Some of them found their way into the collection of the Swiss National Museum.

Beatriz Chadour-Sampson

Beatriz Chadour-Sampson

Based in England Beatriz Chadour-Sampson is an international jewellery historian. Her publications range from Antiquity to the present day, such as 2000 Finger Rings from the Alice and Louis Koch Collection, Switzerland (1994) of which she continues to be a consultant for the Swiss National Museum.

Friedrich Becker was a goldsmith, jeweller, sculptor and engineer, an artistic genius and renowned as the inventor of kinetic (moving) jewellery. His career began as an engine fitter, a mechanical and aeronautical engineer. After being heavily wounded during the Second World War, he returned home in 1945 and worked briefly in a dental laboratory, before following a desire to work with gold. Becker progressed from apprentice to graduate at the Werkkunstschule Düsseldorf (today the Fachhochschule für Gestaltung), where he would later hold a professorship from 1964 to 1982. Becker’s “Two Way Ring” of 1956, made from gold with a magnificent moonstone, belongs to his “cabochon” period, a rejection of traditional stone cuts and settings in favour of polished but unfacetted stones. Undecided about how to set the stone, he designed this ring so that the wearer could choose to wear it either horizontally or vertically on the finger. It is the precursor of the variable jewellery he made in the 1960s and 1970s, when he developed a hinge system that allowed a jewel to be worn in innumerable permutations.
"Two Way Ring" by Friedrich Becker, 1956.
"Two Way Ring" by Friedrich Becker, 1956. Swiss National Museum / Alice and Louis Koch Collection
In the 1950s and 1960s Becker designed jewels with unconventional and uniquely shaped gemstones which were cut and set following models made by him in other materials. His settings were astounding. To enhance the gemstone the setting becomes almost invisible, and the stone appears to float, like the ring with a bone-shaped aquamarine from 1966, held simply by two small claws.
Gold ring with aquamarine, 1966.
Gold ring with aquamarine, 1966. Swiss National Museum / Alice and Louis Koch Collection
In 1959 Becker caused a sensation and disbelief when he won the Bavarian State Prize for his 1957 “Kugelspannring” (ring with sphere held by tension). The hoop and bezel are formed from a single sweeping loop that encircles the finger and ends as two claws supporting the sphere-shaped gemstone. By pressing the lower part of the hoop, the claws open, and the wearer can change the stone for another that best matches the colour of their dress or occasion. To achieve the spring tension the gold needed to be cold forged, not annealed, a technique Becker kept secret at the time. He described why the sphere recurs in his work: ‘The sphere is an absolutely perfect form’.
Ring with smoky quartz sphere held by tension, 1957.
Ring with smoky quartz sphere held by tension, 1957. RSV Collection
Becker’s experiments with variable jewellery gave way to his earliest kinetic brooch in 1964, shown for the first time at his 1966 solo exhibition at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London. In 1966 he made his first kinetic ring, and in 1971 designed a number of highly polished white gold kinetic rings. Becker’s kinetic principles relied on the movement of the wearer’s body or hand to set the elements in motion, and also the use of concealed micro ball bearings. Here a ball seemingly rotates around the cone; in reality the two parts are firmly attached and ball bearings in the cone trick the eye. These optical illusions were created with spheres, hemispheres and diverse geometric forms, either as jewels or as monumental sculptures. Becker’s imagination was boundless and the viewer remained mystified by the mechanics.
Kinetic finger ring with cone-shaped bezel and sphere, 1972 / 1999.
Kinetic finger ring with cone-shaped bezel and sphere, 1972 / 1999. Swiss National Museum / Alice and Louis Koch Collection
In an interview in 1994 Becker mentioned he had designed over 500 rings, not counting the variants. He had made his first ring in 1938, consisting of 116 components, before becoming a jeweller. He believed a goldsmith should never rely on chance, because when one worked with metals near to the melting point, there was no scope for error. With his background in engineering, precision was always his ultimate goal. Before 1940, when working as a toolmaker and engine fitter at Rheinmetall Borsig, he experimented with a number of metal-cutting techniques like drilling, filing and chiseling, and developed a signet ring out of a block of stainless steel. This experience with non-precious metals influenced his later jewellery in stainless steel, first used in 1964 and a dominant feature of his work by the 1980s. For Becker, stainless steel applied with a matt finish provided a contemporary contrast to brightly polished white gold.
Friedrich Becker in his kinetic room.
Friedrich Becker in his kinetic room. RSV Collection
Becker also explored combining stainless steel with synthetic stones. In Switzerland in the early 1960s he met a professor in physics and chemistry who produced synthetic stones for industrial use and was amazed that Becker wanted to use them for jewellery. In 1966 Becker created a stainless steel brooch with a round disc and vertical fold through which a synthetic ruby rod of 7.4 cm, made by the professor, was positioned horizontally. Later, the stones were cut to Becker’s designs as cubes, cylinders, rods, prisms, cones and even facetted, differing in size and natural crystalline structure from any stone found in nature. He said: “even the layman should be able to recognize that it is a synthetic stone”. A stainless steel and synthetic sapphire ring from 1993 boasts two kinetic elements: both the disc and the invisibly set stone rotates. Hidden from view below the disc is a small weight which sets off a micro ball bearing. Unaware of the mechanism the viewer believes the rod will fly off the disc. The square finger hoop is not only comfortable to wear, but also a perfect counterbalance for the kinetic elements due to the heavier weight of the lower corners.
Kinetic finger ring of stainless steel with square hoop and synthetic sapphire, 1993.
Kinetic finger ring of stainless steel with square hoop and synthetic sapphire, 1993. Swiss National Museum / Alice and Louis Koch Collection
Becker’s kinetic work became his trademark. In Düsseldorf he had a display room dedicated to kinetic pieces where visitors could see jewels, sculptures and objects in perpetual movement under a plaque bearing his own words: “Movement is the only stable thing”. A highly inventive, colourful and futuristic kinetic helmet from 1987 characterized his philosophy: “man was born to play”.
Friedrich Becker's jewellery in motion. Dorotheum / YouTube

The collection

The exhibition showcases more than 7,000 exhibits from the Museum’s own collection, highlighting Swiss artistry and craftsmanship over a period of about 1,000 years. The exhibition spaces themselves are important witnesses to contemporary history, and tie in with the objects displayed to create a historically dense atmosphere that allows visitors to immerse themselves deeply in the past.

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