erwin springbrunn national museum cobwebs galway

Erwin Springbrunn: Working with ‘a Master’

By tracy sweeney

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Its Friday night & the house is quiet. The kids are finally in bed after a 6am start & a full day of a 5 year olds questions; Can I get a rabbit? Why do sensor lights come on at night? Are snails just slugs with a shell? I don’t want to go to school on Monday! (Sob, Sob, tantrum) Asleep! Anyway! It’s my time now and I am ready to do some long awaited sketching for a new collection of haute-couture jewellery. I take down a segmented wooden box of hand-cut gemstones and it hits me once again as I open the lid; he’s gone. The man who cut these stones is gone. He’s gone over a year & a half now and I’m still not over it. The light reflects upwards from the box & leaves me in awe every time.

I have had the pleasure of working with some of the most amazing goldsmiths over the years but I will always have only one ‘master’ (the term given to the head goldsmith, when one is training as an apprentice). Erwin Springbrunn. His name alone conjures up the stuff of Tolkien.  Little elf-goldsmiths; hammers & tongs, fires & sparks.  Who’s was this elusive man & why was he different from all the rest? Because he most certainly was different.

The first time I visited Erwin’s workshop, I arrived as part of a convoy of young goldsmiths, eager for learning, from the Design & Crafts Council of Irelands, Goldsmithing course. We arrived, en masse on a mini-bus from Kilkenny, all the way to Frenchpark, Roscommon. The bus pulled into his drive & we were greeted with the view of a house akin to ‘the Swiss Family Robinson’ (the German version). All trees & turrets, fallen apples & goldfish swimming in a well. Out of an ivy-clad door, strolls Erwin. The Dumbledore of the jewellery world. Ancient, wise, bearded, with a peaked hat & a grin on his face. He stood on the step of the bus & greeted us with a hefty “Welcome, colleagues”. I’m not sure why this amazed me so much, that we were not students to him, we were colleagues. Equals. He brought us into his tiny home, low ceilings, packed to capacity with love and attention to detail. Cuckoos popping out of clocks and home grown apricots on the table. Kettle steaming on the range. He showed us around the goldsmithing workshop & the lapidary bench (Erwin’s bench for hand-cutting precious gemstones). We were all enthralled.

There are points in your life where you know that your future has been changed inexorably. This was mine. This was my future. This career was where I wanted to dwell, day in, day out. This wasn’t going to be a job, this was a vocation, a calling and a way of life. I was mentally in it for the long haul now. There was a responsibility to learn as much as possible, to learn it & teach it & pass on this knowledge that this man was so openly, honestly & freely giving us. Whats more, like him, I wanted to educate people about fine-jewellery, to teach clients to spot the difference in the detritus of baubles sold in the high-street jewellery store. Choose less, but choose well.

There was an empty chair at a bench in his tiny workshop, a friend from the course said ‘that one’s for you Nigel!’ and I knew that it was. Being the only ‘west of Ireland man’ on a bus full of students from ‘everywhere else’, I knew that I’d be back, that I might be lucky enough to visit this humble man again & learn under him. I followed up that meeting time & time again, on my own. Every chance I got I would spend a few days learning the ways of the Master, but mainly, just listening. People have an aversion to listening. Maybe it’s technologies downfall, but it’s the most important lesson I could have learned. Listen, listen, keep listening & soak it all up. I took it all in. Erwin’s techniques of goldsmithing & maybe more importantly, his life-skills are still resounding around my head. I speak them to my kids now. Full circle.

Erwin’s works grace private & public collections in Ireland, the UK, America and beyond. His creations hang in the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks & the Basilica in Knock, among others. His gifted, almost Art Nouveau style, allowed his work to be free, easy on the eye, organic in style, with a huge influence coming from the fact that he & his wife Doris successfully built a 100% organic farm, from the hard lands of Roscommon. They hoisted wind-turbines & rain-water harvesters, smoked home-grown meat & drank organic apple juice year-round. Erwin carried rough gemstones in his pocket, waiting to ‘get to know’ each stone before he sat at the bench & sliced, cut & polished it, until every facet of stone sparkled & glowed with light. No-two pieces of jewellery were ever the same. Each were works of art. Each perfect. No less than that. Standards were made to be surpassed, bettered. His reputation & followers grew larger in number. This humble man attracted people like a magnet, one could only be drawn to him, never leaving his easy (but sometimes highly honestly critical) company.

I am personally indebted to Erwin for sharing his knowledge. If I can pass on the knowledge he gave me, I will have done my bit. For now, I content myself with designing & creating ornate settings for his valued gemstones. Rings & pendants, there is no point hiding these masterpieces in a wooden box. I can peruse all the catwalks of the world, but no gemstone will surpass an original Erwin Springbrunn. Rare, illuminated and highly missed. Thank you Erwin, your will never realise your ripple effect.

Erwin Springbrunns rare stones can be viewed as part of my haute-couture jewellery creations in Cobwebs, Quay Lane, Galway.

Nigel x


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