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Top-notch craft in Alexandra Raphael's enamel jewelry

| Wednesday, May 2, 2012, 1:10 p.m.

Being the daughter of Society for Contemporary Craft founder Elizabeth "Betty" Rockwell Raphael, it's no wonder that Alexandra Raphael grew up to become a craft artist whose remarkably detailed work is recognized the world over.

Having lived in London for the past three decades, she has perfected the ancient craft of enameling. "Alex" Raphael specializes in plique-a-jour (backless enamel), utilizing the technique in the creation of intricately designed enamel bowls and cloisonne jewelry.

Currently more than two dozen pieces of her jewelry are on display at the institution that, 40 years after its founding, has become a part of the Raphael family, which includes her sister Cathy, of Squirrel Hill, her late parents, Orin and Betty, and sister Margaret Raphael, who died in December.

Alex Raphael grew up in an artistic family. Her father studied furniture design at Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's New Bauhaus School in Chicago and her mother operated Pittsburgh's first modern-art gallery, Outlines, between 1941 and '47. Alexandra was named after sculptor Alexander Calder. One of his signature mobiles hung in the Raphael home in Oakmont.

Having an interest in designing jewelry since a young age, Alex Raphael became interested in learning how to work with enamel as a teenager. After moving to Ireland while in her 20s, she was asked to create an enamel bowl to be given as a gift to the president of Ireland in 1975. She also began to win awards for her work, ultimately winning 1st prize in 1975 for her "Moon Necklace" in a National Craft Competition.

That piece, which featured a "princess face in the moon" design, was based on "The Princess Who Wanted The Moon" by James Thurber, which her mother read to her as a child.

Several of the pieces on display in this show were inspired by similar stories. For example, the "Black Foot Prayer Shield" amulet on a string of garnet beads was inspired by Native American folktales Raphael heard around the campfire when she was a Brownie in the Girl Scouts. Next to it is a similarly inspired "Crow Prayer Brooch," which has a deep-blue piece of iolite as the center stone, accentuated with a star design enameled behind it.

The dazzling colors are created from the metal oxides contained in the enamel, which is essentially crushed and pulverized colored glass that is melted in a kiln at between 800 to 1,500 degrees C. "Metal oxides in the enamel create the colors," she says. "Magnesium for purple, cobalt for blue, gold for red."

The laborious process is not fail-proof. Raphael says she spends hours bending and shaping thin strands of silver and gold wire into the shapes that contain the enamel. Gradually she applies a thin layer of ground glass between her intricate wire design. After several firings in the kiln, layer upon layer of translucent enamel overlap each other and the depth of color emerges with each new application and firing. Finally, the finished enamel piece is ready for polishing.

"It's a layering process," Raphael says. "Pieces may be fired up to 20 times to slowly build up a layer of color. It's like a watercolor made of glass, where the gold and metal shows through the glass, as paper does the paint.

"I sometimes tell my students you have to be a masochistic be an enameler," she says. "A second too long in the kiln and disaster."

Several pairs of earrings combining gold and silver are from her "Study in Grey" series. Here, Raphael has incorporated reflective gold and silver foils that resulted in changing colors across the surface of each piece, creating a subtle contrast between the warmth of the gold and the cold of the silver.

Other works incorporate precious stones and pearls, such as her "Dream Series" necklace and earrings, which combine, aquamarine, lolite and agate beads.

The exhibit culminates with the piece "Amulet for My Mother," which combines silver and gold with tourmaline stone and lapis beads. This necklace, created in memory of Raphael's mother, depicts an eclipse of the sun with a face in the moon, hearkening back to her earlier award-winning piece, as well as a window representing her childhood home in Oakmont, her zodiac sign and a hand holding a drop of blood, underneath which is the word "STAY."

Curiously, there is also the letter "B." When asked, she says, "The B is for Betty, and because she was always busy as a bee." Raphael says. "I made this during the last years of her life."

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