Julia Maria Künnap is an Estonian jewellery artist and self-taught gem cutter with the ability to alter the natural state of gem materials, transforming them into sweeping brush strokes, malleable textures and molten forms.
Highly tactile and visually captivating, Künnap’s work excites and conflates the senses while pushing the boundaries of traditional methods of gem cutting to greater limits. The It Starts Raining earrings are the perfect example of her signature style, where she developed an unorthodox approach of combining the facet cut and free form engraving, resulting in creations which visually defy the very nature of the material itself. The idea of turning gemstones into melting forms was first conceived in a dream. An element of illusion and sense of wonderment characterises her work as faceted gems appear to ‘melt and drip’ momentarily captured in an eternal state.
Since graduating from the Estonian Academy of Arts, Jewellery Art Department, Künnap has steadily carved out a unique aesthetic for herself. She has exhibited in group exhibitions throughout Europe and Asia and in 2013 she had her first solo exhibition in the Emerging Artist Platform at Sienna Patti, Massachusetts, USA. Some of her work is in the collections of the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design, Boston Museum of Fine Arts and MAD Museum of Arts and Design New York. In 2018, her lapidary work was recognised by the coveted Herbert Hofmann Prize.
L-R: What kind of tree was that II; From black to black IV - obsidian and silver earrings
Isabella Yan: How did you come to be a jeweller and gem cutter?
Julie Maria Künnap: I've been studying art since my early childhood and have always been interested in 3D sculpture. As a teenager, I went to art school regularly, studying classical life drawing, painting, composition, sculpture and art history. This preparation was great for me to enter an art academy, but I was afraid of the uncertainty of becoming a fine artist. As soon as I found out there was an opportunity to study jewellery, I chose that instead! I saw jewellery as miniature sculpture, which I liked very much. I was at the art academy for six years during which I immersed myself into many conceptual jewellery projects and advanced practical studies using all kinds of goldsmith technologies. Afterwards I continued four years of Bachelor’s degree and a further two years for a Master's degree.
First night frosts
IY: Your gems appear to be ‘melted.’ Where did this inspiration come from and can you tell me your approach?
JMK: I've noticed that sometimes there's a very long time gap between an event happening and finding meaning behind it. I was a first year student at the academy when I had a vivid dream of a ring that had been given to me. In my dream it became a huge synthetic sapphire that was ‘melting’. Ten years later, I stumbled upon that ring again and it brought back those dreams. From those memories there came an inspiration - what if it's actually possible to cut a melting gem?
I love the short circuits of the mind that are offered to us, like in these dreams and I try to embrace this method into my creative process. I had learned basic stone cutting at the academy, but not faceting. I also understood that I cannot just walk into someone's faceting studio and ask to use their machines, because I would misuse the gear. So I bought a simple machine, modified it a little and learned the basics from the Internet.
L-R: Still no answer II - smoky quartz and gold ring
IY: What influences your creative process?
JMK: On a very basic level we all share the same life with its everyday joys and worries, love and solitude. It’s common human ground. Sometimes it's the joy of nice weather, a particular moment in time when cloud shadows run over the ground, a gentle breeze in the branches behind your window, a moment of lightness. If I manage to include some of these little things in my work, maybe it would touch other souls out there.
IY: How would you describe your work aesthetic and style?
JMK: I work as a jewellery artist exhibiting at contemporary jewellery art galleries. In this context my work appears to be made of very conventional materials using traditional techniques. I use both carving and faceting, but the technical virtuosity is only a tool to express myself, never a goal by itself. Like a ballerina jump – it's beautiful if she jumps high, but it's always just a tool to express the mood of a dance.
Why is it still overgrowing II - nephrite and gold earrings
IY: What do you want women to feel when they wear your pieces?
JMK: Not only women! I'd like every piece to start a dialogue with the wearer. To give the wearer a feeling that they could be part of another reality, as if my pieces were shards fallen from another world.
IY: What are the pitfalls of your journey and challenges in the industry?
JMK: The creative process needs dedication and making something new can take an unforeseen amount of time, which I enjoy, but the uncertainty is sometimes quite challenging. This is a natural feeling and recognition can sometimes kill creativity, because when one starts repeating a successful formula, there's no need for anything new.
IY: What inspires you as a jewellery artist?
JMK: Finding something new while walking a path many people have walked before me. If you want to be innovative, you don't have to make something completely new – the audience wouldn't understand it, since there's nothing they can relate to. Instead, I like to take an old and known shape or design that everybody is familiar with and reflect it from an angle nobody has seen before.
IY: What is your favourite jewel you’ve designed and why?
JMK: It's always my last piece. As long as I can say that, I will continue. If I cannot, I should quit.
IY: What is your favourite gem material to work with and why?
JMK: I love quartz in all its forms, because its large scale and easy-to-find rough and so It gives me freedom to mess up without much regret. I also love nephrite because of its durability making it possible to carve the pieces so thinly that they appear almost transparent.
Maybe tonight - smoky quartz and gold brooch
IY: How do your technique and tools differ from other gemstone cutters?
JMK: In gem cutting, one needs a different tool for every kind of work. My workshop is rather simple, but most of the tools are adjusted or self-made to meet my needs.
IY: Your work epitomises the intersection between art and jewellery. What kind of people love to wear or collect your jewellery?
JMK: The wearers and collectors of my work come from a variety of different backgrounds. They often have a certain amount of self-confidence, which drives them away from traditional jewellery to try something new and unusual.
IY: What are you working on now?
JMK: There are several step cut stones with water ripples on top of them on my bench. I really enjoy creating the illusion of liquid by bending the step cut pavillion lines with a carved crown of the gemstone. It opens a new horizon of free form faceting.
Interview: Isabella Yan Art meets Jewellery: Women's Series https://artmeetsjewellery.com/womensseries/