The Sound of Workmanship According to Hans Brumann

Hans Brumann is showing me a bangle: made of the indigenous hardwood kamagong and embellished with narrow strokes of silver and diamonds, the piece is a good example of the style Brumann has cultivated in the past 44 years that he has been in the business.

“Listen to this,” he says, gesturing for my wrist and pulling a latch on the bangle which opens with a pleasing affirmative click. “This is the sound of workmanship.” The wood is polished just enough to show the grain, and whatever gloss or luster might be found lacking is easily compensated with just enough lines of stones and precious metal. “Just enough,” also applies to the weight around my wrist as I turn it to observe the bangle which just rests easily against my skin instead of slipping up and down my arm like any other awkwardly cast resin piece. “Just enough,” in this case applies to everything except the price tag, which is twice what we paid for the car I drove to Brumann’s Legaspi Village studio.

This is the price of workmanship; an aspect of craft common to the practices of art and design. While both share an obligation to the creation of beauty, design’s primary role is in the production of utilitarian objects. What both practices also share are reservations expressed even by its icons. “My job is completely useless,” says virtuoso of French minimalism, Philippe Starck, “But I continue to work, even if it’s for a toilet brush.” The relationship of design to art could indeed be a common obligation towards the continuation of a narrative that is progress, which in the right degrees can contribute to the enrichment of our humanity—even when the object in question is a toilet brush.

When function and utility come into question, the title “Jewelry Designer” becomes a tad bit problematic. Jewelry, ornamental by nature and priced at par with fine art due to its material components, is at the interface of necessity and desire. The amounts paid and lengths people are willing to go tread that fine line between frivolity and investment. But “Jewelry Designer” is what Hans Brumann is, and jewelry design is the only thing he can imagine as his life’s work. When asked if he considered himself a Swiss or a Filipino designer after four decades of living and practicing in the Philippines, Brumann simply answered, “There is no Filipino or Swiss designer. I’m just a designer.”

The practice of being “just a designer” comes into play with Hans Brumann’s mastery of getting it “just right”, a concept that’s closer to Merlin Mann’s Appropriatism than to the minimalist movement that has served Brumann’s brand so well over the years. In the words of graphic designer Frank Chimero, appropriatist thought rests not on “Less is more,” but on the even more elusive sweet spot, “that thing that fits just right, plus or minus zero.” And this is what Hans Brumann’s brand has come to stand for, despite being known for a product wholly contradictory to the core precepts both minimalism and appropriatism.

“I had an urge to see the world when I was 27. I saw an ad in a professional magazine for a jewelry designer, and I came here.” Aside from a four-year apprenticeship as a goldsmith, Brumann also went to technical school for jewelry design in his native Switzerland, then to Germany to further his studies in the history and technique of his profession. “I have a very European design sensibility, very minimalist, but I’m also heavily influenced by Asian culture and have to be flexible with what my clients want.” This was an adjustment that paid off after he left La Estrella del Norte, the century old trading firm that brought him to the Philippines in 1967. By the time Brumann started his own practice in the late 70s, he had a loyal clientele who believed deeply enough in his philosophy to follow him through two companies amidst a changing economic landscape.

“It’s tremendous how everything has changed,” he remembers of the beginnings of his practice, back when the main event was the Kairup Ball, which kept Brumann and company up day and night, dressing up Manila’s high society doyennes and expatriate wives. “Maybe looking at jewelry from that time, you’ll see how much they liked to show off. They still do now, but at the time, we made rings that had stones that stood very high off the band. As if the higher the stone, the more beautiful it was, which is not necessarily true.”

It is not only an obligation to personal style, but context as well have necessitated Brumann’s minimalist aesthetic, as well as maintained the loyalty of his clientele. Over the years, Brumann has seen shifts in consumer desires driven shifts in the local economy, to which he has skillfully adjusted without compromising his brand. ”Gold prices have gone sky high, from Php400/oz. it’s now Php1400/oz,” a fact which never fails to shock Brumann’s clients, for whom everything is done in 18 karats. This has forced the company to begin experimenting with alternatives, such as kamagong, molave, black coral, mother of pearl, and “shells we just picked up on the beach.” New collections made from these materials will be showcased alongside Brumann’s signature pieces at the Design Gallery in Hong Kong this March.

So far, the skyrocketing prices of the tools of Brumann’s trade, as well as a lack of openness to the new materials have not served the company well. “They think if it’s not gold, it’s not worth anything.” But the challenge through all of this has been maintaining an obligation to the minimalist aesthetic despite changes in the local market for luxury goods “There’s a challenge in trying to make something beautiful at a lower cost.” Getting to the heart of Hans Brumann’s dedication to minimalism comes with understanding the circumstances that have informed it over the decades. Before working for La Estrella del Norte, Brumann was an apprentice in the studio of Andrew Gima, a designer whose style typified the decadence of the swinging 60s and early 70s. “Back then, gold cost 40-50 dollars an ounce. Materials cost less than labor, so we could really go wild. You were very free at the time to work with jewelry, so it was very liberating.” This was a far cry from the reserved aesthetic of the post-war years in which Brumann grew up.

The influence of Western European art movements such as De Stijl and Bauhaus, with their clean lines and hard edges, remain evident in Brumann’s concept of “minimalist”, but even these blend seamlessly with the meandering and heavily ornamented Eastern aesthetic, evoked by his use of color and often unconventional choice of stones which range from tourmalines to tanzanite. This is the product not only of a decades old practice but of several collaborations with artists such as Arturo Luz, Impy Pilapil, and architect Lor Calma. Yet, even as Brumann’s education and practice have crystallized to form a brand that is successful both in terms of its coherence and capacity to create a following, Brumann expresses his reservations over leaving a legacy that goes beyond collaboration with already established names in the fields of art and design.

“Europe has a tradition of apprenticeships,” a consequence of the continent’s guild system that maintained the standards of workmanship and quality European industries are still known for. This is the same kind of workmanship that is behind the decisive click of a latch, the set of a stone in precious metal, or the thrum of an engine. “We have very talented designers in the Philippines, but we don’t have the training or apprenticeship programs to create professionals,” Brumann explains of his reluctance to name any young designers he would want to collaborate with at the moment; thus bringing to light a rather grave, yet poorly addressed, situation in the local creative industries of an abundance of talent amidst a shortage of expertise.

In the meantime, Hans Brumann carries on with preparations for the Hong Kong design show, pulling together pieces from more recent collections such as one made from shell and coral called Treasures of the Sea, The Masters, which was a tribute to painters and sculptors like Picasso, and the as of yet unnamed collection of hardwood and coral bangles. Alongside the many projects being cut, set, and polished in his workshop, Brumann also does watercolors and sculpts, exhibiting further experiments in his chosen media at his gallery, the Galerie Hans Brumann. “I don’t plan to retire,” he says, which explains why even at the age of 70, Brumann continues to enrich his practice. “There are other projects lined up for the end of the year, but I’m keeping them a secret.”

The final edit of this article appeared in the Mar-Apr 2011 issue of Contemporary Art. Ohyeah! Excerpted online here

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