19 December 2012

Christmas at the Bindery

A commission-in-progress at the bindery: ingredients for a set of bespoke Parvum Opus Christmas
crackers include fountain pens, tiny bookmarks, ink  cartridges in fun colors,
and of course, a paper crown and a very bad joke. The center of the cracker awaits decoration.

Each Christmas, along with our holiday commissions, we look forward to constructing Christmas crackers at the bindery. We make them in small batches in the traditional way, jacketing cardboard tubes in beautiful papers and filling them with special treats customized for a particular family or event.  Of course the classic ingredients are all there: friction snaps, tissue paper hats and very bad (yet artfully chosen) jokes, but we take great pleasure in choosing extra special  trinkets for our crackers.

Some of the elements for this project gathered on a work table.

In the past, these have included vintage sterling silver charms and lockets, antique bird calls, antique collapsing travel cups, monogrammed seals and sealing wax sticks, custom address labels, and more. Today, we're putting the finishing touches on a set of six crackers for a family of bibliophiles, and so have filled each one with a Kaweco Sport fountain pen. 

The Kaweco Sport fountain pen is available in a variety of fun colors 
and nib sizes, making it a nice choice for these literary crackers.

This petite German pen was chosen for its beautiful line quality, and since it's only 4" long when closed, it's a perfect fit for the limited capacity of the cracker tube. Along with the pen we've included a packet of ink cartridges in festive colors, and a set of tiny handmade bookmarks made here in the bindery. For this particular set, the crackers are finished in a classic embossed tartan paper and tied with bright green double-faced satin ribbons--simple and festive!

A bundle of tiny 4" tall duodecimo bookmarks made with
Italian, French and Japanese papers here at the bindery.

According to Wikipedia, "The Christmas Cracker was devised in 1847 by an English confectioner and stationery manufacturer,Thomas J. Smith of London, whilst on holiday in Paris with his family. In the early days, the crackers were called Bon-Bons - meaning lollies or sweets in French - and as a consequence were still quite small in size with a fairly plain wrapping. Later he added a colored outer wrapper and a friction strip – consisting of two overlapping strips of cardboard coated with a small amount of explosive powder - that is inside all ordinary crackers - and joined together, which became known as a "snap" - because when the cracker is pulled apart the strips rub across each other setting off a chemical reaction that produces an audible bang."

An early example of Tom Smith's Christmas Cracker packaging

Upon his return to London, Mr. Smith combined the elements of the bon-bon with a trinket, novelty gift, tissue paper hat and a joke, and the Christmas cracker as we know it was born. The English tradition of placing a cracker at each place setting at Christmas dinner has spread cheerfully across the globe, and is a highlight of the season for countless families, my own included. 

Another example of a box of Tom Smith crackers, this one ca.1891
Participating in this Christmas tradition is a joy for us at the bindery, and we look forward to these small but meaningful projects all year long.    

We send you all our warmest wishes for a wonderful holiday season, a very Merry Christmas,  and hope that the new year brings health, happiness and all good things for you and your families. 

09 December 2012

Sunken Treasure

The third painting from the 2013 Parvum Opus Desk Calendar:
A Gold Cup, Peru? 1670-1715, from the cargo of the Santo Cristo
de San Roman, sunk in 1715

After a long absence due to an incredibly busy few weeks in the bindery, I'm very pleased to be back and to bring you the third installment of posts on the antique art objects from the Parvum Opus 2013 Desk Calendar. As you may recall, each year we add twelve new motifs to our library of original watercolor paintings, which are then featured in our desk calendars, ex libris bookplates and address labels. All of these can of course be seen at http://www.parvumopus.com.
For the month of March, I chose to paint a three hundred year-old  gold cup, probably from Peru, filled with a jaunty posy of hydrangea and ivy: a perfect complement for any elegant desk, wouldn’t you say? Interestingly, it’s one of two pieces of sunken treasure featured in this year’s calendar. This cup was part of an enormous load of treasure aboard the Spanish galleon, San Cristo de San Roman, sunk during a hurricane off the coast of Florida in 1715.
A Spanish galleon, by Everett Hickam:
a sister to the Santo Cristo de San Roman, perhaps?
According to Allen Tony at Wrecksite.com, “Santo Cristo de San Roman brought up the rear of the fleet and acted as a guard ship. The 450 tons ship was armed with 54 cannons. The holds of the ship contained the second largest amount of treasure within the fleet. The manifest is as follows: 2,687,416 pesos in silver and gold, 53 chests of worked silver, 14 chests of Chinese porcelain, 728 leather bags of cochineal, 1,702 leather bags and chests of indigo, 139 sheets of copper, 682 tanned leather hides, 26 chests of pottery, 48 chests of vanilla beans, balsam, liquid amber, chocolate, oaxaca, cochineal, brazilwood and sasparilla. During the hurricane of 1715 she ran aground on a reef when 1,500 feet from the shore, eventually coming to rest on the second reef when 700 feet from the shore in 12 feet of water.
A map of just a few of the shipwrecks off the coast of Florida,
including the San Roman, second from the top.
The San Roman’s treasure had been destined for Spain where it surely would have been useful to the heavily debt-burdened Philip V (no comment). After her sinking, recovery of the San Roman's treasure began almost immediately. Our gold cup was among those objects recovered by divers in 1715.
As you can see in the painting, despite being slightly dented from its underwater adventures, this is a very sensitively worked cup. This is not at all surprising given the long history of goldsmithing in South America. Metal working in the New World seems to have developed in the Andean region of modern Peru, Colombia and Bolivia with gold being hammered and shaped into intricate objects, (particularly ornaments) as early as 2155 to 1936 BCE. Gold in the Americas was an especially prized material, valued for its religious symbolism. For the Inca and other peoples of the Andean region of South America, gold was thought of as the "sweat of the sun," the most sacred of all deities.

An early Inca sun motif gold mask

Our anonymous South American goldsmith formed this beautiful cup from a sheet of gold, alternating between hammering and heating the metal until it had the desired shape. This was no brutish, primitive task: the molecules in the gold had to be hammered carefullly into alignment to create a rigid, but not brittle finished vessel.  He would have soldered the two handles, and then worked the design on the cup using  complex techniques of repoussé and chasing. In repoussé, specialized tools are used to impress the design into the metal from the back (repoussé being from the French, “pushed up”). About three hundred forty years ago, then, our artist ancestor would have refined his design by delicately working with chisels from the front of the cup (chasing). Having studied metalwork during my art school years and after, I romantically imagine that his chasing tools, made specifically for his hand, would not have been so very different than my own handmade tools, forged with the guidance of my undergraduate mentor.

 A selection of handmade chasing tools, reminiscent of some of my own,
courtesy of Anvil Fire
How wonderful that in a time in which we value the virtual more highly than many things, working with one’s hands provides a unique path towards understanding our ancestors and the objects they created. Using the traditional, sometimes even ancient craft techniques and tools passed down through generations of artisans, allows us to relate to the people and objects of the past on a very human, intimate level. Brilliant.
If you'd care to learn more about the history of gold in South America, I invite you to take a look at this video tour of the magnificent Gold Museum in Bogota, Colombia. Having visited many times myself, I can tell you that the predominant golden hue of this video wonderfully represents  the fantastic, unreal glow of the place. Enjoy!