Elemental Goldsmith Emefa Cole
The Goldsmiths’ Company acquires Cole’s ‘Caldera’ ring for the Company Collection
By Goldsmiths' Company Deputy Curator, Dr Frances Parton
As a child, on her way to school each morning, Emefa Cole would walk past a potter raising clay vessels at his wheel. She was fascinated by the sight of him raising the clay under his hands, and loved the rustic aesthetic of traditional Ghanaian clay pots, from which, she says water always tasted better, and were even more alluring for being exactly the kind of thing her family did not have at home.
Emefa was born in Sunyani, in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana, the centre of the ancient West African gold trade. Her father was an army officer and her family moved several times, living in the city of Ho and the capital Accra before moving to London when Emefa was twelve. She found the transition to the UK difficult; her school experience was a bruising one, and she was conscious of changing from a confident child to a more introverted individual. “I came here and realised by the actions of other people that I didn’t really belong… and it crushes you...I ended up shrinking into this cocoon.” She immediately fell in love with art classes at school, however, discovering the works of Picasso and Chagall, and art, which she had not been taught at school in Ghana, fast became her favourite subject. During this period she also developed a deep and enduring interest in psychology and forensic science, with the human mind and human behaviour, and the seen and the unseen. The contrast between a visible exterior and a hidden interior is a major source of inspiration and is fundamental to the bold, sculptural jewellery she creates today.
Warm, engaging and softly spoken, Emefa describes the beginning of her jewellery career as somewhat serendipitous; flipping through a catalogue of further education options, the page fell open on a silversmithing and jewellery course. Despite having never previously considered studying goldsmithing, the idea appealed and she undertook an introductory jewellery course, followed by ND and HND courses at London Guildhall University, and a BA degree in Silversmithing and Jewellery at the Sir John Cass School of Art, Media and Design, at the London Metropolitan University. Her approach to her work is uncompromising. During her studies, Emefa constantly pushed herself to progress, to prove herself to her tutors at the Cass, whose teaching style she describes as “basically tough love”. She developed the resilience required to survive as an independent designer maker once she left university, together with the desire to continue developing her skills. Silversmithing had been her main passion at the Cass, but as this proved impossible to continue without a fully equipped studio, Emefa taught herself wax-carving and now casts her jewels using the ancient lost-wax technique. A sketch drawing is often the starting point of a design, but she relies on the feel of the wax model in her hand to tell her when the carved model is complete; over the years she has learned through trial and error to predict how the wax shape will feel on the hand or wrist when cast in metal. “I have learned to think more as a metalsmith - even when I’m only holding wax I have to think like a jeweller or a goldsmith.”
Erosion and Vulcan, Emefa’s two main jewellery series to date, both engage with the indelible impressions left by her Ghanaian childhood combined with ideas of interior and exterior. Pieces in the Erosion series relate to stories she heard as a child of heavy rain unearthing gold nuggets, of people finding precious treasure glinting in the dark dirt. The Vulcan body of work references the passing of time and geological movement, the elemental energy of volcanoes and unseen activity beneath our feet. The forms of her rings especially are sensuous and strong. Cole’s jewels reflect her own personality too; her gentle, unassuming manner belies a formidably determined character.
In 2019 Emefa took part in the Handmade in Britain fair where a ring from her Vulcan series attracted the attention of Clare Phillips, curator of contemporary jewellery at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and was acquired for the museum’s jewellery collection. The acquisition, together with Clare’s ongoing support and that of fellow V&A jewellery curator Richard Edgcumbe, has proved a transformative experience for Emefa, not only raising her profile exponentially but also boosting her confidence: ‘Both of them have helped me to have a bit more faith in myself and in my work… I doubt myself a lot. It’s just helped me to be less harsh on myself, it’s very encouraging for me to carry on what I’m doing and do it even better.” In 2020 Emefa returned to Ghana to fulfil her long-held ambition of undertaking an apprenticeship with the royal goldsmith of the Asantahene in Kumasi, studying ancient Ashanti goldsmithing and casting techniques. Ultimately, she hopes to set up a workshop in London and in Ghana, utilising traditional Ashanti techniques to produce bold, contemporary jewellery.
In turn, the Goldsmiths’ Company is now extremely proud to announce the acquisition of an Emefa Cole ‘Caldera’ ring, made in 2020, which develops the same concept to the ring now in the V&A collections. It is an extraordinary jewel, with its smooth, dark, oxidised silver surface and its deep, rugged gold interior, inspired by the void created by a volcanic eruption. Luxurious and considered it is an empowering ring. Worn on the middle finger it is a wearable piece of sculpture which beautifully exemplifies the innovation, integrity and audacity of Emefa’s work. It is a precious addition to the Company Collection.