The old-school goldsmith making jewels with a story

by Ken Downie / 18 December, 2018
Christine Hafermalz-Wheeler in her Waiheke workshop, where she creates handmade pieces.

Christine Hafermalz-Wheeler in her Waiheke workshop, where she creates handmade pieces.

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Artisan jeweller Christine Hafermalz-Wheeler creates stories to be worn.

“You can’t be an untidy jeweller,” says Christine Hafermalz-Wheeler, searching for a small piece of precious metal she was working on a moment before. “I’m always losing something in the workshop.”

One of the few old-school goldsmiths still operating in New Zealand, Hafermalz-Wheeler works from her home studio – which is, in fact, extremely tidy – on Waiheke Island, where she and husband David Wheeler run The Artist Goldsmith gallery in Oneroa, selling her artisan jewellery to the world.

Hafermalz-Wheeler did her apprenticeship in Stuttgart, Germany, where the focus was on learning solid technical and artistic processes. She began working at the age of 14, in 1968, and still vividly remembers her first days on the job.

“That’s when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia,” she recalls – big news for the former East German, whose family had escaped to the West only a few years before.
The pieces are made from precious metals jewels, shells and stones.

The pieces are made from precious metals jewels, shells and stones.

Hafermalz-Wheeler ran her own workshop and galleries in Stuttgart for 17 years before moving to Britain in 1988 to escape fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. A few years later, she and her UK-born husband moved to Auckland and then Waiheke with their two children.

“Germans love New Zealand,” she says.

Working with precious metals, including gold, silver and exotic stones, she crafts each design from scratch using traditional tools. No two pieces are the same, and every piece comes with a narrative attached. Her “Berlin Wall” series features fragments from the wall itself, while an exploration of the human body is a process of sculpting metal into a figurative form. “It’s like painting with gold,” she says.

The subject of a 2013 documentary Christine... The Artist Goldsmith, Hafermalz-Wheeler sees herself as the practitioner of a lost artistic discipline. She produces a major collection every year, usually destined for buyers in Europe or the United States, where she exhibits annually. Her work is about far more than decorative fashion.

“The metals and the stones have to say something,” she says. “These are stories to be worn.”

This story was originally published in the December issue of North & South.

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