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March 1999

"Filigree" Dittlmann: A Munich jeweler's nickname is the trademark of her success

A look into the life and art of a Munich jeweler

According to Bettina Dittlmann, “jewelry makers know about art, but artists don’t know about jewelry.” Dittlmann, 34, has been creating jewelry and art for well over a decade. Some pieces are so delicate you wouldn’t want to wear them, others so expensive you couldn’t afford them. In fact, her filigree works – the very same works that have earned Dittlmann a name for herself among fine arts bigwigs in the US – have never been sold. “I spend so many months on each piece, they are like my children – and I would need a lot of money to sell one of my children,” says Dittlmann through infectious giggling. “Seriously, though, I figure if I set a high price for a filigree piece, the person who ends up buying it must really love my ‘child’ – I’m very sentimental about them.” Memento Mori, reminders of mortality, were often inscribed on 16th-century brooches. The celebration of life through the constant awareness of one’s eventual death was a popular theme in jewelry making at the time. During her studies at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Munich and at New York State University at New Paltz, Dittlmann began incorporating that style into the ancient Egyptian art of filigree. Using iron or copper wire instead of the traditional silver or gold, her creations are intricate nests – thousands of tiny black wires soldered together, often containing hidden Latin messages of death. Other pieces are tiny memorials to those who fell at the hands of the Nazis or in the Gulf war. The US magazine Metalsmith reviewed Dittlmann’s works following her exhibit at the Rhode Island School of Design, “the pieces appear to have been built not by a milling machine, but by a bird.” In 1998, US fine arts guru, Kara Walker, chose Dittlmann’s works to be shown at Wooster Gardens on Broadway. In addition to the filigree brooches and necklaces intended more to be admired and pondered than worn, Dittlmann shows and sells more colorful designs. With her collection of colorfully enameled earrings, pins, and rings, the studied goldsmith is represented by fine arts/jewelry expert Ellen Reiben, owner of theWashington, DC gallery, Jeweler’swerk. “I’m actually a very outgoing person – I’m always laughing – so sometimes it is hard to have the rep I had in school of being the somber artist of death and gloom,” explains “Filigree.” “So I make some happier things, too. I have a wire rose that I enameled white, so now some of my friends call me ‘Snow White.’ I like that!” Dittlmann also likes teaching. She is currently aiding Professor Otto Künzli in jewelry-making instruction at her alma mater in Munich. “I love working with the students, and not just in class. I’ve got one student who needs pictures for a portfolio in order to apply for a grant. So I’ll help her with that.” Bettina herself is no stranger to the grant process. In 1994 she won the annual applied-arts prize, awarded by the city of Munich: DM 12,000 plus an additional DM 7,000 grant for the production of her own catalog. In that same year, she was given a grant by the German Academic Exchange Service for a three-month study period in Brooklyn, New York. In the fall of 1998, Dittlmann shocked her adoring filigree fans by premiering her latest project at the Orangerie in Munich’s English Garden. Those who attended the seven-woman artists’ exhibit, Woanders ist es auch schön (Elsewhere is also lovely) and expected to be entranced by the delicate weave of iron wire were greeted instead with heavy, precious-metal finger rings. “I’ve been wanting to work with gold and silver again, but my critics and fans are sure to be disappointed,” Dittlmann noted, nodding toward the minimalist display of simple rings illuminated by a special lamp designed by companion Michael Jank. “Some think that one should never stray far from one’s signature work – but I felt like it.” Dittlmann is proud of the fact that the rings are made exactly as rings were made when man first started working with gold and silver. Employing only heat and well-worn hammers, “the older the hammer the better – the old ones are scratched up and make a textured impression,” Dittlmann creates the rings. In her catalog she denounces the use of polishers – it could be respectfully noted that her rings look like something Fred Flinstone might wear. Her current workshop is housed in a hospital in the Nymphenburg section of Munich. The city’s department of culture helped to place the artist-without-an-atelier in the unusual location. Her huge work space is a former operating room, which she shares with partner-in-ring-making, Jank. “We had to have a few drinks before we could get used to it,” quipped Dittlmann. “It is odd to make a cup of coffee in the former sterlization room, or bring a new piece to life where there was once so much death.” This is an ironic statement coming from the artist who paved her way to success with Memento Mori.

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