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Jewels in Comenius crown

At a recent international exhibition of jewellery at Glasgow School of Art, fantastic combinations of silver, glass, cubic zirconia, sapphire, steel wire and wood came together in a collection of over 70 bracelets, necklaces, body pieces and brooches.

Once more, the British Council Comenius project had reached new heights - this time, in a four-way international FE partnership with college jewellery departments in Italy, Germany and Finland.

Cardonald College in Glasgow has led the way in creating an innovative project called Open Circle. The artistic brief for 15 final-year selected students from each college was to create a piece of jewellery based on their own interpretation of the Open Circle concept and inspired by the culture, lifestyles, influences and jewellery-making techniques of their own country. A collection of the pieces would create an exhibition that would tour the four countries.

The partnership first evolved in 2004 through informal connections made by project co-ordinator and senior lecturer Anne Graham with colleges in Hungary, Holland and the Czech Republic. Due to a number of difficulties with finance and organisation, these links did not continue, but they did pave the way two years later for a British Council partnership with colleges in the German town of Gmund in the Swabia region, Lahti in Finland and Padova in northern Italy.

The key objectives were to share skills, techniques and a spirit of international co-operation. Not least was the aim to promote Cardonald College as "an internationally-respected school for learning jewellery skills", says Ms Graham.

The initial British Council funding for the project of EUR6,000 (Pounds 5,300) paid for workshops, materials and travel for representatives of all four colleges, with the touring exhibition as the final goal.

In October 2007, the first group of students visited the Gewerbliche Schule in Gmund - a college school specialising in craft and creative arts. During the trip, students took part in a "Colour It" workshop, in which they learned enamelling techniques. They also visited the home of the highly-acclaimed millionaire jeweller Georg Spreng, along with staff.

Senior lecturer David Hempstead says: "We were taken to places we would never have seen. Herr Spreng was extremely welcoming and was delighted to show off his immense and stunning collection."

Cardonald students had the chance to work with materials not normally available to them at college. In Scotland, links between silversmithing and blacksmithing were demonstrated by the work of John Creed, a blacksmith, silversmith and former lecturer at Glasgow School of Art.

Student statements and photographs in the exhibition outline the thinking behind their own pieces and reflect a fascinating breadth of artistic influences.

One piece by Scottish student Shona McDonald uses silver and perspex in a style reminiscent of modern European architecture. An eclectic take on European crop circles, German and Italian architecture and the Sibelius monument informs brooches in silver and brass made by Lisa Stephen, while the turbulent history of Europe produced Lean Esson's interlinking necklace of gold and aquamarine.

For Finnish students, silver and other materials such as cast colophony, zirconia and black satin lace combine to create, for example, a striking representation of the country's climate and industry.

Italian students, by contrast, have drawn inspiration from the work of Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna and used the ancient inlay technique of niello to create a necklace of silver and and coral by Vladi Gambato.

In the exhibition catalogue, the students articulate the thinking behind their own pieces within the Open Circle context. Katherine Agnew, from Cardonald, says her circle plaid brooches in glass, silver and gold represent the four-country partnership, while Franziska Luise Herb's work combines a bird's eye view of the fragmented circle of Stonehenge with the three-dimensional wooden works of artist Willi Siebel.

Inclusion of "non-precious items" in Cardonald student Katie Meredith's three pendants gives a more personal angle. And David Finlay says his four brooches in silver, which can be worn in a circle or alone, suggest that the project is open to future growth.

The future is already well planned. Visits to Italy and Padova will take place early this year. The new project, which runs from 2007-09 with a further EUR16,000 (Pounds 14,000) funding, takes the form of a "narrative exchange" which will eventually be published in a book. This focuses specifically on the natural environment, says Mr Hempstead.

In work already underway, Italian students are looking at Murano glass, the Finns have chosen forests and wood. The German angle is based on fossils and ammonites. And in Scotland, Cardonald students have chosen the area around Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, where natural sea materials like shells, seaweed and agate are their inspiration.

An unexpected off-shoot of the exchange has been the development of a co-operative project between Cardonald College and the internationally-renowned German jewellery manufacturer Niessing.

Open Circle has given Cardonald College students at undergraduate level the opportunity to exhibit internationally and "an experience that is", says Anne Graham, "second to none".

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