By Tina Snyder
Bon Jewelry | Raleigh, North Carolina
Bongsang Cho has been a fan of science fiction movies since childhood. Fascinated by robotic animations, such as Transformers, as a kid Cho spent time daily building model kits to bring various figures and vehicles to life.
Today, as he tinkers in his Raleigh, North Carolina–based jewelry workshop building works of art in metal, glimmers of his enchantment with sci-fi robots come through. Take for example his Comet brooch. Constructed of copper, enamel, and 24k gold leaf, the piece combines both traditional and modern techniques in an industrial-meets-celestial design.
“The Comet’s design embraces the look of robot shapes that I was absorbed in when I was young,” says Cho. “I’ve always loved building things that are outside of the conventional framework.”
After receiving his BFA in Korea, where he focused on functional design, Cho attended graduate school at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Here, he says, he was encouraged to be more expressive with his work.
“In Korea, I was too focused on making products, not art,” he says. “While my work then was more focused on nature, flowers, and branches, when I came to the United States, I [began to pursue my passion for] geometric design.”
While at SCAD, Cho also fell in love with enameling. He believes the beauty of the technique lies both in the triumph of achieving the perfect color on the metal surface and in the imperfection that can result from over-firing the enamel.
“I actually prefer the burnt edges, imperfect colors, and unevenness that result from the over-fired technique, and I use it mostly in my work,” he says.
In graduate school, Cho combined his passion for geometric, three-dimensional design and his newfound love of enameling to begin a body of work that would become his signature aesthetic. “I was tired of enameling on flat surfaces, which of course promotes the even distribution of color,” he explains. “I wanted to make three-dimensional pieces with the unique look achieved by enameling imperfection.”
One of the tricks to enameling complex structures is dealing with solder, since firing temperatures are higher than the melting point of most solder. “Using the technique of laser welding to build my shapes, I avoid any problems with solder melting in the kiln,” says Cho.
For Comet, Cho made a paper model of his design, then cut copper sheet for it with a guillotine shear and added texture with files and burs. He composed the design by laser welding the copper elements together.
Next, he used the sifting technique to apply transparent enamel to the surface. “I love the sifting technique because it enables you to achieve so many different results, much like a painter working with a brush,” says Cho. “When sifting enamel powder on a three-dimensional surface, a natural gradation occurs, like snow on a mountain peak.”
Cho fired Comet for 3–4 minutes at 1,500°F/815°C (1–2 minutes is typical), which burned the enamel, causing it to react to the copper oxide, resulting in a unique color. He then ground down some of the enamel with files and stone burs to prep the surface for a second firing with gold leaf. He brushed the prepared surface with Klyr-Fire, positioned the 24k gold leaf, and fired the piece a second time for just 1 minute.
By over-firing, he achieved the burnt look and interesting colors that are evocative of the sci-fi worlds that inspire him, all while combining old and new technologies to achieve his vision.
“By juxtaposing traditional techniques with advanced laser welding,” he says, “I connect past and present, building intriguing designs that exceed the limits of convention.”