Ring, silver & lapis lazuli designed and made by Rhoda Wager, Australia, c. 1927
Sydney jeweller, Rhoda Wager (1875-1953 was born in 1875 in Mile End, London, and studied at Bristol and Glasgow Schools of Art from 1897 to 1903. It was during this period in Glasgow that she trained under the influential metalsmith, Bernard Cuzner, and learned the prevailing Arts and Crafts style. The style is apparent in her jewellery which typically features semi-precious stones set in silver organic 'vine and leaf' motif. From 1913 Rhoda spent three years with her brother on his sugar plantation in Fiji and continued her work there.
Wager settled in Sydney in 1916 and established a jewellery workshop at 13 Rowe Street - then a hub of artists, designers and makers - where she remained until 1922. She relocated her business several times, occupying premises at Castlereagh Street, Pitt Street and Martin Place before settling in the 1930s at the State Shopping Block. In 1920 she married Percival George Ashton, son of Australian artist, Julian Ashton, but continued to work under her maiden name.
Wager's repertoire included belt buckles, brooches, rings, bracelets, spoons and pendants which she personalised for individual clients. Her work was so expertly designed that other jewellers tried but failed to copy her signature. Rhoda's favourite stones were opals and yellow sapphires. She frequently promoted her work through the fashionable, Sydney Ure Smith publications, 'Art and Australia' and 'The Home', and exhibited annually with the Arts and Crafts Society and Society of Artists. Rhoda Wager's style was unique in Australia in the early twentieth century. She was subsequently copied by many jewellers. She designed, executed, marketed and sold her work herself, in contrast to the traditional distinction between artist and maker.
In 1928, Wager apprenticed her sixteen-year-old niece, Dorothy Wager (later Judge, 1912-2001), and trained her to work in the Arts and Crafts style. Dorothy remained with her aunt until 1939 when she opened her own workshop in King Street. In 1946, Rhoda Wager retired to Brisbane where she died in 1953. During her career she produced some twelve thousand pieces of jewellery.
Between 1988 and 1997 Dorothy provided detailed information about her aunt's work and the pieces in the Powerhouse Museum's collection. She donated a number of jewellery items to the Museum in addition to archival papers, Rhoda Wager's sketch books, workbench and tools.
Rhoda Wager was a British-trained jeweller who arrived in Sydney in 1916 and established a studio in Sydney. Wager trained in the Scottish Arts and Crafts style, which favoured the use of semi-precious metals and stones and organic motifs. Wagner's work shows a great respect for the beauty of natural the stones she carefully selected and mounted in delicate open silver frames that allowed the light to enliven the stone. Her signature setting was a vine and leaf motive often intertwined with tiny silver balls forming singular or cluster berries and round flower heads. Although she was a member of various arts and crafts societies Wager never used Australian motifs.