Rex Merten, one of Australia’s most well-known and much-loved master jewellers, passed away after a long illness of acute myeloid leukaemia on the morning on November 17, 2020. Surrounded by his family, including wife Gabrielle, daughters Margaret and Rachel and his beloved identical twin brother Carl, his death was peaceful and full of love.
While we mourn the passing of this wonderful man, we know his legacy lives on through his many students and friends in the Australian and international jewellery world. His role in this world of fine craftsmen and women is a revered one, and something of which he was immensely proud – not the least through his many contributions and creativity, but also his love of teaching and genuine love of sharing and passing on his knowledge to the next generations of aspiring jewellers.
Rex started his jewellery apprenticeship at the age of 15 at Hardy Brothers in Sydney. It was no surprise this was his chosen vocation, as his father Ray Merten was also a jeweller, his uncle Rex Merten a renowned engraver (he would be flown down every year to engrave the winner of the Melbourne Cup). His brother Carl took up an apprenticeship as adiesinker, later moving into sculpture. Rex’s youngest brother Raoul was also a jeweller of note. So gold, silver, precious stones and the beauty that could be created with them ran in his blood.
Rex enjoyed his time at Hardy Brothers enormously and relished the opportunity to learn the trade. He attended East Sydney Tech where he also attained a deep education in art. Precociously talented and with the support of an unusually creative family, this was a happy start in a career that would span over 60 years.
But Rex took two significant detours before truly committing to the trade. At the age of 18 he was called up for National Service which was compulsory at the time. On informing the recruiting officer that his talents included jewellery design, reading music and playing an instrument, he was appointed to the army band. It wasn’t until Rex arrived on assignment that he revealed his instrument was the pipe organ. He was quickly made assistant bandmaster. Rex made the most of this opportunity and was always proud he never had to fire a gun in anger.
The second major detour was a very personal one; in his early twenties, he became Catholic, decided to join the Marist monastery and spent five years studying to be a priest. Surprisingly, this experience laid the foundations for his future success as one of Australia’s most creative and respected master jewellers. Rex reflected on his time in the seminary with the observation that “I learnt a lot about myself while I was there. We had a habit of meditation which I never really lost. I learned there was more than one way to think about something. More than one way to look at a problem. More than one way to resolve a design, for example, for a client. I learnt to be more independent; I didn’t take for granted everything I had been told as the only way to do something. That helped me a lot and gave me a lot of confidence.”
It was this confidence in his way of seeing the world and interpreting it through design that spurred his extraordinary success when he left the seminary and took up jewellery for good – for this was always his true vocation.
Rex is the only Australian jeweller to have won four Diamonds International Awards for his remarkable pieces such as Man in Space (a lapis and diamond brooch inspired by the heady days of early space travel); the Spirit of Sydney (a modernist ring of rising rectangles topped with diamonds. As a young jeweller unable to afford to buy the diamonds in that ring, he returned them to the broker after winning the award.
Rex’s inspiration came from everywhere – nature, the materials, even the mundane – his award winning brooch La Mer of malachite and a cresting wave of diamonds was inspired by a surfing poster he saw wrapped around a telegraph pole. His Ring Watch presaged his fascination with designing multiple uses within a single piece.
After stints as head designer at Hardy Brothers and Prouds, Rex again decided to walk his own path and set up a workshop at home where he worked amongst the rowdy business of having four kids and their friends running around. The Merten household was a much-loved destination amongst neighbourhood children as it was pretty much completely free-range with very few restrictions when it came to digging very deep holes for buried treasure or climbing to dangerous and thrilling heights in trees.
His business flourished, in no small part due to Rex’s ability to listen and intuit what his clients wanted. He always saw it as a privilege to bring to life something precious and beautiful that reflected the owner’s personality and dreams. The art was as much in creating something personal and bespoke as it was in his remarkable technical skills.
During this happy time, Rex also began teaching and this was as important to him as creating jewellery. He began teaching jewellery design at TAFE, wrote and ran the design course at the Gemmological Association and ran booked-out workshops with his brother Carl at the University of Southern Queensland. Teaching and passing on his knowledge was a great joy to him and his many students went on to their own career highlights.
Rex Steele Merten was a man of exceptional creativity, imagination and, above all kindness. He was a deep thinker, never afraid to tackle the big subjects and it was his creative vision, his way of seeing and re seeing the world that offered the gift of wonder and rewarded his curiosity, as well as leaving behind a creative legacy shared by his many industry friends and students. Vale Rex Steele Merten.