Tribute to a World Statesman

Tom Rucker, a jewelry artist, spent 14 months sculpting a unique bust of Nelson Mandela in porcelain, platinum and black diamonds. The intricate production technique involved the use of a two-component silicone rubber from WACKER.

It stands there glistening in white, silver-gray and dark-gray – a life-size bust of Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, freedom-fighter and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize – the back of the head crafted in porcelain, the face made of laser-welded platinum, the eyes set with black diamonds. Created by artist Tom Rucker, master goldsmith and platinum jeweler, the bust was made by an intricate, multi-stage technique that has become Rucker's trademark.

Tom Rucker used a specialist 3D software program (photo, top left) to convert his sketches and drawings into a three-dimensional file of Mandela's head, which was ultimately modeled in a mixture of starch and wax (top right).

Although now resident in London, Rucker originally hails from a Bavarian family of goldsmiths from the suburb of Ottobrunn near Munich. His parents Anton and Brigitte run a jewelry workshop there which is now in its fourth generation. Tom Rucker has been honored on numerous occasions for his designs in recent years, including the German Benvenuto Cellini Gold Medal, several Lonmin Design Innovation Awards and accolades from the British Goldsmiths’ Craft and Design Council. His work has also graced the Academy Awards: at a red-carpet event, Nancy O'Dell, an American actress, wore extra-long, extremely delicate, drop earrings from his collection.

To make jewelry items like this, 42-year-old Rucker uses platinum wire just 0.2 millimeters thick and a microscope set to 20x magnification, along with a laser-welding technique which he himself developed and calls GEO.2. He drew his inspiration for the technique from the biosphere dome that American architect and visionary Richard Buckminster Fuller designed for the 1967 Montreal World Expo. Back then, Fuller took a uniform, repeating geodesic pattern and transformed it into a giant dome using a minimal quantity of material. Fully self-supporting, the structure rises some 20 stories into the air. Rucker adopted this principle and has been designing and making rugged, yet featherlight jewelry and other artworks for some 17 years now.

goto product

Inspiration in the Township

Eventually, even – and perhaps especially – a multi-award-winning artist needs to keep pushing the boundaries. Rucker had long been keen to use his laser-welding technique to create a life-size bust. But of whom? It had to be an icon, certainly, but not a pop-star or a movie-star. While on vacation in South Africa in May 2009, he visited Khayelitsha, the largest township in Cape Town, and asked a crowd of teenagers playing soccer who their idol was, fully expecting them to name a top-flight player. “Nelson Mandela,” they called out in unison. At that point, Rucker knew that the subject of this sculpture would be a person who has been acclaimed throughout the world as having paved the way for a democratic, united South Africa. “Mandela has had a positive influence on our world. He has played an active role in ensuring that peoples of different skin color and origin can live side by side, peacefully and enjoying equal rights,” says the platinum jeweler about his subject.

After the A and B components have been mixed, the liquid rubber is poured into the molding box in a thin stream until it completely covers the head.

Before he could begin working on the bust, though, Rucker had to receive permission from the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The project was also sponsored by the Bavarian State Chancellery as part of the bilateral relations between the Free State of Bavaria and the Western Cape province. Anglo Platinum, a mine operator in South Africa, agreed to provide the precious platinum, which was then covered by Mannheimer Versicherung, an insurer. Staatliche Porzellanmanufaktur Meissen, a porcelain manufacturer, came on board to make the porcelain bust. Finally, the platinum welding device was provided by Alpha Laser, Puchheim near Munich, while Wacker Chemie AG provided the silicone for molding the bust.

Rucker also presented his project to the General Consulate of South Africa in Munich. In January 2010, he flew to Pretoria with no more than a single telephone number in his notebook, and three days later found himself sitting in the living room of the South African President, Jacob Zuma. “Hi, I'm Jacob - Welcome to South Africa” is how Zuma greeted him the first time, recalls Rucker, looking at the photograph of the meeting.

Vision of an Icon

Shortly after, he was invited by the Mandela family to the civil rights icon's birth-place and private home in Mvezo, Eastern Cape. There, he sat for hours with the nephew, Chief Mandla Mandela, discussing the future home for the bust.

After that, Rucker spent a total of 14 months working on the life-size bust. At first, he thought to use recent 3D scans of the then 92-year-old freedom fighter – obtaining those was actually the purpose of his trip to South Africa – but he soon abandoned that idea. He decided instead to make a bust depicting Mandela at the pinnacle of his political career in the early 1990s. A photo of Mandela visiting his former prison cell on Robben Island, some twelve kilometers off the coast of Cape Town, shortly after his election as president in 1994 served as a template for innumerable sketches and drawings. The 4-square-meter cell is where Nelson Mandela spent the bulk of his 27 years in penal servitude as a political prisoner. For Tom Rucker, Mandela's thoughtful gaze out of the cell window epitomized the greatness of the South African statesman and what he intended to reproduce in the bust: Mandela's vision of reconciliation between racial groups, a reconciliation made credible by virtue of his own lifetime of suffering.

Three-Dimensional File

Using a special 3D software program, Rucker generated a three-dimensional file of Mandela's head from his sketches and drawings. Birmingham City University in England, where rapid prototyping a 3D printer - rather like an ink-jet printer - used the data file to build up an exact life-size copy of Mandela's head by printing layer upon layer of a wax-starch mixture in the space of several days. In this rapid-prototyping technique, a wax-starch mixture is built up additively in countless layers by a type of ink-jet printer to form a three-dimensional 1:1 copy of Nelson Mandela's head.

In the next step, which was by far the most time-consuming of the entire project, Rucker laser-welded the precise contours of Mandela's face out of 0.2-mm-thick platinum wire over the original wax-starch mold of the bust. Roughly 1.9 million microscopic laser-spots were necessary and Rucker sat six hours a day at his Alpha ALM 200 laser-welding machine in the cellar of his workshop. Overall, he spent eight months welding in total darkness.

“Without this state-of-the-art machine, I could never have completed the project,” says Rucker. “The machine's unique design enabled me to do high-precision work sitting on a comfortable beanbag.” When the platinum face structure was complete, Rucker turned to the bust itself. This step consisted in making a negative mold of the RP mold in silicone rubber supplied by WACKER. To this end, he was visited in summer 2010 by Cornelia Pohl, head of the Moldmaking Sales team at DRAWIN, WACKER's specialist subsidiary for selling silicone elastomers. In the trunk of her car, she brought with her roughly 45 liters of ELASTOSIL ® M 4601 A/B. This two-component silicone rubber is a classic, tried-and-true molding compound for making non-shrink molds. When these are handled properly, they can be stored for many years and be used at any time, points out Pohl.

Rucker removes the bust from the separated silicone negative mold (left).

Good Self-Dearation

Crosslinking in ELASTOSIL® M 4601 A/B is activated by blending the A and B components, which contain the platinum catalyst and the hardening agent, respectively. The material can be worked for approx. 90 minutes at room temperature. Pohl poured a thin stream of the liquid silicone into the wooden molding box prepared by Rucker until it completely covered the head of Mandela. “ELASTOSIL® M 4601 A/B is ideal for such making molds by hand because it has excellent self-deaerating properties,” points out the DRAWIN employee. Air bubbles are absolutely taboo in such molds, she adds.

Having left the material to harden overnight, Rucker and Pohl then used a scalpel to cut the resultant mold into two pieces – and removed the RP starch/wax head of Mandela. The negative mold was then sent to the porcelain manufactory in Meißen, Saxony, where a positive mold was made of it and fired in porcelain. This was the back of Mandela's head, which was then attached to the platinum face.

At Mandela's 94th birthday on July 18, 2012, all the effort that had gone into making the artwork over the year finally came to fruition: the premier of the South African Western Cape Province, Helen Zille, unveiled the bust to the public for the first time at Nobel Peace Place on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Invitations to the unveiling ceremony had been issued by the Bavarian State Chancellery and the government of Western Cape. “I am pleased that the art project entitled 'Nelson Mandela: Pure Mind – Rare Vision – Eternal Spirit' once again underlines Bavaria's friendly relations with South Africa,” wrote Bavarian Minister President Horst Seehofer in his greeting. The sculpture has been on display since early August in the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch near Cape Town, which houses the most important collection of contemporary art in South Africa. “I can't imagine a more fitting home for the sculpture and I am very proud to see my work alongside works by Käthe Kollwitz and the father of modern plastic art, Auguste Rodin,” says Rucker.