Trading Tales: Narrative Design in Craft

Stories are an important way in which we connect together, over time and space. I’m currently in Western India for events launching our Garland issue New Homes for Old Stories. Here, the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata have helped reproduce cultural values over millennia. The same could be said of other world religions, such as the Koran for Islam and the Bible for Christianity. Stories are also help bind smaller groupings, such as the stories passed down through families. And finally at an individual left, it can be said that a happy life involves having a consistent story that connects the successes and failures that constitute our personal narrative.

It is critical therefore to consider how stories are made and cared for. We tend to think of stories as being “told”, therefore consisting purely of language. Certainly there’s a “craft” in the telling of stories: bards, novelists and screenwriters have learnt how to sustain our attention over the course of a telling. But stories also have a material dimension. As with all things that are important to us, we find a way of experiencing the story through ritual, with the help of storied objects. In the modern era, this has been the role of the book. Beyond the mechanical operation of the books as a device for serving up words, this bundle of paper also offers itself as a home for the story itself. And in our modern era, we have build libraries as temples for the safeguarding and honouring of those stories. This is particularly where the book is a unique object, such as a illuminated manuscript. Other objects can also house stories, such as personal keepsakes that preserve precious memories—of travel to exotic lands or of dear departed ones.

So if objects are important to how we keep stories alive, then we need to think about how we treat them. There are two different tracks along which objects circulate.

The commodity track

In the market, an object operates as a commodity, which can circulate freely according to its exchange value. When we acquire such an object, we do so based on abstract considerations such as price. All things being equal, we are most likely to chose the cheaper object. In the consumerist era, an alternative value arose which we know today as “brand” identity. In this case, some products are valued because of the story behind them. Many chose to buy an iPhone even though it is more expensive than other equivalent smartphones because of the brand value of Apple. What is this value? Apple takes great pains to present itself as “designed in California”, building on the mythology of Silicon Valley, and particularly its prophet, Steve Jobs.

In the case of crafts, an equivalent is associated with the region commonly identified with high quality and authentic products, such as Varanasi saris or Kutch block-printing.

The key point about this commodity track is that objects circulate freely. They are available to whoever has the money sufficient to pay for them. And once they have that object, they are free to do with it whatever they will, even destroy it.

The gift track

By contrast, there is an alternative track which is made up of our ties with others. A key traditional means for objects to circulate is through the gift. As anthropologist Marcel Mauss observed, an object bestowed on another created a debt which served to bind that person to the giver. We are not free to do whatever we like with a gift. How we treat the gift will reflect on how we value the giver. Most gifts must be acknowledged, even over time as we report on the pleasure it gives us.

A key moment is the ritual of giving. Often this is extended by the use of wrapping, which creates the suspense and grants the giver time to provide a story about the object, particularly why they chose it for you. It’s the thought that counts. One of the reasons why handmade goods are very appropriate gifts is that they tell the story of the handmade, which itself is a testimony of care and this carries over to the expression of value in the relationship.

In formal terms, the commodity and gift tracks are dialectically opposed, like the spaces of profane and sacred that we seek to keep separate in order to maintain of social grouping.

The social market

But there are ways in which the market can taken on social values. We become friends with a shopkeeper over time and award him or her our trust, so we might buy from them even though it is more expensive. We all know that tourists are much more likely to buy a craft object if they visit the workshop and meet the maker personally. The craft market often provides a space for this, when we can buy directly from the maker and offer our appreciation.

More recently we’ve seen a particular kind of social market emerge with the development of ethical capitalism. Here we can buy a product for the sense of goodness. Critical here is the backstory of the NGO or needy cause that prompts our generosity. New versions of the sharing economy such as AirBNB work on an ambivalent combination of personal guest and customer.

And so we’ve seen ecommerce platforms emerge that not only sell us products, but also tell the story of their makers. Such platforms offer many benefits. They provide recognition for the artisan and offer a dignified stage on which their work can be presented. This personal perspective is likely to lead to higher prices and therefore greater returns to the craftsperson, reflecting the benefits in one-to-one encounters such as craft markets and workshop tours.

But there is a danger. Seen purely within the terms of a “brand identity”, such stories risk turning the craftsperson into commodity, him or herself. Here they must learn to conform to the stories which have higher value, in particular romantic stories of creative expression for its own sake, which deny the personal struggles many have to survive. We all do this, to an extent. But there is the risk of alienation from the originary context of the craft in the traditions and stories that will seem foreign to someone from another country.

One way of countering this is to make the platform two-way. So rather than our normal anonymous online experience, we can consider facility for the buyer and seller to interact. The buyer learns about the seller, as much as in reverse. This has potential to introduce the gift track that facilitates a relationship between the maker and the consumer. This is the move behind the innovation introduced by IOU Project, where users were encouraged to upload photos of themselves wearing their purchases, alongside images of those who made them. (The concept of Samaanata developed by the Sangam Project sought to establish a platform of mutual respect across the supply chain, including producer, developer and consumer).

A key element of narrative design in craft is the instruction for use. This is not just about the material care of the object, but also how to honour its making. This could be the kind of occasion to wear a garment, how to activate an amulet, or in the case of giftware, the kind of person to whom it might be given. One way of supporting this covenant is to provide a platform where consumers can share evidence of how they honoured the intentions.

E-commerce need not be just a pixelated version of the supermarket or shopping mall, inspiring our greed and lust for new things. It has potential to be a social space were we can encounter all the different capacities it takes to make a world. It can help tell stories of what binds us together, made present in the precious object we hold in our hands.

Gondwana Bound

Following Neverland, Gondwana Bound considers what an Indian Australia would have been like. This project involves writers, artists and cooks to give free reign to their imagination and populate the continent with a Hindu civilisation.

  • What would the relationship be like between Aboriginal and Hindu peoples?
  • Are there aspects of Tamil culture that would be realised here that have been lost to history?
  • How would Indian cuisine use the bush spices of the land, such as lemon peppers and myrtles?

This journey calls on some adventurous pioneers of speculation.

A new broom: sweeping changes to folk art in Asia

Sometimes, it’s worth stating the obvious in order not to be so.

We’ve come to accept that art is a profession. To become a recognised artist, most need to follow an institutional path. According to art world specialist Peter Hill, ‘the usual route is to attend a university school of art, and there are approximately thirty of these around the country. One can leave such an institution with an undergraduate degree, an honours degree, a variety of Masters degrees, or a PhD by project.’ Once out of university, the artist then needs to be selected for exhibitions in commercial or public galleries. This institutional route winnows out those who are serious from the part-timers.

While the logic of this system is self-evident, it has its limitations. The inherently elitist trajectory is seen to exclude a particular kind of art which is not beholden to the academic field. For the critic Russell Jacoby, the academicisation of cultural life encourages internecine concerns. Yet apart from some experiments in relational aesthetics, the outsider artist is an increasingly rare phenomenon in the West. This is a significant point of difference with countries in our region.

It is often remarked that Asian cultures do not have a word for art that is distinct from other forms of creative expression. The closest equivalent in Sanskrit is shilpa, which means ‘diverse’ and includes horsemanship and cooking. Given the continuity of tradition, there are often strong communities of artists who exist outside the academy, yet are not hobbyists.

Consider folk artists. Their context includes temple decoration, festival costumes and ritual events such as weddings. In the West, public decoration is largely a commodified domain involving advertising and industrial printing. Folk art is the remnant of a world when it is easier to make something by hand than buy it in a shop.

Within a ‘third world’ framework, such art is backward, provincial, staid and crude. Lacking the innovation that comes from contact with the wider world, it prime value is for tourists. Better to embrace more professional art forms, such as painting on canvas.

The inexorable power of this story was demonstrated to me in 2006, when I met with the board of the National Gallery of Mauritius. For a population around one million people, the prospect of such an institution was more an aspiration than a reality. Though the building for their gallery had been promised by successive governments, it is yet to eventuate. Instead, I was shown photographs of their collection, which consisted almost exclusively of paintings, many by Europeans passing through.

While Mauritius has a rich history of folk crafts, particularly from the kreol communities, aspirations for art followed quite foreign European lines. Of course, there was a logic behind this. Why create a collection in order to preserve what can already be found outside on the street? Yet, as the place to tell the story of a national culture, much was swept under the carpet.

But we know that this developmental push isn’t the only story emerging from the West. The English writers William Morris and John Ruskin provided an alternative path based on labour as a form of creative expression. For Ruskin, ‘Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.’

In the West, this provided an ideological platform for the revival of folk crafts in the 20th century, leading to the emergence of studio craft as modernist art form parallel with painting and sculpture. This sometimes uneasy alliance is described in Glenn Adamson’s classic text Thinking through Craft: while craft reflects how things are made, visual arts presents the final image. The DIY movement that has since eclipsed studio craft has more affinities with folk craft though it is more about individual expression than cultural traditions.

The Arts & Crafts Movement had a more political value in non-Western countries. In the early 20th century, the Japanese drew on the ideas of Morris and Ruskin to develop a craft aesthetic in opposition to Western culture. The Mingei movement (from minshuteki kogei ‘popular crafts’) emerged in 1926 from a meeting of Kanjiro Kawai, Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach, who cel@ebrated the aesthetics of honest labour in Asian ceramics. As the recent publication Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State argues, the concept of bijustu (art) was perceived during this period as a Western imposition on Japan.

There are echoes of Mingei still in contemporary Japan. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa celebrates artisan craft. As the director of the Yuji Akimoto says in a recent interview: ‘It wasn’t all that long ago young artists were interested in creating universal artwork, abandoning techniques and aesthetics like those rooted in kôgei. But now people are finding local art and craftwork modern and interesting once again.’[1] His 2012 exhibition Art Crafting towards the Future features older art forms like lacquer and ceramics in dialogue with manga, design and contemporary art.

In India, the profile of modern folk art has strong roots in nationalism. For Gandhi, Ruskin’s ideas helped critique the Western quest to save labour through technology. His attempt to forge a nation state independent of Western influence involved mandating members of the Congress Party to spin cotton every day; Gandhi laboured as a spiritual exercise to stay in tune with village culture. This call was extended by activist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay to the founding of the All India Handicrafts Board, representing up to 200 million village artisans.

While many crafts now operate within the market, the ornamental folk traditions that are tied to festivals and rituals persist in India. According to the latest census, 70% of the population still live in villages.

In the West, folk arts are usually presented as anonymous. This can be either as ethnography, such as the Paris Trocadero, or as appropriation, such as Australian painter Robert McPherson’s ‘swamp rat’ road signs.

Indian folk artists began to emerge as named individuals in the 1980s. The artist J. Swaminathan sought to establish a distinctly Indian school of art that drew from folk traditions rather than external movements like Abstract Expressionism. Through the Bharat Bhawan museum in Bhopal, Swaminathan set out to collect work from the region. The museum was soon home to an extraordinary group of tribal artists, including a woman named Sonabai, whose creatures in clay and straw conveyed a charmed world. Many then found opportunities beyond Bhopal. Sonabai was featured in the Delhi Crafts Museum, a visionary institution set up by Jyotindra Jain to living traditional artists. She was even invited to create an installation for the 1999 Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane.

It is interesting to see quite divergent narratives about Sonabai’s creativity. The US writer Stephen Huyler describes her as a self-taught artist whose inspiration came from the purely personal experience of loneliness: ‘she is herself an archetype of the unrecognized woman who creates beauty in her life’.[2] For Hyuler, Sonabai is a lone genius who deserves wider recognition. Accordingly, fellow villagers who make work in this style are seen as imitators trying to cash into her success. By contrast, Jyotindra Jain’s account in his book and exhibition Other Masters places her within the culture of her village, specifically the annual ritual chherta harvest festival when houses are re-decorated.

But now, a new interest in the more collective folk traditions has emerged. Two recent exhibitions have focused on the most humble of decorative arts—broom making. Despite its utilitarian function, the use of natural fibres affords a strong regional variation. The Arna-Jharna Desert Museum of Rajasthan was established in 2008 by musicologist Komal Kothari. As a ‘laboratory of the ordinary’, its first three years were devoted solely to the broom. The museum described itself as having ‘consciously prioritized social relationships generated by objects, rather than a purely aesthetic or ethnographic focus on the objects themselves.’[3] The broom is positioned as part of a knowledge system that interconnects environmental and social domains. As part of its expanded role, the Broom Project considers practical issues such as health issues, urban waste management, education and political rights of broom makers.

A parallel urban exposition of brooms was developed by the Asian Heritage Foundation, established by Rajeev Sethi, a designer who returned to India from Paris to work with traditional crafts. In 2020, the Foundation was inaugurated with an exhibition dedicated to the broom— Sweeping Change: Transforming Attitudes towards the Humble Jharu (Broom) at Gandhi Smriti in Delhi. While the exhibition featured a purely aesthetic taxonomy of brooms, it also involved the broom community directly, such as broom sellers performing their cries.

The exhibition had been designed by Ishan Khosla, who has also returned after a period abroad to take up the many opportunities back home. Khosla has since established a graphic design practice working closely in collaboration with artisans. For a book cover, he commissioned a traditional Rajasthani kaavad painter to reflect on the publication’s contents.

Now folk artists are increasingly accepting commissions. The Australian sculptors Rodney Glick and Wanda Gillespie have drawn on the skills of Indonesian artisans —Glick from Balinese carving and Gillespie from bird cage painters in Jogjakarta. This follows a trajectory for folk artists to take on an increasingly active role in their creative practice.

This development is an important manifestation of the changing world order. Where previously the Third World was seen in a relatively dependent position toward the developed world, with the emerging superpowers in Asia and Latin America, there is an increasingly bilateralism in international relationships.

Folk art need no longer be seen as anonymous cultural flora. Nor need it be the work of a lone genius, waiting to be plucked from obscurity by a visiting curator. It is a form of creative expression with its own political interests. Love my art, love my people.

Previously published:

Murray, Kevin. “A New Broom Sweeping Changes to Folk Art in Asia.” Artlink 33, no. 1 (March 2013): 64–67.


[2] Stephen Huyler Sonabai: Another Way of Seeing Mapin publishing in association with Mingei International Museum, San Diego, 2009, p. 39


Jugalbandi – Designed and Made in Australia and India

The aim of this exhibition is to explore new opportunities for Australian art, craft and design through creative dialogue with India. The principle of this dialogue is the understanding that no culture is sufficient to itself. Each culture has certain biases which prompt those within to seek values from other cultures that complement its deficiencies. In Australian craft, we have seen this in the influence of Japanese wood-fired ceramics, which provided a sensitivity to natural process otherwise missing in an Anglo culture. What what might India in the 21 century contribute to Australian culture, and vice versa?

The title Jugalbandi is used as an initial starting point. It refers to a duet in Indian music were performers from two different traditions, such as Carnatic and Hindustani, play together. Its literal meaning is ‘entwined twins’, which evokes the pre-history of Australia and India as once connected in Gondwana.

This exhibition will feature a variety of Australian artists, craftspersons and designers, including some established but with a particular focus on those emerging. The prime venue will be the gallery at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, which will coincide with the Australian Year of India.

In the lead up to this, there will be a series of pop-up exhibitions during Sydney Design Week in August 2012. Venues for this will include the Powerhouse Museum, COFA and the new India Cultural Centre. The plan is then to take this back to Australia for an exhibition in 2013.

I am interested to hear from others involved in this exchange across the Indian ocean. I hope that Jugalbandi provided a platform for experimental creative dialogues between two quite opposite cultures.

A Common Project: Where Craft and Design Meet in a Democratic World

Part One – The March of Democracy

At the end of the eighteenth century, King George III had a lot on his plate. He particularly prized the gifts from India—certainly the precious diamonds from Bengal—which contributed to the splendour of the British crown. But it wasn’t only jewels that King George needed. The loss of the American colonies left the empire short of wood for its ships, so explorations were ordered far afield to secure new supplies. But by the time the continent of terra Australis was identified as an outpost of the British Empire, a more pressing need had emerged—the disposal of the growing criminal class. So Australia’s birth as a British colony began at the opposite end of the imperial spectrum to India—from the jewel in the crown to the bottom of the pile. Hopefully, we’ve come a little closer over the past two hundred years.

My purpose in setting this scene is not to reflect on alternate national trajectories, but to place what we know today as contemporary jewellery into an historical perspective. In its time, royal jewellery constituted a symbol of national identity, even if it was the wealth of the few. It fostered innovation in the jewellery craft and produced works that stood alone as rare works of art.

Clearly, there have been radical changes between the time of the royal court and today. It hardly needs saying in this, the world’s largest democracy, that people power has provided a driving force in modern history. We only need to look today at what’s happening Egypt to realise that the force of democracy in history is far from over.

Democracy is more than the formal procedure of marking a piece of paper every few years. It is also something we try to realise in our everyday lives. The imperial framework still reaches deep into our way of thinking, such as the celebrity cults in popular culture. There is still work to be done in liberating ourselves from the feudal thinking.

But there are dangers. One image evoked by democracy is that of an unruly mob storming the royal palace, looting and destroying national treasures. Democracy can be a destructive force. One of the challenges of art in our age is to realise a creative dimension to democracy, to create new values.

We see this in contemporary art—dramatically in the work of the British artist Anthony Gormley. Asian Field was produced by 347 inhabitants of the Chinese city of Xiangshan, aged between 7 and 70 years. Their brief was to produce clay figures that were the palm-sized, could stand upright, and have two holes for eyes. Gormley had planned to include 100,000 figures, but total ended up being 192,000, made over a five day period. While the kudos does still return to Gormley as the head artist, Asian Field does help us envisage what democracy might look like if it reached the world’s most populous nation, China. This work reflects the force of the democratic ideal in contemporary art through both its subject matter and process of production.

Does jewellery have a role to play in this? Given its natural association with prestige, one might think that it has little part to play in growing egalitarianism. But it is its very elitism that provides people power with a creative challenge.

Part Two – The Contemporary Jewellery Movement

Contemporary jewellery is defined by its small but significant role in democratic thinking. In post-war Europe, contemporary jewellery adopted a critical position to preciousness. In particular, it confronted the modern tendency to reduce ornament , along with most other cultural practices, to its economic value. The exclusive emphasis on precious metals and rare stones was seen to transform jewellery into a form of hard currency. Why bother being creative with jewellery when it is nothing more than a bank account?

At first, this involved the replacement of gold and silver with much cheaper materials, such as the use of nylon thread in the work of English jeweller Caroline Broadhead. Here the value of the work could not be reduced to its materials, but lay clearly in the original vision and innovative techniques of its creator. From this developed a movement that took contemporary jewellery into new experimental domains. With the introduction of new materials, contemporary jewellery engaged in a more conceptual exploration of jewellery beyond the everyday use of personal ornament. In the early 1980s, Caroline Broadhead extended her use of nylon into neckpieces the enveloped the entire head in a way that could only be viewed within an artistic context. At an even further extreme, Peter Degan would envelop the entire body in a jewellery contraption purely as a form of artistic performance. To a degree, the English approach to the critique of preciousness can be seen as enabling an empirical approach to jewellery—viewing it in terms of the experience of the body rather than an object in itself.

My core thesis today is that while the project of contemporary jewellery brings artists together on a shared democratic platform, the critique of preciousness does allow for a broad variety of individual expression. While the gold standard is the same for all, our own commonness is unique. Thus the critique of preciousness in jewellery has taken different forms in other cultures.

The contemporary jewellery movement began in Australia with the migration of European gold and silversmiths from northern Europe after the Second World War. They arrived at a time when our tertiary education sector was expanding rapidly, providing opportunities to pass on their skills to a new generation of students. In Australia, our critique of preciousness focused particularly on recovering value from what gets left behind. We see this in one of our most innovative jewellers, Roseanne Bartley, who attempts to make elegant necklaces from materials such as ice cream sticks that are left on the street. The Queensland jeweller Mark Verwerk has developed the remarkable technique of spinning plastic bags to create material for rings. And in Welcome Signs we see the work of Katheryn Leopoldseder making a splendid necklace out of communion cups discarded after religious service.

It is perhaps not surprising, given that the nation of Australia was founded by people who were thrown out as social waste, that we attempt to find ways of making precious the common. In doing so, we provide a test of creative ability. This involves an alchemic transformation—not lead into gold, but waste into splendour. Other countries of the South explore this in their own ways. In South Africa, jewellers like Beverley Price also use recycled materials, though this is less a modernist exercise and more a celebration of popular culture than in Australia.

In New Zealand, contemporary jewellery challenged the kitsch associations of materials like paua shell. Jewellers such as Alan Preston employed paua in the design of serious modernist works. This use of local indigenous materials was officially recognised in the 1988 exhibition Stone, Bone and Shell.

Across the Pacific in Chile, the other tourist craft of crin (weaving with horsehair) has recently become a focus of work by the emerging scene of contemporary jewellers, such as the work by WALKA studio, including Claudia Betancourt and Ricardo Pulgar.

So you could say that the critique of preciousness is a global project. While there is the universal gold standard of value that all countries share, now there is a shared project where each culture can contribute its own national commonness to the celebration of preciousness.

Part Three – A new horizon – ‘power’ jewellery

But there are other ways in which this movement operates to bring us together. Jewellery has a very important non-commercial function in making important social rituals. The Welcome Signs exhibition brings jewellers together from across the Asia Pacific in celebration of the shared heritage of the garland, or malaa, by which hospitality is marked. So we have the silver wreath by Marian Hosking, one of two Australian ‘living treasures’ in the exhibition, which reflects the subtle and dry floral forms that bedeck the Australian bush, by contrast by the bright lush flora of tropical southern climes. We see now a new contemporary jewellery scene emerging from countries such as Indonesia and Thailand, exploring connections with social networks.

Another project with a similar premise is Southern Charms, which will open in Melbourne early next year and brings together jewellers from Australasia and Latin America. Here we look to the traditional associations of jewellery with luck, to explore how new forms of charms can be designed to reflect the challenges we face now, such as climate change. While there are traditions such as the charm bracelet, contemporary jewellers like Warwick Freeman have been designing new symbolic jewels, such as his Earth Ring. By liberating ourselves from the gold standard of preciousness we can return to the power of jewellery to affect the shape of our lives.

Part Four – A new horizon – ‘ethical’ jewellery

The final horizon can be found behind the scenes in jewellery. This pertains to democracy not just in the symbolic elevation of common materials, but also in the social relations by which jewellery is produced. One hierarchy that persists in our work is between the idea and its realisation. In the case of crafts, this often pans out in the greater value given to design rather than its production, particularly when using craft skills.

At this point, we can recall the oft-quoted words of Indira Gandhi: ‘My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition. ‘

We see the new relevance of production in the work of German jeweller Martina Dempf, who worked with basketmakers in Rwanda to develop a form of jewellery that would provide a sustainable basis for their craft skills. She continues to source woven grass components from the Rwandan women for her silver jewellery, but they in the meantime have set up their own enterprise selling grass jewellery.

Jewellery plays an increasingly important role in world craft upliftment, enabling languishing crafts like basketmaking to take on a new life. In the case of Martina Dempf, her work has two sources of value. In one, the work stands on its own in beauty and craftsmanship. But in the other, it also has an ethical value in the impact this jewellery has on the world. We see increasingly now in jewellery, as in other forms of consumption, a growing value that is accorded to the way objects are produced. This is especially so in jewellery, which is something we like to wear with pride. This can be compromised when the brilliant diamond we display become associated with a bloody civil war in Africa.

For the last two years, the Two Hands Project has been exploring the logic of this craft-design hierarchy, and to consider alternatives, such as the film industry where the relation between director and actor is more even. This tag cloud, or mandala, has been developed to allow meditation on this relation, and see it in other ways.

More practically, the Code of Practice for Creative Collaborations, endorsed by UNESCO and the World Craft Council in Hangzhou, begins now to gather perspectives from all participants. This is being administered by the recently established New Traditions Foundation in conjunction with the Ethical Design Laboratory, especially created for this purpose at RMIT University Centre for Design.

The first step naturally begins here, in India, where there is not only the greatest concentration of craft but also such considerable thought reaching back to Gandhi about the continuing relevance of the handmade in our modern world. We are pleased to work with local partners such as the Craft Revival Trust on a seminar workshop this October to gather thinking on this matter.


Jewellery does not command the same profile in our museums as other art forms, like painting or sculpture. But nor do those art forms have nearly the same penetration into our everyday life as the objects we use to adorn our bodies. In this way, jewellery has great potential to affect our relations with each other. We have seen how the splendours of royal jewellery help consolidate the power of the monarch. Our challenge in a period of growing democracy is to work out how we now mark our relations with each other. Do we all try to be kings and queens, wearing diamonds and pearls?

We must admit that this aspiration is still the dominant paradigm for jewellery in our democracies. It certainly is the economic logic that drives our industry. But this is where the contemporary jewellery movement can provide an alternative perspective. Rather than each of us trying to elevate ourselves above others, we can use jewellery as a means of upliftment for all. This is a key message in an age of global warming, where the individual quest for consumer goods has led to the depletion of our common environment.

Materials that are devalued for their very commonness, seen as ubiquitous rubbish or tourist kitsch, can be elevated through jewellery as proud symbols of our cultural identity. It’s doubtful whether this form of contemporary jewellery will ever displace the mainstream global economy of precious gems and metals, but creative jewellers play an important role in keeping this idea alive.

And at this moment, the eyes of the contemporary jewellery movement look to India. What will India’s contribution to the project of non-preciousness be? We are certainly familiar with the splendour of jewellery from the Moghuls, but what does Indian jewellery have to say about its current and future identity? How can this reflect the wealth of skill amongst its artisan population and the energy emerging from the new generation of designers? India has the potential to re-vitalise a movement that has largely played its course in other countries.

Contemporary jewellers help us sustain the dream of a common wealth—not in the rare treasures of the few, but in the precious wealth of the common.

This paper was presented at the Abhushan Jewellery Summit, 6 February 2011, organised by the World Craft Council. The writing of this paper is supported by the Australia Council of the Arts, as part of a New Work grant of the Visual Arts Board.