The Low and High Road in Australian Jewellery

Humble beginnings

Jewellery has played a role in Australia’s emergence as a nation. Inspired by the Arts & Crafts Movement, Australian flora began to appear in brooches and centrepieces. But much of this was still made in England. Until the 1960s, the Australian jeweller was mostly a tradesman equipped with technical knowledge and skill in manipulating metal and setting stones. These resources were used to fulfil commissions for relatively timeless standards such as the engagement ring. It was only in the 1960s that jewellery schools like that of RMIT began to encourage jewellers to consider the possibility of creating their own designs. The shift towards greater autonomy came partly through the intervention of European jewellers who migrated to Australia.

The influence of migrant jewellers was particularly strong in the 1970s. In Melbourne, Wolf Wennrich, an ex-student of Friedrich Becker, encouraged students to think of themselves as artists, using the medium of jewellery to express their inner visions. About the same time in Sydney, the Danish designer Helge Larsen established the Jewellery and Silversmithing Department of Sydney College of the Arts where jewellery was positioned as an art form alongside others, such as sculpture. It was here that Margaret West was able to develop such a powerful poetic practice evoking the resonance of such base materials as pebble and lead.

The opening of Australian jewellery to the world continued in the 1970s, with range of distinguished visitors including Arline Fisch, David Poston, Claus Bury, David Watkins and Wendy Ramshaw. Of particular significance was the visit in 1982 of the Munich professor and ex-student of Franz Rickert, Hermann Junger. Junger’s extensive three-month tour enabled him to have personal contact through workshops and social activities with most of the contemporary jewellery scene in Australia. As a primitivist, Junger was intensely interested in the direct engagement of the world, not beholden to received notions of preciousness. This aesthetic resonated greatly with the emerging Australian scene.

One immediate effect of Junger’s visit was to strengthen the link between Australia and Germany, principally through Munich and Melbourne. Australian students began to travel to study as part of the Munich Academy and Junger’s successor Otto Kunzli made many subsequent visits to Australia. In 1995, Gallery Funaki opened as a gallery in Melbourne that would operate as a southern showcase for the European jewellery world that was centred in Munich.

More broadly in Australia, Junger’s visit reinforced the challenge in jewellery here of connecting with the world at hand. This was reflected in two particular themes—nature and the body. In the case of nature, there was an avoidance of literal representation, such as the gumnut, which might be confused with cheap tourist souvenirs. As we will see, there was instead an attempt to capture in jewellery a more phenomenological engagement with environment. Through events such as the 1980 touring exhibition Objects to Human Scale, the body was identified as the domain proper to jewellery—what distinguished it as an art form. As the gallery wall was to painting, so the human body was to jewellery. The artistic impulse remained the same.

Meanwhile, state galleries and museums developed strong collections of contemporary Australian jewellery thanks to generous funding and government subsidies. Thanks to generous support of the Australia Council, and the work of organisations like Craft Australia, the relatively young Australian jewellery scene was able to engage with more established scenes in Europe and the USA. In 1984, Helge Larsen organised the exhibition Cross Currents, with jewellers from Australia, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, each selected by key figures from their own countries. As this toured these countries, it presented a story of Australian jewellery in dialogue with the wider world in the north. As Larsen concluded in the catalogue, Australian jewellery offered ‘a freedom from traditional values.’

This quest for freedom was not foreign to contemporary jewellery. In contemporary jewellery, this poor aesthetic is most evident in the turn against the legacy of precious metals and stone. In their place, jewellers embrace materials considered either profane to jewellery heritage like plastic or inherently worthless such as rubbish. Ralph Turner’s 1982 exhibition Jewellery Redefined laid down the battle lines between the traditionalists and moderns. Peter Fuller responded, ‘I never thought I would live to see the day when it became necessary to say diamonds are a better friend to a girl – or boy come to that – than used cinema tickets.’[1]

Ripples of this continued to be felt through contemporary jewellery, such as the contest that emerged between two Dutch jewellers in 1985, when Robert Smit reintroduced gold into the jewellery repertoire, to the dismay of Gijs Bakker. This stimulated a contest between craft and design within jewellery—the traditional skills of the craftspersons opposed to the conceptual creativity of the designer.

Preciousness is highly contested in Australian jewellery. The modernist approach seeks to find ways of dignifying the ordinary world. This low road contrasts with the less-travelled high road which embraces the rich aesthetic in the use of precious materials and homage to tradition. The low road takes us back to where we began, while the high road leads us ever on.

The Low Road

Back to the bush

In recent times, Australian jewellery has played an important role in this quest to understand our immediate natural world. Marian Hosking was one of the first Australian jewellers to spend a considerable time in Germany. Between 1971 and 1973 she studied at Fachhochschule für Gestaltung in Pforzheim. Ironically, the experience of being surrounded by the jewellery traditions of Europe made Hosking even more determined to find her own path as an Australian. There are many obvious symbols available to someone like Hosking. Australia abounds with unique forms, such as gum leaves and kangaroos. The danger of pursuing these graphic symbols is that the jewellery becomes simply a vehicle for hackneyed visual icons. This doesn’t reflect the creative challenge of finding meaning in the material itself. In dedicating herself only to silver, Hosking was able to concentrate on the language of the metal. Rather than a singular form, Hosking is interested in the texture of nature, its striations and rhythms of movement. While her work can embrace the singular majesty of the giant Errinunga Shining Gum tree, it also draws from the humble suburban flora such as angophora shrub. Hosking’s silver jewellery brings nature a little closer to our world.

Conventional jewellery privileges the stone as the dominant element—the clasp is relatively secondary to the precious material it contains. During her career, Carlier Makigawa has elevated the background function of jewellery as a form of containment. She eschewed metals such as gold and silver in order to incorporate found materials, which to her were more indicative of place. A pebble gleaned from the ground during a walk could speak more to one’s location than minerals extracted from mines in distant places. Inspired by Japanese culture, Makigawa found a way of using a heavily lacquered papier mâche to create forms that had the appearance of metal yet were light enough to fit easily on the body. In her later work where cage-like silver structures framed empty space, the jewellery became more purely about the container. Makigawa’s architectural approach uses jewellery to create unique interior spaces.

South Australia has a small but deeply embedded jewellery culture. The JamFactory Craft & Design Centre has helped nurture metalsmithing skills over three generations. From this soil, Grey Street Workshop emerged in 1985 as a collective to support local creative jewellery practice. It quickly established a core focus for jewellery as a language for our immediate material world. For fellow members Sue Lorraine, Catherine Truman, Lesley Mathews this world was the body, particularly the folds of human anatomy. For Julie Blyfield, however, it was the material environment of the city that engaged her, especially in urban archaeology. She was initially fascinated by lost objects charged with memory. This evolved into an interest in nature, specifically South Australian flora. Like Marian Hosking, Blyfield chose not to illustrate nature literally. Instead she attempts to give expression to the phenomenological dimension of nature in its visual and tactile textures. Blyfield’s work offers a Braille-like engagement with the world. In the pimply surfaces of her work, we witness how the process of making taps out a rhythm of nature. This is the more experiential kind of nature that a postcard fails to represent.

Australian jewellers found through metal a particularly tactile language for reflecting nature. Rather than the sweeping horizons of landscape painting, forms like brooches provided a venue for a more intimate experience with the world.

Downtown

The strength of the Australian jewellery movement lies particularly in its collective structures. In 1980, Workshop 3000 was established in Melbourne as a means of sharing equipment for recent jewellery graduates. It quickly became a creative force in its own right and was eventually led by Susan Cohn. Cohn developed a sequence of highly focused projects that used aspects of modern urban life to invent new jewellery forms. This included her stylised Briefcase of 1987 and series of technology-inspired jewellery for the 1989 exhibition And does it work?

But creating precious ornaments from the profane world of the street is just one dimension of Cohn’s practice. Her capacity to transform the world into jewellery operates in the social sphere as well. Through the use of a rigorous modernist aesthetic, intelligent marketing and personal networking, Cohn has been able to use her jewellery to constitute a particular class. Her iconic forms—the mesh ear rings and donut bracelets—have come to serve as markers of identity for the design elite associated with ‘Melbourne black’. The 2003 exhibition Black Intentions used these social circles directly to realise the final work.

But as with all of Cohn’s work, there are hidden complexities in this arrangement. Cohn occupies a unique position as a designer who embraces craft values. Similarly she provides a way for the cosmopolitan elite in Melbourne to identity with their particular place at the bottom of the world. What is the material that she has chosen as currency for this elite group? For many years, Cohn’s ley material has been aluminium—a strangely humble industrial substance for an urban elite.

Does this betray Cohn’s Australian egalitarian sensibility? There is obvious resistance to a nationalist reading of Cohn’s work. In her 1991 keynote lecture for the Jewellers and Metalsmith’s Group of Australia conference at the Sydney Opera House, she criticised attempts to read Australian jewellery as a reflection of national identity.

If you are someone working in New York or Amsterdam you are not trying to incorporate eagles or turkeys or windmills to locate your work authentically in its national context. The matter of national identity doesn’t even come up. You are a designer/craftsperson/artist/goldsmith, full stop.

Certainly, it would be a mistake to reduce jewellery to some crude tourist motifs. Contemporary Australian jewellery resists this strongly. You will be hard-pressed to find any opal in jewellery galleries—that’s just for tourists. It can still be argued that artists like Cohn are inflected by an egalitarian tenor, which has an Australian base. Yet the broader project she chooses to express this is the contemporary jewellery movement.

The work of Roseanne Bartley provides a deft complement to Cohn’s. Whereas Cohn uses design to create new ornaments for the city, Bartley employs the medium of jewellery to elevate what is left behind in the process of urban consumption. The New Zealand-born jeweller established her presence in the Australian scene with a series of works incorporating parts of obsolete typewriters. Keyboard letters were housed in silver as brooches. Strikers were later joined together to form elegant necklaces. She has followed this with a series on surface archaeology, setting the ultimate challenge of transforming worthless materials like discarded ice-cream sticks into necklaces and brooches.

Like Cohn, Bartley’s work has been placed in a relational context. Bartley takes a more conceptual interest in the way jewellery reflects social groupings. The 2007 exhibition Solutions for Better Living curated by Kate Rhodes brought Bartley and Cohn together in the broader context of user-defined jewellery.

The Australian urban jewellers defiantly embraced the immediate world around them. The jeweller Linda Hughes has found ways of more directly incorporating street signage into jewellery. They are not beholden to a traditional notion of jewellery as the medium of rare materials. For them, jewellery is a way of elevating the everyday.

When opportunity arises…

Sally Marsland is one of the Australians who travelled to Munich, where she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. She is an experimental artist interested in how jewellery can be employed as a language for the poetry of everyday objects. Marsland’s early work for the exhibition Pursued Realities (1994) included vitrines filled with objects found at the back of friends’ cupboards. Her signature series, Almost Black (2000), included a deliberately eclectic assortment of objects that were brought together solely in the process of being dyed black. Marsland’s exhibition Why Are You Like This and Not Like That? (Gallery Funaki, 2004) included objects partly sourced from an opportunity shop that were all altered in some way—painted, dissected, lathed or cast. As Marian Hosking does for nature, Marsland uncovers a phenomenological layer to things that exists independently of their use or history.

Another Australian jeweller to make the journey to Germany, Helen Britton, has also gathered inspiration from the contents of opportunity shops. She has drawn extensively from outmoded jewellery in a process she calls ‘re-manufacture’. Her recently Lauscha project using German glass-blowers finds a way of incorporating otherwise kitsch ornament into contemporary jewellery. These kinds of collaborations challenge the disdain that is normally associated with popularist kitsch.

Anna Davern has established a strong body of work that draws nostalgically from the world of lost objects. In recent years, she has made jewellery from biscuit tins, sourced in opp shops. Davern counters their kitsch quite literally by physically extracting figures from the Australian scenes. In others, she cuts out kangaroo shapes from the generic imagery on the tin. Davern confronts the same demon of graphic literalness as other jewellers; her escape is to recover its materiality through the detritus of consumption.

The low road seems to be spiralling into itself. For some, it returns us to the natural world harboured in suburban backyards. For others, it directs us to the quotidian world of the street at our front door. And there are those who find a way into their basement filled with a hoard of leftover things. But what of that other road, leading somewhere beyond…

The high road

In contrast to the realism that characterises such a strong thread of Australian jewellery, there is a remarkable minority of artists who embrace the speculative. Particularly notable is Robert Baines. As Susan Cohn managed to combine design and craft, so Baines has been able to follow a career as an artist while at the same time adhering closely to the ethic of making. However, in contrast to Cohn, Baines draws inspiration from the past traditions of his craft, goldsmithing.

While other jewellers were seeking to dispel illusions about Australia, Baines was pursuing those very fantasies. His 1982 international show Misteri Antipoidei featured indigenous materials like mulga wood and granite. The continuing antipodean adventure of Adventures of the ARCHEGOS in 1992 most directly referenced the deep traditions of jewellery. As he wrote for the catalogue,

Archaeological investigation allows insights into the visual language of the ancient goldsmith with correlation of material process and expressions of eternality. These precepts are available to the contemporary goldsmith for restatement as a personal affirmation in the present context.

This restatement was conveyed powerfully in the 1997 exhibition, The Intervention of Red. Here Baines reached back into the archive of jewellery form and technique, with reference to the crown jewels. For Baines, the object is to find a way of manifesting this ancient art form in the present. One technique is the use of the colour red, which he introduces through otherwise profane elements such as the Coca Cola can and reflector lights. More recently he has used red as a way of signalling his authorship in works whose virtuosity of historical reconstruction might cause them to be seen as literal historic artefacts from a lost world. In the case of the 2006 series, Java-la-Grande, this is the speculative Portuguese colonisation of Australia. In these ways, Baines comes close to the other baroque mind of the south, Jorge Luis Borges.

Despite the way Baines cleaves to the sumptuous nature of jewellery as a reflection of wealth and prestige, he leavens his work with demotic culture, filled with celebrities and brands. Behind it all is the artificer, concocting forms that can realise the impenetrable mysteries of our world.

There are echoes of Baines’ approach in a number of other Australian jewellers. Stephen Gallagher is drawn to the elaborate style of Elizabethan jewellery, yet uses contemporary materials such as polymers to replicate their effects. Pierre Cavalan engages with classical themes such as the seven deadly sins, though he illustrates these with found elements. Their work strongly contrasts with the realism of most others, yet still in their use of seemingly worthless materials they continue the story of contemporary jewellery as a triumph of imagination over inherited wealth.

The lonely high road leads to mysterious worlds in other times and places. Yet despite this difference, it is hardly a yellow brick road. The ascending macadam is still made of the common materials that have paved the way below.

Conclusion

The pull of the contemporary jewellery scene resists any singular narrative about national style. In many senses, it is a world of its own.

Despite this, we find a story emerging from Australia that seeks to reflect what it is to make jewellery at the bottom of the world. There are two paths. There are those who seek a modernist path to invent a new jewellery that draws from the elements distinctly at hand in Australia, whether from rural or urban or suburban environments. And there are those who seek to recover lost secrets of jewellery tradition in the very artificialities of contemporary life.

These two paths go far beyond Australia. They weave a way across the South. Next door, in New Zealand, there is the attempt to invent a new tradition with local materials and techniques, while a few take the speculative turn. And we are seeing new paths beginning to emerge elsewhere in the antipodes, particularly in South Africa and Chile.

There are some significant Australian jewellers we have not located on these two paths. The much lauded Mari Funaki has developed a distinctive personal aesthetic that resists localisation. Others are at the early stage of their journey, like Christopher Earl Milbourne, whose baroque quotation indicates an upward trajectory. Any narrative contextualisation of jewellery need to be understood as a provisional framing rather than an expression of national essence.

As contemporary jewellery weaves its path around the world, it continues to grow as a project for finding ourselves anew. We can feel part of a conversation that is growing throughout the world. But that doesn’t stop us knowing where we are.

With this ring… in poverty or wealth.

Reference: ‘The low and the high road in Australian jewellery’  ed Robert Baines, The Treasure Room – Australia Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing (2010)


[1] Peter Fuller ‘Modern jewellery’, in Images of God: The Consolations of Lost Illusions London: Chatto & Windus, 1985 (orig. 1983)

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