From Tabu to Blockchain: The Renewed Role of Currency in Contemporary Jewellery

Bridget Kennedy, A year of time, 2017, installation

The Israelites left Egypt for the “promised land”. After travelling for 44 days, they arrived at Mount Sinai, where their god was finally revealed in a burning bush. Their leader Moses duly ascended the mountain in order to receive divine guidance for the rest of their journey. For forty days, they had no sign of Moses. Anxious for divine presence, the Israelites confronted Moses’ brother, Aaron, demanding that he make them a god to worship. Previously they had received divine instruction while escaping Egypt to plunder the Egyptians of their elaborate jewellery. Aaron said, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” Out of the rings taken from their fingers, noses and ears, he fashioned a calf using a cheret, or graving tool, overlaying the gold around a wooden sculpture. An altar was built, sacrifices made and a Festival of the Lord held in front of the Golden Calf, a diminutive version of the sacred bull god of Baal.

When Moses did finally come down from the mountain, he was furious at this challenge to his authority. He called the men of his Levite tribe to “slay every man his brother and every man his companion and every man his neighbour” (Exodus 32:27). He also revealed the divine rules written on the stone tablets, including the second commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”. The peoples of the book heeded this message and placed the meaning of the word before the aura of hewn objects.

Money or your word

This binary between sacred word and profane money echoes through the rest of the Bible. The book of Titus evokes the image of money as dirt, which sullies the motives of preachers, “Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake.”

Filthy lucre continues to haunt Western civilisation:

  • Jesus Christ casting out the moneylenders from the temple
  • The thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas to betray his leader, Jesus Christ
  • The pound of flesh in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice
  • Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Tale
  • Exxon Mobil putting profits before environmental risks
  • The Panama Papers scandal of dirty money laundered in tax-free havens

And most recently, it turns out that Facebook, the global playground of family snaps and endearing emojis, has been selling off our private moments to scheming political manipulators.

This epic struggle with the demon Mammon is especially felt in the arts, whose value is underpinned by factors outside the economic. As Robert Frost said, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money”.

But paradoxically, art needs money if it is to exist in a capitalist economy. As Glenn Adamson and Juliet Wilson (2016) put it neatly: “On the one hand, nothing damages an artist’s reputation more than the perception that they are making work primarily to sell. On the other, artistic reputations are made by and in the market. The artists who succeed financially are those who manage to have it both ways.” We struggle to make money the servant of love, but know in the wider neoliberal world this won’t always be the case.

Hermann Jünger

In the field of art jewellery, we have our own Exodus story of liberation from the rule of money. When Damian Skinner and I faced the challenge of writing a history of Australasian jewellery, it was the critique of preciousness that offered a mission sufficiently broad to encompass both the high modernist work of early masters and the low trash that we revere down here at the bottom of the world.

As Skinner states crisply, this critique involves “the struggle to liberate jewelry from restrictive notions of value, so that it becomes available for artistic expression and experimentation, a deeper engagement with society, and a new awareness of the body and the wearer”

This story begins with traditional jewellery, which is cast as mere portable wealth, a wearable savings account, whose value is reduced to the price that can be obtained for its material elements, particularly precious metal and rare stones. A scandalous version of this is the engagement ring as commodified by De Beers, in which the size of the diamond is seen as directly related to the amount of love. This art aids the victory of Mammon over love. In this way, the task of design in jewellery is to highlight the material worth: to make gold gleam and gems sparkle. As Peter Dormer (Dormer and Turner 1994) wrote, “In most commercial jewellery the design matters only as a vehicle for gemstones and precious materials.”

Then came along our own Moses. We know the story as well as a Jewish family around the Passover table. Hermann Jünger subverted the economic imperative by putting the medium of gold to aesthetic uses. This was soon followed by the introduction of non-precious materials, such as aluminium and Perspex, whose worth was more directly related to non-material values, such as skill, creativity and especially originality. The struggle against money has been the source of much invention since then. Our version of Malevich’s seminal Black Square, Otto Künzli’s famous “Gold makes blind”, contradicts the economic imperative by concealing value from sight (a gold ball is concealed under a layer of rubber). Then the Dutch took this into the conceptual realm. Amen.

Language of Things

The critique of preciousness is the conventional point of entry for a general audience. As the label in Language of Things says: “The ‘critique of preciousness’ is a foundational theory in contemporary jewellery that leads makers to democratise adornment through the use of accessible materials, so that it can be a form of self-expression for anybody, not just the elite or wealthy.”

This is particularly evident in the number of works in this exhibition that use money itself as a material. Christel van der Laan has created a necklace from price tags, while Lauren Tickle’s neckpiece is literally made out of money, $US 63 to be precise. In her Art Jewelry Forum interview, Tickle claims that “My work erases the functional value of currency in order to express the creation of value.” Akiko Kurihara’s 1000gs reduces the work to the weight of its precious metal, but through a circuitous route by making 1000 letter g’s, each one weighing gram.

These follow Jünger’s innovation of painterly gold by rendering art victorious over its enemy by attacking its material base. Its need for a presence in our world is a source of its vulnerability. Matthew McIntyre-Wilson takes advantage of this by physically altering coinage as a post-colonial gesture.

Even in the corporate jungle, hard currency can become a weapon. In 2013, Samsung was ordered by the court to pay Apple $1 billion in damages, which they delivered in truckloads of 5 cent coins.

The material dimension of value isn’t always a source of critique. It can be used poignantly. Ted Noten’s ‘5kg silver suitcase’ was inspired by the tale of a Jewish refugee who kept gold in his shoes for security after the trauma of the Second World War.

Art jewellery about money

The other side of this particular coin is the decision by the Danish government to confiscate jewellery brought by refugees. The government deemed that this ornament be considered to be part of a refugee’s personal wealth, which should be used to cover their health expenses while in the country. The subsequent exemptions for “meaningful” objects such as wedding and engagement rings, has stirred Susan Cohn to develop a performance that will occur soon in Copenhagen, questioning the rigid separation of sentiment from capital. As she says,

“This reducing of the value of jewellery to an asset is contemptuous and ignorant of the crucial role jewellery plays in people’s lives – especially people fleeing from war and trauma.”

But as we know, the value of money is not merely related to the goods it might purchase, but also for the aura it lends to its possessor, evident in a magical title such as “billionaire”. In this way, wealth by itself can become a thing of beauty beyond its currency value.

In 2014, Australian artist Denis Beaubois received a $20,000 grant to make an artwork, out of $20,000. The artwork, titled Currency, included two stacks of 100 uncirculated $100 dollar banknotes. It was sold at auction by Deutscher and Hackett and fetched a price of $21,350. For a while, you can find an app on the Apple Store called I am Rich, which sold for $999 and did… precisely nothing.

There was a particularly interesting reflection on this conspicuous consumption of money at Schmuck in 2011. Stefan Heuser’s The Difference Between Us featured a series of cast sterling rings identical to each other, with the exception of being numbered from 1 to 100. The purchase price corresponded to their number. As expected, most of the rings were sold in a linear sequence, from cheapest to most expensive. But some buyers jumped the sequence. One went straight to the top and bought #100, for his grandmother on the occasion of her 100th birthday.

We can celebrate Heuser’s work as a victory over the economic, demonstrating the arbitrariness of the money value of jewellery.

The social turn

In Australia, Bridget Kennedy has been especially engaged in the struggle against Mammon. She balances the demands of “making a living” through retail sales with non-commercial activism such as repair cafes. Her artwork often rubs against the economic grain by confronting audiences with their own greed. In “Just help yourself why don’tcha” (2013), visitors were invited to take from a selection of 10,000 rings for a suggested $5 cost. In Choice Mate (2015-17) visitors signed up to a “mining agreement” that they would send an image and story of what they did with the object. These were stories were compiled into books sold on Blurb.

Last year, Bridget Kennedy spent the year making baskets and logged the amount of time involved. This resulted in the exhibition A Year of Time 1:30 where each basket had a disk on which was stamped the labour time, first in discrete minutes it took to make the work and second in total life time that elapsed, a multiple of thirty. The expectation was that purchasers would pay an amount equivalent to the cost of their own time.

Though a practising jeweller, Kennedy chose the medium of basketry given her experience living part of the time in a Philippines village. The materials of basketry are also usually very cheap, highlighting the value of time above materials. Kennedy gathered fabric from friends and even included shopping bags. She will be repeating the exhibition at the end of this year with the abundance of goods and services that were offered in return for the baskets.

Feminist economics

There is sometimes a feminist element in this critique, given the dependence of capitalism on unpaid female work in the home. This is strikingly presented by Lisa Gralnik’s ‘Golden Standard’, which renders the otherwise invisible domestic labour as gold in a sink.

This has been a particular focus here in Wellington, where collectives such as See Here and Occupation Artist have enabled a jewellery scene that is relatively independent of the market. One of these members, Sarah Read, has established a creative practice that has reduced the value of jewellery from its material base to the labour it entails. Offering herself as labour for the residents recovering from the earthquake in Christchurch, she freed up forms of usefulness from their material circuits. That said, these projects always had a material residue, such as the labour tokens that appeared at the National Gallery.


Meanwhile, in the outside world, the nature of money as currency has also been undergoing radical changes.

Our 21st century Moses is the fictional figure of Satoshi Nakamoto, who created the code that was registered as Bitcoin in 2008. Bitcoin uses a form of cryptography known as blockchain, which is a distributed ledger of financial transactions. Very simply, information about transfers is broadcast to nodes across a network, meaning that it cannot be altered in any single ledger.

Cryptocurrencies are part of our late 2010s zeitgeist. Names are emerging like Ethereum, KodakCoin, Venezuela’s Petroglyph, Namecoin, Peercoin, Potcoin for the cannabis industry, and Hullcoin for Hull.

Blockchain offers a glimpse of a post-capitalist future, where the corporations can be bypassed. Wessel and Coeckelbergh (2016) argue that blockchain has a liberatory potential. In normal finance, loans and payments bind social relations, often reinforcing class and hierarchies. Institutions like banks have subtle filters that restrict access to capital, particularly globally. Abstracting this system means the currency can circulate without reference to entrenched powers.

Blockchain continues the evolution of peer-to-peer networks from earlier versions such as Napster or bit-torrents. Like consumer platforms such as Uber and AirBNB, it promises to bypass the middlemen and allow an open connection between consumers and providers. While technology has enabled alternative currencies, some operate outside digital platforms. The Brixton Pound was established in 2008 as a purely local currency that could only be used within the municipality of Brixton.

Good Coin is a virtue currency, which puts the idea of karma into an app. It runs on the principle that “an evidence-based, motivating, and community-oriented rewards system spreads Good habits exponentially.” These currency apps work on a similar principle to the “loyalty” programs that reward our patronage, from Frequent Flyer Points to the card that is punched at our corner cafe for a free 50th latte.

Blockchain and jewellery

What does this have to do with jewellery? You might expect, given its prehistory as a currency, that these changes will begin to impact our medium. It certainly has in the jewellery industry. A London-based company called Everledger has placed more than 1.6 million diamonds on a blockchain, which records details such as colour, carat, and certificate number, which can be inscribed by laser on the crown or girdle of the stone.

And art jewellery, more specifically? To an extent, the blockchain resembles in abstract form the nature of any field of practice. The process of citing references, exhibitions and works presume a form of knowledge that is distributed across different magazines, journals, catalogues and online platforms. We expect that any new work or concept of worth invokes the chain of works that led to it in the field. But given the relatively subjective nature of this endeavour, this evaluation is more likely to be conducted in person-to-person events like this than become the business of an algorithm.

But for jewellery itself, I argue that blockchain helps us recover our roots. Here, I’d like to refer to the work of anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, especially his book Debt: The First 5000 Years (Graeber 2011). Graeber confronts the growing power of debt in modern capitalism. While it was previously limited to capital for housing, the extended reach of debt through student loans has now grown to cast a significant shadow over the average life. The interweaving of financial debt into our lives makes it almost impossible to imagine a life outside the capitalist system. But this is financial debt, enforced by law. Graeber does not discount the usefulness of debt per se, which has been an enduring dimension of societies, binding its members in a web of mutual obligation. Echoing George Simmel, he writes, “social life is based on the principle of reciprocity”.

As an alternative and more constructive currency, Graeber gives the example from Fiji of the whale tooth, which is offered to the bride’s family. This tooth does not stand as a direct payment for the bride, but as an acknowledgement of debt, similar to a mortgage payment. What he calls “social currencies” are not designed for buying and selling per se, but for sustaining sets of obligations to each other.

Indeed, it is not in technology that we see the reintroduction of currency into the contemporary jewellery field, but in artists who draw on customary practice.

While not an “art jeweller” in the strict sense, Lisa Hilli has made body adornment a key area of her creative practice. The project to re-create the midi necklace draws on her background as a member of the Tolai community in Papua New Guinea. This group is known for the kinavai, an elaborate costume worn by men in dance for which they are paid tabu, a form of shell currency. Hilli came across an elaborate necklace made from this shell in a collection at the Melbourne Museum. For her Masters at RMIT, she attempted to reverse engineer the museum artefact to understand how it was constructed and put it back into circulation. This was a painstaking task that involved removing the humps of every tiny shell. That aspect of the task was within her own hands. But there was a less certain challenge: finding enough tabu to make this necklace.

Hilli had received some tabu at funeral ceremonies which she attended. She reports that, among the Tolai, shells strung on a cane known as loloi are dispersed at funerals. It was important for her that this midi have the currency which she acquired at these events. But on closer examination, she noted that the original midi contained shells that might have been too small to pass as currency. So she decided to intervene in this reproduction and incorporate larger shells. She supplemented her personal supply with shells purchased at a market stall in Honiara, Solomon Islands: “I was not only paying for the shells, I was paying for the time it took her to collect the hundreds of tiny shells off the beach or estuarine, punch a hole in each shell and thread it on string.”

There’s a lot more to Hilli’s story than we can cover here, but what we can take away is how she has engaged with the circuits of exchange along which shells still travel across the Pacific. Though it was out of her hands, the customary work required to gather the materials should be seen as part of its value.

A less traditional project, but one that translates similar customary values is the Power Pendant initiated by a number of Moana artists, including Mary Talia Pau. These pendants were made in a traditional style from fabrics that were important to the wearer. The key to their value, though, is the contract that the six sisters undertake to wear their pendant when notified by one of their number that support is needed.

Beyond the relational

The reintroduction of currency into jewellery promises to advance our field. For the past two decades, we have been passing through a relational phase. This has re-connected the art form with its social function, where it finds its pre-capitalist roots. But the relational is vulnerable to critique. In its crude form, it is based on a premise that form can emerge from mere assembly: meaning will emanate from the simple gathering of people together, such as at a free meal in a gallery. This is the kind of vague relational aesthetics that has been satirised in the Scandinavian film The Square, where the creation of a space for reciprocity only leads to violence and chaos.

The evolution of the relational involves the development of social structures that can regulate that space. These require agreed rules, evident in craft projects, games, codes or currencies. Materially, a currency offers a way of bringing people together in a meaningful and sustained web of mutual obligations.

One very basic form of currency is the heirloom. This object is given with the understanding that it is to be passed on to a new host given the right conditions. The trajectory of this object could be seen as a kind of analogue blockchain, whose memory is encoded in the family history. Culturally, of course, this kind of principle operates in the case of taonga, whose value accrues with its successive owners.

So where do we place this in the history of art jewellery? There are calls from figures such as Lizbeth den Besten for an “expanded jewellery”. The Art Jewelry Forum publication in Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective, edited by Damian Skinner, proposed a model that expanded the meaning of jewellery beyond the focus on the private world of the bench to include other spaces where it subsequently dwells, such as the magazine’s page, the collector’s drawer, the wearer’s body, the fashions of the street and the things of the world.

Alongside this horizontal spatial expansion of the jewellery field is a temporal dimension revealed in the expanding scene of global art jewellery. Jewellery artists now working in alternative cultural contexts, such as Moana, Persia or Buddhist Asia, often draw value not only from their individual skills and creativity, but also from the past, especially the traditions that they translate into body ornament for life in modern cities.

Can we begin to see value not in who made it, but also who wore it? But let’s tread carefully here. We might not like where this leads.

The National Gallery of Australia recently opened an exhibition of jewellery by Cartier. The primary focus was on the clientele, which “included royalty, aristocrats, socialites, and stars of the stage, cinema and music.” Jewellery with this kind of history seems the antithesis of the art jewellery movement. Indeed, the show has been critiqued on the basis that jewels are not art. Not only has the National Gallery of Australia betrayed its mission as a cultural institution, it has also given the medium of art jewellery a bad name by pandering to celebrity worship.

Not all bearers are of equal worth. We don’t like to be judgemental, but I have to say that bestowing a midi necklace on a tribal leader as a form of cultural renewal is a lot more interesting than gasping at the baubles on a celebrity whose worth is manufactured by media corporations. We should acknowledge the ethical value of the circuits that are opened up by contemporary jewellery.

This is not a mere political issue. There is creativity in the construction of value and innovation in the development of alternative platforms. Vicki Mason’s Broaching Change project pioneered the blog as a kind of blockchain to record recipients of her brooches. But she had to make objects of great beauty to begin with in order to provide the value that would circulate. Now we see Instagram becoming an important ledger of use, such as Mia Straka’s Valere Talisman project.

This means having alternative ways of looking at a jewellery object besides something original and unprecedented. It means considering not only who made it, but also who got wear it. It means appreciating the traces of its use. In this way, as the Tongans say, Ka wa mamua, the past is in front of us.

Further reading

Adamson, Glenn, and Julia Bryan-Wilson. 2016. Art in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing. 1 edition. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson.

Dormer, Peter, and Ralph Turner. 1994. The New Jewelry: Trends+ Traditions. Thames and Hudson.

Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. New York: Melville House.

Reijers, Wessel, and Mark Coeckelbergh. 2016. “The Blockchain as a Narrative Technology: Investigating the Social Ontology and Normative Configurations of Cryptocurrencies.” Philosophy & Technology 31 (1): 103–30.

Hope’s arrow: The origins of East West Meet

The Australian flag caught up in an Isfahan street as part of the international gathering for the World Crafts Counci General Assembly

I was in Isfahan for the General Assembly of the World Crafts Council, where I was representing my country of birth, Australia. I had to pay my own way, but I thought this was a unique opportunity to be shown around city claimed to be “half the world”. Looking at the press coverage during the event, it was clear that Iranians were seeing this as the first major international gathering since the lifting of sanctions. There seemed much at stake in welcoming the world to this legendary city of craft.

We were assigned guides to help us appreciate the city. On the way to the Isfahan Bazaar, we passed by a mysterious museum with photographs of early twenty-first century Iran. In the first room was a tiled world with the inevitable floral ornament, interspersed with images of religious figures and fascinating accounts (in English) of the Constitutional Movement of 1906 in Iran. My guide told me that Mullahs gathered in this house, known then as the Safa Khaneh, to read newspapers, from which they disseminated the move to replace the absolute power of the Shah with a democratically elected government.

A diorama in the centre of the room caught my eye. It featured two men sitting opposite each other. One was dressed as a Mullah, and the other as a Christian priest. Around them was a mix of Muslim and Christian men and women. I learnt that during this time there were open dialogues between the two religious. They were conducted in order to forge an understanding of Iran as a tolerant nation that embraces other religions of the book. So Iranians valued religious tolerance too!

In the intensive Googling that followed, I discovered that this moment was celebrated by the Iranian President Mr Mohammed Khatami, when he launched the concept of a Dialogue among Civilisations in 1998. This idea reached its greatest potential when taken up as the official theme of 2001 by the United Nations. His speech to launch contained this amazing passage:

“In addition to poetic and artistic experience, mysticism also provides us with a graceful, profound and universal language for dialogue. Mystical experience, constituted of the revelation and countenance of the sacred in the heart and soul of the mystic, opens new existential pathways on to the human spirit.”

I’m still trying to get my head around Persian mysticism. Through stilted English translations of poems by Hafez, I can occasionally glimpse the layers of meaning that Iranians have grown to see in the world. And I remember the Elephant in the Dark exhibition organised by Iranians in Melbourne, based on a tale of people imagining different animals from the particular part of the elephant they could feel in the dark.

2001… It was hardly an auspicious year to launch a Dialogue among Civilisations. But at least it became an idea, which will hopefully have a better day to come.

After Isfahan, I spent some days in Tehran with the Mahe Mehr Art and Culture Institute, which is a wonderful art academy established by three visionary gallerists to help improve the thinking and techniques in the local art scene. I offered to give a workshop on the Social Object, with a particular focus on the “promise object”. When I sought they ideas about where trust was lacking in contemporary Iran, a large number mentioned relations with minority religions. So we developed some objects that might help sow seeds for a better understanding between these faiths.

Their concerns reflected the experience in Australia after the Martin Plaza hostage crisis, when so many used the hashtag #IllRideWithYou to show support for Muslim women who might be afraid of Islamophobia. These “memes” mean well, but they are not good at creating ongoing structures for solidarity.

This time in Tehran there was intense interest in the promise object. We had to do the workshop again due to the demand. During the week at Mahe Mehr, I was impressed by how much these (mostly jewellery) artists were very keen to learn more about the cultural scenes outside Iran, and particularly how to engage with them. I was lucky to be there for a ground-breaking exhibition of 60 jewellers who made work about living in Tehran. The quality and ideas behind their work was amazing.

Craft generally is a powerful way of connecting cultures that are otherwise opposed ideologically. It’s a shared human story of how we’ve made something from the corner of the world where we live. Jewellery in particular is a powerful link as a form of personal ornament that connects us as individuals. It’s modernist phase is relentlessly democratic in critiquing the role of jewellery in sustaining hierarchy, from royal crowns to Debeers diamond rings. Through the AJF Ambassadors program, we are now expanding the field to reflect the new perspectives brought by jewellery scenes outside the trans-Atlantic north.

One young jeweller came up with the idea of extending the act of promise to people of other countries. This would be a version of a free trade agreement, except in this case it would be between individuals, along the lines of “I’ll protect your religion, if you’ll protect mine.” How would people make this connection? In one of the bazaars I’d seen posters warning of the dangers of Facebook, which is officially banned in Iran. However, as artists, most of them were on Instagram, which is not banned. This seemed a good platform where individuals from East and West could connect.

One of the writers present spoke about the Tirgan festival, which is a Zoroastrian event that celebrates the coming of rains at the end of summer. Tirgan tells the story of Arash, an archer chosen to mark the boundaries Persian and the Central Asian kingdom of Turan. Shot from Mount Damavand’s peak, his arrow landed on the banks of a river that marked the permanent border, and thus bringing in an era of peace between the two kingdoms. This was followed by welcome rains. We could think of people using the platform to send missives between East and West, exploring similarities and differences. Tirgan also has a jewellery link. It is celebrated by wearing a rainbow coloured bracelet for 10 days, which is then cast into the waters.

While Tirgan seemed a perfect story for our project, eventually there was concern that there could be problems for anyone linked to a project that is formally identified with Zoroastrianism. So right now Tirgan functions more as a backstory, but we do hope to include the bracelets for an event with the Radiant Pavilion jewellery festival in Melbourne this August.

The initial version of the platform exists now on Garland – Please enter your details to be linked to someone on the other side. It will be carefully monitored to ensure that people treat this respectfully. We can follow its progress with the hashtag #eastwestmeet.

Most of what’s happening in the world is beyond our control. We hope that East West Meet is something that appeals as a form of direct action. There are many hopes pinned on it.

Bodies aren’t forever

I shouldn’t be writing this essay. The body as a theme in contemporary jewellery is essentially a feminist issue. All the artists and the curator of this exhibition are women. The patriarchal position of the writer is one that seeks to explain the work, rending its unnerving and rogue elements in rational form. In a feminist context, this is an obvious expression of phallocentrism, therefore to be resisted.

But the alternative seems worse. I could attempt my own kind of feminist discourse, employing a corporeal language à la Julia Kristeva. But no. This would be an exotic primitivist gesture that disavows my inevitable gender position.

I can only proceed. My concession is to say that I am not demanding of you that my text be read as an explanation of the works in this exhibition. My text is more like the otherwise neutral architecture of the gallery in which the exhibition takes place. These words attempt to shelter the artists from the business of the world outside while allowing some traffic of ideas inside and out. What happens inside is out of my hands.

So let’s do the historical stuff.

Contemporary jewellery as a modernist venture sought to define what distinguished itself from other art forms, such as sculpture and painting. A common response was to identify the body as the essential and unique element in jewellery. While most art worlds are created to occupy walls, floors or plinths, jewellery is designed primarily to fit on the body. Essentially, it should not be read in isolation as a small sculpture, but instead be evaluated in relation to this vertical tree of flesh clothed in skin. As the canvas of jewellery, the body then becomes a site of experimentation. In the 1980s, this involved an enlargement of jewellery to cover the whole body, such as the English David Poston’s life-size performance props and the Australian Rowena Gough’s Reptilia wearable paper sculpture.

The focus on the body opened up the discovery of new sites on which jewellery could be located. Beyond the wrist, finger, neck, ear and crown, artists could explore new spaces for ornament, such as teeth (Susan Cohn’s ornamented dental braces). These works raise the question of the relation between adornment and the body.

Now the theory…

The relationship between metal and flesh is a powerful dialectic. Skin is sensuous and responsive, compared to the cold inert elements such as gold, silver or aluminium. One is human, the other machine. According to this logic, jewellery exists to serve the body – to draw the gaze to it, to frame its features and to honour it as valuable. But in the longer term, the life of metal extends far beyond that of flesh. The wedding ring can exist long after the husband and wife have decomposed. According to this contrary logic, we are simply hosts for jewellery. We exist so that these vain glittering objects might be paraded through social events and admired. And when we die, a lucky few jewels can live on attached to someone else’s body, protected as a keepsake or reincarnated in the crucible to be remade as a new object.

As with any dialectic, zero-sum logic seeks some possibility of synthesis. How can metal and flesh merge? How can the process of corporeal corruption be revealed through the jewellery itself?

Zooming in to the local…

While the ‘body as canvas’ was a driving formal interest in contemporary jewellery, the body also featured strongly as content in feminist engagement. By contrast with the ideology of mateship, Australia was the country that explored most intensely the feminist dimension of contemporary jewellery, in particular the Gray Street Workshop in Adelaide. In the mid-1980s, Anne Brennan made a series of work reflecting the everyday experiences of women such as domestic duties, including necklaces of nappies on a line. Her work for Thoughts in Flesh (1984, JamFactory) referenced the female body, including pieces resembling intrauterine devices. The Ce Mal de L’Infini (1986, Contemporary Art Centre, Adelaide) exhibition included objects to be clenched between teeth that prevented the speech, evoking the violence of silence. Other Gray Street members aestheticise flesh: Catherine Truman carves models of musculature onto work and Leslie Matthews casts pieces inspired by internal organs. Beyond Gray Street, the most striking jewellery encounter with the body has been Tiffany Parbs in Melbourne. Parbs invents new forms working only with the body itself.

Across the Tasman, feminism had a very different orientation. In New Zealand artists explored third-wave feminist concerns such as the domestic. In her Strain, Grate, Whisk, Scrub series (2000) Pauline Bern made ornament out of kitchen utensils as a way to bring jewellery into the back stage world that constitutes the maternal domain. This was parallel to the exploration of a settler aesthetic that never occurred in Australia.

Now comes the zeitgeist…

So what does it mean here in 2013 to re-visit the body as a site of contemporary jewellery? This century has seen the growth of ‘the relational turn’, which involves moving away from issues of individual experience such as the body. This seems an enlightened development beyond the individualist framework and towards a shared understanding of authorship. It’s hard to fathom today a welcoming return to the romance of the lone artist. But maybe there’s occasional need to question the collective, to go against what Nietzsche called our ‘herd nature’.

The exhibition at hand…

Embodied stretches the ‘body as canvas’ in two ways. First, relationally. Suse Scholem’s opening performance seeks to crowd-source a collective experience of jewellery and her Gestaltwerk creates jewellery out of the relation between two bodies, similar to Renee Bevan’s body assemblage photographs in New Zealand. Rachel Timmins walking jewellery performances disrupt the routines of everyday life, causing public to break their journeys and make sense of this jewellery on legs. As relational element, the body offers more anarchic possibilities than the more structure participatory forms of making in common.

Then there are works that transgress the boundary between jewellery and body. Tassia Ioannides sticker performances and works directly adorn the body. Selina Woulfe’s performances erase the distance between jewellery and the body. Like the Dutch jeweller Vera Siemund’s chalk necklace, Woulfe’s Delmira rubs off on the body. While Siemund’s is designed to stain clothes, Woulfe’s lipstick directly affects the skin. Silvergraft points us towards body piercing. But this is an extension of ear piercing, while Woulfe’s work evolves out of the brooch, which is conventionally attached to clothing. Its radical nature seems to be in circumventing this layer, evoking a nakedness more bare than nudity.

And the final authoritative judgement…

Embodied seems to move in two directions – outward in the collision of other bodies and inward in the inexorable isolation of personal body. The exhibition revives the ‘body as canvas’ only to break through to the other side. Rather than consign the body a singular modernist phase in contemporary jewellery, Embodied offers up the body as a cyclical reinvigoration of adornment, exposing new directions.

You may now view the exhibition.

Essay for the exhibition Embodied curated by Suse Scholem, 24 September 2014

What to make of 2014

Master batik artist Tony Dyer with a young Japanese textile student at the Semarang International Batik Festival in May 2013

One of the major events of 2014 will be the Golden Jubilee of the World Crafts Council, which will be held in Dongyan, China, 18-22 October. It will be very interesting to see how the Chinese presidency of WCC uses this unique occasion to promote local craftsmanship. One day ‘Made in China’ may be something that actually adds value to a product.

The China event will be an important occasion to present the Code of Practice for Partnerships in Craft & Design, which has been developed over the past three years of discussions that were part of Sangam: Australia India Design Platform. We’ll be developing a platform based around those standards to promote fair partnerships between producers and developers. This year, the network will extend to Indonesia, with a workshop at Kampoeng Semarang looking particularly at commissioning of batik artists.

The key element that draws me to craft is the way it engages with tradition. While the modern world encourages freedom, it is hard to conceive of a meaningful life without responsibility. Custodianship gives meaning to our otherwise fleeting lives. And craft traditions require skill and imagination if that are to be something we can pass on to future generations.

This is something quite evident to indigenous peoples, whose own culture is vulnerable to colonisation. Retaining language and custom gives purpose and honour to individual lives in indigenous communities.

By contrast, the dominant white Anglo world seems to require little from us in order to flourish. It runs increasingly on automatic, sustained by machines and global corporations. But there are still buried traditions that we can uncover and pass on. Colonisation involved removing the social value from objects, otherwise considered the primitive domain of fetish or idol. The challenge is to recover social objects such as charms, crowns, garlands and heirlooms that offer a hard currency of interconnection.

Amulets from the Sonara Market in Mexico City - how to turn objects of destruction into agents of good?

The project Joyaviva: Live Jewellery across the Pacific travels to Latin America this year. It will be very interesting to see how these audiences respond to the challenge of designing a modern amulet. Can folk traditions transcend their nostalgia and become relevant elements of contemporary life?

The broader questions associated with this will be played out in a series of roundtables as part of the South Ways  project. This will seek to identify creative practices that are unique to the South. The first one in Wellington will look at the relevance of the Maori ‘power object’, or taonga, to Western art practices such as relational jewellery.

Other projects will help tie these threads together. The performance work Kwality Chai will explore what an Indianised Australia might be like. This relates to the utopia of Neverland, in which Australia becomes a haven for cultures that have no home in the world, such as Sri Lankan Tamils.

Craft keeps us alive to the debt we owe to previous generations. I’m very pleased to be involved with Wendy Ger’s Taiwan Ceramics Biennale where many artists have mastered clay as a language for the unique expression of ideas and values.

So there’s much to be made of 2014. Let’s hope this includes a future for 2015 and beyond.

Aesthetics versus Ethics: Judgement day for contemporary jewellery

The other day I found Benjamin Lignel’s recent post in Art Jewelry Forum, ‘Just what is it that makes today’s art galleries so different, so appealing?’ It was a teasing title. A quick Google revealed its source as a collage by Richard Hamilton, satirising 1950s consumerism.

So what makes the art gallery so appealing for contemporary jewellery? Benjamin was reflecting on the first exhibition of contemporary jewellery at Gargosian Gallery, arguably the most prestigious commercial visual art space on the planet. It was an occasion well worth noting.

What followed was a series of salutary disappointments. Rather than select a known figure of the contemporary jewellery scene, Gargosian chose the work of a fashion designer with Dior, Victoria de Castellane.

Benjamin’s review was characteristically incisive, critiquing the show not only for its cloying craftsmanship, but also for its disdain of wearability. Indeed, the images of work online did look like wearable Dale Chihuly miniatures. It seemed to confirm the seeming irreconcilable separation of contemporary jewellery and visual art.

But this wasn’t the reason that Lignel’s review unsettled me. I had already braced myself for the news that a visual arts gallery was not sensitive to the unique qualities of contemporary jewellery.

It was something else. In describing the theme of Castellane’s show, Benjamin left a question hanging. The exhibition was titled Fleur d’excès and featured ten ‘unique precious objects’ each celebrating a different drug, such as Heroïna Romanticam Dolorosa and Crystalucinae Metha Agressiva. According to the accompanying media release :

Hallucinatory drugs and their promise of mind-expansion have fascinated and inspired artists the world over. De Castellane’s flowers are intoxicating, but also dangerous because of the poisons that they secrete. Here they personify the Romantic idea of women “under the influence”

So, this inaugural show of contemporary jewellery is a celebration of drug addiction. That is not surprising in a Gargosian context. Elite contemporary art defines itself against mainstream values, particularly tight-arsed middle class morality. But it is sobering to learn that this is how contemporary jewellery is located—as a sphere of decadent excess.

Rather than signify an enduring amorality in art jewellery, this review brought more starkly into relief the opposing trends in our scene today—established European aestheticism versus emerging United Statesian activism. These positions seem largely at odds with each other. The celebration of individual originality is cancelled out by the urgent call for collective action.

That’s the question: what’s the place of ethics in the world of contemporary jewellery?

Ethics has become a broad dimension of our critical engagement with the world. We are less likely now to skip down the supermarket aisle, grabbing seductively packaged goods from the shelves. Now each product demands careful scrutiny. We look first at the list of ingredients for substances that are harmful to ourselves or the world. We Google the brand on our smartphones to see how it fares on ethical checklists.

The same applies to cultural consumption. In Australia, we prefer that films made about Indigenous culture are made by Indigenous people themselves. Celebrity artists like Anthony Gormley and Ai Wei Wei are valued not just for their art, but also for their visions of global democracy.

Meanwhile, the broader world of jewellery is embracing ethical agendas. Standards such as Walmart’s Terracycle and industry initiatives like greenKarat attempt to counter anxieties about ‘blood diamonds’: the universal symbol of love should not be tainted by the violence of civil war. Jewellers working in Africa like Sarah Rhodes and Martina Dempf, as well as environmental projects like CO2 pins, currently sit on the edges of contemporary jewellery. Can we broaden the field to include ethical practices?

At first glance, ethics appears far too blunt an instrument. You can’t make an ornament out of morality. So does this mean that contemporary jewellery must exempt itself from our otherwise ethical engagement with the world? Aesthetics has no room for ethics.

But rather than despair at this opposition, we can gain some mileage out of its dialectical tension. To move the argument along, met me try ramping up the opposition between the aesthetic and ethical. I hope by this means that we can develop an understanding of contemporary jewellery that might encompass both its aesthetic roots and the critical ethical response.

Thesis: the aesthetic

World of contemporary jewellery is one of wit and excess. The scene is mercifully too boutique to be bothered with the same rules as apply to earnest worldly activities, like books or computers. It minds its own business. This endogamous morality of contemporary jewellery is based on four principles.

1. Conviviality

After all, shouldn’t there be some space in our world for pure pleasure? As Ortega y Gasset once said, ‘Humans are animals for whom only the superfluous is necessary.’ Jewellery is the space of friendship, not strategic alliances. It is only by putting the world at a distance that we can enjoy the spontaneity, freedom and downright wickedness of good friendship. Friendship is more an art than it is a science.

Contemporary jewellery will only be a relatively minor scene in the broader context of world art. It exists independently of grand statements as found in biennales or glossy magazines. Rather, it is underpinned by the personal liaisons between jewellers, clients, professors and curators. As such, it values individuality—the recognition of each other’s uniqueness.

When Economist devoted an article to the field, it concluded, ‘Humour and subversion are an intrinsic element of this kind of jewellery’. As Peter Skubic claims, ‘The only rule is that there are no rules. It’s all just a good laugh.’

2. Internal currency

Contemporary jewellery eschews external forms of value, particularly money. Jewellery should not be reduced to its exchange value. It is better to use non-precious materials, whose value is derived from its position internal to the artistic field, rather than precious metals or stones that can carry a value which can circulate outside the scene. In removing itself from the real world of precious metals, contemporary jewellery absolves itself of the politics of global wealth distribution.

3. The game

The self-referential nature of contemporary jewellery is essential to its meaning. It’s a game. But this is not to dismiss it as a pastime without depth. It’s a tremendously serious game—testing its participants to their utmost in craftsmanship, intelligence and audacity.

Contemporary jewellery is hardly unique in being a world of its own. The most significant human pursuit on the global stage is no doubt the field of sport. Here we applaud the efforts of the athlete or team, despite the utter uselessness of its outcome. And in the other side of sport, the world of work, professionalism and passion for success are seen as the mark of a modern executive, regardless of which company they work for. The end is a pretext for the means.

Such a devotion to the game is not unique to modernity. Around two thousand years ago, in the great Indian epic Bhagavad Gita, the Lord Krishna argues the case for war, despite the meaningless loss of life it entails. For Krishna, the earthly consequences of battle are not as important as the honour that will be upheld in the process. The supreme value of Dharma transcends any worldly relevance. Above all, one must follow one’s chosen path in life, one’s Karma Yoga.

So rather than dismiss contemporary jewellery as a ludic venture, this becomes its virtue. As Picasso said, ‘Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.’ Contemporary jewellery is thus a field in which we can exercise rare qualities that are essential to life. Through it we forge friendships and exercise our capacities independent of any compromise with the world outside. Far from amoral, the aesthetic dimension of contemporary jewellery is pure deontology.

Antithesis: the ethical

Whereas on the other hand…

Aestheticism attempts to create a set of values that seem independent of worldly forces. But rather than exist outside the system, its purpose is precisely to support it by offering an alibi—taste. Rather that basing class difference on brute economic power, it is seen to be founded on individual sensibility. Thus, the working class are not of low status because they lack money, but because they don’t have the inner taste to appreciate finer things. It’s their own fault.

1. Surplus capital

Jewellery itself is pure surplus capital. In its traditional form, jewellery functions to store value that is in excess of requirements. What’s left of the harvest once immediate needs are met is exchanged for precious metals that are fashioned to fix on the body of women. Surplus capital can then circulate along kinship systems with the exchange of women in marriage. Traditional jewellery is simply a portable bank account. Today we have plastic credit cards. In detaching itself from the currency value of jewellery, contemporary jewellery becomes surplus of a surplus. It marks a class society where the capacity to own precious jewels is no longer a marker of high status.

2. Status symbol

Capital investments can sometimes have another purpose. A house can also provide shelter, a vehicle transport. In the case of jewellery, there is no purpose other than to identify one’s social status.

While it does serve as a reserve of capital that can be drawn on when convenient, it also provides an overt symbol of class. In many societies, only certain classes are eligible to wear particular types of jewellery. According to the sumptuary rules in Renaissance Europe, commoners were forbidden from wearing pearls. In feudal India, only the Brahmin caste could wear gold. Traditional jewellery provides a vertical society with the ceiling that prevents movement up its hierarchy.

Contemporary jewellery appears to contest this by questioning the value of economic capital in jewellery. But this isn’t about re-investing wealth into worthy causes—melting down gold to buy food for the starving. It is rather about increasing the freedom of the artist to experiment with materials. The results then become markers of a cultural elite who use it to distinguish themselves from both the bling below and pearls above. These are just a postmodern version of feudal sumptuary laws.

3. War footing

While in the past we might have been able to afford the indulgence of ornament, it’s a different matter today. The phenomenon of climate change has prompted a ‘war-footing’ for all human endeavours. Everything has to be accounted for its terms of its effect on our rapidly diminishing planet.

Even a seemingly incidental a practice such as contemporary jewellery—the surplus of a surplus— is now being taken to account for its environmental impact. The USA collective Ethical Metalsmiths was launched at SNAG in 2005 as an attempt to introduce political action into contemporary jewellery. It addressed the immediate impact of jewellery in the well-documented environmental damage caused by mining.

While relatively insignificant as a user of such resources itself, contemporary jewellery can operate as an advocate for more responsible practices. Ethical Metalsmiths draws on the DIY sensibility that has been the main source of energy in contemporary craft thus far in the third millennium. DIY is about the solidarity of makers using the free market to contest dominant corporate powers. Radical Jewellery Makeovers bring communities together to transform out-dated items into re-charged jewels with fresh value. Such activities escape the consumerist treadmill that seeks always for the new, quickly replacing last year’s fashion with next year’s rubbish. The makeover re-charges the unloved object with the magic of social exchange.

The game’s over, contemporary jewellery. You are either with us or against us. You are either contesting the system that is destroying the planet or you are supporting it by providing a distraction from the main issue.

Dialectic: Keep moving

The aesthetic and the ethical seem diametric opposites. One argues for an entirely internal set of values, the other brings jewellery to account in its external effects. Maybe they both have a place in contemporary jewellery. As Liesbeth den Besten notes ‘author jewellery’ sits in between elite art and democratic design—the freedom to be original and the duty to serve the people.

What kind of space can we find to bring these positions together? But perhaps it’s not a space at all, but rather a time that they share—a cycle of growth and destruction.

The aesthetic position provides a generative platform for the creativity. It’s hard to contest that part of what we do to make life meaningful is produce things of beauty. But without some external intervention, such a scene threatens to become in-bred. Aestheticism is a point in a cycle which must at some stage be pruned by a fundamentalism if it is not to decay. The over-indulgence of Victorian taste eventually needed the Arts & Crafts movement to re-ground English decorative arts.

Ethical Metalsmithing comes at a time when contemporary jewellery needs to re-connect with the wider world. It draws on our anxieties about ‘blood diamonds’ and prompts us to examine the conditions that make jewellery possible. The taint of exploitation jars particularly with the seeming innocence of jewellery from the wider world. This provides an opening for alternative self-sufficient systems such as the DIY movement.

But we must be wary of the fundamentalism that is housed within the ethical turn. The idea of a ‘war-footing’, in which all human activities must be brought to a common account is a condition of totalitarianism. We see a version of that today in the unstoppable growth of managerialism. The growing democratic expectations of government have led to a greater sense of accountability for what might be seen as elite cultural institutions, such as state art galleries. Government support for art practice is increasingly beholden to instrumentalist outcomes, such as social cohesion, job creation or environmental sustainability. Rather than serve the people, such processes support a technocratic society more interested in control than justice.

To prevent fundamentalism ossifying into bureaucracy, we need to keep extending the field of action. Beyond Ethical Metalsmiths, there are many other future courses of action. Let me conclude by mentioning three potential developments in engaged jewellery.

1. Agiprop

Rather than focus only on issues like mining that are directly related to jewellery, it is possible to use the viral capacity of body ornament to send messages of great political moment. We saw the potential for this with the ‘Make Poverty History’ white silicon bracelet, which was instrumental in focusing the attention of the G8 summit on the reduction of poverty. The Millennium Goals that it produced have been remarkably successful in alleviating the condition of suffering. The challenge here is to find a way in which a wave of support can be interlinked by body ornament that gives it daily visibility. If only we could find the viral ornament to cohere action around climate change.

2. Microsocial

Besides environment, the other major currency of creative endeavour in our century is the social network. Facebook has leapfrogged millennia of social traditions and provided us with ideal tools for maintaining networks of friends, family and acquaintances. If anything, it is too successful. Allow Facebook to rummage through your address book and you’ll soon have thousands of friends—at the click of a mouse. The global success of Facebook now confronts us with the challenge of recovering the ties that bind close friends.

Jewellery remains a hard currency of friendship. Pins, bracelets and rings can be given as markers of a relationship that invests in a future. Unlike status updates, they are personal. Jewellery has an important role in contemporary society by re-connecting people.

3. Poor jewellery

While the use of rubbish to make jewellery can demonstrate the ingenuity of the maker, it can also be used as a strategy for subverting social hierarchies. Popular social movements such as the South African freedom struggle found expression in what has been called a ‘re-discovery of the common’. The use of readily available materials from the street finds parallel with the democratic energies that seek to give power to the masses over the repressive elites.

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda tried to achieve something similar in writing classical odes for common objects, such as a pair of scissors or an orange. Conventionally, social change is reflected in bling, which signifies an aspirationalism whereby an individual can rise above their ranks to join the privileged elite. By contrast, the ‘poor jewellery’ represents a solidarity that contests the hierarchy as a whole.


Ethical Metalsmiths are the fundamentalists of our time. They represent a break with a tired aestheticism. But in following their lead, we do not have to be limited to one particular paradigm of engagement. Ethical Metalsmiths have opened the door. But neither we nor they have to linger around the entrance. There are many interesting alternatives ahead.

Inevitably, particular individuals will begin to stand out as especially innovative in their work. They will gain recognition in a field of other individuals. And eventually aestheticism may flower again, just as the garden regains it bloom after a radical pruning.

The ambivalence of contemporary jewellery towards ethics is not a bad thing. Aesthetics prevents mindless moralism: it keeps us honest. But without ethics, we are left talking to ourselves.

See you at the pearly gates.


This paper was initially presented in the Nothing if not Critical forum at the SNAG Jewellery conference in Seattle, June 2011 and published in the Art Jewelry Forum