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.


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.


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)

A New Worldliness in Contemporary Jewellery

‘Do not suffer life to stagnate; it will grow muddy for want of motion: commit yourself again to the current of the world.’

Samuel Johnson

The Smithsonian museum is currently displaying the ‘Wittelsbach Blue’ diamond, supposedly the world’s most precious gem. Originally from India, it had been passed down in the crowns of Spanish and German monarchs for three centuries until it was purchased for $AUS32.4m by billionaire diamond dealer Laurence Graff.

To the horror of specialists, Graff set about re-cutting this treasure to improve its appearance. A dismayed expert from Sotheby’s commented, ‘With the Wittelsbach Blue, you knew how it came into existence… You know who has worn it, what kinds of historical events it has gone through and what social upheavals it was present for.’[1] In re-cutting the diamond, Graff has erased centuries of regal history.

It is strange to think that a diamond can have a heritage value—that such a hard stone can reveal the passage of time through scratches and chips. This conflicts with the purely commercial paradigm for diamonds, where traces of previous use detract from value.

The Wittelsbach Blue is certainly multi-faceted. Much like other precious jewels in the Western tradition, it enhances the status of the individual wearer. But even at the level of the Wittelsbach Blue, there is a strong counterbalance of public interest. There are expectations that the owner is not only purchasing an object for his own enjoyment, there is also the implied responsibility as custodian of collective memory, embodied in the singular precious object. There is a public dimension to even the most commodified individual jewel.

Australian contemporary jewellery has a parallel ambivalence. In most cases, it provides a language for expression of individuality. The designs are original. A wearer of contemporary jewellery publically presents a self that is at odds with conformist fashion brands. Unlike a branded product, the wearer can actually say who made it.

Signs of Change develops this public nature of contemporary jewellery further—beyond the personal and into the political. In this exhibition, the possibilities of jewellery beyond personal adornment are explored in two ways: the practical function of jeweller as a means of restoring or enhancing lifestyle, and the role of jewellery in binding social relations. It is to the latter social function particularly that I will now address.

On the tiger’s back

Since beginning of the twentieth century, modernity has witnessed waves of innovation. The predominant effect of phenomena such as mass media, industrial design, and Google has been to broaden access to cultural goods. Similarly, political revolutions have been accompanied by the elevation of common attire, from the sans-culottes of the French revolution and Mao jackets of the Chinese Communist Party to the blue jeans of the American youth movement. It seems the inexorable mission of modernity is to replace the rare treasures of aristocratic elites with the common identifiers of popular culture. As Andy Warhol noted about the popularity of Coke, ‘What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest.’[2]

We can see the contemporary jewellery movement playing its own role in this progression. There are key moments, such as Ralph Turner’s 1976 exhibition Jewellery Redefined, which celebrated the introduction of non-precious materials, including paper and plastic. Jewellery was no longer limited to traditional components of splendour like gold and diamonds. The key is instead an artistic imagination that could transform ordinary materials into works of art.

The new studio model positioned the jeweller as an artist. This meant the freedom to create work for its own sake, regardless of tradition, function, or marketplace.

In Australia, this studio model arrived fortuitously at a time when Australian universities were undergoing a radical transformation. No longer bastions of privilege, they were expected to open their doors to near universal access. Previously taught as a trade, jewellery courses emerged in now in universities where craft was seen as a theoretical field on par with visual arts, if not literature. Many students were the first in their family to have a tertiary education. It is natural that, as an upwardly-mobile class took over bastions of privilege, it celebrates the overturning of traditions. The resulting work questioned our assumptions of jewellery, including what is precious in our world.

But, as the Chinese say, when you are on a tiger’s back, it is impossible to get off. The modernist critique that was once used to clear away tradition eventually starts undermining the structures that replaced it. The model of jeweller as artist, once a form of defiance against the traditional status as artisan, eventually becomes another myth to be debunked. The liberating quest of modernity seeks new frontiers. Where will they be found?

Ethical turn

We now see an alternative model of jewellery emerging—from the bench to the street. Artistic vision has been a productive context for the emergence of contemporary jewellery, and will continue to be. But we see now a broadening context that enables jewellery to return to its place in everyday life—as useful device, social link or call for action. How might a piece of jewellery make its way beyond the bench, into the kitchen, the backyard, the street, the public square?

Function has been at odds with modern art. As Berthold Brecht puts it, ‘There are times when you have to choose between being a human and having good taste.’ To limit work to its usefulness has been seen as a Puritan reduction of art for its own sake. This undermines the transcendental nature of art as a freedom to reflect upon the world, rather than being bound to it.

This situation is changing. With the ethical turn in recent times, we have seen a re-evaluation of function in art. The shift began with the emergence of relational aesthetics at the end of the twentieth century. In reaction against commodification in the art world, the relational paradigm read art in terms of its audience relations. The artist was no longer lone genius revealing higher truths beyond the everyday world. Instead, his or her role was to be a conduit for bringing people together in surprising ways. It was a dramatic move. Overnight, galleries became restaurants.

While it may seem revolutionary in the visual arts, the relational approach has been a consistent thread in the contemporary jewellery movement. In Australia during 1990s, there had been much discussion about the relationship between the crafts and visual arts. A key argument around this question emerged in the Production Reproduction exhibition, curated by Suzie Attiwill as part of the 1995 Melbourne JMGA conference. The multiple production of jewellery, which may seem contrary to the romantic view of the artist, was here upheld as a defining feature. Rather than being conceived for one private owner, jewellery can be produced for a group. Such a jewellery object offers a point of common identity as a modern totem.

In Australian jewellery, the relational paradigm offered a platform to continue experimentation. In this case, the focus was not on the physical material to be transformed, but in the social dimension. The 2007 exhibition Solutions for Better Living curated by Kate Rhodes explored this from different angles. Roseanne Bartley translated the necklace into a metaphor for social gatherings. General Assembly by Blanche Tilden and Phoebe Porter pressed the democratic button strongly, enabling public to make their own selection of components for a brooch. Susan Cohn returned to the democratic brooch in order to distribute a work of visual art among many.

While the relational path helps recover a lost dimension of craft, in visual art it can go around in circles. Relational aesthetics has had limited success in broadening the social engagement in art beyond existing audiences—predominantly young, mobile, educated and urban. These are not new audiences: pre-existing art followers are just finding a more participatory way of engaging with art. In the relational context, it can be argued that craft and design have greater potential to intervene in the world.

This potential is evident now particularly with the ethical turn in contemporary design. In 2007 the design ‘guru’ Philippe Stark made the public confession that ‘today I’m so ashamed to make this job.’[3] Stark called for a much less glamorous approach to design, with an emphasis on practical improvement, ‘even if it’s for toilet brush’. Stark’s act of contrition is accompanied by a wave of philanthropic design, such as the Cooper Hewitt exhibition Design for the Other 90%, which highlighted proposals for improving living standards in poor communities.

The ethical design movement is to be welcomed not only as a more egalitarian focus, but also as fresh source of innovation in the field. But there is a danger.

Unfortunately, ethics is fashionable. Recently Oxfam ran an advertisement of a pig in leotards in order to console anxious patrons that ‘Giving will never go out of fashion’. The need to make this statement at all is an indication that even ethics can become a bandwagon, and what comes up the fashion swing will inevitably come down as last year’s fad. For this reason, it is imperative that ethical craft and design remain innovative and not rest on its laurels, no matter how worthy. The works developed by jewellers in this exhibition demonstrate much scope for innovation.

Handy around the home

Objects in Signs of Change divide roughly into practical and social functions. While my focus will be mostly on the social, it is important to recognise the new possibilities for jewellery as a practical device.

In her 1989 exhibition And does it work? Susan Cohn included objects reflecting the jewellery dimension of new devices, such as headphones and radio mikes. In a more covert way, Leah Heiss marries ornament and technology with rings that dispense insulin. They both perform their function efficiently and adorn the wearer’s finger. In a more decorative manner, Sarah O’Hara uses laser technologies to produce a monocle that is as interesting to look at as to look through.

Others link jewellery to environmental concerns. Rui Kikuchi demonstrates the luxurious beauty possible in the use of recycled PET bottles. Jessica Jubb is inspired by the recovery of nature in mine rejuvenation in the south-west. Bethany Linton highlights endangered flora. Donna Franklin and Simone Hicks make a very direct link with nature by incorporating living fungi into jewellery. And Nikki Stott re-purposes bio-technology to update the classic social function of jeweller in forging a ring that binds a couple together for life.

The emergence of groups like Ethical Metalsmiths has focused attention on the environmental impact of jewellery production as an essential part of its value. Works in this exhibition show how jewellers can respond both to internal issues of its manufacture—use of recycled metals—and external concerns in the world outside—promoting sustainability.

Jewellery can connect with the intimate lived spaces of everyday life. Sean O’Connell has developed ornament specifically for functional devices in our everyday life. The increased obsolescence of domestic appliances reflects a temporary world of latest technologies and fashions. Previously, as evoked by the controversy of the Wittelsbach Blue, long-lived objects could absorb deep memories and relay previous care and labour in well-worn surfaces and patched coverings. O’Connell is interested in the commonly broken elements, such as the switch on an electric kettle. Rather than see this as a shameful flaw, he takes this as an opportunity for ornament. In a similar way, some ceramicists sometimes repair a broken vessel with gold leaf, highlighting the repair.

Jayne Wallace also focuses on the role of ornament in domestic life. She is interested in the way jewellery can evoke memories and how this can assist those losing their link to the past through dementia. Her practice involves in depth consultation with family and sufferer to identify the prompts necessity to keep memory alive.

Helen Britton and Justine McKnight explore how jewellery can be adapted to the informal styles of life around the home and backyard. In terms of clothing, the t-shirt is a body covering that moves freely between home and street. It appears during periods of physical exertion such as a gym session or mowing the law. But it can also take on a public dimension with a novel design or witty saying. Despite its ubiquity, it seems rare to find jewellery on a t-shirt. Partly this is because of its informal status, but also as an extremely light garment, it is difficult to attach conventional jewellery such as brooches. So Helen and Justine have designed lightweight components to complement designs specific to t-shirts. T-shirt jewellery has the potential to dignify an otherwise humble form of clothing.

One of the Signs of Change is thus the broadening of ornament beyond the formal public body to the world close at hand.

Distributed jewellery

Meanwhile, the world today provides increasing opportunities for jewellery to embrace social networking. One of Oxfam’s most popular items is the Little Travellers, produced by Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust in South Africa.[4] Purchasers are encouraged to send images of their little beaded bride dolls from various corners of the world. In the case of jewellery, an Argentinean painter Francine has produced a series of hand-made brooches featuring miniature versions of her painted landscapes.[5] For Be My Walking Gallery, she encourages owners of her brooches to post online images of themselves wearing her works—effectively using jewellery as a distributed gallery. Like tracking devices, such distributed jewellery connects people together, despite their distances.

Such developments reflect the gregarious nature of contemporary consumption, finding new ways of bringing people in contact with each other. But also, from the other end, it suggests that the ever-expanding virtual communities need something real to ground themselves in our everyday lives.

Vicki Mason has been producing classic floral brooches that cleverly incorporate materials such as plastic and haberdashery. This work has been borne out of a celebration of gardening. For this exhibition she has taken her interest onto the political stage and made work that engages with the issue of Australia becoming a republic. Her brooches feature a broken crown to highlight this issue.

As it is, this would be standard practice for a jeweller seeking to make a statement with a work that goes on public display in a gallery setting. But Mason takes this further by releasing these works into the world on completion of the exhibition. Those fortunate enough to win a brooch for themselves at the exhibition opening will be required to agree to a covenant that commits them, in turn, to passing this brooch on to someone else. For anyone to receive the brooch, they must fulfil certain conditions: they must express an interest in it, be aware of its relation to the republican cause, and be willing to give it over to someone else in turn. The covenant is similar to systems such as Copyleft, which agree to use of intellectual property as long as it is not for restricted private gain. And like the use of tags in the Culturing the Body (2002) project by Roseanne Bartley, the jewellery functions to collect responses to an idea.

There are certain kinds of mass ornament that have emerged alongside social networking. They carry its spirit, but are not formally connected to online activity. The Make Poverty History bracelet was widely adopted as a sign of solidarity around issues of global equity, particularly the crippling debt owed by African countries. Promoted by celebrities such as Bono it was designed to press the issue around initiatives such as the Millennium Goals.

Like the red AIDS ribbon, this pioneering design has spawned many imitations, eventually demeaning its original value. What was initially a matter of individual commitment becomes eventually a matter of mass conformity. But what is a loss to mass fashion is an opportunity for contemporary jewellery. Renee Ugazio has developed an ingenious means of reviving this form by enabling individual customisation. Plastic bracelets can be recycled into bracelets, necklaces, brooches and even knuckle-dusters.

At the street level, one of the most successful items of jewellery is the DIY friendship bracelet. Produced by braiding several threads of wool, this bracelet has become a universal means by which individuals mark a personal commitment to another.

Areta Wilkinson has developed a substantial career as a jewellery artist with some of New Zealand’s most impressive recent exhibitions. Yet alongside these individual works, she has also developed a way of making a brooch that can be quickly learnt in a workshop. The Matiriki star commemorates the Maori New Year based on the appearance of the Pleiades constellation. As social jeweller, Wilkinson has forged a method to disseminate this festival broadly through host hands and bodies.

An alternative ethical dimension of jewellery involves working with traditional artisans. The German Martina Dempf has combined jewellery with anthropology through her project with basket-makers in Rwanda. Through workshops, Rwandan women have developed a means of refining their techniques to be incorporated into jewellery, such as brooches and necklaces. This has added to her own repertoire: she incorporates commissioned grass components into her work. But there is a developmental side as well with the women selling their own new jewellery range online. Dempf thus is able to make jewellery which reflects the issues that were raised by the Make Poverty History bracelets. But she goes beyond a purely symbolic engagement. She manages to both provide new opportunities for underprivileged women and create pieces of inherent beauty in themselves.


The jewellers in Signs of Change demonstrate that the functional need not be a creative dead end. Form doesn’t necessarily just blindly follow function, it dances around it. But there is still space in jewellery practice for radical expressions of individuality. This exhibition includes features some of new strategies for artistic creation. Erin Keys’ work captures wild gestural energies. Her arm bands resemble graffiti tagging, which is seen as a meaningless scourge of modern streets. Yet fixing it in jewellery frames it as a source of baroque fascination. In Read/Write Jewellery, Otto von Busch employs a Punk emblem, the safety pin, to create a means for wearers to inscribe their own forms. And Helena Bogucki cameos employ the technique of flooding to disenchant a form that is associated with elitism.

Change is gonna come…

Signs of Change is an opportunity to consider the public life of jewellery. While this may seem at odds with the inherently intimate nature of adornment, it reflects the mission of contemporary jewellery to critically engage with its place in the world. It is not just about ticking a box of political correctness. The do-gooder is easy to satirise. There is an experimental dimension of ethical design that challenges our preconceptions. The ethical mode of practice places significant responsibility in the hands of the jeweller. Once attached to a human host, jewellery has great potential power—not only as testament to the taste of the individual wearer, but also as a sign of change in the wider world.


[2] Andy Warhol From A to B and Back Again: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol London: Picador, 1975





This is a catalogue essay for the Signs of Change exhibition