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.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/07/fashion/07DIAMONDS.html

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

[3] http://www.ted.com/talks/philippe_starck_thinks_deep_on_design.html

[4] http://www.littletraveller.org.za/

[5] http://bemywalkinggallery.blogspot.com/


This is a catalogue essay for the Signs of Change exhibition

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