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.

Also published on Medium.

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