The contrast, the contemporary jeweller intends to dictate

The Birth of Contemporary
Jewellery

How changes in art and craft during the post-war
period led to the emergence of contemporary jewellery

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Contemporary
Jewellery is a term that has come to encompass multiple practices and objects.
These include sculptural art pieces meant to be displayed on the body;
communicative jewellery which holds political and conceptual meaning and
jewellery that subverts the traditional approach through material and
processes. One thing these all have in common is that they are distinctly
modern objects. In this essay, I aim to examine Contemporary Jewellery’s roots.
During the post war era, the term contemporary jewellery began to be used in Europe
and North America and the first contemporary jewellery specific exhibitions
were held. I will look at the art movements and cultural shifts that caused
this to happen. I aim to critically examine and discuss the history that has
influenced my own practice in order to understand it. I will focus mainly on America
and Britain because this is where contemporary jewellery and its recent
influences originate.

In Europe,
jewellery has for centuries been a practice mostly based in the skilled use of
precious metals and stones (though there are some exceptions e.g. folk
jewellery). The style of the jewellery produced was largely dictated by the
tastes and requirements for whom it was produced as a communicative tool (for
example a status symbol or of religious significance). Shape and form was
limited by this and the craftsman had little creative input as to his work’s
cultural meaning. In contrast, the contemporary jeweller intends to dictate and
convey meaning in their work. Due to the visibility of an item that is intended
to be worn (and therefore can travel through public spaces) it is an effective
tool of communication. The body is what sets contemporary jewellery apart from
sculpture. However, contemporary jewellery includes pieces with intended standalone
narrative that can be effective irrelevant of whether it is presented on or off
the body. Whereas, traditional fine jewellery has been intended to supplement
the body and communicate something about the wearer. For traditional fine
jewellery, usually displayed on a stand or in a shop window when it is not
worn, its purpose seems central to its being. When it is not being worn, it
appears as though it is waiting to be.

To understand the
shift from jewellery as supplemental objects to include semi-autonomous
artworks we should begin by looking to Art jewellery of the British Arts and
Crafts movement (1860-1920) which instigated these changes.  Industrialisation in Britain and the rise of
mass production saw the skilled production of quality of goods sacrificed for
efficiency and profit.  “The Arts and
Crafts movement was based on a profound unease with the industrialised world.
Its jewellers rejected the machine-led factory system – by now the source of
most affordable pieces – and instead focused on hand-crafting individual
jewels. This process, they believed, would improve the soul of the workman as
well as the end design.” (“A history of jewellery”, n.d.). The jeweller of the
Arts and Crafts movement prescribed meaning to his work derived from a reaction
to the current political and economic climate of western society. He aims to
bring about change through his work’s narrative and the process of producing it.
 Elyze Zorn Karlin writes “Art Jewelry
provided the opportunity for exploration and experimentation and developed
outside the boundaries of mainstream design” and “Arts and Crafts jewelers
intentionally chose materials of little intrinsic value as a statement about
the purpose of their jewelry. The work was meant to delight the eye with color
and texture rather than be assessed by the worth of its components. It was also
meant to be affordable to anyone who desired it.” (Karlin, 2013, pp. 86, 89).
This laid the foundations for two approaches that are characteristic of
Contemporary jewellery: experimental form and explorative use of materials that
subvert traditional jewellery standards.

These
approaches can be seen in the image below (“brooch by C R Ashbee”, 2014). The turquoise
cabochon retains a much more natural shape than the large, faceted stones of Victorian
era jewellery. Reference to nature (a main source of inspiration for the Arts
and Crafts movement both in ideology and aesthetic) can also be seen in the imperfections
of the centre stone and the petal-like quality of the enamelled sections around
it. The piece overall has a much more sinuous and simple appearance than the
heavily ornate pieces of the Victorian period. As is characteristic of Arts and
Crafts jewellery, enamels have been used for most of the brooch’s colour and a
semi-precious stone used as the centrepiece. These comparatively lower value
materials than traditionally used in hand crafted jewellery make the work accessible
to those of a wider economic status and communicate that the artist wishes this
to be so. It also places emphasis on craftsmanship rather than attaching worth
to the materials monetary value.

Charles Robert Ashbee. Enamel, Silver and Turquoise.
1900

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Arts and
Crafts movement led to craft and design taking on a role in later art movements
such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. This can be seen in work from Rene
Lalique’s Art Nouveau enamelled pendants (Brunhammer, 1998) to the clean-cut
curves of Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann’s Art Deco furniture (Breon, 2004). The Arts
and Crafts movement married artistic ideology with craft and design, thus
allowing jewellery to enter the sphere of the arts. Although it challenged
mainstream design, Arts and Crafts jewellery did not challenge jewellery’s
supplemental position in relation to the body. Adamson (2007, pp. 21) describes
jewellery as supplemental, writing: “What a frame or pedestal does for a work
of art, a piece of jewelry is supposed to do for the body. It stands apart
from, but also points to, the character of the wearer.”  Whereas a work of sculpture or painting is
appreciated as an autonomous work, only enhanced by supplement, jewellery is often
placed in a context where the body takes importance over the work itself.
According to Adamson “mid-century jewelry represents… a struggle with the logic
of supplement” (2007, pp.21) and that its supplemental nature meant it was
often dictated by styles which subjugated the medium to standards of taste.
This caused jewellers to adopt approaches that “avoid the implication that
their creations were simply supplemental” through two opposing approaches. The
first, Adamson argues, “tended toward an unexpected assertion of autonomy from
the body” and the second attempted to achieve “a compositional union between
jewelry and the body”.

The first
approach was heavily influenced by modernism. Modernist sculpture aimed to
challenge and break away from traditional sculpture, just as many mid-century
jewellers did from traditional craft. Modernism’s reaction against traditional
representation showed itself in abstract, geometric and fractured forms. By
declaring itself a meaningful work apart from the body, jewellery becomes
sculptural: it is a 3-dimensional artwork. Jeweller Margaret Depatta, who
described her own work as “wearable mini sculpture” (Adamson 2007, pp22)
produced highly influential modernist jewellery due to the conceptually inspired
construction of her pieces. As can be seen below (“pin by Margaret Depatta”, 2012)
she set her stones in a way that was radically unconventional in 1956. They are
connected to the main body of the piece by only a small section and can be seen
straight through, almost appearing to float. One simple shape in the centre
brings the piece together. This creates a balanced construction by using three
elements and an offset focal point (the larger stone). The composition would be
effective irrelevant of whether it was attached to a brooch pin therefore
asserting the sculptural element as autonomous from its purpose. The
connections between composition and body Depatta used were de-emphasised, seen
here in the form of a simple pin which serves its purpose and does not add aesthetically
to the construction. The chains Depatta used in her pendants also reflect this
which were fine and only connected to the piece at one point. By using understated
connections, Depatta communicates that the object is sculptural (and therefore
an artwork) and the pin itself simply serves its purpose.

Her work is associated
with the constructivist movement. This can be seen in the focus she places on
materials. The entire stones in this pin can be seen. The way light travels
through them and they distort objects behind them is emphasised. There is no
metal backing, highlighting their true colour and clarity. This emphasis on
materials and experimental use of their qualities can now be seen in later
contemporary jewellery such as in Deborah Rudolph’s rough-cut rock crystal
necklace “Bergsteiger-Kette” (W. Lindemann et al. 2011,
pp. 336).

Pin by
Margaret Depatta (1956)

 

Deborah
Rudolph, necklace “Bergsteiger-Kette”, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second
approach to changing jewellery’s supplemental position aimed to challenge the hierarchy
between jewellery and the body by creating a composition using the work and
body together. When such work is photographed or displayed, the work and body come together to create composition,
rather than the work sitting on a body for the sake of enhancing the body (as
in traditional jewellery) or being an artwork using the body as a means of
display. The work of Art Smith is an example of this union creating composition.
He is quoted as noting he uses negative space “very accurately, very concretely…
you can find it and make it tangible” (Adamson, 2007, pp. 24). This negative
space in his work was filled by the body and served to unite the two by necessity
of filling this space. Much of his work (such as in the piece below) was given
shape by being worn, implicating the bodies form as an element of the work as a
whole. Art Smith placed importance on how his work was photographed. Like the
artist himself, his models were often African American. Working during the
1960s, when the civil rights movement sought equality in America, using black
models made a political statement. He was celebrating African American people and
aiming to represent them through these images. The fact that his pieces created
a composition with the body emphasised this statement. He used jewellery to
communicate a political point that did not need text or symbolic imagery to
communicate narrative like a badge would. This is what is impactful about his
approach.

Narrative
provided through context (in this case how the work is photographed) is used
extensively by contemporary jewellers today. By bringing performative elements
into jewellery, Art Smith (and multiple peers who took similar approaches
during the 1960s) paved the way for the emergence of performative jewellery of
today. One example is Zoe Robertson’s work. In a review of her 2015 exhibition FlockOmania it reads “FlockOmania took
the form of an installation consisting of a series of scaled-up jewellery
objects, which were presented in a format that enabled physical interaction to
occur. The exhibition offered an opportunity for audiences to engage with, and
reshape the interactions between body, objects and space.” (Journeaux and
Whatley, 2016). From this, we can see that the boundaries of what jewellery can
be is being explored in our current time. Jewellery that explores these limits is
focused around how the body and object interact. This means that jewellery with
conceptual themes is able to move away from traditional jewellery’s constraints
of an object that can be worn with ease. Conceptual works often become more
like sculptures that must be moved by, restrict or alter the body.

Art Smith,
Mobile Neckpiece, ca. 1969. Textured bronze. Photograph by Lida Moser.

 

Photograph
from Zoe Robertson’s FlockOmania exhibition,
2015 (Zoe Robertson, 2015)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The presence of
approaches like Smith’s and Depatta’s in the post-war period asserted jewellery’s
position as a medium that could be used to create art, rather than exclusively a
traditional craft practice of little modern or conceptual relevance. Major
changes in culture post world war 2 also enabled this. Whilst the two world wars
caused a downturn in craft and art progress whilst taking place, the resulting
changes afterward allowed both to flourish and radically develop. Following the
loss and devastation of the wars, many people began to question previously
accepted beliefs. Religion was questioned, and the political systems and
economies of many European countries had gone through changes. Consequently, artists
were exploring and questioning boundaries within their own practice. Themes
such as what could be considered art (in the case of post WW1 Dada) and creating
art that was linked with the psyche by using instinctive, nonrepresentational marks
(Abstract expressionism). For the medium of jewellery, challenging boundaries
meant expanding what jewellery’s purpose in the world could be. Painters and
sculptors began using jewellery in their work, linking it to and further
exploring the themes in their main bodies of work. For example, the work of
Alexander Calder who applied the same principals to his jewellery making as he
did to his sculpture. Calder mainly used brass and cold connections in his
work. By not using precious metals or fine jeweller’s techniques, he placed
value in the design and construction of the jewellery, not in the materials
used. He was interested in movement in sculpture; he is best known for his
mobiles that move in the air. The inherent potential for movement in jewellery
relates to this. Objects that can be worn can travel and must move with the
body. L’Ecuyer writes that Calder “brought to jewelry making the idea that
sculpture need not consist of solid, stationary objects, but could use line and
movement to describe space” (2013, pp.117). This approach made Calder’s
jewellery unconventional in form. As can be seen in the piece below which uses
flat, linear pieces of metal that cover a large space across the neck and
shoulders, with lots of negative space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During WWII, totalitarian
regimes in Europe caused displacement of many people including artists (L’Ecuyer,
2013 pp. 116).  This led to a sharing of
ideas between countries, particularly in America because of its relative safety
in comparison to many countries in Europe. Prior to the second world war,
American artists had been attracted to Europe. This was due to new modernist
ideas which rejected traditional approaches to art. These two factors created a
climate for change in the arts. The positive economic climate in post-war America
allowed for avant-garde forms of jewellery to become commercially viable, due
to an increase in disposable income.