What does Contemporary Jewellery mean?
Bethel, Metalsmith Magazine, 2006
The following question is part of a questionnaire sent by the Italian Association for Contemporary Jewellery to its members: Italy and France, whilst boasting a long history in high-end jewellery, by and large remained untouched by the experimental jewellery movements of the '60s (most active in the US, England, and Holland). Today, the studio Jewellery community in both countries remains small, and I found from experience that the otherwise simple task of defining one’s activity is unexpectedly daunting for us, and continues to fuel many of our conversations.
This is a ‘French’ answer to an Italian question, written in English: a nice metaphor for our international community of gold-tinklers, but one which complicates the task of defining jewellery - the English use alternatively design jewellery and contemporary jewellery, the French may say creation (i.e. creative) jewellery, the Italians art goldsmithing, while American readers will prefer art or studio jewelry. Having trained in the UK (and to simplify matters), I used the expression Contemporary Jewellery, though, as you will see, I am not at all convinced that it does the profession much justice.
Police State Badge, 1970 and 2005
Sterling silver, 10k gold
Width 5 1/2”
Photo: Richard Matzinger
What does Contemporary Jewellery mean?
Not very much, to anyone outside the profession; but the question is a helpful reminder that:
1. In most countries, the debate will never find an audience outside the actual community that launched it.
2. This is a simplistic label, falling short of the profession’s complex heritage and range of interests.
But it’s a tricky one, and I tried to list some of the ways one could answer it:
Contemporary Jewellery is a type of practice – understood as the contemporary offspring of a craft-based design activity that finds its origin in medieval workshops. Such a definition stresses contemporary jewellery’s historical past, and finds antecedents in the British and American Arts & Crafts movements, the renewed late XIXth century interest in manual skills (as a last stand against industrialisation), and the emergence of radical jewellery movements in the 60s: it underlines the notions of individuality, craftsmanship, and its troubled relationship to the production mainstream;
or a type of object: poised between high-street jewellery and art (the former’s glorified other, the latter’s poor relative), we know what it’s not ('just' manufactured artifacts for wearing), and what it wants to be (the expression of individual talent that reflects on, and sometimes influences, contemporary culture), much less what it is.
Happy family NHS (two adhesive rings), 2002
Rubber, gauze, ink
Edition of 300
Photo: Joel Degen
A few distinctive characteristics, however, seem to be beyond debate: the human body as a general working area; an open attitude to methods and material that echoes art’s own agenda, complicated by the notion of wearability; the distinctiveness we associate with individual expression; and an emancipation from consumer goods’ vocation to ‘just’ satisfy consumer desires.
It could also be defined as a market (I follow here the argument that cultural artifacts are defined less by methods of production than by distribution, accessibility and ultimately, potential impact on a larger consumer base). In most countries, a limited number of galleries take care of both distribution and promotion - while the designer-maker is expected (if (s)he wants to make a living) to be represented by at least five galleries, and complement consignment sales by direct, off-the-anvil transactions. From my point of view, the Contemporary Jewellery market works in ways similar to the art market, but on a scale so small, that its lack of visibility questions its existence.
Estela Saez Vilanova
Silver, wool, paint
So then: most jewellers would agree that Contemporary Jewellery is a fast-evolving profession at a crossroad between craft, design, and art, currently ridged by identity concerns. However, I think that the problem, rather than one of identity, is one of image. Although the lack of an established definition has contributed to an extremely rich range of output -personal answers to a collective question- it seems that diversity stands in the way of a more cohesive front, one that would focus on explaining to people that there is a life after Cartier, Pomellato and Tiffany’s. And the unsuspecting public still lumps the practice together with its craft-based past, judges its production on a par with high-end (or any other) jewellery, and considers artistic ambition rather like a presumptuous fancy (unless one equates artistic with skilled, meaningful or committed to self-expression).
Latex and mineral pgiments
This happens at least for two reasons:
Firstly, there are not enough of us to rally a larger population to Contemporary Jewellery’s standards: exposure is limited by the output (there are comparatively few jewellery design programs, fewer graduates that stick to the trade, and not many pieces produced per year per jeweller). This scarcity of active jewellery makers is further complicated by our cultural antagonism with serial reproduction -and therefore, bigger distribution 1). A cynical bystander would add: this is a micro-profession, which means little appeal to the press, anemic cultural budgets, no specific courses in the history of Contemporary Jewellery (to my knowledge), and therefore, no history. As a result, Contemporary Jewellery is always deemed a subsidiary activity, on the margin of mainstream jewellery creation. Secondly, designer-makers are by nature a/o trade, uncommunicative, or certainly not prone to enthusiastic pamphlet scribbling. Who’s ever heard of Contemporary Jewellery, outside its confidential network of galleries and specialized clientèle?
Silver, rubber, thread
The situation, and this is my point, demands more than just communication: instead of shunning assertive promotion/information strategies (for fear of contamination?), we must resist inertia from within and without that confine Contemporary Jewellery to its ill-defined (but restricting) marginal position, and explore new means of proliferation.
So we should communicate more. And explain our intentions. But in the end, let us not be too intent on defining our practice as one thing only: if anything, I would even drop the Contemporary or Studio used to qualify this jewellery: whatever specific meaning it may have had is now superseded by a vague sense of institutionalized otherness.
Let’s be proud, and call it jewellery.
About the Author
Benjamin Lignel (1972) first trained in philosophy & literature, then in art history, at New York University, and finally in furniture and jewellery design, at the Royal College of Art in London. Hence his interest in the functional object, complicated by a penchant for art, and further perverted by sustained exposures to literary works, often momentous, sometimes pertinent.
1) The dominant discourse by jewellers and gallerists alike tend to equate value with uniqueness. While the argument certainly has weight from a mercantile point of view, it seems very outdated when applied to artistic value: not only have multiple editions (either executed by fine artists or copied from original work) been produced since the XVth century, as a way to reach a wider audience, but anyone in today’s contemporary art world trying to champion a pre-Warholian superiority of the unique, hand-made piece would be laughed at.