Wear a necklace made out of snake vertebrae or a brooch formed of chewed gum, and you may get lots of puzzled stares – because when most people think of jewelry, diamonds and pearls spring to mind. The notion of a necklace made of paper or earrings made of plastic resin just doesn’t fit the traditional definition of jewelry. Yet many artists create work that challenges that definition and elevates jewelry to an art form.
In 1997, the nonprofit Art Jewelry Forum was established to promote contemporary art jewelry; its website serves as a platform for informed discussion and, more simply, as a clubhouse for the contemporary jewelry community. In September the AJF, in collaboration with Lark Crafts, published its first book, Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective.
American Craft asked Damian Skinner, the book’s editor, about his goals for the book and the qualities that characterize contemporary jewelry.
How did the idea for this book come about?
The idea came to me while I was on a flight to Mexico, to attend the 2010 Gray Area symposium, which brought together Latin American and European jewelers for a conference and exhibitions. It occurred to me that we could produce a book that really tried to come to grips with what contemporary jewelry is – what makes it special or singular as a kind of visual art practice. Initially the book had two parts: what I thought of as a theory of contemporary jewelry, and the issues of contemporary jewelry in the present. But quite quickly I realized I wanted to add a third section, which was about the history of contemporary jewelry. Together, I think those three things enable a really dynamic view of the field.
What do you hope this book accomplishes?
When I first thought of the book, I also came up with the ideal reader, who was a student in a contemporary jewelry course. When they were asked, “What is contemporary jewelry?” I thought of this book as something they could hold up and say, “Read this – it will tell you everything you want to know.” That’s why the book has three sections: the first exploring what kind of thing contemporary jewelry is, the second exploring its history, and the third exploring opportunities and challenges for the field.
How do you define contemporary jewelry, and how does it differ from other kinds of jewelry?
The short answer? I’d say contemporary jewelry is self-reflexive, by which I mean it is concerned with exploring its own condition, putting into question its relationship with the body, other jewelry, the idea of tradition, skill, materials, and so on. Contemporary jewelry doesn’t take anything for granted. A contemporary jeweler who makes a diamond ring will be in part consciously thinking about what a diamond ring is, and actively grappling with what this means, rather than just making a diamond ring. In the end, what they create might not even feature a diamond – or even be a ring.
Well, if it isn’t a ring, can we still call it jewelry?
I’m OK with it still being called jewelry. Contemporary jewelry heads into territory where old certainties no longer have the same authority and where everything can be questioned. What the last 70 years show [since the beginnings of contemporary jewelry] is that jewelry can be more than things you wear, or objects that follow traditional forms like “ring” or “necklace” or “bracelet.” A number of people have made work that demonstrates that contemporary jewelry doesn’t even have to be an object at all. But these practices are still about jewelry in some sense, so linking them to the history and objects of the field is important. Without that, we miss something critical.
Where does the wearer fit into the contemporary jewelry maker’s thinking?
I would imagine that makers have different ideas about the wearer. In my opinion, a lot of contemporary jewelry isn’t made to be worn. It’s made to be shown in a gallery, look good in photographs, be purchased by a collector (who may or may not wear it), and then finally end up in a museum. The wearer is only an idea. The wearer isn’t necessarily prominent in writing about contemporary art jewelry, either. I think too often all the focus is on the maker and their artistic intentions, and too little attention is paid to what happens to the objects once they leave the studio.
One of the most interesting aspects of contemporary jewelry is the diversity of materials that are employed. You’ve observed that at a certain point jewelry was freed from the idea that its value is strictly in the precious materials used to make it. When and how did that happen?
In the 1940s, jewelers in the United States began to make work that was closely aligned with modernist art, and the same thing happened in Europe in the 1950s. While these jewelers often used precious materials, the emphasis was on artistic expression. The work mattered because it was the result of interesting design concerns, and it was intended to be judged according to artistic values, rather than the monetary value of the stuff it was made from. This turned into the critique of preciousness in the 1960s, and thus contemporary art jewelry as we know it today was born.
In the book, you write that as a holdover of the conventions of the midcentury studio craft movement, many discussions of contemporary work are celebratory rather than critical. Why not celebrate artists?
A typical contemporary jewelry book features lots of texts by friends of the maker, saying nice things. If we are a serious artistic practice – which is what lots of people in the field claim – then why don’t we ask serious questions, critique and evaluate the work, and expect more than niceness? Without critical perspectives, strong analysis, and sharp thinking, it becomes very hard to achieve excellence. The contemporary jewelry field is a great place to work, with a strong sense of community, but this comes at the price of each of us asking for the very best from ourselves and each other. The best way I can honor the excellence and importance of contemporary jewelry, as an art historian, is to take it seriously as a form of visual art – and I can’t do that by being nice and just celebrating uncritically the efforts that people make.
How is globalization shaping jewelry?
That’s a big question, and I don’t think anyone really knows the answer. After having completed the book, I’d probably want to draw a distinction between international and global. Contemporary jewelry is an international practice, in that jewelers from many countries around the world take part in the field. But is it global? From my perspective, the field is pretty provincial. Depending on where you live, you might know what happens in a few European countries, or in the United States, but surprisingly, very few people look beyond their backyards or pay attention to places outside the mainstream. Whole parts of the globe are missing from publications about contemporary jewelry. Still, with the rise of China and South America, this is going to change in a big, and dramatic, way.
Bella Neyman is a design historian based in Brooklyn. She blogs at objectsnotpaintings.com.