Fragments Brooch 2006. white metal, garnet, green coral, wood, crystal

Appendix i – Adventure & Power

Jewellery and Narrative in the 21st Century

Imagine for a minute you have been invited to a smart opening at a well-known museum in Europe. The opening is for an exhibition of avant-garde modern jewellery. You feel pleasantly excited and intrigued, as the invitation is attractive, the venue well known, the subject of interest. You dress carefully, choosing your jewels for the party with care. You go up the imposing steps of the 19th century structure, probably Greek Revival, and are directed courteously into a large room. You are offered a drink. You look round the room for the vitrines that will contain these objects. You are perplexed: there are no vitrines. You scan the walls – perhaps the jewellery is too avant-garde for cases and it will be hung on the walls like other art. No the walls are a little grey and bare. No plinths interrupt the view of what appears to be a completely empty room. Yet of course it is not empty. Gradually it is filling with more people who like you are here for the exhibition. You know they are like you as they wear similar clothes, unusual jewellery. You smile, nod, raise eyebrows. Then to avoid embarrassment you begin talking to complete strangers about the empty room, the strangeness and then as time passes (and perhaps in Scotland you have discussed the weather) you begin to compare what you wear and particularly you discuss the jewellery, which they, and you, are wearing with pride. Gradually you realise what the exhibition is…….the communication of jewellery has begun. (1)

If ‘clothes are shorthand for being human’(2) in the way they reveal our expressive selves, then jewellery must be the most exquisite, powerful shorthand of all. Artefacts remaining from earliest history show that jewellery has been a potent and universal part of human experience. Shells, beads, stones, then metal have been fashioned to adorn the human body to create images of power and status, magic and desire. Such an indelible, human history offers a rich seam to be mined for the contemporary jeweller. As the distinguished Swiss jewellery artist and teacher Otto Kunzli once said ‘ we jewellery makers should open ourselves to the adventure and the power of the direct encounter between our jewellery and its wearer’. (3)

‘Maker-Wearer-Viewer’ curated by Scottish jewellery artist Jack Cunningham, with assistance from Eva Kausel, is a collection of contemporary work which fully explores the adventure and power of jewellery in the 21st century. All the several hundred works by the 70 plus European jewellers included in this selection are concerned with stories. The stories will vary, not only with the intention of the artist but also our, the wearer and viewers ability to decode the image. This of course is not always so straightforward. As Gombrich famously highlighted in his phrase ‘the beholder’s share’ each viewer will bring with him or her a set of assumptions, interests and preconceptions which will colour or frame the work being viewed. Reading an image may overcome the difficulties of language between the 20 European countries represented in this show, but the ambiguity of non-verbal communication has pitfalls. An image requires a ‘code, caption and context’ that might not be easily translated between customs of different cultures. So, for example, a symbol of a heart might have strong resonance of a folkloric tradition for a Norwegian viewer, such as explored by Konrad Mehus, whereas it may, have a different resonance for a viewer in Catholic Spain. So we must guard against easy reading of these narratives. Yet, the language of jewellery has a universal history: body adornment crosses all cultural boundaries. In this way jewellery can be seen as a uniquely shared adventure: a shared story.

Of course for jewellery to tell its story, it needs a wearer, who is an active participant in the narrative. The wearer does not just ‘watch images of pleasure and horror flit by’ (4) he/she becomes part of the image. By taking the object out and about into the wider world and introducing it to friends and neighbours, the wearer becomes the positive interpreter of the work of the jeweller. The contexts change. One day she might walk the object through a field, another take it to the cinema, quite casually, and then one day the jewel becomes more potent; ‘Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress bids me wear them, warm then, until evening when I’ll brush her hair’.(5) Carol Ann Duffy’s sensual poem, conveys powerfully the erotic, physical quality of a jewel which creates its own narrative. So for the jewellery narrative to unfold, we need the magic triangle Cunningham describes of ‘maker, wearer, viewer.’

For the wearer ‘status, sentiment, superstition’ (6) as Rosalind Marshall reminds us are the principal reasons that we don our jewels. Status is not of course just about wealth and power, though it is about these things, it is also about showing membership of a social group or clan. The Scottish man or woman who wore a cameo of Mary Queen of Scots in the 16th Century was expressing a concern for status as powerfully as Lady Anne Hay in her sumptuous diamonds, rubies and pearls a century later (7). Sometimes socio- political factors demand a more discreet display. Here the ambiguity of visual expression has its uses. The public nature of the jewel its value. One can express and conceal a message simultaneously. The interesting work done by Dr. Elizabeth Goring on the Suffragette jewellery worn by women in the early 20th Century in Britain illustrates this point. Her research shows that the Women’s Social and Political Union colours of purple, white and green were used not only in the more overt prison and hunger strike badges and medals. Sometimes appropriately coloured stones and enamels can be seen in otherwise innocuous decorative necklaces round the necks of wealthy ladies. (8) The secret signal is so clever, so adventurous, so powerful. The story of jewellery.

Sentiment of course is a strong motivation for jewellery wearing. We inherit jewels from our families: we are given them or give them as tokens of love, we use them as markers of rites of passage. Dutch artist Felieke van der Leest’s Spermheart pins are a witty, sexual take on the love token. Karl Fritsch, a contemporary German jewellery artist has a strong empathy with the sentimental motivation of wearing jewellery . He will take a worn, much loved, perhaps in itself very ordinary jewel, but imbued with magic because of its personal associations. He does not destroy this delicate object, but mends it and adds ideas of his own. Free form casts of gold – bearing sometimes literally the fingerprint of the artist – join the worn jewel, create a new object and very intelligently and subtly remind us of sentiment as a positive not trivial emotion, embodying ideas as it does of love, passion and memory.

Superstition. Perhaps this is less a 21st century concern for a jewellery wearer. Although historically people have sometimes consumed their jewels in pursuit of love and libido (ground pearls and rubies) or have worn hare’s foot or certain materials like coral to ward off ‘epilepsies or the insulting of devils’,(9) our superstition now is perhaps now in a more earthly realm. We are likely to consider coral inappropriate because of the environmental fragility of this once common plant of the sea. Pearls still grace the necks of many women, but are not encouraged for digestion. And yet. How many of us carry perhaps a special silver button or wear our late grandmother’s wedding ring when we have an important occasion to succeed in? The tactile, comfortable playful possibilities of an earring or ring can help us concentrate or focus to stay calm in a difficult moment. So perhaps Finnish artist Juhani Heikkila’s head shaped pocket jewellery will also be a discreet talisman for those difficult moments in the 21st century. By touching these objects, perhaps hidden in our pockets we ward off at least human if not superhuman powers.

‘We never accidentally acquire or wear jewellery’ (10). It is a conscious process: we the owners: we the wearers are aware of the adventure and the power in jewellery. So much more than ornament it is ‘talisman, fetish, trophy, memento, encounter’ (11). Yet Estonian Lea Pruuli worries that ‘jewellery is as knick knack compared to all the big and important matters’.(12) Writing this in a week in which big and important matters like human cruelty have reached new depths, can it really be possible to consider jewellery as deserving of our serious thoughts? Is it possible for jewellery to signify as powerfully in the face of human brutality as Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s etchings? Bernard Schobinger, the Swiss jewellery artist wrote some twenty years ago that he could ‘no longer pretend harmony when the ugly has to be faced’.(13) His searing poetic vision allows him to take the harshest of materials - broken glass, fragmented wire, rough hemp – to create wearables that face all calmly, without pretence, yet are strangely beautiful. Here the semantics of material function powerfully in a jewellery context. There is in some way a potent act of reconstruction offered in a jewel. Manfred Bischoff the German born, Italian based artist talks of jewels as ‘my songline’ (14) singing the world back into existence: another reconstruction.

That a jewel has so long been part of human activity gives it Phoenix like redemptive power perhaps. It is worth observing that between 1999 – 2001 a significant number of European countries all decided to mark the Millennium, the new Era with major survey exhibitions of jewellery: Switzerland, Belgium, Spain; Scotland (100% Proof); Estonia; Scandanavia. With a shifting pattern of time, and the shifting geography of Europe, society looks to jewellery for its ideas and stories. All these many individual European voices in ‘Narrative Jewellery’ are strong. Perhaps we should not try and see an overarching pattern in this grouping and exhibition beyond a rejection of the standard, the ordinary. Although of course we can trace families of ideas. So for example, the imaging of the mass media – photography, advertising, branding - can be found at the root of the very different work of say Gijs Bakker from Holland and young Catalan jeweller Kepa Karmona. But perhaps witty, ironic use of a miniaturised image of a motor car with the caption ‘I don’t make jewellery I drive it’ in a recent Bakker piece creates a very different story from Karmona’s collection of mass market brands fashioned into neckwear? What determines our world, say Karmona, is consumption with all its attendant waste. The message is a little balder a little stronger than Bakker. Of course Bakker himself has been driving the narrative of jewellery from Holland for some 4 decades. He has refined his voice a little.

But can we discern national preoccupations? Do the big survey exhibitions tell us much of German or Scandanavian jewellery? I think it tells us more that people move around a lot in Europe: there are Swiss artists in London; German artists in Spain; Australian artists in Germany – and so on . There are more exhibitors in ‘Narrative Jewellery’ from Germany, than from anywhere else. Germany of course with Pforzheim has the only specialist jewellery museum in Europe and with annual Fairs like Schmuck in Munich contribute much to the European field. There are just 3 artists from Italy, one of whom, Manfred Bischoff, is originally from Germany. The Italian goldsmithing tradition perhaps preoccupies itself more with structure and form than narrative. There are a high number of Swiss artists represented in this show. Perhaps as well as the fine jewellery traditions of the country, this tradition of strong image making in jewellery also reflects the involvement of artists such as Meret Oppenheim and Alberto Giacometti with jewellery material earlier in the century. Yet of course Narrative Jewellery is a personal selection and perhaps the map being drawn should not be seen as too exact.
The figures in the stories of these jewels reflect many sources yet draw us back with the art of their construction. Swedish artist Christer Jonsson’s tiny danses macabres recall Romantic period caricatures of skeletons and ghouls as well as 17th century vanitas paintings. Catalan master Ramon Puig Cuyas’ brightly painted brooches with their swooping calligraphic lines use titles as well as miniature props to hint at his interest in myths and legends such as Atlantis. Scottish born Barcelona resident Judy McCaig creates half mythological half animal creatures in exquisite metal repousse which reflect her fascination with Mexican myths and early cave paintings, yet tell tales from a darker world. Paul Preston’s anthropormophised animals inhabit a tiny imaginary natural world of adventure and power, which has its roots in fairy tales and children’s book illustrations. The stories in all these jewels, like the rooms in Bluebeard’s Castle, can not always be grasped at once. Nor does one want to expose every intention. They are strange narratives from another world. Yet, like the extraordinary 16th Century Lennox Jewel,(15) with its writhing dragons, floating figures, brilliant colour, whose complex allegorical images are barely comprehensible to the modern eye, the viewer is still drawn back time and again to look and consider. We are drawn to be part of the adventure of the jewel, however mysterious.

Cunningham talks in his introduction of the importance of this being a European exhibition. Certainly in any discussion of narrative genre in jewellery – though as we are seeing all jewellery has a story to tell –one has to consider the importance of current North American practice. Artists such as Bruce Metcalf, Robert Ebendorf and Keith Lewis come quickly to mind. And perhaps their influence can be felt in this show in some ways. Many of the European artists in this show will be represented in American collections, supported by American patrons and have exhibited alongside American artists. American artist Keith Lewis has spoken of how his own direct, confrontational ‘figuration seemed to present a direct way to comment on human issues and dilemmas’. (16) Not all pieces in this exhibition are representational, but many are. Swiss artist Patrick Muff’s accumulation of images associated with death or violence –skulls, knives, wire – vehemently oppose the fine abstract formal jewellery traditions of his native Switzerland. So his choice of images may look outwards to tell a story to the world, in which it is hard for the wearer to avoid being complicit, or the image may represent iconoclastic reference to his own culture. London based Hans Stofer’s own assemblage of unexpected objects – soap, babies dummies, insects – into beautifully constructed wire cages reflects both Surrealist and fine making traditions in his native Switzerland. Irish artist Alan Ardiff creates almost comic strip figures which inhabit a humorous, everyday world – like all of us. Eileen Gatt from Scotland assembles images of animals like seals which have strong folkloric associations in Highland culture to tell stories of our history, and of herself. Cunningham himself makes fine use of jewellery’s storytelling tradition with his assembled series of brooches.

Of course, as mentioned earlier materials themselves will tell stories, whatever the image. Swiss artist Andi Gut’s use of toenails, body hair in his disconcerting necklaces tell of a reliance only on the thing on which jewellery depends. Grainne Morton’s pressing, drying, preserving of fragments of the natural world seem to suggest, in a more decorative way, a similar concern for the fragility and fraility of our world. Verena Sieber-Fuch’s from Switzerland uses urban waste like pill wrappings and through what she describes as a ‘jeu serieux’ produces beautiful ephemeral ruffs and collars. The unexpected becomes beautiful adornment, but the stories are still there floating in the fabric of the piece.

Maker-Wearer-Viewer’ is a brave and exciting project. It will have inclusions and ommissions that will be controversial, but each exhibition, like each created object, starts a dialogue with what went before and what will come after. Like a good conversation, or lecture, it will stimulate debate by the seriousness and breadth of its endeavour. In the meantime, the compelling images of these tiny objects draws us into the adventure and power that is and remains the domain of the art of jewellery in the 21st century.

Amanda Game
Edinburgh, 2004


  1. based on a true exhibition in Munich in 1990’s
  2. Claire Wilcox from introduction to Radical Fashion, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
  3. Quoted ,p 88 Ralph Turner Jewellery in Europe and America, new times, new thinkiing
  4. From Ernst Gombrich ‘The Visual Image:Its Place in Communication’ 1972 Scientific American
  5. Extract from Warming Her Pearls Carol Ann Duffy
  6. From the essay ‘Jewellery and Portraits’, The Art of Jewellery in Scotland, Scottish National Portrait Gallery 1991
  7. Portrait of Lady Anne Hay, Countess of Winton, attr. Adam de Colone 1625 illus. P. 21 In the Art of Jewellery in Scotland op cit
  8. P. 84-99 The Decorative Art Society Journal, No 26, 2002. 'Suffragette Jewellery in Britain'.
  9. For further discussion see Diana Scarisbrick’s notes p. 34 the Art of Jewellery in Scotland
  10. P. 14 Francoise-Claire Prodhon, Troisieme Triennale du Bijou, 1992, Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris
  11. P. 15 ibid
  12. P. 4 Introduction Estonian Jewellery 1960s – 1990’s , The Art Museum of Estonia
  13. Quoted p. 88 Ralph Turner op cit
  14. P. 78 ibid
  15. Ill. With discussion by Diana Scarisbrick, p. 17 the Art of Jewellery in Scotland
  16. Quoted p. 77 Ralph Turner op cit