Undertaking a Practice-Based PhD

As an academic and research active practitioner the catalyst (or impetus) for this research started from the position of my own practice which, in due course, became the final chapter of my textual dissertation, Chapter 4. Makers of contemporary studio jewellery are seldom required, or feel compelled, to make analytical judgement of their own output. It is more often the case that design historians, critics and theorists occupy this ground. There is discourse through the activity of conferences and public lectures, but this has tended to be a summary of previous work and influences, not critical theory or reflective analysis: (in more recent years, the dialogue has become more balanced). I however, felt a need to scrutinise my own practice, in my own terms, in order to make more sense and understanding of what my narrative dialogue was, and then to record and write about it.

As my research progressed, and more questions than answers were generated, it became an imperative that contextual knowledge was required to underpin and facilitate interpretation of my personal practice and that of others. Finding no satisfactory definition of narrative jewellery, frequently written about but not defined, so too there was no real flavour of the range of European narrative and how that might compare with the output of other continents. Nor any evidence of what factors contribute to the narrative aesthetic between differing cultural contexts. A search for previous practice-based doctoral research in this field found no comparable material to benchmark against or to scope the size and breadth of my output. My research would therefore enter new territory.

Questions were consequently shaped around these issues to reflect research that, if answered, would make a significant contribution to new knowledge, Chapters 1 – 3. Consequently, I undertook to investigate the field of contemporary narrative jewellery by addressing four main areas of inquiry:

  • How might contemporary narrative jewellery be defined?
  • To what extent does cultural identity affect creative outcomes?
  • What are the prevalent European themes?
  • How do source, process and practice interact during the creative process?

These research questions have been answered through analysis of the subject, by contextualising the significance and meaning of objects within the macro perspective of studio jewellery, undertaking a major European survey and through the scrutiny of a personal work process.

In defining narrative jewellery, research centred around existing texts, empirical knowledge and the collation of material defining the field of contemporary studio jewellery. It demonstrated that narrative is a distinct, identifiable genre within the spectrum of studio jewellery. Addressing the questions, by establishing the interface of cultural identity against the wider global context of creative outcomes, the research also demonstrated that environment does influence creative outcomes through exposure to differing socio-political regimes, historical context, material culture, education systems and opportunity.

This research has firmly established that objects, for the maker, wearer and viewer do have the potential to trigger memories, access knowledge, function on an emotional level, are ostensibly about people and the world in which they live. The definition of narrative jewellery in Chapter 1 embraces this position.

The personal uses to which adornment is put suggests an aesthetic possibility that few observers have noticed: its ability to touch people…most jewellery consists of a physical object that has its own discreet existence. (Metcalf 1988: 10).

Mounting the largest single exhibition of European narrative jewellery, with the addition of a dedicated Symposium, Maker-Wearer-Viewer stimulated discussion, debate and peer review. In establishing the prevalent European themes and influences, this comprehensive overview acknowledged the impact of multi-cultural factors on creative individuals through the creative outcomes of those individuals. In contextualising and defining contemporary narrative jewellery as a particular genre within the field of studio jewellery, the synergy of this research places the analysis of self within a European perspective, and beyond. Europe is therefore seen as a homogeneous society of multiple identities as opposed to, for example Japan, a country with a dominant monolithic culture. The motto of the European Union, In Varietate Concordia (United in Diversity), succinctly describes this pluralist dimension.

Narrative categories, initially presumed to be a more linear one dimensional map, evolved into a complex mosaic of possibilities. Subject matter is not seen by makers as that to be explored in isolation, but linked and interconnected. Similar narrative themes are certainly prevalent outwith Europe, themes which represent global issues and personal concerns are not the preserve of a European dialogue. When viewed from the position of a different national identity however, the perspective is quite unique and a distinct aesthetic has been demonstrated through the prevailing influences and cultural values of the paradigms selected.

Once the research questions were established, and I believe these were important questions to ask, acquiring clusters of knowledge was something of a creative process in itself. Solo exhibitions were planned, pieces designed, made, recorded and exhibitions mounted. These ran concurrently with the curating and mounting of Maker-Wearer-Viewer. As research progressed, this activity was simultaneous with the analysis of data acquired and reflective practice, and with further cycles of making and exhibiting. Overlapping rounds of divergence was followed by convergence, during which there was a synthesis between knowledge acquired and the making of objects.

Theories of Narratology

This was largely a practice-based research project and as such, self as maker was at the centre of the study, whilst also being the subject to study. Stated earlier, as a practitioner I felt compelled to better understand the theoretical base driving my output, in order to articulate its position more clearly to myself and to others. As an educator, reflecting on a personal working methodology, process and practice, has been illuminating and valuable. The practice fed the theory, in return feeding the practice. It is a cyclical process. The consolidation of work process has impacted on my own teaching methodology and become a useful educational model and exemplar for others. This is evidenced through workshops presented by the author at Bunsai College of Art in Tokyo, through school pupils attending The Glasgow School of Art - Wider Access courses in jewellery design and is embedded within the philosophy and pedagogy of the Department of Silversmithing and Jewellery’s undergraduate programme. (A public output of this being the annual student exhibition project exploring personal narratives and issues of culture; Telling Tales (2005), Jewellery Brut (2006) and Republic of Place (2007), mounted in the Atrium Gallery at GSA.)

Despite some interpretive writing on the subject, discussed previously, no theories on the narrative genre have previously existed which could adequately be applied to contemporary studio jewellery or are specific to this field. Finding parallels between narrative jewellery and the narratology of text was useful to a point and Bal presents theories which one can reasonably mirror or fit against the context of the jewellery object. So too the writing of Roland Barthes. In relation to advertising and film imagery, Barthes describes the narratology of text as ‘anchorage’ and ‘relay’. (Barthes, R: 38). Barthes defines anchorage as the one liner linguistic message most commonly used in graphic design or advertising. Relay text is used in comic strips or film, where the dialogue develops and meaning unfolds. One could read the title of a piece of narrative jewellery as anchorage, a linguistic statement of intent. Relay in this context, could be useful terminology for the rolling forward of the meaning, the narrative of the piece developing as it becomes re-interpreted by the wearer. There is however, an uncomfortable sense that it is necessary to shoehorn research on the narrative jewellery object into text based theories, and this is ultimately limiting and perhaps futile. New theories need to be written by makers, or those writers with specialist knowledge of the subject, writing about objects as it applies to narrative jewellery. The research presented herein is a contribution to that dialogue.

During the last two to three decades, writers of applied art have attempted to engage with what is a relatively new genre within contemporary studio jewellery. When commenting in 1984 on the work selected from Australian makers for the exhibition Cross Currents, the writer Helge Larsen observes,

There has been a conscious attempt to reach a broader section of the public through the expression of different ideas. The jewellers in this exhibition demonstrate an interest in establishing an active dialogue with society, a phenomena which is evident throughout the arts. (Larsen 1984: 9).

In 1985 Peter Dormer and Ralph Turner described narrative jewellery as ‘figurative’ in a chapter titledJewelry as Image. There is some attempt at understanding this emerging genre, but without any substantive authority or analysis, ‘Occasionally, jewelry is used to make direct social or political comment.’ (Dormer & Turner: 116). ‘Meaning and content in figurative jewelry usually breaks down into a straightforward division between the very literal…and open-ended ambiguities.’ (Dormer & Turner: 119).

In a short chapter titled Narrative Worlds, the authors of Jewelry of our Time, Helen Drutt-English and Peter Dormer wrote in 1995,

Only a few jewelers appear to want to create complex figurative worlds within the scale of ornament. Nowhere in Europe in this period (1960-95) is anyone daring to make anything similar – at least not in professional art jewelry. (Drutt-English & Dormer: 73).

The chapter does not offer a theory on narrative as such, simply a description of the work of Richard Mawdsley and Manfred Bischoff. As mentioned in the Summary of Makers in Chapter 3 however, any description of Bischoff’s work presents us with more questions than answers, ‘…Bischoff wants the uncertainty of what we feel when confronted by arbitrary events to be a part of our response to his work.’ (Drutt-English & Dormer: 75).

The publication of New Directions in Jewellery in 2005 contains work and texts by a new generation of makers, some of whom are also articulate writers. One such jeweller is Jivan Astfalck whose interesting discourse divides contemporary practice into three categories, and in so doing, presents a theoretical base for narrative jewellery, referred to as ‘the object’,

Jewellery brings to the fine art discussion a distinct sensibility of the relationship between object and the body in its wider sense. The first position treats the object as an independent entity. The second position, by contrast, is occupied by a generation of artists whose conceptual concerns transgress the definable object; the object literally merges with the body. The third position considers the object in dialogue with its framing device, this might be the body itself, social or psychological phenomena or other theoretical concerns. (Astfalck, Broadhead & Derrez: 19).

In her essay for the publication The Persistence of Craft, Linda Sandino writes, ‘Jewellery…acts as much more than simply a prop but as a sign of a particular form of knowledge but one which cannot be presumed to be common to all.’ (Sandino, L: 112). Sandino’s theory that jewellery embodies and reflects a certain truth about the wearer finds resonance with my own research in so far as we require understanding of the particular frame of reference in order to contextualise the object.


The future importance of this textual dissertation lies in its value to those academics and educators with an interest in contextualising the creative process in relation to contemporary studio jewellery and to narrative jewellery in particular, and locating this within a wider geographic and cultural framework. Also, to those makers who wish to extend their practice beyond the physical activity of making, to assimilate the cognitive activity of thinking about their own thinking. The exhibitions mounted as a result of this practice-based research have engaged with a largely young audience. This afforded the opportunity to present the important emotional function that objects, through the intention of the maker, have the ability to communicate.

Feedback from the exhibition Maker-Wearer-Viewer has, since 2005, begun to verify its significance, ‘This ambitious exhibition is a triumph and time will undoubtedly prove its seminal importance.’ (Rew: 2005: 7). In addition to the impact of this research on oneself, there are already external indicators that my research has impacted on this community, providing evidence of its contribution to the field. In an essay for the American publication Metalsmith, Elizabeth Goring quotes from the catalogue text of the M-W-V publication (Goring 2006: 7). Participants of that exhibition have also begun to validate its importance by listing M-W-V with their biographical details.

This PhD is not an end in itself. Potentialities present themselves throughout the text that would allow me, or others, to spiral off at different points, to ask further questions. Thus generating platforms that could be taken forward as new pieces of research, with the opportunity of further new knowledge. One example is the increasing interest in understanding contemporary narrative from the wearer’s perspective. This aspect was not fully addressed through the M-W-V exhibition or Symposium and could be extended through more focussed research. Another area that could be further explored is how we read objects internationally and the influence that miscegenation of the global population has on localised culture. For example the brooch titled A Sense of Place – Dunure (fig 5.52) was purchased in 1998 by the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, Canada, for their public collection. The brooch has been displaced from its original context, the West of Scotland, and is now viewed through the eyes of an audience with different cultural references. In the spring of 2007 it was shown in an exhibition entitled “Gold and Silver Jewellery: the Transformation of a Tradition in the Twentieth Century” which was presented at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg in Russia. This raises a question: how was it perceived by that audience? The object, in the context of a museum exhibit is an altogether different proposition, but from the perspective of how it communicates, the life of a narrative object as an international traveller would make a fascinating research project. When talking more generally of the craft object, Andrew Jackson says, ‘Objects need to be read as a crystallisation of the ideology from which they spring; as a way of asking fundamental questions about culture.’ (Jackson 1997: p286).

As narrative work has many layers, so too the audience range I expect to be interested in different facets of this output. One of the unique strengths of this research lies in the fact that it is written from the makers’ perspective. More specifically, an active maker writing about his own objects and the insight and authority this gives to write about the work of others. Perhaps this piece of work will find an audience among writers looking for this particular knowledge, something which is outwith their own experience. I am, on a weekly basis, asked to comment on narrative by undergraduate and postgraduate students undertaking dissertation research, and by teachers and secondary school pupils interested in furthering their knowledge of what might constitute a design process. This provides yet another springboard for others to agree, or disagree, with my findings and stimulate further debate.

As a result of this research, am I content to continue with my practice as before, or has it changed significantly? The process of this investigation has been an intensely rewarding journey and some of my most recent pieces are a reflexive response to that research, to the questions asked as a result of the research and reflection on previous practice, namely Dear Green Place, Pére Lachaise and Fragments. These are themes I shall explore further by developing new avenues of approach, perhaps through the use of installation, which may drive the narrative rather than support it.

Through this reflexive approach, my definition of narrative jewellery and analysis of the information gathered from the qualitative research, I have re-calibrated how I wish my work to communicate; more explicit imagery together with greater potential for the wearer and viewer to engage in the act of interpretation.

Future Considerations

In taking stock, reflecting on what post doctoral research projects I wish to pursue, a number of possibilities are being considered in a measured response to what I have learnt through the scrutiny of my own practice. These include;

Preparing a series of lectures related to the narrative object, by way of extending my academic research and making it accessible within that forum.

Resume making, through a new body of work for solo exhibition, perhaps on the thematic Ecclesiastes series.

Re-assess how the installation of an exhibition interacts with the objects. For example, I have started making short videos as a potential installation format, an entirely new creative departure for me.

Participation in a number of group exhibitions, starting with Master’s & Protégés (touring Japan 2008) and COLLECT 2008 at the V&A with The Scottish Gallery.

In much of what has been presented, the relationship between maker, wearer and viewer, centres on the object, and the displacement of that object through the physical and geographic movements of the wearer. And although the wearable narrative object focuses our attention on the surface of the body, I have shown that the emotional impact of these inanimate objects goes much, much deeper. Through the use of focus groups, individual statements and qualitative analysis, I have demonstrated that my practice, and that of others, can transcend from the personal to the universal (Cuyas’s Micro to Macro). It connects with the wearer and viewer on a visceral and cognitive level, on their own terms.