Traditional exvotos collection

Traditional ex-votos and contemporary jewelry both raise similar questions and concerns for viewers: What do they mean? What are they telling us? Their social purposes are different, and they belong to different worlds, but both are the product of materialized wishes: ex-votos and contemporary jewels are made with the techniques of the same trade, and both have things to say.

Ex-votos are not jewels per se, yet their materials, size, concept, and symbolic value make them precious, inviting us to view them as jewelry. “Jewelry” can be defined as any metal ornament designed to be worn on the body, but the term “contemporary jewelry” is also the name of a discipline that uses jewelry as a form of artistic expression, subordinating the techniques of the trade to the message the artist wants to convey. Contemporary jewels are not little art objects; their value is not determined by scale. Contemporary jewelry amounts to art because it is conceived as such, and the human body is entailed in the concept as much as it supports it.

Traditional exvotos, body and mother and child

Behind a traditional ex-voto, on the other hand, there is a votary who pleaded to a divinity, a granted favor, and, as a token of gratitude, a silversmith making an object, offered in turn to the saint who worked the miracle. Jewelers are intermediaries between a divinity and a devotee, and they have the opportunity to materialize the devotee’s gratitude. The Argentinian jewelers mentioned later in this essay were asked to make a contemporary ex-voto for an exhibition called True Is What Has Been at PLATINA in Stockholm, inspired by this process, rather than by the aesthetic features of the popular ex-voto.

As the Argentinian anthropologist Cesar Ceriani says, “The maker of the ex-voto is a specialist in handling the materials and forms that compose the gift offered to the divinity for the conceded grace—a key player in the realm of the relationships, symbols, and emotions that encompass this practice, and an artist of translation and intercession derived from the materiality of the votive object. The craftsman or artist materializes the votary’s religious wish, translating it into another language: that of textures, hard surfaces, pliancy and color, techniques, tools, and a patient work on matter.”

Traditional exvoto eye

Unlike its traditional counterpart, contemporary jewelry is based on a concept that materializes; thus, contemporary jewels can be regarded as a medium to start a conversation. Just like with ex-votos, the dialogue starts with someone expressing their gratitude, although, in this case, the votary and the jeweler are the same person. It is the longing behind this materiality that makes the ex-voto a rich object, both in its contemporary and traditional forms. Symbolic power is the link between these two worlds.

Since, as a discipline, contemporary jewelry is relatively new to Argentina, formal training in this field can only be received abroad or at schools dedicated exclusively to the trade. This means that the jewelers I will mention come from different disciplines—i.e., the works depicted are not part of a shared tradition. By definition, Argentine contemporary jewelry is the product of a sum of identities, so the works that we will see are the result of both personal gratitude and the craftsmanship and materials each artist is most familiar with, so that the dialogue flows as smoothly as possible.

Monica Lecouna

Mónica Lecouna’s corset is fastened by brass hinges that were made using jewelry techniques. Although it can actually support the body, that’s not the point. Mónica’s artistic background shows in her treatment of other materials and the piece’s formal construction.

Patricia Tewel is an illustrator who works on her jewels and illustrations in a similar fashion: her pieces have a narrative and a characteristic stroke. Her copper ex-votos for this book are not part of the illustrations, but they interact with them. Jewelry techniques are added to her drawings like an additional brushstroke, and her metal pieces are chiseled like a pen on paper.

Patricia TewelChicco Ruiz

Lourdes Chicco Ruiz feels at ease with the materials she uses for shoemaking, her original trade. In this project, her work—focused on a cougar claw—and thanks-giving text are associated with the strength of nature.

Carolina Luzardo and her father carved a wooden bowl with a counterweight of gold-plated iron nails, a piece that can only be appreciated when held with both hands: wood, iron, and lead are shaped in a way that has little to do with jewelry, but still needs the human body to make sense.

Rita Bamidele Hampton’s piece is a silver brooch—a classical type combined with a noble material, shaped as a metaphor of gratitude for the joy of breastfeeding.

Carolina LuzardoPaula Gallardo

Paula Gallardo’s piece needs a shoulder and a hand to be carried. Her clay vegetables are an acknowledgment to her grandmother’s cares. In this case, the jewel must be worn by adopting a gesture that communicates gratitude.

As with all works of art, by looking at these jewels we can see decisions made by an artist with a specific aim—in this case, expressing thanks for something tangible. These pieces are not created after clichés or conventions, and neither are traditional ex-votos: the noble feeling of gratitude cannot be represented in a serialized, generic manner, even with ex-votos sharing the same grace or in pieces from the same mold. Each marking the jeweler makes results in a unique piece; the emotional investment of each commission transforms its material.

Through her work, jeweler Laura Licandro expresses gratitude for being aware of her breathing and for the technique that, just like her mountain hikes, helps her perceive the present moment more actively. Nothing was left to chance, neither the technique chosen nor the number of circles in her three brooches. Counting knots and yarn balls is essential in tatting—a certain number of knots translated into a specific number of minutes, a tempo like the rhythm in her hikes.

The dickey Corina Mascotti made to celebrate her relationship with her son is charged with symbols—many of them universal—that, due to her knowledge of astrology, become keenly personal and individual. In this case, we are witnesses to a private dialogue, but far from feeling excluded, we are welcome to attend this ceremony of sorts. We do not need to learn about the origin of the fabrics or the reason behind each embroidered constellation to enter this world and feel the honesty of her gratitude. 

These pieces of contemporary jewelry will not be placed at a church, nor were they made to return a favor from a saint, but they share that intention. In the past, when crafting an ex-voto, the silversmith translated a votary’s wish into metal. Nowadays, jewels are the materialization of each jeweler’s gratitude. The grace has been received.

Corina Mascotti

Editor’s note: This essay was adapted from Jimena Ríos's book "Por gracias recibidas, exvotos by contemporary jewellers" for publication on Art Jewelry Forum. You can purchase the full book by sending an email to tallereloi@gmail.com

Jimena Ríos

Jimena Ríos grew up in Mendoza, Argentina, and lives in Buenos Aires. She studied jewelry at the Escola Massana School of Art and Design in Barcelona, Spain, and Alchimia Contemporary Jewelry School in Florence, Italy. She furthered her education attending workshops by well-known artists, including Iris Eichenberg. In 2013 she founded Taller Eloi in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to teach and organize workshops. She has given lectures about contemporary jewelry history and seminars on narrative jewelry in Argentina and abroad.