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A Definition of Art Jewelry

Art jewelry—wait, is it called contemporary jewelry? Studio jewelry? Author jewelry? Hang on, we’ll get to that!

Art jewelry defies easy definition because it explores, questions, and challenges the meaning of jewelry. In his 2013 book, Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective, Damian Skinner gave the definition for contemporary jewelry that shaped his thinking in putting together the tome:

Contemporary jewelry is a self-reflexive studio craft practice that is oriented to the body.[1]

He then unpacked what that sentence means. We give you that here, edited and condensed, with Skinner’s permission:

Contemporary jewelry: In her book On Jewellery: A Compendium of International Contemporary Art Jewellery, art historian Liesbeth den Besten identifies six different names for the type of jewelry she’s interested in: contemporary jewelry, studio jewelry, art jewelry, research jewelry, design jewelry, and author jewelry.[2]

To paraphrase her conclusions, contemporary indicates the present and “of our time,” yet describes a practice that includes 70 years of objects and some dramatic shifts in framework. The term studio places too much emphasis on where and how, and thus is too limited. Art implies an acceptance by the fine art world that just isn’t true, as well as overlooking the true potential of jewelry as a specific kind of object with its own history that’s different from fine art. Research points to something interesting about the artistic process but the term is limited to Italy. Design is a term that arose as part of specific debates in the Netherlands, and the distinction between concept and handwork has been theoretically dismantled, as well as not seeming like such a big issue in the present. Author invokes a sense of isolation and pride, and is also limited to the object and thus overlooks conceptual practices. Ultimately, den Besten settles on contemporary jewelry, art jewelry, and author jewelry, moving between these three terms because they represent the status quo in the field.

Self-reflexive: Contemporary jewelry is concerned with reflecting on itself and the conditions in which it takes place. In general, contemporary jewelers work in a critical or conscious relationship to the history of the practice, and to the wider field of jewelry and adornment. This is what makes contemporary jewelry different from other forms of body adornment, and it isn’t found just in the way contemporary jewelry objects and practices engage with the history of jewelry, or the relationship to the body and wearing. Contemporary jewelry is shaped by a distinct awareness of the situations in which it exists, meaning that jewelers engage directly with the spaces in which their work circulates—the gallery or museum, for example, or books and catalogs. Not all contemporary jewelry is equally self-reflexive, but as a field, this is one of its notable characteristics.

Studio craft practice: While many different kinds of objects and practices belong to the term contemporary jewelry, the field has been deeply shaped by the values and history of the studio craft movement. As curator Kelly Hays L’Ecuyer writes, studio craft is not defined by particular artistic styles or even particular philosophies, but rather by the circumstances in which the work is produced. “Studio jewelers are independent artists who handle their chosen materials directly to make one-of-a-kind or limited-production jewelry … The studio jeweler is both the designer and fabricator of each piece (although assistants or apprentices may help with technical tasks), and the work is created in a small, private studio, not a factory.”[3]

Built on the platform of studio jewelry, contemporary jewelers favor the unique or limited production model, and tend to shy away from the idea of the multiple or mass-production; skill and an investment in the special qualities of materials are central to the idea of the contemporary jeweler; individuality and artistic expression are the priority, for both the maker and the wearer/owner; and contemporary jewelers follow the model of the art world, rather than mainstream commercial jewelry production, in distributing their work through dealer galleries, accompanied by artist statements, catalogs, etc.

Oriented to the body: This is essentially the “jewelry” part of the term contemporary jewelry, and it’s important because most, even if not all, contemporary jewelry is designed to be worn, or can be worn. When it can’t be worn, or wearability is suspended, the body is still invoked as an important subject or limit.

The wearer is often forgotten: the contemporary jewelry field spends much more energy thinking about being contemporary (e.g. a form of artistic expression, all about the ideas of the maker) than it does on the idea and possibilities of jewelry (one of the oldest forms of human creativity, which is a rich archive of object types, materials, and relationships to the body and to wearers).

But the cluster of ideas around the wearer, wearing, and the body remain the key way in which the objects and practices of contemporary jewelry distinguish themselves from other kinds of craft and art practices. And jewelry is a cultural symbol that links the private and public body, allowing contemporary jewelers to engage, as art historian Linda Sandino writes, “with definitions and critiques of the body which reinvigorates the possibility of the applied arts as a critical practice, rather than merely a supplementary, decorative one.”[4]

As anyone familiar with contemporary jewelry will know, it’s surprising how many kinds of objects and practices can fit under that term. [The] definitions in this book won’t always agree with each other. It isn’t easy dealing with ambiguity, but it’s precisely the contradictory, in-between nature of contemporary jewelry objects and practices that makes them interesting. Certainly, this is where contemporary craft theory is heading.

[1] New Zealand jeweler Areta Wilkinson first proposed a version of this definition.

[2] Liesbeth den Besten, On Jewellery: A Compendium of International Contemporary Art Jewellery. Stuttgart: Arnoldsche, 2011, pp.9-10.

[3] Kelly L’Ecuyer, ‘Introduction: Defining the field’, in Kelly L’Ecuyer (ed.), Jewelry by Artists in the Studio. Boston: MFA Publications, 2010, p.17.

[4] Linda Sandino, ‘Studio jewellery: Mapping the Absent Body’, in Paul Greenhalgh (ed.), The Persistence of Craft: The Applied Arts Today. London: A&C Black, 2002, p.107.

Author

  • Damian Skinner is an art historian and curator based in Gisborne, New Zealand. He edited the book Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective (Lark Books, 2013).

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