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Jewelry and the Body


These essays were originally published in Damian Skinner’s book Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective.

The Body as a Living Display

In terms of contemporary jewelry, the space of the body is not so much a physical destination as it is a reference point and a vehicle. The body functions simultaneously as a platform or a vacancy poised for adornment, a space and an environment in which pieces of contemporary jewelry deliberately do not blend into the wearer’s body. The history of contemporary jewelry can be summarized as a sequence of movements that swing, pendulum-like, between embracing and rejecting the possibility of wearing the jewelry object, and thus challenging the collective understanding of how jewelry has to relate to the body.

Ruudt Peters, Interno
The performance that opened the Interno exhibition began with empty hooks on the wall. Then young men came into the gallery space and stood at the wall, in front of a hook with the name of the brooch they were wearing. The men removed the jackets, which had the brooches attached to them, and hung them on the hooks. EXPLAIN HOW THIS IMAGE SUPPORTS THE TEXT. Ruudt Peters, Interno, 1992, exhibition at Galerie Spectrum, Munich, curated by the artist, photo courtesy of the artist

Arguably the body is the most challenging. site in and on which to appreciate any artistic object, because on a living display there’s little ability to control the conditions of presentation and reception. The space of the body complicates perception but activates objects in a transformative way. Considered from the point of view of the
body, contemporary jewelry becomes something that’s not merely an image or a three-dimensional sculpture but a conceptually driven artwork that can move fluidly between spaces and both carry and create meaning through such travels.

Otto Künzli, Susy from Beauty Gallery Series
EXPLAIN HOW THIS SUPPORTS THE TEXT. Otto Künzli, Susy from Beauty Gallery Series, 1984, Cibachrome SB, 75 x 62.5 cm, photo courtesy of the artist

The Body as a Contested Site

The body as a site for jewelry raises a number of questions about adequacy (or the relationship with the tradition of body adornment), dependence (or the possibility of use and personal meaning) and even incompatibility (the tension between autonomous or applied object). Because it’s a critical, questioning practice, contemporary jewelry puts the body in question, both as the “natural” site for jewelry and as a problematic, portable host.

The body is a contested but irreducible site where individuals can make statements about their identity. Not only jewelry makers but also fine artists and fashion designers are aware of the existential, aesthetic, and political dimensions of the body as a theme.

Tiffany Parbs, blistering
EXPLAIN HOW THIS PHOTO SUPPORTS THE TEXT. Tiffany Parbs, blistering, 2005, skin, giclée print, 330 x 470 x 40 mm, photo: Terence Bogue

One could ask which body is the subject of contemporary jewelry, as well as suggesting that the body is a space that remains indispensable to the field precisely because it represents the intersection of the physical body and various conceptual and social forces. When worn, jewelry adorns and socializes the body, mediating its encounter with society. Questions regarding whose body, which body, and from where the body originates are open arenas for contemporary jewelry to explore in the next decades.


  • Damian Skinner

    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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