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The Critique of Preciousness

Histories of contemporary jewelry are usually organized around the critique of preciousness, which divorces the value of the object from the value of the materials used to create it. By transforming the conventional idea of value, jewelers liberated contemporary jewelry for artistic expression and experimentation, a deeper engagement with society, and a new awareness of the body and the wearer.

The following explanation of the concept comes from Damian Skinner’s 2013 book, Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective.[1] The texts—mainly written by Skinner, with quotations from Kevin Murray, Kelly Hays L’Ecuyer, and Chang Dong-Kwang, as noted—are drawn from various texts in the tome. It is. It has been edited and condensed with Skinner’s permission.

One of the most notable characteristics of contemporary jewelry is that it’s a self-aware practice. Contemporary jewelers critically investigate the idea of jewelry in the objects they make, using different techniques to consciously explore how their new work fits into a heritage of jewelry (potentially all the different kinds of jewelry and adornment made by human cultures) and jewelry-related concerns.

At its core, the critique of preciousness is a desire to put into question the idea of preciousness—particularly the idea that the value of jewelry is intimately tied to the precious materials from which it’s made. A diamond solitaire is about value, skill, status, and tradition, but it takes all these things as givens, seeking to extend or comfortably inhabit the conventions that have developed around such rings. A contemporary jewelry version of a diamond solitaire ring is different precisely because it tackles the conventions—of value, skill, status and tradition—that make such rings meaningful, usually by choosing forms or materials that disrupt expectations and raise questions.

The critique of preciousness emerged in the 1950s and 60s as a challenge to the prevalent notion that jewelry’s value emerged from, and was equivalent to, the preciousness of its materials. Beginning with German goldsmiths, who in the 50s [had] continued to use precious materials such as gold but who emphasized the central role of artistic expression (thus introducing the division between conventional and contemporary jewelry), the critique of preciousness was fed by Dutch jewelry experiments in the 60s that introduced culturally relevant materials and a new willingness to explore the body as a site and to align jewelry with contemporaneous visual arts movements. The critical project encapsulated by the term critique of preciousness is the conceptual platform on which subsequent contemporary jewelry has been produced.

Freed from a limited and tyrannical notion of value, contemporary jewelry was born, and a number of jewelers over the next 30 years made a multitude of arguments (verbally and in the objects themselves) about where the value of the jewelry object could and should be located. Generally, most proposals favored artistic expression, novel engagements with the body, or the social possibilities of contemporary jewelry as a democratic practice as the best way to evaluate the worth of this new kind of jewelry. “Radical American jewelers of the 1960s,” writes Kelly Hays L’Ecuyer, “expanded this idea to attack the preciousness of good taste and elegant design.”[2]

Once jewelers shrugged off their preoccupation with valuable materials and an alliance with privilege, contemporary jewelry became available for an entirely different kind of investigation. As jewelry became more democratic, it grew more alert to the relationship between the object and the body on which it was worn. The body was placed at center stage within contemporary jewelry practice. In Australia there was a connection between the freedom of the critique of preciousness and new expressions of national identity. The critique of preciousness and the introduction of new materials opened up two new avenues for Japanese jewelers to explore: references to traditional Japanese forms and materials that could not be achieved using precious materials, and various challenges to conventional jewelry values by the use of unexpected materials such as cement. This led to the investigation of the relationship between the jewel and the body and the psychological and spiritual dimensions of adorning the body.[3]

The critique of preciousness established a critical attitude to jewelry conventions and traditions, and the field of contemporary jewelry has maintained a sense of questioning and taking nothing for granted as the most productive way of inhabiting the visual arts and contributing to new thinking around objects and the body. As a core mission in the contemporary jewelry movement, the critique of preciousness [also] has a strong political dimension. [For example,] Dutch jewelers have used the traditional association with prestige as a target for conceptual pieces, such as in the 1977 Queens series of necklaces by Gijs Bakker that, made from laminated photographs of royal jewels, mock their pretension.[4]

In their 1985 book, Trends + Traditions, Peter Dormer and Ralph Turner described the characteristics of the movement they termed “the new jewelry” as “a desire to avoid clichés in design; a desire to make exciting, robust and, where possible, cheap ornament; a desire to make adornment that can be worn by either sex; a frequently expressed distaste for jewelry which is vulgar and merely status-seeking; and always an interest in ensuring that the ornament works with and complements the wearer’s body.”[5] An outcome of the energy and experimentation produced by the meeting of Dutch and British contemporary jewelers in the late 1970s, the new jewelry movement was concerned with artistic expression and experimentation, a deeper engagement with society and a new awareness of the body and the wearer.

The new jewelry is the high point in the critique of preciousness, a critical moment in the development of contemporary jewelry as we know it today, and, as Dormer and Turner’s book demonstrates, a central narrative in the shaping of contemporary jewelry history.

“While conceptualism has become an important framework for contemporary jewelry,” writes Kevin Murray, “materials continue to play a critical role in setting the creative agenda. Materiality helps define most of the contexts in which jewelry has artistic value.

“Conventional jewelry approaches materials in terms of hierarchy, ordering precious metals and stones above all other substances. The art critic Peter Fuller saw this order as grounded in nature, and therefore an authentic language for expression. By contrast, German philosopher Karl Marx viewed it as a social construct: the value of gold and gems is derived from their relative rarity. Contemporary jewelry is defined by a material relativism. Gold and silver can be valued purely by their aesthetic qualities, and this opens up the possibility of using other materials less common in conventional jewelry.[6]

“There’s also the potential to invert this hierarchy to include materials that are at the bottom of the value chain, such as those defined as rubbish. This evokes the alchemic quest to turn base metal into gold, the ultimate mystery of classical goldsmithing. In a modern context, this use of poor materials functions as a political symbolism.[7]

“Beyond the hierarchical value of materials, there’s a context for their use as a language of expression. The ‘truth to materials’ modernist credo reads the work in terms of the qualities of the substances used—ductility and color, for example. The evocative nature of certain materials, such as the relation of stone to nature, can be handled poetically. And materials can be associated with place, as when artists use an indigenous plant or shell as a way of identifying their place in the world.[8]

“Thus, in contemporary jewelry, one of the first questions to ask is, “What’s it made of?” This is at odds with conceptual art, where the message overrides the material. Recently, the core value of materiality has also been challenged by relational jewelry, in which objects function primarily to connect people together rather than to stand alone as examples of artistic expression or material investigation.”[9]

At different moments contemporary jewelry has engaged with this heritage in more or less interesting ways. At its weakest, the critique of preciousness becomes a search for novel materials, as though a justification for contemporary jewelry can be established by making the jewelry object from a substance never before used in jewelry. (This dead end is closely related to the emphasis on contemporary jewelry as a form of artistic expression and the focus on the actions and desires of the maker.) At its most productive, the critique of preciousness encourages contemporary jewelers to continually question the field itself, to renew the arguments about value that sit close to the heart of jewelry’s legacy, and to draw on the techniques of art and craft to explore how the jewelry object can propose new conclusions about the body and society.

[1] Skinner, Damian. Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective. New York: Lark, 2013.

[2] L’Ecuyer, Kelly Hays. “North America.” In Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective. New York: Lark, 2013.

[3] Dong-Kwang, Chang. “East Asia.” In Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective. New York: Lark, 2013.

[4] Murray, Kevin. “The Political Challenge to Contemporary Jewelry.” In Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective. New York: Lark, 2013.

[5] Dormer, Peter, and Ralph Turner. The New Jewelry: Trends + Traditions. London: Thames & Hudson, 1985.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

Author

  • Nathalie Mornu has edited nonfiction and DIY books since 2003; she is particularly passionate about titles specializing in jewelry and crafts. After studying jewelry fabrication and furniture-making for five years at the Appalachian Center for Craft, she changed course altogether and pursued a degree in journalism. Nathalie then spent a dozen years in the editorial department at Lark Books. In her tenure there, she worked with former Art Jewelry Forum editor Damian Skinner to copy edit Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective. Nathalie began serving as AJF’s proofreader in June 2014 and subsequently branched out to copy editing and content management for the organization.

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