Damian Skinner is an art historian and curator based in Gisborne, New Zealand. He edited the book Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective (Lark Books, 2013).
The Schmuckmuseum must be a highlight of any jewelry-lover’s museum experience. Housed in the Municipal Cultural Centre near the city centre of Pforzheim, Germany, the museum is one of many classic modernist buildings built after the city was extensively destroyed by bombing in World War II. It started life as Reuchlin House, the work of famous German architect Manfred Lehmbruck. The foyer, dominated by a spiral staircase that descends to the ground floor, is intended to represent the excitement and possibility of the space age.
The Schmuckmuseum is divided into galleries which together tell the story of jewelry over the ages: the historical collection, covering antiquity to the nineteenth century; the Pforzheim jewelry collection, documenting the trade-jewelry production for which the city is famous; the Eva and Peter Herion collection, featuring ethnic jewelry from around the world; and the modern collection, from Jugendstil at the beginning of the twentieth century to contemporary jewelry of the present. There is also a gallery dedicated to temporary exhibitions (historical as well as contemporary) which changes regularly. When I was in town in 2009, the show was Dazzling Pieces: Wiener Werkstätte Jewelry. Founded in 1903, the Wiener Werkstätte is entwined with the origins of contemporary jewelry. Precious materials and value based on materiality were replaced by creative expression and the use of semiprecious stones.
The historical gallery is a full-on experience. I’m torn between sympathy and envy: feeling sorry for European contemporary jewelers, who have to deal with the weight and excellence of the past; and feeling envious, because they get to experience the rich diversity and history of jewelry and they know they are part of a tradition that stretches back into antiquity. I suppose these forces are what makes European contemporary jewelry so good. Not everything is possible here. There are rules and traditions that demand respect and if you are going to make a contribution then your work will have to contribute something impressive to a centuries-long dialogue.
I’m most taken by the potential of precious materials, most struck by how truly debased manufacturing jewelry is in its use of traditional jewelry materials. These objects from the last 500 years – from the renaissance to the beginning of the twentieth century – reveal the most astonishing use of gold and precious stones such as diamonds, emeralds and rubies. They sparkle and glitter in an endless display of inventiveness. I feel like this jewelry reconnects us, restores to us a whole range of materials and practices from which contemporary jewelry has been disconnected. You can do amazing things with diamonds! Or at least you could for about 400 years. And I feel like I am again forcefully reminded of the power of jewelry as a glittering object. It magnifies your personal radiance, your personal radioactivity (as sociologist Georg Simmel puts it), giving you greater agency in the world, a stronger ability to influence and affect your social relations.
It seems very noticeable to me that ethnic adornment is missing from this selection, sectioned off in its own gallery across the foyer. A little bit of Asian and Indian jewelry makes it into the historical gallery and some European folk jewelry is also included. But we are made clear that adornment from the Pacific, or Africa, say, is quite different, of another order to the gems that fill this part of the museum. I’m not sure about the politics of this. On the one hand, the Schmuckmuseum is a European institution and so it has no responsibilities to the world outside its borders; on the other, it does seek representativeness in the history it tells, and it does have cultural authority as a repository of jewelry traditions from around the world. What kind of hierarchy is reinforced by keeping ethnic and European jewelry apart?
My unease about this issue is compounded by the Eva and Peter Herion collection of ethnographic jewelry, displayed in a dedicated gallery. This is where you find the rest of the world, and the terms in which it is included are somewhat unfortunate, an outdated version of the salvage paradigm. The wall text says that ‘Eva and Peter Herion visit the refuges of traditional societies to acquire outstanding testimony to past forms of life and exquisitely crafted art before these societies have fallen victim to the inexorable advance of modernisation.’ There are some fantastic examples of adornment here and the gallery works on a rotating display that covers every culture eventually. (When I visited, India, Africa, Papua New Guinea, Namibia and Northern Thailand were on display.) But there are some real problems here. All objects lack dates, in marked contrast to the careful chronology given to the European historical jewelry. The objects are static, trapped outside history, their timelessness critical to their authenticity as material evidence of dying cultures. There is a group of photographs on one wall of the gallery demonstrating the way these objects are worn and the kind of contexts in which they belong, clearly contemporary (or second half of the twentieth century at least). However, the photographs just aren’t enough to undo the violence of the presentation. These objects desperately need to be historicized, allowed back into time, as evidence of cultures that are changing and adapting – rather than being eradicated – by modernity.
The display of jewelry from Pforzheim is quite nice, although I missed information in English regarding the cultural and political context. For example, why did Pforzheim become a major centre of jewelry production? How does this local jewelry history relate to a wider story of jewelry in the past two hundred years, the developments so well presented in the historical gallery? Having said that, you do get an interesting tale from the jewelry itself. It responds to various styles and jewelry from the 1950s to the present responds to contemporary jewelry developments, but maintains connections to a manufacturing tradition (precious materials, and so on). I was interested to see this process in action – it’s one possible answer to the challenge of how you update jewelry’s history with precious materials for our own time. (Although, having seen this answer, I’m still glad the New Jewelry took us down a fresh path in the 1960s and 1970s.)
Of course, it is the final gallery that answers questions about how to connect the history of jewelry with contemporary jewelry in the present. The answer lies with movements such as jugendstil, and then art deco, which managed to maintain connections to materials and processes of the past and freshen them up for the present. And the display even goes through into the second half of the twentieth century, with people like Herbert Zeitner and Reinhold Bothner showing recent possibilities in this direction.
The museum does fudge the break somewhat by having jugendstil and what it led to in the twentieth century in the same gallery as the new jewelry. However, it separates them on either side of the display cabinets that divide the space. But the story is there. The links are visible in the first generation of goldsmiths who used traditional techniques and materials but shifted the emphasis from value, status and affluence to the artistic statement. This is the work and importance of jewelers like Klaus Ullrich, Reinhold Reiling and Hermann Jünger among others. And the development is distinctive. From there you get new materials, and then contemporary jewelry as we know it today.
It is, I think, a convincing story, and very interesting in the sheer number of people it brings into play – so many people that I have never heard of, so much jewelry dealing with the issues in an unbelievable variety of ways. At the end of my visit, while admiring everything that I have seen, I find myself grateful to come from a part of the world where the weight of the jewelry past sits so lightly on our shoulders. I’m also aware of one of the reasons why European jewelry is as good and historically literate as it is. Every jeweler, collector and writer dealing with contemporary jewelry should, at some point, visit the Schmuckmuseum and consider how they fit into this narrative – to understand that this is the history of the practice we each engage with and the collective heritage that stands behind everything we do.