Damian Skinner and Finn McCahon-Jones, Fingers: Jewellery for Aotearoa New Zealand—40 Years of Fingers Jewellery Gallery. Auckland: David Bateman, 2014.
Fingers: Jewellery for Aotearoa New Zealand is an informative book that leaves you craving for more: This is a rich subject that can hardly be covered fully within 150 pages. On the one hand, it’s exactly what the cover of the book, scattered with trinketry, expresses: This isn’t a book about art jewelry or artistic aspirations per se, but it is about jewelry as a way of living by a community of makers. On the other hand, the collective-ness of Fingers is so present that there is hardly any room for a more focused reflection on the path the different individual jewelers took. For someone who wants to know more about individual New Zealand jewelers, this book doesn’t help. You could argue this is not the task of a book about a collective—after all, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—but some members have a professional career besides the collective (notably Warwick Freeman and Alan Preston), and it would have been interesting if these makers were also outlined as single artists.
Yet it is a great book, put together as a scrapbook that fully covers the long period of Fingers’s 40-year existence, embedded in the sociocultural and cultural-political history of Aotearoa New Zealand—a country that was busy redefining its identity in the Pacific precisely during this period of history. And—believe it or not—the humble little Fingers shop played a modest role in the process of establishing New Zealand’s new cultural identity, much like fashion did. They made and presented jewelry for New Zealanders, made from local materials and for a local lifestyle, “exciting pieces with a sense of time and place, unfettered by European traditions,” as journalist Helen Schamroth, who had a craft review column in the New Zealand Herald from 1986–1994, commented in the journal Craft Arts in 1992.[i]
For a down-to-earth Dutch reader in 2015, it is hardly conceivable that contemporary jewelry could have had such an impact on society as Fingers undeniably had in the early and mid-1980s. This impact is traceable in the amount of articles written about the shop, the exhibitions, and the jewelry they showcased. To my delight, quite a number of these articles are reprinted in the book—it gives a wealth of additional information about the time and the discussions that took place then. Damian Skinner and Finn McCahon-Jones convincingly put this fascinating history together. (Skinner is curator of applied art and design at the Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, and the author of numerous publications on contemporary jewelry, especially from New Zealand and Australia; and McCahon-Jones is curator, Auckland Stories, at the same institution and a relative newcomer to jewelry.) In their view, Fingers captured the Zeitgeist for many years, but maybe we can even state that the young self-taught jewelers who started Fingers were partially making the Zeitgeist.
Although their individual stories are not recorded, we can reconstruct, by reading the prints of newspaper and magazine articles in the book, the founders’ loose and rather hippie-ish attitude to life. Alan Preston, Ruth Baird, Roy Mason, Margaret Philips, and Michael Ayling, the five founders of Fingers, are typical baby boomers: They rejected traditional values and had a positive spirit and an independent attitude. None of them were professionally trained goldsmiths; they studied art (Mason), or had a background in psychology (Preston) or library work (Baird), but they all wanted to live from making jewelry, mostly rings, and that’s where the name Fingers comes from.
The idea of the cooperative is Preston’s brainchild. He managed to convince the four others to join in this adventure and open a place run by makers, who would each work in the shop for one day a week. The cooperative was never legally established, there were no written rules, and each decision was made by consent—a practice that continues to this very day. From the outset, exhibitions were part of the policy; instead of just being a retail shop, Fingers also wanted to offer a platform for makers and wearers, and to promote contemporary New Zealand jewelry. Three of the original Fingers people are still part of the cooperative—over the years they saw 12 people come and go—and Preston, Baird, and Mason are the real Fingers heroes.
Looking at the images in the book, Fingers in its first period showed a rather motley collection of figurative, floral, and abstract jewelry mostly made from sterling silver and adorned with colorful stones: In its ornamental, tribal, and oriental excess it expresses hippie culture. The showcases are completely packed with pieces pinned to fabrics on the wall. The work doesn’t look sophisticated or contemporary at all, but it was appealing for those people looking for personal ornamentation away from the bourgeois conventions, and available for an affordable price (the early selection’s popularity is clear from the reprinted newspaper articles, while affordability aligned with the founders’ ambition). This kind of jewelry, conceived as talismans and amulets, was worlds apart from the bold intellectual and aesthetical statements in jewelry that were conceived in Europe in those days. It is totally clear that Fingers and New Zealand jewelry have a different story than—let’s say—Gallery Ra in Amsterdam (which is two years younger than Fingers) and Dutch jewelry. But opposing New Zealand jewelry only to the European New Jewelry movement, as is done throughout the book, creates a false dichotomy. As a matter of fact, THE New Jewelry did not exist—it was the title of a successful book—and even within a small country such as the Netherlands, different attitudes were fighting each other, all claiming they were “contemporary” (although just one style was acknowledged as “typical Dutch”). And why is “the New Jewelry” considered as a typical European phenomenon—how about American jewelry, or Australian?
Having said that, there are noticeable differences between European and New Zealand jewelry, and it’s interesting to note that the main difference between Europe (and the USA) and New Zealand was not a formal, but an essential ideological one: Where European and American jewelers were inspired by contemporary art, the street inspired the makers at Fingers, and where European and American jewelers appreciated an individual signature (which, paradoxically, was characterized for some time by a compelling sameness), Fingers members were searching for a joint Pacific identity or, in Mason’s words, “an awareness of being in the Pacific.”
Theme group exhibitions, which included guest makers from outside the collective, were instrumental in attracting new audiences. The book records invitations, posters, newspaper clippings, and photographs, which give the reader a fair impression of the informal, very effective, and appealing working method of the Fingers members. They made up the themes, and every invited maker had to make new work especially for the show. A quite successful show was the Guaranteed Trash Punk Joolry Show in 1978, which was followed by Ruby Gash: Jungle Jewellery—“a feast of exotica.” You don’t need much imagination to understand that Fingers was a fun, kinky, swinging place at the end of the 70s.
This period also marked the beginning of something new: the exploration of local, natural, and organic materials. The Bone and Paua Dreams shows (both 1981) were exemplary of this quest for alternatives to conventional jewelry. The Bone exhibition (with 24 participants) ended sadly when thieves broke into the shop and took most of the jewelry in stock, some 700 to 800 pieces. The Paua Dreams exhibition organized just a few months later was meant to revitalize the shop: They needed new stock and paua shell was a cheap and easily available material.
Paua shell, with its shiny, kitschy appearance, had a bad name because it was mainly associated with junk tourist souvenirs (like ashtrays and key rings). In 1981, Mason was lobbying against government plans to end the moratorium, dating from 1947, on the export of paua shell and meat. Unfortunately, the lobby failed and from then on tons of these materials were shipped to China and the Philippines for making souvenirs for the New Zealand tourist industry. That year, Mason saw the potential in reversing this bad image: “Paua was the most despised and decried material in the art world, and so I took to it, because I could see it was like Jimi Hendrix’ guitar; psychedelic and amazing.”
The implications of this choice of materials, bone and shell, were huge. People responded enthusiastically, also because jewelry made from these materials went so well with Pasifika style clothing. Within a few years, bone, stone, and shell became the key elements in what was then called Contemporary Pacific Adornment, accepted and adopted by the wearers, and promoted by the authorities. In 1988 curator John Edgar put together Bone, Stone, Shell, New Jewellery New Zealand, a traveling exhibition to promote New Zealand jewelry in Aotearoa, Australia, and Asia commissioned by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Most of the 12 participating artists were directly or loosely connected with Fingers.
The virtue and pleasure of this scrapbook is that you can find so many stories within the story of Fingers, as for instance the one about Pasifika style, which emerged within the context of a growing Maori awareness. It describes a new life style of Pacific Islands residents in Auckland who came to New Zealand as seasonal workers between the 1950s and 70s. According to Karen Stevenson, one of the quoted authors in the Fingers book, “Pasifika fashion grew from a personal style amongst Pacific Islanders in Auckland. Lavalavas (a daily clothing traditionally worn by Polynesians —LdB) and jeans, cultural tattoos and Pacific inspired jewellery were combined to create a new style.”[ii]
And there are many more stories, such as the one about Maori Renaissance and the Language Act (1987) which made Maori an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand, the story about paua shell, and let’s not forget the history of New Zealand’s economic politics and how the ending of extra tariffs on goods and services between Australia and New Zealand (1983), and the “Buy NZ Made” campaign, gave New Zealand’s crafts a boost, and brought Fingers financial success.
It’s a pity, though, that some chapters seem to be completely detached from the Fingers narrative, such as the chapters The Handcrafted Decade, The Turn to Production, and Becoming International. If there is an implied connection between the wider cultural transformations described in these chapters and Fingers’s own development, the authors do not always succeed in making Fingers’s position within these topics very clear. But this is a minor critique—the book is a rich one, abundantly illustrated and a good read. It is one of the rare accounts of pioneer galleries and, compared to books about Ra, Spektrum, and Slavik, it is by far the most comprehensive one. The scrapbook format gives you a fair impression of time and place, something that can’t be achieved by only describing history. It is a treat for anyone who is interested in jewelry in a wider sense, jewelry as a sign of culture, politics, and identity.
[i] Craft Arts, no. 23 (1991–1992): 96–97.
[ii] Karen Stevenson, The Frangipani Is Dead: Contemporary Pacific Art in New Zealand, 1985–2000 (Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2008), 168, as quoted in Skinner and McCahon, Fingers, 54.