Exploring the Use of Organic Materials in Jewelry

Can We Start to Ask Questions, Please?


Animalia—Collection of Splendor & Pastel

January 19–August 30, 2020

CODA Museum, Apeldoorn, the Netherlands

The exhibition Animalia contains pastels, objects, and jewelry depicting animals, such as Helen Britton’s spider brooch or Alexander Blank’s evil rabbit. Some are also made of animals: bone, for example, a fly, or a stuffed wattlebird turned into a necklace by the artistic duo Idiots. Although Animalia is meant as a tribute to nature and an invitation to admire its details, I puzzle over this: Where do I stand when it comes to animal material in contemporary jewelry?

Exhibition view, Animalia, 2020
Exhibition view, Animalia, 2020, CODA Museum, Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, photo: Angela Stouten/CODA Museum

My curiosity started a bit before Animalia, when jewelry artist David Bielander had a show in Amsterdam. There was a hollowed-out billiard ball made to resemble a clown’s nose with a pull string. The artist took it out of the glass case and caressed the inside: ivory. Small ridges revealed how this piece had originally come from the tusk. His love for the material was apparent. But still, it was ivory. I remember Bielander answering bystanders that, yes, he had felt the moral weight of using this particular, atypical material. But not using this objet trouvé would demonstrate even less respect for the elephant. At the same time, I thought, if Bielander had been in the UK, with its tough ivory trade legislation,[1] he could not have sold his Clown. How was that compatible with the decision of this, in my view, informed and conscious maker? “Out of respect for the elephant” was one side, but what else was there to consider?

David Bielander, Clown
David Bielander, Clown, pendant from the No It Is Not series, 2019, ivory, photo courtesy of Galerie Rob Koudijs

Giving Animals a Voice

There’s a historical article from the New York Times that resurfaces every so often on the outrage of live lizards used as brooches.[2] Though no pictures of this trend survived and it may be fake news avant la lettre, the outrage could have been real. Animal protection groups have existed for a long time. The relationship between protector and protégé has shifted, though—from master to steward to partner to inseparably interdependent. The man-animal divide proved less rigid once biologists started to point out that traits considered uniquely human, like empathy and self-awareness, exist in animals, too. In the early 90s, philosopher Bruno Latour proposed the Parliament of Things—an argument for the rights of non-human living and non-living things—a construct of course, but a powerful one. Gradually it became not so far-fetched anymore to give a voice to trees, animals, or rivers. If our existence depends on them, we better start listening.

Cuddly or Annoying?

That includes giving a voice to insignificant or annoying animals, too. In Animalia, a fly is cast in clear acrylic, with a pearl. They lie in their rectangular coffin, frozen by a dominant human hand. This pendant is by the jewelry world’s enfant terrible, Ted Noten. It’s not very remarkable, unless you connect it in your memory with its famous predecessor: the mouse with the pearls. Legend has it that fresh graduate Noten was asked by a gallery to make something with pearls. Classic, stuffy pearls? It almost felt like an insult. And then he found this dead mouse on the studio floor. He gave the tiny cadaver a tiny string of pearls around its tiny neck and cast it in acrylic. Shocking! …But how, exactly? At that time the question about preciousness probably outshone the fact that a fellow creature was used as material.

Pair of earrings featured in the Fashioned from Nature exhibition
Pair of earrings featured in the Fashioned from Nature exhibition at the V&A, 2018–2019, hummingbird feathers, bronze, ca. 1875, photo courtesy of V&A, London

Winds of Change in Art, Fashion, Design…

Now, 25 years after the mouse in acrylic, a suspicion of animal products used in art has grown. And not only of animal products, but of unsustainable practices altogether. Sustainability is demanded in the artist’s process, and conversely artists take on sustainability as a theme. The most recent Venice Biennale showed almost only worried, environmentally themed art, including work referring to the extinction of species. The V&A’s exhibition Fashioned from Nature took a hard look at the long tradition of fashion taking whatever it wanted from nature, from bird’s heads for earrings to whale bones for crinolines to beetle wings for embroidery. The feather craze at the turn of the 19th century almost spelled the end of many bird species. Initiatives such as the Green Carpet Challenge show a changing awareness in fashion. In design, sustainability has become the main driver. There has been an abundance of material research. Sustainable composites, such as substitute leather made from leftover fruit, replace the exhausted originals. Natural resin infused with human hair resembles precious wood or tortoise shell. The latest harvest of possible sustainable solutions is shown in exhibitions[3] and assembled in books[4] on materials.

…and Jewelry?

Certainly, new books and websites address social, economic, and environmental concerns.[5] Aimed at jewelry brands, they concentrate on the main staples of the industry: silver, gold, gemstones, and pearls. Where to turn with questions about the ethical side of animal material in contemporary jewelry? Art jewelry uses only small quantities, would the impact not be negligible? Should the animal have lived a good life? Was it raised to provide a certain material? Did it die a natural death? Recently, or long ago? In the wild, in captivity? What if the material is a by-product that would have been discarded anyway? Is the animal a pest? Almost extinct? Or your pet? There’s no flowchart to guide these decisions. So I asked four wearers and makers to share their thoughts.

Jacomijn van der Donk, Untitled, 2017–2019
Jacomijn van der Donk, Untitled, 2017–2019, neckpieces, gold, goat hair, photo: artist

Jacomijn van der Donk: No Alternative for Natural Materials

The issue of why one would want to employ natural materials isn’t even a question for Jacomijn van der Donk. She has used bone, branches, stones, pebbles, and hair to make jewelry over her entire career. The hair she buys, but the branches she finds combing the streets of Amsterdam. An early bone bracelet with erotic engravings echoes the tourist wares in a Chinatown souvenir shop. A ring with ivory from discarded piano keys, with the vertical lines of the glue side facing outward, resembles feather wings. Jacomijn says she works by playing with the dead material; nothing is contrived, her head is silent. She bends the material to her will, to the point that the material might almost break. When van der Donk manages to breathe life into dead materials like hair or a branch, just before it starts to decompose, it gives her a terrific rush. Most of the books in her studio are on adornment from Africa and Oceania. The use of string, fabric, teeth, or shell is more familiar to her than classical art history. There’s an exception for Lalique, her hero, who did things with glass or ivory that seem impossible.

Van der Donk’s answers all revolve around how natural materials are perfectly apt to express the sensual aspect always present in her work. Hard edges or artificial materials don’t work for her. She explains that what connects all creatures is that which doesn’t perish after we die: bone, hair, horn, teeth, nails. Men and animals are alike in the end. In many pieces, van der Donk uses goat hair, which resembles human hair most closely. These goats are raised in Pakistan, Nepal, or India, and the hair is shaved off and used in objects like cosmetic brushes. Her latest body of work, of twisted gold wire and goat hair, like swollen bottle brushes with tassels, is not meant primarily for the onlooker. Soft to the touch, these neckpieces tickle, before anything else, the sensuality of the wearer. Van der Donk says no other material brings your own inner beast to the surface so well.

The hassle involved in shipping her hair jewelry (organic material, disease prevention!) to the MAD in New York still doesn’t make sense to her. She recounts an amusing anecdote: another museum advised her to write on the label that the item in the case contained bone instead of ivory, to deter questions. Her academy teacher, Marjan Unger, of whom she was very fond, had never talked about the ethics of materials such as her scavenged piano keys. Much later, Unger told van der Donk she couldn’t approve of things like ivory and beetles anymore. Van der Donk felt a bit betrayed.

Jewel beetle (Sternocera aequisignata), Thailand
Jewel beetle (Sternocera aequisignata), Thailand, photo: Bernard Dupont, France/Wikicommons.

What about the rules van der Donk sets herself now? She distills them from her practice. She would never order a package of beetles, but if she finds a dead one, she uses it. She would never buy an elephant tusk. But if she found a piece of coral for a small price at an estate sale, yes. Then she surprises me by defending the right to not set rules and to play. A method, a conscience, if you will, would get in the way of intuitively feeling what she can do with a material. What van der Donk puts on the table is: Are artists above the law?

Lore Langendries, brooches from the Hide, the Fragment series
Lore Langendries, brooches from the Hide, the Fragment series, 2019, roe deer and reindeer hide, saddle leather, magnets, between 50 x 50 x 50 mm and 150 x 110 x 15 mm, photo: artist

Liesbeth den Besten: An Unexpected Stir over Secondhand Ivory

I ask writer and collector Liesbeth den Besten for her opinion because of an exhibition she curated, Jewellery Unleashed. In the brochure she listed all the materials used, and under the heading “bio materials” appeared 23 animal materials including antelope fur, coral, horn, ivory, shellac, and sea horse. Our conversation leads to Tanel Veenre, who employed the sea horses and who also uses reconstructed coral in his latest work. We discuss more recent examples, such as Märta Mattsson’s dissected jewel-filled beetles. Or Marion Delarue’s marquetry pieces, for which she uses feathers from poultry-processing facilities. The list can go on and on: Lore Langedries uses offcuts from deer hide, emphatically not called fur, for upholstery and bags; Yutaka Minegishi carves rings from mammoth ivory. Why do so many artists do that? Den Besten guesses that genuine material, as opposed to something artificial, lends the work an association with life. What does she see among the youngest jewelry makers, like her Antwerp students? First, don’t forget, money is often tight. Students make do with any material and there’s usually no money for “tainted” organic materials, which are more expensive. On the other hand, material awareness isn’t an official topic of study.

Lisa Walker, Duckling Necklace, 2016
Lisa Walker, Duckling Necklace, 2016, taxidermy ducklings, thread, steel compound, collection Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. As seen in the Lisa Walker: I Want to Go to My Bedroom but I Can’t Be Bothered exhibition, Villa Stuck, Munich 2020, photo: Saskia Kolff-van Es

One of den Besten’s personal material fascinations is with human hair in sentimental or mourning pieces. Just a century or two ago, hair had an emotional value, whereas it’s now viewed as something from someone else’s unclean body. Ethics change. At this point I ask about a ring that caused me such turmoil. One day last year, when visiting a salon at the artist Benedikt Fischer’s studio, den Besten acquired an ivory ring, carved by Fischer and engraved by artist Jan Hoek. Active on social media, she posted her new find made from “secondhand ivory.” Over 250 people liked the post but some vehemently protested the material and got into a discussion amongst themselves. Previously den Besten had posted Lisa Walker’s duckling necklace, not because she thought it was cute but because of its unsettling message about countless male ducklings being killed right after hatching. In the case of the ivory ring, no social indictment was intended. She just liked the piece very much. Has she, as an authority, inadvertently given permission for the use of ivory? She was unaware of such a mechanism. She knew the artist had made this ring from an old ivory statuette; to her mind, this wasn’t causing any harm. On the contrary, she found the idea of repurposing beautiful antique material, from an animal long dead, quite sympathetic. She thought of the ring as connected to a centuries-old tradition, here and in other parts of the world, of using animal bones, teeth, claws, horns, or antlers in jewelry. But she would never consciously look for ivory jewelry. Does it make a difference that, unlike ducklings, elephants are under threat of extinction and trading ivory is forbidden? Come to think of it, this in itself was also a part of the appeal: a forbidden, subversive material.

Tomb of Téviec, two skeletons of women dated between 6,740 and 5,680 years ago
Tomb of Téviec, two skeletons of women dated between 6,740 and 5,680 years ago (Mesolithic) protected by antlers; grave goods include flint, wild boar bone, deer teeth, pierced pebbles, marine shells drilled and assembled into necklaces, bracelets, and ankle rings. Some of the bone objects have engraved lines, photo: Didier Descouens, Muséum de Toulouse/Wikicommons.

Benedikt Fischer: Curiosity about the Material

If there’s any religious belief in Benedikt Fischer’s life, it connects to nature, where he experiences himself as part of a bigger whole. Growing up on a farm in a rural area, the jewelry maker spent days in the outdoors. Also, his father sometimes brought home stones with a hole or a bronze bracelet, and it sparked an interest for what’s in the ground. Once, Fischer unearthed a mammoth tusk in a stone quarry. It’s in his studio now. It’s quite brittle, and only a small bit would be suitable to work with. Likewise, whenever Fischer’s on a beach, he has a habit of picking up shells. They usually have a hole already. It’s only logical that early jewelry found by archeologists was made from shell. For him these materials furthermore stand as metaphor for an endless wealth of forms, solutions, and adaptations evolved in nature—take that one shell with protruding spikes, not for protection but to avoid sinking into the muddy ocean floor. Fischer is known for his hugely popular brooches of anthropomorphized shells with toothy mouths, almost like emojis. They started with some baby teeth someone had given him to make something. The shells have a mood already; they look angry, and he enhances that. Most shells he finds on beaches, and he bought some at shell collectors’ fairs.

Benedikt Fischer, Pearly Whites, 2019
Benedikt Fischer, Pearly Whites, 2019, brooches, found shell, paint, photo courtesy of the artist

When he found worked ivory at a flea market in Paris, the material was like a magnet, for its tactility, its sensuality. He wanted to try it out as practice before using his tiny bit of mammoth from Austria. Ivory is strong enough for a ring, and a ring is also something you can fiddle with. The ivory allowed precise carving and was very nice to polish, a wonderful material to work with. In his studio, Fischer wants to be free to experiment like this. Are artists allowed to do whatever they like, I wonder? No, he replies, they have to justify themselves, too, even if it’s just over a little bit of material. But in this case, he had no intention of producing it for a collection or showing it in a gallery, let alone making ivory fashionable. It was a one-off piece that he sold, and that drew a lot of attention. It actually frightened him. Still, he’d like to continue and make something in his found mammoth fragment. He would never buy mammoth, because it might actually be fresh ivory.[6]

Did any colleagues perhaps ask him about his choices for a material? That hasn’t really been the case and he doesn’t know why. On the other hand, the material intelligence he sees in his students is encouraging. He hardly ever has to address ethical issues. Sometimes cultural appropriation comes up, but never material. His students don’t seem to use gold or gemstones that much—materials he thinks are much more problematic than, say, the occasional piece of leather.

Idiots (Afke Golsteijn, Floris Bakker), Mini Bird, necklace
Idiots (Afke Golsteijn, Floris Bakker), Mini Bird, necklace, 2015, taxidermy wattlebird (Platysteira cyanea), felt, glass beads, pearls, textile, featured in Animalia, 2020, collection of CODA Museum Apeldoorn, photo courtesy Galerie Door

Sara and Jeroen: Not Bred or Killed for Art

Sara and Jeroen[7] speak about the jewelry they own in a thoughtful way. They don’t go looking for natural material, but some pieces happen to contain it, like fur and even camel dung. When we talk at their table, the collectors retrieve some boxes. Sara unwraps their fragile bird necklaces by Idiots. The first one is made from a superb starling, textile, and beads. The activist title, Oil Bird, isn’t what attracted Sara and Jeroen to it. It was the fact that they couldn’t fathom it directly. Was it repulsive or beautiful? Why would an artist make something like this? Should this bird not either fly or be buried? It was a relief to find out that the makers respect animals like they themselves do. When Sara tried a bird piece on for the first time, she was surprised how well it fitted. During our talk, Sara puts a cockatiel jewel on, the bird’s head protruding in the center. It gives her, the wearer, something curious as well. Her expression changes when she puts on the second one, a black swan’s head with a small halter that rests its head around her neck. She notices the feathers being different from her own skin. Her gaze turns inward, it’s her and the bird, as in a fairy tale. When I ask if she assigns any special powers to the animal—I’m looking for an animist streak—she rejects the word animist. But there’s the power of proximity in this work, she says. The swan is therefore only for wearing in the intimacy of her home. The cockatiel and the sterling could go out in public, attend a gala, but so far it hasn’t happened. She has only worn a piece by Idiots in a video presentation for an exhibition.

Jeroen talks about the bird pieces by Idiots they own with a mix of love and intellectual interest. He points at the direct ties to the Victorian tradition of wearing feathers, the difference being that these birds are no exotic trophies. Sara and Jeroen have acquainted themselves with the duo Idiots so well, as they do with all artists whose work they collect, that they trust them when they say that the birds aren’t sourced in a harmful way. The swan flew into high-voltage wires, the starling died in an oil spill, and the cockatiel was born in an aviary and died there from old age. The only thing that could be cruel about these pieces is possibly the glue, he says, since glue often contains crushed bones. There is an arbitrariness with which animal welfare is supported in one instance and ignored in another. Rather than criticizing the use of a bird that wasn’t bred or killed for the work of art, let’s look at implicit assumptions about, say, meat and dairy consumption, animal testing for medication, or goose-down duvets. To him, this necklace is also a call to stay alert about irrationality and hypocrisy.

The Law and Our Conscience

If these contemporary jewelry figures are representative of the field, there is quite a lot of material awareness. These people are informed and don’t engage with just any old material. At the same time, they don’t want to be curbed when it comes to the materials for expressing themselves with. The law isn’t the dilemma. It’s about the gray area in which materials aren’t (yet) forbidden but could be by our own consciences. It seems to me that these times ask makers and wearers to adjust their ethical compasses a bit. For decades I lived my life on the assumption that old ivory, for instance, was no problem. Now, all ivory is getting banned and, on top of that, mammoth tusk is no foolproof alternative, either. In that respect it’s encouraging to learn that the newest generation of makers, born eco-savvy, seems to stay away from suspicious materials. What’s less encouraging is that there appears to be reluctance from buyers and colleagues alike to discuss uncomfortable materials. It has been suggested that this is related to the often-lamented absence of serious critique in the jewelry field.

Often-Heard Lines of Reasoning

What I filtered from these conversations are some arguments that seem to recur.

To start with, there’s the conceptual argument. Imagine a situation when the organic material is chosen deliberately to express something about that material. An example could be cattle gut, as a protest of the wasteful meat industry. When it’s both material and subject, that’s an artistic reason I won’t argue against. Where it gets confusing for me is when the conceptually necessary material is simultaneously highly desirable. What takes precedence, the concept or the material?

Another argument is that, in contemporary jewelry, only small amounts of animal material are used, and it’s the major consumers, such as the fashion industry, that need to be confronted first. Although the amount in jewelry is small, the message that a material like fur is acceptable becomes strengthened. To take the dilemma one step further, what if a material for which an animal was killed a long time ago lands in your lap? Should you show the beauty of it, so “it didn’t die in vain”? What’s the alternative? Surely not destroying it? This line of reasoning assumes that enjoying the material somehow compensates for its bloody history. But—just as with the quantity argument—beware of implied consent. Even if it’s the billiard ball and not the ivory it’s made of that attracts you in a jewel, it’s wiser to stay clear of a pedigree in which animals are bred, hunted, or killed for art.

Possible Neanderthal jewelry, white-tailed eagle claws with striations
Possible Neanderthal jewelry, white-tailed eagle claws with striations found at the Neanderthal site of Krapina, Crimea, from 130,000 ago, photo from article PLOS ONE, 2015 Radovčić et al/Wikicommons

Speaking of old customs, it seems tempting to think that the fact that human beings have used animal materials for millennia—bird claws, shells, and other things with holes—gives us license to continue the practice. Of course, humans have always relied on the material of other organisms to house, clothe, and keep them warm. But the consideration should be made anew every time. Using whatever’s left over from dinner—hide, horn and bone, wing cases of edible beetles—is an option for me. I draw the line with animals raised or killed only for jewelry.

Can We Start to Ask Questions, Please?

Beetles, leather, feathers, and bone hold an irresistible, almost physical attraction for me. Whether it’s my longing for beauty or dominance, a rejection of death, or some other subconscious motive is irrelevant. Nor is it relevant whether the animal remains whole, as in the bird necklaces, or is changed beyond recognition.

The question is simply: Is it admissible to use animal material in jewelry? All? Some? None?

Let’s start to ask questions and stay aware, for want of a flow chart. And do it together, as no one is without sin. The logical path, I suppose, is to become knowledgeable about the material. If you find it, take a look at the local ecosystem. If you pay for your material, follow the money. If you’re about to wear it, dig deeper. Anything researched stands a fair chance of being left unused or being used responsibly. It would do no harm, every now and then, to wonder what the fly herself would think of this whole jewelry thing.

Ted Noten, Untitled
Ted Noten, Untitled, pendant, pearl, fly, acrylic, collection CODA Museum Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, donation Stichting Altena Boswinkel Collectie, featured in Animalia, 2020, CODA Museum, photo: CODA Museum


Thanks to artists Benedikt Fischer and Jacomijn van der Donk, collectors Sara and Jeroen, and jewelry expert Liesbeth den Besten for taking the time to talk with me. These conversations took place at the end of February and in early March 2020.

CODA Museum curator Vanessa de Gruijter showed me around the exhibition Animalia and mentioned the V&A exhibition Fashioned from Nature. Artist and teacher Liesbet Bussche kindly chatted about the topic and mentioned ethical initiatives in the jewelry industry she heard discussed during New York Jewelry Week 2019.

Edwina Ehrman, ed., Fashioned from Nature (V&A Publishing, 2018).

AJF Live: Lore Langendries, streamed studio visit, April 1, 2020.

Ted Noten, item on the artist in television show Kunstuur, broadcast by the Dutch company Avro/Tros, March 4, 2018.

Doreen Timmers, “Idiots. Een Nieuwe Jas,” Palet, no. 400 (April/May 2019).


[1] Many countries adhere to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES,, which aims to ensure that trade in endangered species does not threaten their survival. Trading items of pre-1947 worked ivory and pre-1975/76 raw ivory are allowed under some conditions. Some countries domestically apply stricter rules. In 2018 the UK banned all commercial activities with ivory.

[2] New York Times Archives, “Must Stop Selling Little Lizards; Society Says the So-Called Chameleons Have Been Cruelly Treated. Sale in New York City Stopped by Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” February 2, 1894. “The sale of the little lizards, which have been brought to this city recently in large quantities from the South, has been stopped by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The lizards have been sold as chameleons. They were fastened to cushions, mantel scarfs, and the like, by means of tiny collars and chains, and they had become quite a plaything with many people. Sometimes they were worn in the streets by women, who had them attached to their bodices. […]” (accessible only to Times subscribers).

[3] Last year the Triennale in Milan, under the name Broken Nature, showed recent design that reacted to climate change, biodiversity, and ocean pollution. Nature, a collaboration between the Cooper Hewitt, in New York, and the Cube Design Museum, in the Netherlands, also showed these and similar projects.

[4] Titles include Seetal Solanki, Why Materials Matter: Responsible Design for a Better World (New York and London: Prestel, 2018); and Kate Franklin and Caroline Till, Radical Matter: Rethinking Materials for a Sustainable Future (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018).

[5] Jose Luis Fettolini, Sustainable Jewellery: Principles and Processes for Creating an Ethical Brand, (Barcelona, Promopress, 2018); Kyle Roderick, Bejeweled: The World of Ethical Jewelry (New York: Rizzoli, 2019);

[6] Acquiring, carving, and selling woolly mammoth tusk is legal. With permafrost thawing, more tusks become available. It’s believed this opens the door for freshly poached ivory being passed off as “fossil.” Only experts can tell the difference between fresh or old elephant ivory. The difference between elephant and mammoth ivory is determined by studying the pattern of the characteristic “Schreger lines.” There are proposals to legally ban mammoth ivory.

[7] Last name withheld at their request. This habitual preference for anonymity is regardless of what they collect.


  • Saskia van Es

    Art historian Saskia van Es (Amsterdam, 1972) writes about contemporary jewelry for Dutch and international platforms. Her fascination: jewelry materials and the tension between their mythical and harmful sides. Saskia teaches jewelry history and theory at Sint Lucas Antwerpen, Belgium. She was a member of the board of the Françoise van den Bosch Foundation.

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