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On Jewellery: A Compendium of Contemporary Jewellery

By United States

Felieke van der Leest
Felieke van der Leest, Super Freak Zebra, Brooch, 2007, textile, plastic animal, gold, glass beads, cubic zirconia, 150 x 60 x 30 mm, photo: Eddo Hartmann
Pia Aleborg
Pia Aleborg, Necklace, From The Series: Apartfrom, 2005, electric cord, gold plated brass, 250 mm diameter, photo: Michael Grenmarker

All of a sudden, jewelry has several: not only do we have den Besten’s book, but also Roberta Bernabei’s Contemporary Jewellers: Interviews with European Artists and Thinking Jewellery: On the Way Towards a Theory of Jewellery, an anthology edited by Wilhelm Lindemann (both 2011).

As befits a compendium, den Besten’s book concentrates on discussions of individual jewelers and artists, which are grouped into one of seven general themes. They are, in the order in which they appear: jewelry and photography; jewelry as installation; storytelling and narrative; jewelry ‘on the fringe’ (which seems to involve relational aesthetics and more installations); the body; the ornamental; and traditions. There is also an introduction that broadly considers the meaning of jewelry, largely through historical examples.

Nanna Melland
Nanna Melland, 687 Years, Necklace, 2006–08, IUDs, iron, copper, 710 x 170 mm, The National Museum of Decorative Arts, Trondheim, photo: Nanna Melland

Interestingly, On Jewellery doesn’t have a chapter on conceptual jewelry. This is not an omission, though. Den Besten regards all jewelry as being inherently conceptual, which is a wonderfully enlightened attitude. I can’t agree, but most of the work she considers does, in fact, qualify. This is very much a book about the various concepts that presently inform studio jewelry.

Robert Smit
Robert Smit, Bello als Stilleven (Bello as a Still Life), Brooch, 1992, 18-karat, 21-karat, 24-karat gold, 10 × 75 mm, photo: Robert Smit
Bettina Speckner
Bettina Speckner, Brooch, 2003, ferrotype, 925 silver, raw split diamonds, 85 × 60 × 5 mm
Naomi Filmer
Naomi Filmer, Ball in the Small of My Back for Alexander McQueen’s show El baile del toro retorsido (spring/summer 2002), object, 2001, glass, silver plated copper (electroformed) 280 x 280 mm, photo: Chris Springhall and Gavin Alexander

There was one thing that annoyed me, though. Den Besten seems to be totally in love with non-craft forms like installations and performances. She spills a good deal of ink on projects that could never be described as actual jewelry. Instead, these artworks – and they are art – take jewelry as a subject. This divide between actuality (the thing actually being a piece of jewelry that you could wear) and referentiality (the thing being about jewelry, but not jewelry itself) is the cause of a certain amount of confusion. What exactly is the status of a work that is about jewelry, but can’t possibly be worn? In this case, most of these installations and performances are not jewelry at all.

Hermann Junger
Hermann Junger, Necklace, 1996, palladium, gold, 120 × 30 mm (pendant) Private collection, photo: Eva Junger
Lauren Kalman
Lauren Kalman, Lip Adornment, 2006, inkjet print
Liv Blavarp
Liv Blavarp, Necklace, Sundance, 2010, amarello, peroba rosa, amboina, whale tooth, 250 mm diameter, photo: Audbjorn Ronning

I also wish den Besten had dealt directly with several important issues. What are we to make of quasi-jewelry that will never be placed on the body in a social space? Isn’t much of the power of jewelry lost if it’s only treated as an idea? And what of sloppy jewelry? How are we to deal with intentionally bad craftsmanship, especially now that it’s so popular among young jewelers?

Nonetheless, I would recommend On Jewellery to anybody with an open mind and who is curious about developments on the international stage. The book is a laudable effort and an important contribution to the field.


  • Bruce Metcalf

    Bruce Metcalf is a studio jeweler and writer from the Philadelphia area. His jewelry has been included in hundreds of national and international exhibitions in the past 40 years. Metcalf has also written extensively about issues in contemporary craft and is co-author of Makers: A History of American Studio Craft with critic Janet Koplos.

    View all posts United States
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