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What is contemporary jewellery exactly?

Author: Sian Van Dyk, Curator, Programmes

This month we are fundraising to help us rehouse our contemporary jewellery and ensure this taonga is kept for generations to come. You can make your donation here.

With all this talk about contemporary jewellery we invited our dear curator Sian van Dyk to explain just what it is we are so passionate about.

Walking through the streets of your local town or city, you might see someone wearing a piece of jewellery that jumps out at you. Perhaps it looks handmade; is brighter or larger than usual or is created from materials like rubber or plastic. It could be that you just crossed paths with some contemporary jewellery.

SHARON FITNESS AND HER ACTORS AMBER AND VANESSA INTERACTING WITH 'FINDING JEWLLERYNESS'

SHARON FITNESS AND HER ACTORS AMBER AND VANESSA INTERACTING WITH 'FINDING JEWLLERYNESS'

There are many ideas around about what contemporary jewellery actually is. One of my personal favourites is by Damian Skinner, a writer and curator from Aotearoa New Zealand who has made a big impact on thinking about this field worldwide. Damian writes:

“Contemporary jewellery is a self-reflexive practice, which means that it’s concerned with reflecting on itself and the conditions in which it takes place. In general, contemporary jewellers work in a critical or conscious relationship to the history of the practice and to the wider field of jewellery and adornment. This is what makes contemporary jewellery different from other forms of body adornment, and it isn’t found just in the way contemporary jewellery objects and practices engage with the history of jewellery, or the relationship to the body and wearing. Contemporary jewellery is shaped by a distinct awareness of the situation in which it exists…”*

This is quite a mouthful to absorb in the context of the ring on your finger, the bracelet on your wrist or the pendant hanging from your neck. But, just think for a moment about where or who your piece of jewellery came from. Does it represent a specific occasion or relationship with a friend, partner or family member for you? Consider wedding rings, friendship bracelets or pounamu pendants. When we wear these objects, we are communicating something about who we are and what’s important to us. When we see other people adorned with these items, we subconsciously ‘read’ their jewellery, which helps us figure out more about them. Simply put, contemporary jewellery expands on these kinds of associations.

MIA STRAKA'S TALISMAN PROJECT, LANGUAGE OF THINGS: MEANING AND VALUE IN CONTEMPORARY JEWELLERY

MIA STRAKA'S TALISMAN PROJECT, LANGUAGE OF THINGS: MEANING AND VALUE IN CONTEMPORARY JEWELLERY

Jewellery is one of our oldest forms of expression. Over the last few hundred years, it has often been used as a symbol of wealth or status, usually conveyed through the value of precious materials like gold and diamonds used to make it. In the 1940s and 50s, jewellers began to question these viewpoints, and over the following decades began to explore more readily available materials. Moving beyond the boundaries of commercial value, contemporary jewellers were able to respond to issues they cared about, in turn giving jewellery wearers’ new ways to express themselves. By the 1970s, this approach became known as the ‘critique of preciousness’, which continues to influence artists’ work today.

LANGUAGE OF THINGS INSTALLATION VIEW, WITH STRATA NO. 1 COLLAR BY JENNY TOYNBEE-WILSON

LANGUAGE OF THINGS INSTALLATION VIEW, WITH STRATA NO. 1 COLLAR BY JENNY TOYNBEE-WILSON

Recently, The Dowse had The Language of Things: Meaning and Value in Contemporary Jewellery  an exhibition featuring jewellery from all over the world inspired by these ideas. There were many objects you might not associate with jewellery, made from all sorts of unexpected materials. For example Jenny Toynbee-Wilson, from Australia, created a large collar out of paper to make a statement about the environment; Sophie Hanagarth from France, covered a testicle shaped necklace in bottle tops to question gender stereotypes; while Naama Bergman, an Israeli artist, grew salt crystals on an iron pendant to explore the cross over between myth and politics in her homeland.

LANGUAGE OF THINGS INSTALLATION VIEW, WITH FAMILY JEWELS BY SOPHIE HANAGARTH

LANGUAGE OF THINGS INSTALLATION VIEW, WITH FAMILY JEWELS BY SOPHIE HANAGARTH

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the ‘Bone, Stone, Shell’ movement of the 1980s was a local contribution the critique of preciousness. It included jewellers such as Alan Preston, Warwick Freeman, Elena Gee and John Edgar, who as a group, wanted to acknowledged how our unique place in the world influences us, by using natural materials from the southern parts of Te Moana Nui a Kiwa (the Pacific).

LANGUAGE OF THINGS INSTALLATION VIEW WITH SALT NECKLACE 09 BY NAAMA BERGMAN

LANGUAGE OF THINGS INSTALLATION VIEW WITH SALT NECKLACE 09 BY NAAMA BERGMAN

It was around this time The Dowse began our very own contemporary jewellery collection. Since then we have continued to grow this collection to be one of the largest in the country, and one of the best examples of New Zealand work in the world. A handful of times I have had the privilege of showing international experts on contemporary jewellery our famous collection, and it has made me so proud to see how impressed and excited they are by our makers. By keeping their work safe for future generations, we ensure that we continue to have conversations with the wider world about who we are and what we care about. This is why it’s so important we do the best job we can to continue to look after these taonga.

LANGUAGE OF THINGS INSTALLATION VIEW WITH LOLLIPOP NECKLACE & KETE BY WARWICK FREEMAN; BOXED SET: BROOCHES, EARRINGS OR NECKLACE BY ELENA GEE AND I AM BOUND WITHIN THIS LAND AOTEAROA BY JOHN EDGAR

LANGUAGE OF THINGS INSTALLATION VIEW WITH LOLLIPOP NECKLACE & KETE BY WARWICK FREEMAN; BOXED SET: BROOCHES, EARRINGS OR NECKLACE BY ELENA GEE AND I AM BOUND WITHIN THIS LAND AOTEAROA BY JOHN EDGAR

We are currently collecting donations to create better storage for our world class contemporary jewellery collection. To learn more and consider making a donation click here. Every dollar helps!

*Damian Skinner ,“What is contemporary jewellery” in Contemporary Jewellery in Perspective ed Damian Skinner. Published by Art Jewelry Forum Mill Valley California, 2013. pg. 11

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