Jewellery as art – the blurring of two worlds

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When does jewellery become art and art become jewellery, asks PJ.

The attention to detail employed by artist-jewellers makes their pieces mini sculptures. Rachael Taylor explores the blurring lines between jewellery and art and asks if the two should stand side by side.

Susan Philipsz won art accolade The Turner Prize last month with an empty room illustrated only by a recording of her voice singing a 16th century Scottish lament. The choice of winner caused disbelief in some circles but perfectly illustrates the changing attitudes to what is considered art.

If a piece of music can win The Turner Prize then why not jewellery? The intricacies involved and the attention to detail employed by those who consider themselves artist jewellers are wholly worthy of being placed upon a plinth. Why should jewellery just be considered a fashion or commodity item, and not a work of art? The reason, of course, is scale.

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“If I made my pieces larger, in the same materials, they would be considered art,” says jewellery designer Alexandra Simpson. “I’ve got pieces that I cast in bronze and glass using the same techniques as sculptors. Where some people might model I carve by hand. The only difference is the scale.”

Simpson’s work is heavily inspired by Art Noveau and this is reflected in her more mainstream jewellery, but she has also just spent an entire year working on a single design that she describes as a sculpture in its own right.

The design, called Sea Dragon, was extremely labour intensive. Simpson spent three full days a week over the course of an entire year creating her masterpiece. The result is a sculptural design cast in sterling silver that when photographed looks nothing like jewellery until it is placed next to something to give it some scale and then it becomes clear that it is a pair of earrings.

Mini sculptures is a phrase that you hear a lot when talking to jewellers that consider themselves artists. They believe that if their work was magnified then it might well sit alongside mainstream sculptures in galleries, and in Simpson’s case, as she says, this is certainly true of Sea Dragon.

Award-winning jewellery designer and Professional Jeweller guest editor Shaun Leane believes that it is this level of craftsmanship that makes a piece of jewellery a piece of art. “What makes jewellery a piece of art is its concept and execution of the piece,” he says. “There are pieces of jewellery and stones that are crafted like miniature sculptures with the highest form of craftsmanship. With modern technology, pieces of jewellery can be created to push the boundaries of construction in ways that cannot apply to larger forms – this makes the art of jewellery unique.”

As well as bringing sculptural jewellery forms to the mainstream market through his commercial collections, Leane has also worked on a number of pieces that he describes as object d’art. One such piece was the one-off Queen of the Night necklace he created in collaboration with Boucheron to mark the French jewellery house’s 150th anniversary.

The delicate leaves and flowers that make up the neckpiece are carved in blackened gold. To add sparkle the leaves are paved with brown diamonds, the flowers are paved in sapphires on the exterior and in white diamonds on the interior, while their hearts are paved with rubies. Hidden beneath the prickly thorns, lies a stunning pear-shaped lilac sapphire of approximately 15 carats, that is detachable and can be worn separately as a pendant.

Boucheron craftsmen spent 1,600 hours carefully constructing the piece, and the same amount of time was patiently spent setting it with precious stones. The detachable section of the neckpiece suggests that it has been designed to be worn, but when it was first unveiled the piece was showcased like a work of art. It is this wearability aspect that defines art and jewellery, according to Leane.

“The purpose of jewellery is to be worn but you can have a piece of jewellery which has a meaningful concept and emotional connection, created to be presented as a piece of objet d’art but with knowledgeable design that can also adorn the human form,” he says. “This is when art becomes jewellery.”

While the blurring lines between the two creative mediums are evident, art galleries tend to give less precedence to jewellery, often confining it to the gift shop. And even then the jewellery is not always representative of the artworks on display.

One topical example is the jewellery that was on sale in the gift shop at The Glasgow Boys exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in Decemeber. The exhibition trotted out a number of gifts that it felt had a connection to the works, but the only connection seemed to be the colourings from painting The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe by George Henry and Edward Hornel, which whilst a great work was completely unrepresentative of the colourings of the majority of the Glasgow Boys paintings. Representing the jewellery sector in this shop was a costume necklace in this orange and red palette.

“There is always the most appalling jewellery that has nothing to with what’s on display,” says artist jeweller Zoe Arnold, who frequently sells her jewellery in galleries.

While Arnold’s jewellery is considered works of art and so sold in appropriate settings for that genre, she says that in the past she has turned art galleries away because she doesn’t want her designs to be misrepresented. “I have been approached by big galleries in the past and have refused as I don’t want my work to not be given the reverence it should be,” she says.

While jewellery might not get as much kudos in the art world as some jewellers would like, it seems that artists in the purest sense appreciate the possibilities of the medium. While a piece of jewellery is yet to win a Turner prize, Turner prize-winning jewellers have turned their attentions to jewellery.

One such artist is Anish Kapoor, who won the Turner prize in 1991 for his sculpture. Not afraid to switch scales, Kapoor has created sought-after jewellery such as his limited-edition gold and enamel ring called Cobalt Water that Bonhams put an estimate value of £6,000 to £8,000.

The ring was sold in December in a special auction of art jewels. Other work on sale included designs by 19th century jeweller Giacinto Melillo, who helped lead the revival of ancient techniques used in making gold jewellery, and several pieces of Victorian jewellery.

While jewellery made by artists can sit alongside jewellery crafted by time-served jewellers, scaling sculptures down and transforming them into pieces of wearable art is not always the easiest of processes.

The Louisa Guinness Gallery works with artists to help them translate their creativity into pieces of jewellery. It has worked with names such as Damien Hirst, William Ehrlich, Michael Craig-Martin and Ed Ruscha. Owner Louise Guinness explains that you can’t just scale down artworks and expect them to become pieces of jewellery, you have to adapt.

Guinness works with artists to help them make the transition from art to jewellery. She will take the concepts created by the artist to a goldsmith who will realise the final piece before presenting it to the artists for final tweaks.

Although these artists are not sitting at the bench, their entrance into the world of jewellery has worth to jewellers as well as the art-loving jewellery shopper. Contemporary jeweller Imogen Belfield takes inspiration from architecture and nature to create bold pieces that playfully experiment with a smorgasbord of precious and non-precious metals, but says that she is also inspired by the work of non-traditional jewellers.

“Damien Hirst’s art has already had a huge impact on jewellery design with the influence of his gothic scull motifs,” muses Belfield. “I am also a big fan of Anish Kapoor and see a lot of jewel-like qualities in his work, such as Tall Tree and the Eye, Tail Pavilion and Cloud Gate, which I think could lend themselves as beautiful pieces to adorn the body. In the same way that visionary giants such as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry translated their architectural style into jewellery, I think that artists can too.”

The working process of the Louise Guinness Gallery highlights the importance of concept in the world of art. The majority of artists will devise a concept before creating an artwork, but a large number of jewellers are working in the same way.
Maria Francesca Pepe describes herself as a conceptual designer. As well as creating edgy yet commercial pieces, such as her nut and bolt rings that sell on Asos, she also works with fashion designers such as Roksanda Ilincic on catwalk collaborations and in 2009 designed a large golden structure for lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret that was worn on the runway as a piece of body sculpture. She believes that the link between art and jewellery is a strong concept.

“Whether you are creating jewellery or selling jewellery in your shop what links the two is the concept,” she says. “If something is conceived in a logic that’s what makes an object timeless. I give a sense of meaning to each feature, something that you feel when you own something.”

Pepe is so devoted to having a concept to each of her designs, which in the past have been dedicated to themes such as 16th century jewellery engravings and wolves, that she won’t choose where a stone goes based on how good it looks, but how well it fits in with the theme. “I try not to decide where to put a stone or to make a shape one way because it looks better,” she explains. “There is a reason, something that relates to a particular memory or aesthetic that I want to relate to.”

Zoe Arnold takes the concept approach even further in her jewellery work. Each piece the designer makes is a one-off and to be able to continually come up with fresh deisgns, Arnold uses poetry. The designer writes poetry that explores her own emotions and life and then turns this into jewellery.

“I’ll write a group of poems based on what is on my mind at the time,” she says. “Then I’ll look at the imagery in the poems and I’ll make jewellery inspired by that.”

Arnold often sells her poetry alongside the piece of jewellery to help her clients fully understand her vision and connect with the piece they have bought. Sometimes she even presents the poem as a hand-printed book.

But Arnold’s jewellery really starts to blur the line between jewellery and art in the way that is it displayed. In the past she has presented a bee necklace on top of a miniature map with a magnifying glass looming over it, and a series of pendants attached to a bar of wood within a wooden frame against a background that illustrates the emotions that each represents.
“Most people would look at me and call me a jeweller but I think of myself as an artist,” she states. “A lot of my jewellery can be displayed when it’s not on the body. I have buyers who commission frames to display it on the wall and I spend as much time on the frames as I do making the parts and writing the poems.”

Arnold sells her work directly, through galleries and selling events such as The Goldsmith’s Fair, but Simpson believes that in the broader retail market there is a need to present jewellery as art in order to capture the imagination of shoppers and help them to see the value in jewellery rather than just viewing it as an accessory to fashion.

When taking her jewellery to trade shows Simpson makes great efforts to dramatise its presentation and in the past has used props such as faux moss and piano keyboards. “If you put a piece of jewellery in context people will find their personal connection,” she advises. “When somebody is selling a piece of jewellery they are selling a story. Each of my pieces have a story. It’s like that in art. By putting jewellery in a stage it helps hook people in.”

As well as exciting customers, Simpson says there is a very logical reason for creating exciting displays for jewellery – its size. “As jewellery is miniature art works people can walk past it without seeing it,” she says.

But when does a piece of jewellery become an artwork? Belfield thinks she has the answer.

“A piece that makes a strong conceptual statement, or a testimony to global issues,” she debates. “It could also be a piece that carries a form in such a way that questions and challenges the wearability and function of jewellery. Perhaps a piece that bears similar qualities in scale and form to a sculpture by Naum Gabo or Barbara Hepworth. Similarly, Subodh Gupta or Eduardo Paolozzi are examples of artists who I think embody jewel-like qualities in their work and that could be extracted and translated into jewellery. Art jewellery could also refer to the techniques and craftsmanship involved in making a piece, whether its combining traditional artistic techniques, such as the way in which Faberge painted with enamels.”

And so Belfield brings up the debate of materials. This angle of the jewellery-art debate was brought to a head in 2007 when Damien Hirst created For The Love of God, a human skull that he had cast in platinum and covered with more than 8,000 flawless diamonds.

The piece set art and jewellery commentators debating as to whether the skull, which was named after a comment that Hirst’s mother had made – “For the love of god, what are you going to do next?” – should be considered jewellery. The only reason for this debate was its precious materials. Unwearable and too expensive at £50 million, or £10 million base value, to be anywhere but a secure location the piece is anything but jewellery in the traditional sense, but suddenly when it brings diamonds and precious metals into play the lines blur.

Gill Rogers has used this materials angle to her advantage. She is a jewellery designer but uses a very alternative material – glass. Her jewellery is either made solely from glass, such as her wedding rings which she says are incredibly strong, or can be strung on 925 silver that has been bound with nylon string.

Because of her choice of material Roger’s work was selected by art fair Art London to be the only jewellery on display at its show last year. Rogers said the organisers said they had chosen her jewellery because “they viewed it as an art form”.
The show was a huge success for Rogers, who sold her glass jewellery to a number of buyers including Emma Thompson. The art buyer is a potentially lucrative market for jewellers designing mini sculptures; they understand challenging aesthetics, they have money to spend and they are always on the look out for something different that will outwardly express their personalities.

Louisa Guinness claims that 95 percent of her clients are art collectors and Zoe Arnold believes that there is a very special group of shoppers who collect art jewellery that she describes as “always really fascinating people that have huge houses full of curios”.

While the art jewellery shopper might not be the average high street shopper Imogen Belfield believes there will always be a place in the commercial market for art jewellery. She says: “Where the mass market may eventually become saturated with a heavily repeated design, with a widely accessible price tag, there will always be the aspirational art jewellery pieces that may be less attainable, but equally as desirable.”

Jeweller Theo Fennell believes that the jewellery industry’s obsession with the cost of materials, as well as its fascination with branding, has led to a decline in the appreciation of jewellery as an art form but he believes there is still a market for it.
Fennell says: “I think the jewellery trade shot itself in the foot by becoming so brand conscious, on the one hand, and obsessed with stone sizes and worth, on the other, so that the real value of jewellery, its sentiment and originality, its design and craftsmanship, got lost. I really think that this has changed and that people are looking for something less shallow. It is the brands and beads that will fall away. The market is returning to the days where design and craftsmanship are at a premium where people are bored with paying an absurd price for something that they can buy in any airport in the world. People want to be part of what they wear and to feel some real thought and skill has been put into it and that not everyone is wearing one.”

Art jewellery is only for the brave – brave shoppers and brave designers – but it is an essential part of jewellery’s history and a glorious component of its future. And as Maria Francesca Pepe says: “For those who are brave enough to break the rules they will be paid back in the end.”

 

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