As an artist- or author jeweller and part-time academic I am very interested in the complex notions of value within the field of contemporary jewellery, mainly because I often find my own understanding, thinking and beliefs around value to be at odds with those who encounter and/or engage with my jewellery or contemporary jewellery in general1.
From its earliest beginnings, jewellery served multiple purposes for both the wearer and his/her bigger society. Items of personal adornment reflected personal aesthetic choices, symbolized personal and/or social status, represented ritual significance and (notably in Africa, China and the south Pacific) occasionally acted as a type of currency (Lignel, B. 2010. Now and never: the currency of contemporary jewellery, p 252). Also from its earliest existence, personal adornment manifested itself in a multitude of materials such as shells, wood, horns, teeth, bones, metals, stones and found objects. The harder it was to obtain a certain material, or the more skill and craftsmanship went into its transformation, the higher the object was prized as a result of its increased perceived value. The determining principles of ‘value’ thus not only seem to have rested on the material and quality of the object in question, but also on its diverse social, political, economic and cultural significances – a phenomenon which has not changed to this present day.
“In thinking about currency and [applied] art3 one immediately hits issues like value, price, reliability, confidence, agreement [and] verifiability. (…) What is it we rely on just at the moment the price is fixed: On fashion? On Zeitgeist? On taste? Who fixes the rate?” (Dewald, G. 2010. Currencies and valencies, p 174). Dewald raises a few pertinent questions in terms of value from the buyer’s side, but what about value as perceived by the artist? As a contemporary jeweller, for instance, I attach more value to concept, self-reflexivity5, novelty, technical skill, manual labour, emotional and physical investment, self expression and personal authenticity than I do to the market and/or perceived value of gemstones and precious metals, mass production, (brand) image and socio-commercial (aesthetic) preconceptions surrounding jewellery.
Whilst the above is a comfortable ‘justification’ for my perception of value in relation to my own work, it is not at all without its problems. Firstly, it usually puts me in opposition to the buyer’s beliefs, often translating into a fairly irrevocable lack of common ground6. Secondly, where does it leave the highly prized act of self-reflexivity?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘currency’ as “the fact or quality of being current, prevalent, or generally reported and accepted among mankind” (Lignel, B. 2010. Now and never: the currency of contemporary jewellery, p 257). Whilst the value of an object supposedly grows with increasing rarity of the object in question, the latter does need to be “effective as a cultural phenomenon”, or possess some “cultural relevance” before it can be widely associated with value in the first place (Lignel, B. 2010. Now and never: the currency of contemporary jewellery, p 258). The interaction between contemporary jewellery and culture can perhaps be expressed by the following graph:
Currently, contemporary jewellery is mostly found on the extreme side of the art axis and is often understood as an insular “fringe culture”, a rather legitimate classification which stems directly (and amongst others) from the field’s practitioners’ belief systems surrounding value, including my own. Contemporary jewellers often seem to stand in their own way when it comes to gaining cultural prevalence or currency for their work, and thus when it comes to finding common ground with a wider audience when it comes to value.
One way in which the field of contemporary jewellery negates its own cultural prevalence is by forming a small, inwardly-focused, tightly-knit community of like-minded individuals. Very few “uninitiated” individuals are aware of and familiar with the concept of contemporary jewellery, not even to mention its objectives, aspirations, challenges, means, practices and thought-leaders. A second method for self-exclusion can be found in the prevalent practical outcomes of putting concept and self-expression first and foremost: contemporary jewellery pieces are often not wearable. Rather, they form a “class of objects that are non-functional yet body-related, poised between the social and the intimate” (Lignel, B. 2010. Now and never: the currency of contemporary jewellery, p 279).
Due to the limited scope of this text it will have to suffice to allude to a probable remedy for the dilemma mentioned above: Contemporary jewellers perhaps will have to find a careful balance between their own (academic) value system, and the (cultural) value system of the wider audience they ultimately wish to access. By consciously embracing the current impasse as a challenge, artist jewellers might rise to the occasion and take their field’s richness and potential into a more cultural domain without contradicting themselves, thus maybe achieving more in terms of challenging the (stifling) preconceptions, assumptions and belief systems often associated with conventional jewellery.
Gabriel Craig, a Detroit based metal smith, writer and activist suggests along similar lines that by being self-critical, and at the same time deliberately approaching and engaging a wider non-specialized audience, artist jewellers might find a way forward. Becoming increasingly frustrated with the insular nature of contemporary jewellery, Craig poignantly reacts to the field’s impasse, whilst at the same time eloquently summarizing its core constituents in a performance piece as part of his Narcissist series (http://gabrielcraigmetalsmith.com/index.php/project/narcissist/ [26/02/2013]). Perhaps this tongue-and-cheek presentation can open up new ways and means to prevent contemporary jewellery from becoming relevant only to its makers: http://vimeo.com/31733576
1. ‘Contemporary jewellery’ refers to individual, often conceptual and/or provocative pieces conceived and created by non-commercial jewellers and/or studios. Contemporary jewellery usually bears little resemblance to high-end, street- or costume jewellery and seeks to establish its own distinctive niche. In terms of looking into the question of value and currency in relation to contemporary jewellery, I also need to point out that this short text by no means offers any definitive answers, nor does it represent the full extent of the matter to be discussed.
2. In: Gaspar, M. & Dewald, G. (ed.). 2010. Currency – papers and exhibitions. Think Tank – A European initiative for the applied arts: Gmunden.
3. ’Applied art’, a term increasingly used in Europe, refers to fields such as ceramics, textile design and jewellery.
4. In: Gaspar, M. & Dewald, G. (ed.). 2010. Currency – papers and exhibitions. Think Tank – A European initiative for the applied arts: Gmunden.
5. ’Self-reflexivity’ refers to the rigorous and very critical evaluation of one’s own beliefs and actions within the creative practice, and is especially prized within the academic realm of contemporary jewellery.
6. The underlying assumptions here are twofold: Firstly, I presuppose that in most cases the wearing of jewellery is preceded by the procurement thereof. Secondly, I assume that all jewellers, author-, contemporary- or otherwise, ultimately create their pieces for another human being/body. Jewellery’s essence is fundamentally related to the body, meaning that the creation of jewellery which will not/is not/cannot be worn is ultimately a self-defeating exercise.
7. In: Gaspar, M. & Dewald, G. (ed.). 2010. Currency – papers and exhibitions. Think Tank – A European initiative for the applied arts: Gmunden.
8. In: Gaspar, M. & Dewald, G. (ed.). 2010. Currency – papers and exhibitions. Think Tank – A European initiative for the applied arts: Gmunden.
9. In: Gaspar, M. & Dewald, G. (ed.). 2010. Currency – papers and exhibitions. Think Tank – A European initiative for the applied arts: Gmunden.