The term ‘contemporary jewellery’ has been used to describe a number of creative strategies, attitudes and ideas in jewellery design for over four decades and still remains a firm favourite amongst practitioners and writers. After the end of the Second World War, cultural and social attitudes began to make an impact on the way in which jewellers approached their designs, creating a contextual backdrop that initiated a new way of thinking. The most notable period of expression and creative exploration, which took place in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s, became known as the New Jewellery Movement. Jewellers began to reject the elitist expressions of the past and instead to define a new concern that allied inexpensive, mass-produced material to a conceptual ideology. The quest for materials and meaning that departed radically from conventional ornamentation and its monetary significance informed the way in which jewellery-making was taught. In the UK, art schools embraced this ethos and a generation of jewellers and their practice became known as contemporary jewellery. Alternative names for the movement in the rest of Europe and America included creation jewellery, art goldsmithing and studio jewellery. Contemporary jewellery as an idiom remains prominent within today’s discourse, outliving the demonstrative stance of the New Jewellery Movement and encompassing the wide range of ideas and ideologies that developed up to the present day.
Exhibitions, conferences and publications offer a disparate array of definitions that aim to dissect jewellery’s ‘contemporary’ label. These indicate that there is a gap or a need to redefine the various classifications that exist within the field, including fine, fashion, costume and commercial jewellery. The need to address the roles of technological development and material investigation, along with the skill-based traditions of the goldsmith is implicit. Events such as 2010’s Gray Area symposium at the Biblioteca de Mexico in Mexico City demonstrate the questions now being asked within the field of jewellery. The symposium’s website introduces the concept of a ‘gray’ (grey) area as a descriptive summary to illustrate contemporary jewellery’s current stance:
Grey area: [grey air-ee-uh] an intermediate area; a topic that is not clearly one thing or the other. A grey area is a term for a border in-between two or more things that is unclearly defined, a border that is hard to define or even impossible to define, or a definition where the distinction border tends to move; something that is open to interpretation (Gray Area symposium 2010).
The grey association here signifies a subject without a clear structure and with an ambiguous identity, and is symbolic of jewellery’s interdisciplinary involvement with a diverse range of subjects, techniques and materials. It chimes with the symposium’s primary aim to provide an interactive platform in which questions can be raised, allowing common concerns within jewellery to be highlighted, rather than placing prominence on conclusions or solutions. The intention is to bridge the gap between makers from across the world and to endorse the relationship between jewellers, researchers, writers and promoters. Questions featured on the Gray Area website include: ‘What is contemporary jewellery?’; ‘What does it mean for different cultures?’ and: ‘Does it really have the powerful force that helps to shape our attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours?’ These questions are fundamental to a contemporary discourse that attempts not only to define jewellery but also to identify its current cultural and social impact: questions that have historically been asked and presented in the work of the individual jeweller. What stands out amongst this critical reflection are questions such as: ‘Is it necessary to redefine the way contemporary jewellery is shown, perceived and consumed?’. This query reveals a new layer to the metaphorical onion that is ‘contemporary jewellery’: demonstrative of an awareness of the audience, whether just to introduce the subject or induce a contributory role within jewellery discourse.
Publications including On Jewellery (Besten 2011) and Thinking Jewellery: on the Way Towards Theory of Jewellery (Lindemann 2011), illustrate the theoretical implications of jewellery’s ‘grey’ period. Both draw on alternative definitions that have gained popularity, such as studio jewellery; art jewellery; author jewellery and auteur jewellery, and are used to grapple with jewellery’s contemporary definition and unified by the engagement with artistic practice in order to provide jewellery with a supportive framework. As a result, there have been a number of autonomous contemporary jewellers that use the gallery space as an investigative area in which to address display methods and the role of the viewer. The theme of collaboration runs through the work of makers including Yuka Oyama, Ted Noten, Suska Mackert, Maisie Broadhead and Naomi Filmer, who use it as a way to engage actively with an audience. These practitioners demonstrate a move towards empowerment of the viewer that relies on audience participation to activate or complete the work. The jeweller facilitates a set of interactions: between work and viewer; amongst audience members; and between jeweller and viewer - by providing a practical environment that invites dialogue and/or physical interaction.
Ted Noten, for example, uses a collaborative approach as a way of exploring new digital technologies and engaging an audience. He is informed by a desire to break away from the traditional gallery route and become an independent curator of his own exhibitions, and has organised events such as TedWalk (2008), which presented his work using live catwalk shows. In 2011, he used taxi drivers as ambassadors of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) in his project Art Rehab, part of the exhibition The Modern Jewel in Time and the Mind of Others. Their cabs became mobile sites for the location of his jewellery in a bid to bridge the gap between the gallery and the outside world (2011). Noten has also developed an interactive website from which his work can be distributed, as well as unusual methods for producing or dispensing his jewellery in a theatrical or symbolic way, such as a robotic arm or vending machine.
In response to the question raised in the 2010 Gray Area Symposium, my own work is designed to practically investigate jewellery and display. This strategy has seen me focusing on visual and auditory methods to make, record and immerse the viewer in jewellery discourse. This is an art-led approach to contemporary jewellery that moves away from making a physical object and looks toward palpable ways of presenting jewellery as a language. The lack of an autonomous object - instead exploring my subject area through photography, audio recording and film - means I no longer describe myself as a jewellery-maker. My practice could easily fall under the definition of curatorial practice and exhibition design. Similarly, I employ both theoretical and practical skills: a strategy that aims to reveal how the display of jewellery can be used both creatively and as a research tool by implementing methods reflective of the creative freedoms seen in art jewellery, but not restricted to the formation of a final piece. Instead, this approach shows the open-ended development of research jewellery: a systematic investigation into and study of materials, techniques and concepts in order to establish ideas or reach new conclusions within the discipline.
A clarion call for improved communication is evident among the varied discourses surrounding the concept of contemporary jewellery. Monica Gaspar says: “the current strategy is to overcome the limited definition of innovation understood as simply a break against a background of a supposed evolution in time” (Gaspar 2007: 15). Gaspar believes that innovation that is based solely on the New Jewellery Movement’s rejection of tradition can limit the ways in which jewellery is explored. Alternatively, she promotes the idea of ‘creating space’ in which to become comfortable, to gain the ability to reflect, and to define and explore the definition of contemporary jewellery. She supports the need to explore different platforms for discussions, including the internet and other forms of public space: showing a desire to reach and engage with a wider audience.
Benjamin Lignel notes contemporary jewellery’s subsidiary connotations and lack of clear definition alongside the arts. He feels that reluctance to devise “assertive promotional strategies” is a cause for concern (Lignel 2006). In a 2010 blog entry ‘CCTV’ he says: “I do not believe that our practice will ever find public recognition unless we cater to people other than ourselves.” His argument is a response to the Gray Area symposium (2010), which asked how contemporary jewellery is presented and discussed with audiences beyond those directly connected to the field. He concludes that such symposiums, conferences and exhibitions provide a creative, discursive and growing platform for discussion, but that this form of discussion has yet to fully reach an outside audience.
Amongst the lack of clear identity and a stretched and overused terminology to encompass all the varying mythologies, ideas and development made with in the field of ‘contemporary jewellery’. It is becoming increasingly evident, as Lignel’s observations suggest, that methods of communication such as display could provide a fresh viewpoint among the continual re-evaluation and re-definition taking place within the contemporary jewellery field. And as a jeweller, although not traditionally defined, I am keen to observe the potential consequence of jewellery’s diversity in order to inform jewellery theory and practice.