The Genteel
April 22, 2021


Tiffany Parb's Blister-ring, source:
gold makes you blind.

Anthropological evidence suggests that a key event in our evolutionary progression was when our ancestors started wearing personal adornments around 80,000 years ago. Since then, jewellery has been an integral aesthetic symbol of status and affluence within cultures around the world. The jewels you prefer, the carats of your gold and the number of rings on your fingers are often telling of one's socio-economic profile in society.

But amidst the usual flux of art and fashion, the contemporary jewellery movement of the 1970s to the 1990s grappled with the very cultural parameters that bore it. The existential focus of jewellery contemporaries in London, Amsterdam and Munich, made way for a practice disassociated with material "preciousness," aestheticism and, in many cases, wearability, instead pursuing meaning and personal connection in jewellery design. In disbanding traditional methods and materials, the highly conceptual pieces produced by new age jewellers have challenged the way jewellery is perceived and worn.

However, the initial departure from grandiose trends began more than 100 years earlier. "It was Queen Victoria who changed the sense of what jewellery was for. She insisted on everyone wearing mourning jewellery when she was mourning Prince Albert," explains jeweller and curator of the London Design Museum's exhibition, Unexpected Pleasures, Dr. Susan Cohn.

One of Kunzil's most famous works, Gold Makes You Blind, consists of an 18K gold nugget encased in a black, rubber bracelet.

Dr. Cohn's exhibit narrates contemporary jewellery from three distinct perspectives: Worn Out - "celebrating the experience of wearing jewellery"; Linking Links - "the ways in which meaning and narratives are expressed in jewellery"; and A Fine Line - "insights into the origins of contemporary jewellery today." Under these banners, Cohn has explored contemporary jewellery design from the prospective of the maker and the wearer and has drawn together key themes underpinning the movement. "The exhibition is an overview; it celebrates all the ideas within contemporary jewellery from the beginning of the movement up to the present day," she says.

Cohn has curated an endearing juxtaposition of the "ordinary" and the "extraordinary" within the 186-piece show, including the wearable and the not-so-wearable. "I think that when contemporary jewellers were starting, they wanted to draw attention back to the fact that pieces didn't all need to be very small and wearable," she surmises. Reflecting her sentiments is one of the 126 jewellers on display, renowned practitioner Otto Kunzil. When questioned if he wanted his jewellery to be worn, or whether he was more invested in the concept, Kunzil responded, "Naturally, but the question of wearability is not in the foreground." 

The Swiss jeweller and professor has been challenging the traditional role of jewellery through his controversial, yet influential designs, since the 1980s. One of Kunzil's most famous works, Gold Makes You Blind, consists of an 18K gold nugget encased in a black, rubber bracelet. Exemplifying notions of contemporary practice, the invisibility of the gold calls into question the value of the bracelet, as the audience must "blindly" accept the gold exists within, and value it, in spite of its invisibility. For Kunzil, he creates his pieces with varying degrees of artistic direction, "One piece may be self explanatory, another one encoded, ambiguous and complex. It leaves some [audiences] cold, others are moved to tears; for a third they are 'think pieces' and the last ones simply enjoy them."

Carrying Device for Goose Eggs.

Contemporary jewellery occasionally draws parallels with costume and fine jewellery, at least at face value. Daphne Guinness' revered Shaun Leane-commissioned diamond glove even found itself on display - albeit at New York's Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. But Dr. Cohn believes the distinction between the three realms, lies in storytelling. "There is a level of humour and experimentation that runs through all contemporary jewellery that you might not necessarily find in the other strands." 

Within the jewellery biosphere on display at the Design Museum, the avant-garde extremes of the movement are kitsch, humorous and provoking. On one side of the contemporary spectrum is Nordic "jewellery engineer" and 2012 Soderberg Prize for design winner, Sigurd Bronger's, Carrying Device for Goose Eggs. The eclectic ring emphasises his enthusiasm for producing intricate works, influenced by his love of mechanical and industrial design. Tiffany Parb's Blister-ring, which emulates a blister, is contrary in all regards to the glistening beauty of jewellery from prior periods. However, more serious works, including Shari Pierce's 34 Sexual Offenders and 2 Sexual Predators from Within a 5 Mile Radius remind viewers just how diverse the essence of the contemporary movement is; both in method and substance.

Queen Victoria may have changed Western jewellery preferences, but the contemporary movement has changed the way we perceive adorning ourselves. In changing the function of jewellery, we are also testing our instinctual preferences. Jewellery has surpassed being a purely superficial display to become an important mode of self-expression. And, whilst contemporary jewellery is currently making a statement within galleries and niche circles, perhaps it won’t be long before our everyday jewellery also tells a tale.



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