Traditions for Today
Contemporary jewellery in the South
By Kevin Murray
Joyaviva is an exhibition of ‘live jewellery’. Each of the objects you see on display has its own life as a device for sharing hopes and fears. They have been carefully designed and made by a new wave of jewellers whose focus is the world outside the gallery. Each object functions as a witness that links people together, transforming private wishes into shared stories.
Joyaviva aspires to continue the story of contemporary jewellery. The field of jewellery as an art form emerged in post-war Europe with ‘critique of preciousness’ as its modus vivendi. Jewellers in Britain, Netherlands and Germany sought a means of expression that was free from the mere monetary value of materials like gold and silver. This was not only a matter of artistic freedom, there was also a democratic project to change the function of jewellery. Rather than distinguish elites from masses, jewellery could be a form of popular enjoyment that responds to universal desires. A signature piece in this cause is the 1997 Queens series of necklaces by Gijs Bakker, made from laminated photographs of royal jewels, thus mocking their pretension.
In the second half of the 20th century, the critique of preciousness was pursued largely through work that was made for exhibition and photographed for catalogues and magazines. While great works of originality and intelligence were produced, it presupposed that meaning was effectively frozen at the opening of the exhibition. This cut contemporary jewellery off from an essential source of value – the adventure of its life in the world. The reason often given for this closure concerned artistic expression. Given that jewellery artists would have no control over what happens with their work once it leaves the gallery, this space was therefore seen to have little relevance to the creative process.
The effect of this closure is to define contemporary jewellery exclusively as art. But jewellery can be more than art. Dutch writer Liesbeth den Besten characterises what she calls ‘author jewellery’ as ‘something in between – sometimes inclined to art, sometimes to design.’1
design pertains directly to the way jewellery operates in everyday life. As Melbourne jeweller Susan Cohn writes,Contemporary jewellers have rarely explored the multivocal quality of the jewellery object and its capacity to acquire meaning and value through circulation amongst givers and wearers. Renewal of jewellery practice and identity could emerge from renewed engagement in the interaction between makers, wearers, audiences and jewellery-objects.2‘Live jewellery’ does not de-value the contribution of the maker. It broadens contemporary jewellery beyond personal art to include social design. The focus extends from the inner world of the bench to the life of the street. The task is not just to produce an original work of art, but to develop an object that can attach itself to many lives. It is a challenge just as meaningful and creative as artistic expression.
This broadening has a particular relevance to where jewellery is made. The origins of contemporary jewellery are centred in Europe, particularly Munich. Those living in distant places without the same depth of metalsmithing tradition find themselves in the position of catching up with the centre. To avoid being derivative, some have tried to find their own expression in place, featuring local natural materials such as opal, pounamu or lapis lazuli. Occasionally, there have been attempts to connect with the cultures of the region, such as the New Guinea influence in Peter Tully’s urban tribalism of the mid-1970s. Antipodean jewellery has the potential to combine the metal traditions of Europe with the folk customs and legends of the South.
In world politics, Western centres are losing their hold. According to IMF forecasts, China is expected to be the world’s largest economy by 2016. To maintain its vibrancy, contemporary jewellery needs to engage with cultures not previously included. Fortunately, the critique of preciousness gives contemporary jewellery a democratic logic that keeps the door open to newcomers. Australia and New Zealand look increasingly not only to Europe but also to Asia, Africa and Latin America. Within this, the Pacific axis of Australia-New Zealand-Latin America provides a particularly dynamic vector for body ornament. It includes the new itinerant Australian urban jewellers, New Zealanders working with a Maori respect for objects and Latin Americans drawing on the folk belief in miracles through amulets. Joyaviva paddles out on its surfboard, readying for a new wave of jewellery across the Pacific.
So, what’s in it for the wearer? Broadening the base of contemporary jewellery has the potential to re-connect with its function in helping people navigate through their lives. This is particularly the case with its primary use as an amulet to protect us against evil. But is this still necessary? Do we want to return to the ‘dark ages’ of magic and superstition?
It would be nice to believe that our fate could be controlled by ‘rational’ forces, like technology. But we know that no matter how sophisticated our devices, as they say, ‘shit happens’. This vulnerability is what links us together. And luck is the precious currency on which we speculate every day.
Much of Joyaviva is situated around the ‘ring of fire’ – the arc of geography especially prone to earthquakes. Some of the jewellers have responded directly to the needs of survivors to reconstruct their confidence in the land on which they live. This follows the Chile earthquake and tsunami of 27 February 2010 and the series of devastating earthquakes that have affected Christchurch in 2011. Stories that surface after disasters are filled with reports of luck, like the designer reflecting on a client who arrived early for an appointment in Christchurch, enabling occupants to escape injury from a building collapse – ‘Every day since then I’ve thought to myself how lucky we were.’3
Others respond to the more everyday occasions when we want to give moral support to another. We still send loved ones in hospitals our tokens of support, even though they have all the medical services they need. And still, the farewell that begins ‘Good luck with…’ is one of the most common expressions we exchange with each other. You can still subscribe to luck, without necessarily believing in it.
There is a dimension to luck which goes beyond social convention. It is relatively uncontroversial to argue that belief can affect our performance. Recent experiments have proven that placebos can be as effective as real medication, even when patients are aware they are taking sugar pills. Another study demonstrated that when given a ‘lucky ball’, the scores of golfers improved significantly. As the Australian poet Ern Malley writes, ‘The emotions are not skilled workers.’
But the jewellers in Joyaviva are particularly focused on the role of the object in building relations between people. Luck is a useful commodity for social relations. It’s the things we can’t control that define our common humanity. Without them, we’d have no stories to share. Everything would run like clockwork. The true power of objects such as charms, amulets and talismans is not based in any supernatural forces. They enable us to share what are otherwise private hopes and fears. To give someone a charm is a social contract. When you receive it, you invite the giver to inquire later about
your fortune. ‘So, did it work? Was it lucky for you?’
The positive social value of amulets has particular importance for the Mexican jewellers in Joyaviva. Offering symbolic protection provides an important counterpoint to the violence that otherwise causes mistrust and fragmentation in a community. They show how the newly emerging field of contemporary jewellery in Latin America can introduce innovation into folk traditions, keeping them alive today’s world. This is an important contribution not only to their own culture but also to the international scene of contemporary jewellery.
Not all works in Joyaviva are charms. The taonga of Maori culture refer to objects whose power is more about the honour that links generations than it is about individual fate. What the works in this exhibition share is a capacity to objectify otherwise invisible bonds between people and groups.
Joyaviva is a space to help recover these social objects from our otherwise technocratic world, leached of texture and flattened in form. Along the way, it hopefully stakes out a new space for contemporary jewellery practice as a form of social design.If you like what you see and read, then inquire about how you might acquire one of these objects yourself. Give one to a friend and see how it can wrest order out of chaos, or perhaps even introduce welcome chaos to a suffocating order.
 If you want to follow this up, Roger Keesing has an interesting discussion about luck as an example of an ‘unloaded’ belief, similar to a notion that the sun ‘rises’ in the morning (Roger Keesing ‘Conventional Metaphors and Anthropological Metaphysics: The Problematic of Cultural Translation’ Journal of Anthropological Research (1985) 41: 2, pp. 201-17