Reading jewellery. Comments on narrative jewellery

Article  /  CuratingCritical ThinkingReview
Published: 25.02.2006
Reading jewellery. Comments on narrative jewellery.
Liesbeth den Besten
Edited by:
Kunsthandverk Magazine
Edited at:
Edited on:

Till now, not much attention has been paid to the narrative in jewellery and this is strange. We are living in a culture in which the narrative is omnipresent and jewellery is treated in terms of material, style and concept, not in terms of the process of viewing and interpreting. Looking at jewellery, by describing what you see, is very helpful in getting an understanding of what it could mean. Sight and insight go hand in hand.
The exhibition Maker Wearer Viewer, Contemporary Narrative European Jewellery curated by Jack Cunningham in Glasgow, is as far as I know the first major exhibition about this subject (1). An exhibition showing the work of more than 70 makers, from 20 European countries, has some disadvantages: you can't pay respect to the individual artists when only three pieces of each are shown. Besides that, the concept of the exhibition is rather undefined. In spite of these objections, the exhibition poses some interesting questions. The great diversity forces the beholder to form an opinion about what narrative jewellery is or could be, how does the narrative present itself, as figurative representation? as mimicry? as a symbol?
And how can a jewel, that often has no coherent figurative representation, and do has a decorative function, tell stories? It is especially this last question, that plays an essential role in author-jewellery of today.

The title of the exhibition "Maker - Wearer - Viewer" is puzzling, because there is something essential missing in this line, namely the Message . In the standard communication model we distinguish the Addresser - the Message - and the Addressee. If we consider jewellery, there is a fourth element which complicates the relationship between the Addresser and the Addressee, this is the Wearer. It is good that the title draws our attention to this special feature of jewellery. But it is a pity that the Message is missing in the title, because the exhibition is exactly about the message, or the stories inherent in jewellery. Where should we position this fourth element in the model? Perhaps the best position is between the maker and the wearer, but you can also position it between the wearer and the viewer. After all, the wearer often acts as an intermediary between the maker and the viewer.

Jewellery is quite different from fine art while being mobile, wearable and therefore semantically changing according to the context and conditions under which it is viewed. The wearer is another kind of display, moving and living, a display that can answer and look back, and also a short experienced display because the viewer can't gaze at a brooch that is pinned on a woman's breast. You can't perceive a complicated ornament when the wearer or viewer is just passing by. The process of viewing is very short, the narrative is often beyond reach. Moreover, the message of an experimental contemporary ornament worn on the suit of a man is quite different from the message of the same brooch isolated in a showcase in a gallery or museum. The wearer of jewellery, who dares to wear an outspoken piece of jewellery, also gives him/herself away.

It is clear that this aspect of the shifting of meaning of a piece of jewellery, through its wearability, is not what the Glasgow exhibition is about. A conventional showcase exhibition can not handle this phenomenon. On the other hand the wearer is also the owner of the piece of jewellery, and it is the owner who has the advantage of enjoying the jewellery under the most perfect circumstances, for instance in his own hands. Therefore, in this article I will focus on some pieces of jewellery from the above mentioned exhibition, in the way the owner might do, in order to analyse what narrative jewellery could be.

Till now, not much attention has been paid to the narrative in jewellery and this is strange. We are living in a culture in which the narrative is omnipresent and jewellery is treated in terms of material, style and concept, not in terms of the process of viewing and interpreting. Looking at jewellery, by describing what you see, is very helpful in getting an understanding of what it could mean. Sight and insight go hand in hand.

Theorists like Mieke Bal in her book Looking in - the art of viewing have argued that "viewers bring their own cultural baggage to images". Which actually means that "there can be no such thing as a fixed, predetermined, or unified meaning" (2). Mieke Bal supports her theory by describing and interpreting allegorical paintings of Vermeer and Rembrandt. She talks about the nature of signs having many meanings, because in allegory, the mythical story can refer to something other than itself. Yet she concludes that the production of meaning is not a supplement to the work of art, but that it is something already inscribed in the semiotic status of the work.

It is a misconception that narrative jewellery should be illustrative, like the rather novelistic storytelling that is so characteristic of American jewellery. And narrative doesn't need to be figurative either, as European jewellery proves. The narratives can take on different forms. However, the emphasis in the Maker Wearer Viewer exhibition is on the figurative aspect of jewellery. There are flowers for instance, and birds, and other animals, domestic appliances, tags, human figures etcetera, while these images not necessarily tell stories. A brooch by Grainne Morton (UK) for instance, made from found objects, like buttons, is a rather one-dimensional representation of a flower. Although the flower can be interpreted as a symbol, there is no deeper layer than the surface you are looking at. It is not example of mimicry, nor narrativity, but the play with materials, the elaborated craft of the maker.

Helen Britton's (Germany) brooches however, also representing flowers, offer a totally different story. The flowers and patterns have a computer-designed perfection. Looking at the complicated, interlinking structures with patterns, flowers, circles and ribs standing upright to support another circle, flower or circular pattern, you are looking into a world. A micro-cosmos of constructed metal, plastic and paint that not only reminds us of nature, but also of the constructions and patterns of the big city and of the planets of the universe. This imaginative power, this capability to lure the viewer inside, to open up his/her mind and senses to experiences, dreams, memories, fantasies - perhaps that is what makes a work of art, or a piece of jewellery, narrative. Storytelling in art does not need to be provided as a ready-made tale. As it is in literature and film, the narrative unfolds in different layers, some embedded like the images you see or the words you reed, others attributed to the object, book or movie, like personal meanings and associations.

A brooch by the Barcelonese Ramon Puig Cuyàs presents a more abstract composition, entirely built up from circles. At a first glance it reminds you of an instrument, a compass or another device for travellers. There is an outside silver circle which holds a smaller central circle with the aid of four round clips, leaving room for a narrow open space between them. The centre part has a rim and a sky blue background. On this blue circle eight smaller circles of different sizes and materials are mounted. Some of these, probably made of wood or paper, bear inscribed lines, others are of natural sea materials, like red coral and a fossil. The most central circle is a medallion showing a fragment of a nautical chart and the readable designation "virgen". A strange ball of red and black wire disturbs this kaleidoscopic composition of overlapping circles. Why is it there? It can have different meanings in this assemblage that unites astronomical, nautical and geographical elements. The wire can refer to the cable to moor a ship alongside the quay, but it can also be interpreted as the winding path of the traveller. The brooch may be even read as a chart, every element having a specific place, function and meaning. Be that as it may, this brooch is pervaded with an atmosphere of movement and adventure, imagining a universal desire for new horizons and new coasts.

The jewellery of Manfred Bischoff is a classical example of narrative jewellery, like Ramon Puig Cuyas' jewellery. His imagery is mysterious and poetic, and seems to come from deep inside. The pure yellow gold and the fleshy pink coral, combined with line drawings on paper elaborated with red paint, have an intense power of expression. Not knowing exactly what the artist means, the viewer - and especially the wearer - will sense the drama and at the same time the sensuality of the ornament. Strange animals appear in his work, like embryonic rabbits, or birds, with ears that could be webs and bills that could be tails. One creature in the brooch "Bachelor" is attached to a flat structure that resembles a surfboard: the ultimate accessory for a helpless bird? The title doesn't bring us any further, but the psychological depths are intriguing and appealing - leaving room for the beholder to inscribe his own neuroses and fears.

What I try to show, on the basis of just a few examples, is that the narrative is embedded in a piece of jewellery, while other stories and memories can attributed to it by the viewer. Describing what you perceive is not an objective activity. As Mieke Bal and others have pointed out, perception is a psychosomatic process, dependent on the vision, personality, and cultural background of the one who describes.

Jewellery, through its body relatedness, is a unique phenomenon: it is about aesthetic objects that can be worn close to the body, hold in the hands, and can pervade the mind. This intimacy is more related to poetry, than to the distinguishing powers of commodities like design products, cars, mobiles and other luxuries. As Ramon Puig Cuyas has written about jewellery: "... it can be used to make visible what is invisible, make real what is virtual... Although maintaining the body as a reference, it blurs the limits of its performance framework, so as to face the challenge of adapting the symbolic and spiritual values that have characterised it, since its origins to a society based more on the scientific knowledge than on the myth (3).

© Liesbeth den Besten

Published in the Norwegian magazine Kunsthandverk 2/05, nr. 96, pp. 16 - 21, under the title "A lese smykker - on narrativ smykkekunst".

Touring plan of the exhibition: Mackintosh Gallery/Glasgow School of Art (where the curator Jack Cunningham is a teacher and a PHD researcher in jewellery) 05/03/05 - 12/05/05 ; The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh 01/06/05 - 29/06/05 and Galerie Marzee in Nijmegen 03/10/05 - 24/11/05.


1- There was a previous exhibition about this theme called "Beauty is a Story", organized by Museum Het Kruithuis in 's-Hertogenbosch (The Netherlands) in 1991, showing jewellery of some thirteen American and European artists. The subject was then quite new and got no continuation.
2- Mieke Bal, Norman Bryson, Looking in, the art of viewing, London and New York 2001, reprinted 2004, p. 71
3- Ramon Puig Cuyas, The created jewel, from the exhibition catalogue "Balanced", Barcelona, Antwerpen October 2000