Repeat after me

Article  /  DebatesCritical Thinking
Published: 06.10.2008
Repeat after me.
Benjamin Lignel
Edited by:
Metalsmith Magazine
Edited at:
Carole Guinard. Piece: Bijou triple, 1987. Sheet of pre-cut polyethylene. 30 x 30 cm. Ring, bracelet & necklace. Carole Guinard
Piece: Bijou triple, 1987
Sheet of pre-cut polyethylene
30 x 30 cm
Ring, bracelet & necklace
© By the author. Read Copyright.

(...) if an object is good once, it will be good 20 times over, is what fuels this essay. My more seasoned conviction, that contemporary jewelry needs the visibility that editions would provide, also plays a part. (...)
“When Picasso died I read in a magazine that he had made four thousand masterpieces in his lifetime and I thought, “Gee, I could do that in a day.” […] You see, the way I do them, with my technique, I really thought I could do four thousand in a day. And they’d all be masterpieces because they’d all be the same painting.”
- Andy Warhol (1)

Although contemporary studio jewelry persistently uses fine arts as a model in its quest for legitimacy, and has emulated its modes of distribution through galleries ever since it emerged in the 1960s as an independent genre, it continues to entertain an uneasy relationship to serial reproduction. While artists like Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol were happily blowing up the conventional dogma that set apart unique pieces from repeat production, contemporary jewelry artists only gingerly engaged in editions. Jewelers maintain that serial work and mechanical reproduction are antithetical to craft heritage, and that forgoing traditional techniques and uniqueness in favor of more disposable, machine-made products threatens the profession’s raison d’être, the specificity of its “voice.” For the most part, galleries agree, on the principle that if all else fails, (2) making handcrafted one-offs will guarantee an artist recognition from a buying public that is ever ready to equate “original” with “artistic.” My naïve assumption that, if an object is good once, it will be good 20 times over, is what fuels this essay. My more seasoned conviction, that contemporary jewelry needs the visibility that editions would provide, also plays a part.

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a seminal essay written by philosopher Walter Benjamin in 1936, addresses the emergence of film and photography as mass media in the 1920s, and charts in a few luminous paragraphs the challenge that these new media pose to the practice and reception of art in general. The reproduced work of art, he argued, devalues the unique presence of the original and “detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.” (3) Whatever social relevance the original object may have had—“its unique existence at the place where it happens to be”—is “liquidated” by reproductions: as soon as one privileges accessibility and diffusion over the authority of the unique, and copies become independent from the cultural heritage that gave their model currency in the first place.

Of handcrafted objects, it is similarly said that uniqueness fosters contemplation, underlines the object’s singularity (both as a creative product, and as emotional/ritual agent), and validates the romantic notion that a “true” work of art must be made by the artist. In modern society, craft objects are credited with making a valiant last stand against mediocrity in a culture awash with self-similar factory gizmos. 

Cautionary though he is, Benjamin is keen to acknowledge that, “…in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.”(4) The twin notions of proximity and reactivation are fundamental to my argument: they suppose a willingness to meet end users on their territory, and to hand over some of the authority divested from the “original” object.

I suggest, then, that portraying serial work as the anorexic imitation of an original it fails to approximate, completely misses the point. One must design for reproduction. When one approaches reproduction as its own media, exciting precisely because it belongs to, and reflects upon, industrial culture, the negative relationship that binds original and serial copy ceases to exist. As French curator Sylvie Boulanger argued in her recent essay “Publish or Be Damned,” of ephemera designed and given away by artists: “Publishing is not simply using a machine, but engaging with the economy of that machine. Whatever the technique (Xerox, digital, offset…) the media work is immersed in the economy of the production and distribution of that technology.” (5)

Indeed, a few contemporary jewelers have embraced industrial fabrication as a mode of “proliferation,” while others play with the codes of industrial production to question the way we assign value to objects, and make manifest the contradicting agendas of high and low art.
Swiss artist Carole Guinard’s bijou triple exemplifies the “object-as-event” approach. Designed in 1987, bijou triple was conceived as a companion piece to the first Parisian jewelry biennial. A square piece of die-cut polyethylene with detachable, D.I.Y., component parts, it was distributed as an insert to the catalogue. Its purpose, I would argue, was to ‘celebrate the event of its distribution’ (6) with a form both determined by the context of its release and transformed by its consumption. On the one hand, it flaunts the constraints of its mode of distribution (the material and fabrication process are suitably cheap), on the other, it is very much about adornment: a playful take on status-jewelry (specifically, the parure, or set of matched jewels, once popular in
aristocratic circles), the design required hands-on participation from the user that few unique pieces allow. The result is a type of jewelry “flyer”: a quasi-object gambling on its capacity to outlive the moment of its initial encounter with the wearer.

Felix Lindner, from Germany, likes to work with cultural icons, tourists’ trinkets, and toys. While his contemporaries generally avoid references to the vernacular, lest their work be mistaken for high street or “commercial” jewelry, he seems to enjoy the ambiguity and the questions raised by the crossover. Lindner revels, as Warhol did, in culling his material from pedestrian sources—miniature Eiffel towers, toy race cars, or Lego parts—and he does so with irony: his Numero Uno ring, a lost-wax casting produced in an unlimited edition, and described as a signet ring, was “awarded” at Lindner’s degree show to visitors who took the time to look through his portfolio. In effect, Lindner turned the tables on his judges, and neutralized the competition by giving everyone a “first,” while also creating a self- deprecating statement of individuality: seductive because it pokes fun at the consumer’s appetite for unique, distinctive products, which paradoxically require mass exposure to become valid social markers. 

Guinard and Lindner, along with a few others like Ted Noten, Hans Stofer, or Svenja John, understand the relevance of mechanical (re)production as a means to greater diffusion, and as an extension of their creative palette. However, industrial solutions are not within easy reach of most artists. The cost of tooling, and of producing stock in a notoriously small market, can be daunting. Unless editions are commissioned, and their production financed (like Guinard’s piece), that maker may come to regret the time and money spent producing an inventory they find hard to shift.
Indeed, successful edition projects, like design projects, involve a partnership between a maker and a patron or investor. The German artist Svenja John uses Makrolon components in her jewelry: originally hand sawn, some are now cut using water jet technology to speed up the first stage of what is otherwise a very hands-on process. While her modular designs were initially viewed with suspicion by the gallery establishment, the polycarbonate manufacturer welcomed her innovative use of his material and offered her a sponsorship he felt was beneficial to both.
In fact, such a partnership focuses less on material value and traditional craft and more on communication and creativity. The Chi ha Paura? foundation, created by Dutch designer Gijs Bakker and Italian gallery owner Marijke Vallanzasca to produce and promote editions of artist jewelry, write of their “Sense of Wonder” collection: “With this project we want to emphasize new technology's expressive potential […] Whatever the perspective chosen by the designers, the piece of jewelry must be designed as a means of communication. We want to bring about wonder, surprise or amazement in a field, the jewelry field, which is still very classical and traditional.”

For this collection, Frank Tjepkama & Janneke Hooymans submitted BlingBling (2002), a gold-plated pendant in the shape suggestive of a cross, that addresses themes like brand worship, status symbolism, rappers’ bling, and the golden calf, using a jumble of photo-etched logos to capture the cacophony of consumer brand advertisements, vying against one another for a piece of our soul. But most
pertinently, their eloquent use of modern technology engages with contemporary culture and injects a traditional shape with a street savvy that a more craft-based approach may have missed.

More accessible manufacturing processes are gaining ground in colleges worldwide: CAD technology, rapid prototyping, stereo lithography, photo-etching, and electroforming. They are certainly opening new avenues of research for jewelry designers, but it is still unclear whether they will encourage a more open attitude to editioning.

Ultimately, the debate around reproduction is less about processes than territory: will contemporary jewelry lose its specificity by relinquishing craft? In their struggle to find recognition, contemporary jewelers seem to have made two assumptions: First, that contemporary jewelry should speak the language of craft; secondly, that its bid for artistic credibility is incompatible with “non-artistic” modes of production and distribution. Both assumptions set useless limits, and are equally useless as road maps: one is reductive, the other, reactionary. While craft is very much about process, I would argue that contemporary jewelry need not always be. Editions interact with a production world that is alien to craft, and allow us to tackle issues that may not be within the reach of “precious,” anvil-hewn, gallery-bound objects.

In the words of critic Love Jönsson: “The pure, self-referential objects that are elevated above everyday reality, no longer form the natural end goal for the practitioners in either arts or crafts. Today’s crafts are marked by their oscillation between a claim to aesthetic autonomy on the one hand, and an increasingly more complex linkage to the contemporary cultural and commercial system on the other.” (7)

Will mass-produced contemporary jewelry achieve museum-grade credibility? Recent efforts by some makers to adopt gallery codes of conduct insure that it will. But unless jewelry artists concurrently expand their modes of production and reach out to the greater public with affordable work, that enriches their lives with disposable wonders, those museum captions might one day read like epitaphs to an art movement with no circulation.


Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (from A to B and Back Again (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), p.148.

“All else” being the intensely varied repertoire of contemporary jewelers, and their concerted efforts to re-invent jewelry “as they go along.”

This, and the following excerpts are from Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Transcribed by Andy Blunden for the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, in 1998. Original text written in 1936.

His essay points out how photography and film redefined our experience of art by both being readily accessible and “putting the public in the position of the critic.” This foreshadows later artistic forays into participative strategies: moving on from his role as critic, one witnesses the ‘powerful rise of the viewer as co-producer of knowledge’ (Yann Moulier-Boutang, as quoted by Sylvie Boulanger, "Publish or be Damned,", 2005.) An example of this within jewelry is Ted Noten’s ‘Chew your own Brooch’ project (1998).

Sylvie Boulanger, op. cit.

The expression is found in Sylvie Boulanger’s essay. "Publish or be Damned," where she refers to ephemera, i.e. free give-aways designed (and generally produced and distributed) by fine artists.

Love Jönsson, “Life among Things, The Continuous present,” in Craft in Dialogue: Six Views on a Practice in Change, ed. (Stockholm: IASPIS, 2005), p.84 


This article first appeared in Metalsmith, Summer 2008. Metalsmith is published by the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG), the premier association of jewelers, designers and metalsmiths,

Benjamin Lignel ( 1972, France) is a designer of jewelry and furniture. He recently co-founded ‘la Garantie’ an association for the promotion of contemporary jewelry in France and abroad. He works between Paris and London.
Carole Guinard. Piece: Bijou triple, 1987. Sheet of pre-cut polyethylene. 30 x 30 cm. Ring, bracelet & necklace. Carole Guinard
Piece: Bijou triple, 1987
Sheet of pre-cut polyethylene
30 x 30 cm
Ring, bracelet & necklace
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Felix Lindner. Ring: Número uno, 1999. Aluminium, stainless steel. 2,5 x 1,4 cm. Photo: Samantha Font-Sala. Felix Lindner
Ring: Número uno, 1999
Aluminium, stainless steel
2,5 x 1,4 cm
Photo: Samantha Font-Sala
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Felix Lindner. Earrings: Tour Eiffel, 2000. 18K Gold. 4,7 x 1,5 cm. From the New Classics series
. photo: Samantha Font-Sala. Felix Lindner
Earrings: Tour Eiffel, 2000
18K Gold
4,7 x 1,5 cm
From the New Classics series
photo: Samantha Font-Sala
© By the author. Read Copyright.
Frank Tjepkema. Pendant: Bling Bling, 2002. Gold plated stainless steel. 8 x 9 cm. Frank Tjepkema & Janneke Hooyman
. Photo: Tjep.. Frank Tjepkema
Pendant: Bling Bling, 2002
Gold plated stainless steel
8 x 9 cm
Frank Tjepkema & Janneke Hooyman
Photo: Tjep.
© By the author. Read Copyright.