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What does Contemporary Jewellery mean?

Article  /  DebatesCritical Thinking
Published: 17.04.2008
What does Contemporary Jewellery mean?.
Benjamin Lignel
Edited by:
Metalsmith Magazine
Edited at:

Contemporary Jewellery is a type of practice - understood as the contemporary offspring of a craft-based design activity that finds its origin in medieval workshops.
The following question is part of a questionnaire sent by the Italian Association for Contemporary Jewellery [] to its members: Italy and France, whilst boasting a long history in high-end jewellery, by and large remained untouched by the experimental jewellery mouvements of the ‘60s (most active in the US, England, and Holland). Today, the studio Jewellery community in both countries remains small, and I found from experience that the otherwise simple task of defining one’s activity is unexpectedly daunting for us, and continues to fuel many of our conversations.

This is a ‘French’ answer to an Italian question, written in English: a nice metaphor for our international community of gold-tinklers, but one which complicates the task of defining jewellery - the English use alternatively ‘design jewellery’ and ‘contemporary jewellery’, the French may say ‘creation (i.e. creative) jewellery’, the Italians ‘art goldsmithing’, while American readers will prefer ‘art’ or ‘studio jewelry’. Having trained in the UK (and to simplify matters), I used the expression ‘contemporary jewellery’, though, as you will see, I am not at all convinced that it does the profession much justice. 

What does Contemporary Jewellery mean?
Not very much, to anyone outside the profession; but the question is a helpful reminder that:
1/ in most countries, the debate will never find an audience outside the actual community that launched it;
2/ this is a simplistic label, falling short of the profession’s complex heritage and range of interests.
But it’s a tricky one, and I tried to list some of the ways one could answer it:

Contemporary Jewellery is a type of practice - understood as the contemporary offspring of a craft-based design activity that finds its origin in medieval workshops. Such a definition stresses contemporary jewellery’s historical past, and finds antecedents in the British and American Arts & Crafts movements, the renewed late XIXth century interest in manual skills (as a last stand against industrialisation), and the emergence of radical jewellery movements in the 60s: it underlines the notions of individuality, craftsmanship, and its troubled relationship to the production mainstream; 

Or a type of object: poised between high-street jewellery and art (the former’s glorified other, the latter’s poor relative), we know what it’s not (‘just’ manufactured artefacts for wearing), and what it wants to be (the expression of individual talent that reflects on, and sometimes influences, contemporary culture), much less what it is.
A few distinctive characteristics, however, seem to be beyond debate: the human body as a general working area; an open attitude to methods and material that echoes art’s own agenda, complicated by the notion of wearability; the distinctiveness we associate with individual expression; and an emancipation from consumer goods’ vocation to ‘just’ satisfy consumer desires.

It could also be defined as a market (I follow here the argument that cultural artefacts are defined less by methods of production than by distribution, accessibility and ultimately, potential impact on a larger consumer base). In most countries, a limited number of galleries take care of both distribution and promotion - while the designer-maker is expected (if (s)he wants to make a living) to be represented by at least five galleries, and complement consignment sales by direct, off-the-anvil transactions. From my point of view, the Contemporary Jewellery market works in ways similar to the art market, but on a scale so small, that its lack of visibility questions its existence.

So then: most jewellers would agree that Contemporary Jewellery is a fast-evolving profession at a crossroad between craft, design, and art, currently ridged by identity concerns. However, I think that the problem, rather than one of identity, is one of image. Although the lack of an established definition has contributed to an extremely rich range of output -personal answers to a collective question- it seems that diversity stands in the way of a more cohesive front, one that would focus on explaining to people that there is a life after Cartier, Pomellato and Tiffany’s. And the unsuspecting public still lumps the practice together with its craft-based past, judges its production on a par with high-end (or any other) jewellery, and considers artistic ambition rather like a presumptuous fancy (unless one equates ‘artistic’ with ‘skilled’, ‘meaningful’ or ‘committed to self-expression’).

This happens at least for two reasons: 

Firstly, there are not enough of us to rally a larger population to Contemporary Jewellery’s standards: exposure is limited by the output (there are comparatively few jewellery design programs, fewer graduates that stick to the trade, and not many pieces produced per year per jeweller). This scarcity of active jewellery makers is further complicated by our cultural antagonism with serial reproduction -and therefore, bigger distribution (1). A cynical bystander would add: this is a micro-profession, which means little appeal to the press, anaemic cultural budgets, no specific courses in the history of Contemporary Jewellery (to my knowledge), and therefore, no history. As a result, Contemporary Jewellery is always deemed a subsidiary activity, on the margin of mainstream jewellery creation.
Secondly, designer-makers are by nature a/o trade, uncommunicative, or certainly not prone to enthusiastic pamphlet scribbling. Who’s ever heard of Contemporary Jewellery, outside its confidential network of galleries and specialised clientèle?

The situation, and this is my point, demands more than just communication: instead of shunning assertive promotion/information strategies (for fear of contamination?), we must resist inertia from within and without that confine Contemporary Jewellery to its ill-defined (but restricting) marginal position, and explore new means of proliferation.

So we should communicate more. And explain our intentions. But in the end, let us not be too intent on defining our practice as one thing only: if anything, I would even drop the ‘Contemporary’ or ‘Studio’ used to qualify this jewellery: whatever specific meaning it may have had is now superseded by a vague sense of institutionalised ‘otherness’.

Let’s be proud, and call it jewellery.


(1) The dominant discourse by jewellers and gallerists alike tend to equate value with uniqueness. While the argument certainly has weight from a mercantile point of vue, it seems very outdated when applied to artistic value: not only have multiple editions (either executed by fine artists or copied from original work) been produced since the XVth century, as a way to reach a wider audience, but anyone in today’s contemporary art world trying to champion a pre-Warholian superiority of the unique, hand-made piece would be laughed at.


This article first appeared in Metalsmith, Fall 2006. Metalsmith is published by the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG), the premier association of jewelers, designers and metalsmiths,

Photograph of Benjamin Lignel by Baptiste Lignel (Paris)
Benjamin Lignel. Ring: Happy family NHS, 2002. Rubber, gauze, ink. Set of two adhesive rings, edition of 300
. Photograph by Joel Degen (London). Benjamin Lignel
Ring: Happy family NHS, 2002
Rubber, gauze, ink
Set of two adhesive rings, edition of 300
Photograph by Joel Degen (London)
© By the author. Read Copyright.
William Clark. Brooch: Police State badge, 1970-2005. Sterling silver, 10K gold. 5 1/2 inch. Photograph by Richard Matzinger ( William Clark
Brooch: Police State badge, 1970-2005
Sterling silver, 10K gold
5 1/2 inch
Photograph by Richard Matzinger (
© By the author. Read Copyright.