A Chronologic Vision of Contemporary Jewelry in China. From 1956 to 2020. A Research by Ray Zheng

Published: 24.02.2021
A Chronologic Vision of Contemporary Jewelry in China. From 1956 to 2020. A Research by Ray Zheng.
Ray Zheng
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Jing He. Bracelet: Attachments– Malaysian Jade, 2014. Readymade (Malaysian jade bangle, jewel box, price tag, certificate), pigment.. Jing He
Bracelet: Attachments– Malaysian Jade, 2014
Readymade (Malaysian jade bangle, jewel box, price tag, certificate), pigment.
© By the author. Read Copyright.

The aim of this research, firstly, is about emphasizing domestic culture: the sedimentation of Chinese traditional metal craft techniques is where the growth of Chinese contemporary jewelry relies on.

This article is a result of the research by Ray Zheng, as the outcome of the internship with Klimt02. This research is based on a timeline of jewellery in China in a political and social context.

The idea of the research is to understand why showed up and how developed contemporary jewellery related to the social, political and artistic context. The research outcome includes an article, a chronology timeline, as well as selected and cataloged jewels. This internship practice is proposed, guided by Klimt02. The copyright of the internship outcome is shared by Ray Zheng and Klimt02.

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This chronology documents the history of contemporary jewelry in China, in the period from 10 years before the Culture Revolution (1956) to 2020, from its genesis built upon metal crafting to its emergence and development. It does not cover the contemporary jewelry art that happened in Hong Kong and Taiwan since the contexts of culture and history are different from the mainland. The research is processed by means of collecting and arranging information about related publications, exhibitions, and interviews including jewelers returned from abroad. The aim of this research, firstly, is about emphasizing domestic culture: the sedimentation of Chinese traditional metal craft techniques is where the growth of Chinese contemporary jewelry relies on. Those utterances of roots have been keeping modest in the past but also gradually crowded by the glut of new information nowadays. At the same time, more thought-provoking artworks should be seen as models of practices so as to the young blood joining. Klimt02 brought me to this thesis by imparting broad platforms of resources, which inspired me as a speaker and also a jewelry maker to devote to the care of traditions, culture, society, and individuals, to bring awareness of how and why that we create to the public and also to ourselves.

From the Past to Present
When I tried to look back and probe the history, the fact that both the information and the conceptual idea of contemporary jewelry conveys through individuals can be perceived. After experiencing the Agrarian Reform and Cultural Revolution (1950s-1970s), jewelry encountered capitalist social regulations and was considered a luxury outcome. Not only that jewelry products were hardly worn but also metal crafts were manufactured in the interest of exportation. Until Reform and Opening-up was initiated by Xiaoping Deng in 1978, the global jewelry market began settling in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

Painting: Bloodline - Big Family, Xiaogang Zhang, 1995.

Affected by Art Deco style which led by the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts, the participation of jewelry in academics was in the late 80s. Jiaying Sun and Xuxiang Tang were the first pioneers who interrogated the ornamentality and practicality of Chinese jewelry. In 1993, the first creative jewelry design course detached from the domination of market demands was established by Xuxiang Tang in Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology (under the major of Decorative Art and Design). And after 2000, jewelry design courses and majors were constantly established in other design universities. With the guidance of artists Xiao Lu, Fei Teng, Xin Guo, Kezhen Wang, Zhenghong Wang in the academic field, more young participants got engaged. Jewelry art pieces gradually showed up in the national art exhibition. It is clear that most pioneers had the experience of studying abroad, including Xuxiang Tang, who brought the latest concept influenced by fledged contemporary art from western countries and invested in education, which dissociated jewelry design from standardization.

Rings: Dialogues and Monologues by Fei Teng, 2004. Silver, pearls. First prize of the 10th National Fine Arts Exhibition, China.

In 2004, Belgian artist Max Laurent De Cock was invited by Jun Hu to Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology to set up a workshop entitled "Titanium", which was the first time that the concept of contemporary jewelry was officially brought to China, but its influence was relatively in a small range. After 2005, the vigorous development of the 798 Art District and the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 enhanced the activity of contemporary jewelry and brought on frequent interactions, such as international exchange programs, exhibitions among colleges, and solo exhibitions. In 2012, UBI Gallery, the first contemporary jewelry gallery, was established in Beijing by Machtelt Schelling, a diplomat of the Dutch Embassy. In the same year, the Central Academy of Fine Arts launched the first large-scale exhibition "10years-Re" with a clear theme of contemporary jewelry.

From 2013 to 2019, Beijing International Jewelry Exhibition, International Contemporary Jewelry, and Metal Arts Triennial, Triple Parade Biennale were successively launched. Also, 3W Gallery / Studio, Ruddy Metal Studio (by Dandan Xing), Vonmo studio (by Felicia Li), The Closer Gallery (by Xiao Liang), and other jewelry studios and galleries have been established in main cities across the country, which were attracting international artists for holding seminars and forums. Online platforms and publications that came up in this period enriched the content of contemporary jewelry to a greater extent. The creativity contents, additionally, were also updated with the times due to the interactive events during 6 years. More artists combined contemporary jewelry with fashion, installation art, performance art, and edible design, such as YDMD Studio, Mian Wu, and Yonghui Duan. Comparably, there are also artists such as Yi Zhao, Sang Li, Herman Sun, Yanli Duan, who uphold aspirations and adhere to the significance of traditional craft culture and art. In other words, the formats became diverse. In 2020, the Pandemic halted the outdoor operations of studios, yet online exhibitions like Person-to-Person Transmission(RMS) followed, which provided a new perspective for makers.

Exhibiiton Setting by Zixin Wei at The Closer Gallery, Beijing, 2020.

Critical Views
Through the timeline, the whole process can be counted by less than 20 years. Compared with the contemporary jewelry movement worldwide, its achievements were relatively few and immature. Although the original intention was to confront the detailed style from previous, it is in a smaller range,  smoother, and still in a period of personalizing. On the opposite, it is less popular, speaks for less public, and its operating space is mainly academic. There are few influences made by pop culture and social politics that can be found in its development except scientific and technological progress.

One controversy over Chinese contemporary jewelry is about Is it created without catching origins as it is a concept in-flowed from overseas? Ruudt Peters mentioned it in 2015: Now I see some people who really can make an independent step. They go into their belly. They do have their introspective ways of thinking. Felicia Li thinks differently in the interview: To be honest, the development of contemporary jewelry in China in the past five years has been slightly deformed. Exhibitions were ‘collaged’ and concentrated in universities, which is somewhat out of touch with nowadays culture and society. Craftsmanship and design or concepts are always separated. There are excellent folk artists and true masters who to worthily learn from. It is necessary to find a direction then precipitate for a long time before making something truly meaningful and valuable. It requires practice and time. Kellie Riggs wrote in the review for Body Alchemy: A shorter history doesn’t necessarily make the work any less relevant. Maybe “we” just don’t yet know how to see it, and paying attention includes trying to empathize with cultures far away from what’s familiar or more accessible. We have to hold on to the fact that contemporary jewelry is academic, yes, but nothing without recognizing individual culture or identity.
Object: Gold Pendant—Bra used by female workers in jewelry factory contain 0.07 g gold by Mian Wu, 2015. Gloves, brass, silver. 14 x 14 x 3 cm. From series: Gold Jewelry.

Notes on the research process:
At the beginning of disseminating globalization, very few resources of contemporary jewelry were finely recorded on the internet, and the publications are only accessible domestically, which in a way caused difficulties in doing the research overseas. Also, the echos of traditions and social context in Chinese contemporary jewelry including public commentaries and arguments can only be known by consulting the presents. Fortunately, the professors, curators in the field have lent me great help. They portrayed the pass with their own voice, indicated the importance of traditional substratum, names that would have been mentioned in art and craft. It all genuinely consists of the efforts that artists have made and the expectations for the future of contemporary jewelry. Besides, Book Chinese Contemporary Jewelry Design and Contemporary Chinese Art respectively compiled by Bifei Cao and Wu Hung, provided abundant references for this research.

In addition, some visual documents of Xuxiang Tang, Ningxing Zou, Jiaying Sun, and many other pioneers are meager. But the efforts and achievements that they have made should be emphasized with respect. I appreciate the help from great artists Jun Hu, Yonghe Fu, Yi Zhao, and Felicia Li.

About the author

Ray Zheng,
Jewelry designer and researcher. Born in 1997 in Urumqi, China. Completed BA at Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology of Jewelry Design and came to Goldsmiths, University of London in 2019. She understands jewelry as a comprehensive formulation of body/individual expression that questions value, needs, obsessions and survival. She gets gravitated by design methods like sensing, storytelling, use of actions, materials, moving towards something bigger as social-politics, traditions and also looking for more possibilities of jewelry through observing and making.