Jorunn Veiteberg
Edited by:
Arnoldsche Art Publishers
Edited at:
Edited on:
Ted Noten. Necklace: Necklace for an Obsessed Ring Lover / My Most Criminal Piece, 2003. 24 k gold plated ready-made tool, steel wire.. 13 x 2.5 x 3 cm Excluding the wire. Photo by: Ted Noten, BONO. Part of: Jorunn Veiteberg Collection. Ted Noten
Necklace: Necklace for an Obsessed Ring Lover / My Most Criminal Piece, 2003
24 k gold plated ready-made tool, steel wire.
13 x 2.5 x 3 cm Excluding the wire
Photo by: Ted Noten, BONO
Part of: Jorunn Veiteberg Collection
© By the author. Read Copyright.

This article is the first chapter of the text My Story included in the book The Jewellery Box by Jorunn Veiteberg, Arnoldsche, Stuttgart, pp. 285-294

I have always collected things. There are those who claim that the urge to collect starts in childhood. I still have albums and boxes full of glossy prints I collected as a young girl in the 1950s and 1960s.
Collecting is a form of practical memory. Walter Benjamin.1

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always found collecting things oddly comforting. […] It makes me happy. Elton John. 2

A bag of choice marbles and seven stamp albums have also survived countless moves, whereas a collection of paper napkins is now lost. As a student, I started collecting postcards of Marilyn Monroe and things that feature the Coca-Cola logo, and not least books and magazines. All these projects came to a halt when I succumbed in earnest to the enchantment of art jewellery. But although I started buying jewellery in my teens, it took a long time before I began to see myself as a collector. For me, jewellery was – and is – first and foremost something to be used. As the years progressed, however, the jewellery accumulated in such quantities that I was forced to confront the question so many people kept asking: Are you a collector?

It has been said that if you have more than three objects in a single category, then you’re a collector. If you have only one version of a thing, it will always seem useful. When you acquire a second version of the same thing, however, one of the two will seem redundant. But this can be changed by acquiring a third version, for then you have the start of a collection.3 This process, whereby one object influences the meaning of others, is something I recognise in the activity of collecting. But many of us own much more than we absolutely need without thinking of our belongings as a collection. So the question is: When does the tendency to accumulate things turn into the activity of collecting? I myself would argue that one can only talk about a collection when the quantity exceeds what can be justified in terms of practical use or what space one has to store it in. As a rule, one only reaches this point after a fairly protracted period. At least, that’s how it was for me. I had been buying jewellery for many years before I began to regard the accumulation as a collection or myself as a collector.

A passion
It was in conjunction with the exhibition These are a few of her favourite things. Jorunn Veiteberg’s jewellery collection at Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum in Trondheim in the autumn of 2018 that I first began to think seriously about what drives some people to become collectors. Beneath the surface was a fear that my own interest in collecting could spiral out of control, possibly leading to financial commitments I couldn’t afford. What I discovered was that much of what is written about collecting is comparable to psychiatric diagnoses. Although I like to think I have my behaviour under control, I recognise in myself many of the traits that characterise more clinical conditions. This is true of the impulse or the supposed need to augment the collection with yet another new object. It is a trait that is central to the collector’s way of thinking. Werner Muensterberger, who has spent many years studying collectors from both anthropological and the psychoanalytical angles, claims that repetition is an essential factor. As he puts it: “Repetition is mandatory.”4 If it were just a matter of acquiring something that brings joy, then one butterfly or one work of art would be enough. Consequently, the constant urge to add new material indicates something happening on a deeper level.

Accordingly, Muensterberger suggests that collecting is a means to cope with inner uncertainty and to curb anxiety and depression.5 The collector often remains unaware of these motivations because they operate on an unconscious level. Muensterberger goes on to say that a common feature of many collectors is a more or less pronounced narcissism. A collection is something that inherently asks to be looked at, and hence it becomes a means to draw attention and to impress others. While I do not reject such psychological explanations, it isn’t exactly pleasing for me to think of my own activities in this light. Even so, the idea that collecting art might help to alleviate depression is easy to grasp. One of the virtues of good art is that it gives to both the soul and the senses. It is not hard either to accept that someone would find satisfaction in the social status that art collecting can bring. It would appear that collecting and self-assertion are two sides of the same coin.

At the same time, it must be said that there is no clear answer to the question of what drives the collector. Is it a kind of mania, addiction or passion? Could collecting be compared to the physical urge to satisfy a craving? Or might it be an expression of the need to take care of things or to own them? Whatever the driving force, collectors often speak of a strong emotional identification with their treasures. Feelings of particular intensity are associated with the moment of acquiring a new object. But the collector is never fully satisfied. If there is one thing I recognise in Muensterberger’s psychological account of collecting it is his description of the restlessness that can only be assuaged by a new discovery.6 It is this that keeps the collector going.

Fortunately, there are different types of collectors. Some are like a bold, voracious lion, others like a wily ferret. What these animal metaphors suggest is that collecting is comparable to a hunt and the collected objects to trophies. For this type of collector, what counts is the actual hunt and not possession. The determination to capture prey can approach madness. The Swedish author Fredrik Sjöberg has written eloquently about the “psycho-pathology of collecting”. But in his international bestseller The Fly Trap, he claims there is a substantial difference between collecting insects and collecting art.7 Even so, I dare say any collector will recognise the passion he describes as fundamental to their activity. It is the equivalent of love. It is this driving force that I too identify with, and many art collectors would say the same. In his own book on collecting art, publisher and adventurer Erling Kagge writes that the first rule for anyone wishing to become a collector is to “be passionate”, because “collecting art is about passion.”8

Some jewellers have acknowledged this passion through their work. In 2003, Dutch artist Ted Noten made “My Most Criminal Piece” [293]. When I bought this neckpiece at Galerie Metal in Copenhagen in 2008, it had a different title: “Necklace for an Obsessed Ring Lover”. The pendant element in this work is a tool used to cut rings off fingers. This is often used by undertakers preparing corpses for burial. The morbid reference in combination with the title appealed to the collector in me. The work plays on a widespread cliché about collectors – that they are the kind of people who would “step over corpses”, i.e. do whatever it takes, to get what they want. The only change Noten has made to the tool is to have it gold plated. This modification changes the object’s status from that of a useful gadget one carries around to that of something that serves as personal adornment. But the gilding is merely camouflage. The tool remains perfectly functional. If the temptation to steal a ring should ever prove irresistible, I dare say this jewellery would still function as intended.

Nevertheless, I would argue that for most collectors the act of collecting is a matter of pleasure more than madness. If the film star Elizabeth Taylor hadn’t already used the title My Love Affair with Jewelry, I would have considered it for this book. Even for her, or so she tells us, jewellery featuring magnificent, rare diamonds had more to do with love than trophy hunting.9 In presenting her book, she writes: “Here, in my own words and as I remember them, are my cherished stories about a lifetime of fun and love and laughter.”10 The joy she captures here is one I too have known. For me collecting has been an activity I equate first and foremost with happiness. On buying a new object, my primary emotion is elation and the immediate impulse is to share the experience with others and to show off my latest acquisition. This exhibitionist aspect of collecting is perhaps especially pronounced in collectors of jewellery. And not least if the collector is also a wearer of jewellery – as I am.

Thanks for the memory
In the literature on collecting, one often reads that for the collector the utility and usefulness of the objects she collects is immaterial. In other aspects of life, it is important that things perform the functions for which they were designed. But in the case of objects that are deliberately collected, they become detached from this utility requirement. Nowhere is this view better expressed than in the work of the philosopher Walter Benjamin. Written between 1927 and 1940, his Passagenwerk, posthumously published in English as The Arcades Project, includes a text about the collector. In this he writes: “What is decisive in collecting is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind. This relation is the diametric opposite of any utility.”11 Instead, the collection becomes its own universe, one in which the objects it comprises enter into dialogue with each other. The crucial factor is that they all belong to this one entity – the collection. This I can confirm from my own experience. Once I began to think of myself as a collector of art jewellery, it became irrelevant whether or not the jewellery was capable of being worn or whether it was practical. Instead, I began buying jewellery on the basis of certain themes or jewellery whose component materials expressed values that matter to me or which I felt had a place in my particular collection for some other reason.

It is interesting to note that, for a Marxist, Benjamin also wrote eloquently about the magic of owning things. On the one hand, he views the collector as a victim of the commodity fetishisation that characterises modern capitalism. On the other, the collector represents a form of opposition to consumer society, because, for the collector, objects are more than just a commodity with the potential to be exchanged for others. In a collection, each object becomes irreplaceable, with its own identity and history. Its story is personal: Where was the item bought, and when? Who was one with? Where was one living, and how did one feel at the time? And so on. But it is also objective: Where was the object made? By whom? What motivated the maker to make it? What defines it? And so forth. “Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property. The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership – for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.”12 This quote is from Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library. A Talk about Book Collecting,” originally written in 1931, a text in which he describes how the reunion with his books reawakens old memories.13 Thus he establishes a link between collecting and remembering. So for the collector, Benjamin claims, owning represents the deepest relationship one can have to things, because it involves inhabiting them.14 It is this dimension of collecting that I identify with most strongly. Built up over a long time, a collection becomes a witness to one’s life. My jewellery has become part of my biography. It captures stories of journeys and meetings with people and places. It is a record of different phases of life, a set of symbols for events large and small that I have experienced. Consequently, what makes a piece of jewellery valuable to me is something very different from its commercial or material value. Moreover, what it symbolises for me generally has little to do with the original intention of the goldsmith or jewellery artist in making that work. Items of traditional jewellery often transport emotions more readily than other genres, because they tend to be associated with important rites of passage, such as baptism, confirmation and marriage.

Among so much else, my jewellery box contains my parents’ wedding rings. They stayed together to the end of their days and never removed these simple, thin gold
rings. I have also preserved the gold rings from my own first marriage and the wedding ring of the ex-wife of another former partner. Sometimes I take them out and think about all the conflicting emotions that are gathered within them. Few have written more eloquently about the importance of objects as vehicles of memory and for the projection of
dreams and emotions than the author Orhan Pamuk. He has even set up a museum in Istanbul dedicated to the phenomenon. The Museum of Innocence is based on his novel of the same title. For the narrator in the novel, who also provides a narrative framework for the museum, neither the world nor his own life would have any meaning without these objects.15 For the collector, it is the secrets that accumulate in things that explain their enduring fascination.

One of the essential virtues of jewellery and other collectibles is that they help me to keep hold of memories. How trustworthy these memories are is always open to debate. Memory exists in the moment. Generally, it is only in retrospect that we see patterns and create meanings, and I am aware that memories do not always reliably reflect the truth. Even so, I wish to insist on the cultural value of things as vehicles for both memory and facts. A pair of metal earrings that look like the cut-out lids of tin cans will serve as an example [480]. I bought them in a hurry at a street market in London on 23 November 1985, just a few hours before I was due to show the Norwegian Crown Prince and Crown Princess around the exhibition Art in Norway Today at the Royal College of Art. The earrings not only remind me of all the curatorial work on this exhibition and all the festive formalities that accompanied it, they also encapsulate my own little protest against all the snobbery of the occasion. They represent my personal values and norms at the time, and, in this sense, the objects in my collection help to define the sense of meaning in my life.
As a medium for memory, my jewellery plays both a descriptive and a revelatory role in the current attempt to recreate the period in which each item was made and how I have used it. At the same time, these memories have helped to shape and influence my own story of who I am. As the historian Ingar Kaldal has pointed out, the act of communicating a memory can in itself play a part in the process of creating, defending and changing not just norms and values but also behaviours, practices and life.16

[480]: Unknown, GB. Earrings, 1985. Tin, 7.5 x 7.8 cm

A study
In the 19th century, museums were not open to the general public as they are today. One thing they offered in compensation, however, was that they allowed bourgeois visitors to study objects up close and even to handle them. Today this is the prerogative of staff and researchers alone. Although many museums hold what they call study collections – accumulations of numerous similar objects from which one can draw inferences about historical lines of development and stylistic variations – these objects are almost always kept under glass and hence inaccessible to close scrutiny. Consequently I have often thought of my own collection as a kind of private study collection. In having jewellery close to hand, I can fetch out pieces whenever I please. I can turn them over, feel their heft and texture, study signatures and hallmarks with a magnifying glass and get a sense of what it means to wear them.

“Collectors are beings with tactile instincts,” Benjamin tells us.17 For the collector, it is not enough just to look; she also needs to touch things. Few exhibitions make concessions to collectors in this respect. Not only do most of them prioritise the sense of sight, they also come with the injunction “Do Not Touch”. Whether shown in a gallery or a museum, jewellery is usually displayed on pedestals or in showcases. Such devices might raise things to eye level, but they also place them out of reach. Ropes, lines and other markings in the exhibition space constitute other kinds of barriers, either imaginary or physical. And we are all familiar with the alarms that start screeching the moment we get too close or the guards who rush forward if we stretch out a hand in order to stroke an attractive surface. All these measures serve to underline what every Norwegian child learns from the song by Margrethe Munthe: “Bare se, men ikke røre!” (Look, but don’t touch!).

I have nothing against showcases that isolate, enhance and create an exclusive space around jewellery. They highlight the fact that we are dealing with valuable and often delicate objects. But for most jewellery, this is an unfortunate form of presentation. The reason being that jewellery is made to be touched as much as seen. Most discussions about handmade objects stress this tactile aspect as crucial.18 Even so, touch has become a taboo that most exhibition organisers and museums rigorously uphold. In one of the handbooks of the International Committee of Museums (ICOM), touching museum objects without permission is regarded as downright vandalism. In their list of the factors that motivate people to do this, they mention “a disrespect for or feeling of threat from the object” and “personal anger which a person satisfies by committing a violent or emotionally destructive act”.19 Evidently it never occurred to the authors of this handbook that a viewer might feel tempted to touch an object due to some positive tactile curiosity. Do such attitudes make it any easier to understand why I have assembled a collection of my own? Having done so, at least I am independent of the rules museums impose telling us what we can and cannot do. I do not have to take into account opening hours or geographical distances. It means a lot to be able to live with the objects over time. In the case of some works, it has taken me years to get to know them properly. “Collecting is a primal phenomenon of study,” Benjamin writes, for the student is a collector of knowledge.20 My jewellery collection is my visual library. With jewellery and books in the house, I am never alone.

A private collection is of course more subjective than that of a museum can afford to be. It is the personal that makes it something special. To understand how my own collection became what it is today, allow me to look back and retrace some of the steps on my own path to becoming a collector of art jewellery. Although some of my encounters with good art have entailed surprises that have changed my views on what deserves to be liked, the foundations for my taste were probably laid already at a young age.

1 Walter Benjamin, “The Collector”, in: idem, The Arcades Project, transl. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cam­bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 205.
2 Elton John, Me, London: Macmillan, 2019.
3 Louise Lee, “Itmar Simonson. What Makes People Collect Things?”, 1 April 2015, , accessed 1 March 2020.
4 Werner Muensterberger, Collecting, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 11.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., p. 3.
7 Fredrik Sjöberg, The Fly Trap, transl. Thomas Teal, New York: Pantheon Books, 2015.
8 Erling Kagge, Kunsten å samle kunst, Oslo: Kagge forlag, 2015, p. 31.
9 Elizabeth Taylor, My Love Affair with Jewelry, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002, p. 73.
10 Ibid., p. 11.
11 Walter Benjamin, “The Collector”, in idem, The Arcades Project, transl. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 204.
12 Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library. A Talk about Book Collecting”, in idem, Illuminations, transl. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1969, p. 60.
13 Ibid., pp. 59–67.
14 Ibid., p. 67.
15 Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence, transl. Maureen Freely, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
16 Ingar Kaldal, “Minna og mytane – og verdien av dei som historisk materiale”, Historisk tidsskrift, no. 4, 2008, p. 668.
17 Walter Benjamin, “The Collector”, in: idem, The Arcades Project, transl. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 206. Benjamin’s original formulation is “Sammler sind Men­schen mit taktischem Instinkt” (see idem, Gesammelte Schriften, Band V.1, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982, p. 274). Literally speaking, the word taktisch translates as “tactical”, but the context gives ample reason to believe that Benjamin meant the word in the sense of “tactile”.
18 Pamela Johnson, “Out of Touch. The Meaning of Making in the Digital Age”, in Tanya Harrod (ed.), Obscure Objects of Desire, London: Crafts Council, 1997, pp. 292– 293. See also: Jorunn Veiteberg, “Touching Stories”, in Benjamin Lignel (ed.), Shows and Tales. Mill Valley: Art Jewelry Forum, 2015, pp. 126–133.
19 David Liston, Museum Security, and Protection. A Handbook for Cultural Heritage Institutions, 1993; quoted from Fiona Candlin, Art, Museums and Touch, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010, p. 189.
20 Walter Benjamin, “The Collector”, in idem, The Arcades Project, transl. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 210


About the author

Jorunn Veiteberg
is from Norway but lives in Copenhagen in Denmark. She is an art historian, who works as a writer and curator. She has contributed to many books on contemporary jewellery, and her latest book is about her own collection of jewellery: The Jewellery Box (Arnoldsche 2021).