Material Stories: Alternative Materials. Something They Are Not

Published: 11.04.2021
Saskia van Es
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Patrícia Domingues, installation view of ‘Gestural Gardens’, showing natural materials, industrial materials, and materials made by the artist (among other materials: reconstructed lapis lazuli, reconstructed aluminum, reconstructed coral, Necuron). Image: courtesy of the artist..
Patrícia Domingues, installation view of ‘Gestural Gardens’, showing natural materials, industrial materials, and materials made by the artist (among other materials: reconstructed lapis lazuli, reconstructed aluminum, reconstructed coral, Necuron). Image: courtesy of the artist.

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Have you signed the Universal Declaration of Material Rights yet? This clever initiative approaches building materials in such a way that they can be ‘set free’ after use. Translated into jewellery, and seen over a longer period of time, this has long been common practice with gold, gemstones, and pearls. But true circularity - sourcing the initial material in an impact-free manner and intending to dismantle an object after its lifespan - has not often been part of the jewellery maker’s plan.

This is the fifth article of the series Material Stories, talking about Alternative Materials after having discussed Gold, Pearls and Gems. Stay tuned for an Epilogue to conclude the series.
Balenciaga x Shahar Livne, jewellery for Balenciaga’s Fall 21 collection. Ocean plastic, calcium carbonate, 2021. Photo: Alan Boom. Image courtesy of the artist / Balenciaga.


The concept of circularity plays a big role in the design practice, as does a growing kind of material awareness. Israeli, Netherlands-based Shahar Livne calls herself a conceptual material designer. She recently did a cross-over into jewellery. In collaboration with Balenciaga, Livne fused ocean plastic, calcium carbonate, heat, and pressure into dystopian rings and bangles. They speculate on how plastic will be the sought-after fossil of the future.

Lifu Zhou, brooch: Crystal Nr. 4, 2020. Tapioca flour, lemon, spices, fruit, tea, 8ct gold.
Photo: Lifu Zhou / courtesy of the artist.

Wake up and smell the coffee
Lately, we have become a bit sobered up about the superpowers of recycling. We have become sadder (there will be more waste than can be recycled), and wiser (we will have to reduce consumption). Gone are the days that we were convinced to be doing the right thing by crafting jewellery from coffee capsule lids. Fortunately, artists and material designers keep on trying. Today, we’ve quit the capsules and make cellulose-based bioplastic from the coffee grounds. Jewellery maker Lifu Zhou has, after numerous experiments, created a hard and shiny material out of fruit, suited to wear as jewellery. Although his creations mainly play with the appearance of things, they could argue that food (food waste, not food) is a wonderful raw material to work with. Ideals like zero-waste and cradle-to-cradle, are worth striving for. They influence jewellery. But a jewellery artist, like any maker, will want to use different materials from time to time.

Conversation Piece, Bracelet: Nu Jade - Interconnectedness. Jade stone, electronic waste (shredded plastic and gold recovered from CPU boards), 2020. 
Photo: Beatrice Brovia & Nicolas Cheng. Image courtesy of the artist.

On to the Landfills
An interesting line of artistic research explores what came to be called urban mining. The idea is that virgin materials are not always necessary; there is enough to go around, we just have to carefully ‘mine’ it from society. Metals are salvaged from the bottom ash of incinerators or extracted from e-waste like telephones (1). This bracelet has been made from industrial waste. The makers, Conversation Piece (Nicolas Cheng and Beatrice Brovia) see "similarities between jewellery and portable electronics, both in their materiality and aesthetic desire in relation with our body." They intend their work, literally, to be a conversation piece that opens up a dialogue on overconsumption, personal health (hence the health stone jade), and environmental cost. (2)

Patrícia Domingues, Pendant: Inhabited Space, 2019. Reconstructed Aluminium.
Image courtesy of the artist.

Man-made stones in Art Deco
That tension between natural stones or metals and their man-made counterparts is what also fascinates Patrícia Domingues. Her interest was sparked in the historic chain and costume jewellery factory Jakob Bengel, in gem-city Idar Oberstein. Like many other companies in the city, Bengel turned to reconstructed stone to avoid dependency on rare and irregular natural stones. Besides that, the factory worked with Galalith, an early synthetic plastic made of casein and formaldehyde, resembling bone, ivory, or horn. In the Bengel factory, the Galalith was coloured and applied in geometric forms in Art Deco jewellery, meeting a demand for new, experimental, and cheaper materials.
Now, one hundred years later, Domingues in turn works with reconstructed stones and metal composites. Some she makes, with the leftover waste and stone powder from stone cutting workshops in the area. And some, like Necuron, a softer material developed for prototyping, she collects from companies, in the form of scraps otherwise headed for the dumpster. Others she buys, like the rock-hard reconstructed lapis lazuli (part lesser quality lapis lazuli powder, part epoxy or bio-resin plus chips of pyrite), which is used in the jewellery industry as a cheaper alternative. But Domingues does not work it into uniform cabochons or slabs like Bengel did for the fashion jewellery of the time; she fractures the blocks and recomposes them in a landscape-like form. Small as they might be, they speak about landscapes that can be immense. For her, of all the elements that are present in the landscape, dust is the smallest grain.

Pros and Cons of Recon
What worries me a bit is the ‘reconstructed ivory’ in some of her brooches. Domingues explains that there was never any actual ivory in it. There exists ‘artificial stone’ that mimics the natural original but contains nothing of it. Then there is ‘reconstructed stone’ made out of the powder of the real thing and a binding agent. And there is ‘synthetic stone’, which shares the same chemical composition and growth conditions as the original. Her brooches should have correctly been described as ‘artificial ivory’, a small mistake that caused Domingues quite some trouble trying to ship the work abroad!.

Jewellery out of ‘recon’ is sometimes presented as a sustainable alternative for mining. Patrícia Domingues hastens to say that she cannot claim her stones are green. Just like it is hard to call any stone in Idar-Oberstein, or around on the globe for that matter, green as long as mining is involved: there has been an impact on the landscape and the environment. What she brings in the world are plastic blocks in a sense, although some binding agents are less aggressive than others. She makes sure the grinding dust in her studio does not end up in the sewer. But even then, Domingues is well aware that every step in the process always has a consequence. (3)

Sofie Boons, Rock II, In situ grown crystal in silver ring by Sofie Boons, various views.
Image: credit by artist.

‘Lab-grown! No Mining!’
How about using synthetic gemstones then and promoting them with the label ‘no mining’? You can’t tell them apart from natural stones, not even with a magnifying glass. Growth rates are getting better all the time. But contemporary jewellery will not stir. Some often-heard objections: the lab feeds on minerals too, and with its heat and high pressure still emits considerable amounts of carbon dioxide. Or: Millions of people around the world depend on gemstone mining. Another protest centres around the deliberate confusion where, for example, a cheaper man-made citrine is passed off as an exotic-sounding Madeira topaz. But even diamond supplier De Beers, after years of demonizing lab diamonds, invested in a colossal facility to grow the symbols of eternal love themselves and thereby impacted the market. Contemporary jewellery will have to deal with the reality of synthetic gems.
To break the impasse, let’s have a look at some recent research projects. In Antwerp, the Belgian research platform Precious Dialogue traces different contexts of material production and the changing meanings of value.(4) Do artificial materials offer a valid alternative, if you follow such material from production to the wearer? In London, jewellery maker and researcher Sofie Boons investigates what man-made stones imply for design in the contemporary jewellery practice. She poses questions focusing on the possibilities and the limitations such as: do man-made gems always have to imitate natural stones? (5)

Glass pearl factory in Izumi, Osaka, Japan, 2020. Photo by Sae Honda. Image courtesy of the artist.

Sweat and Tears of the Craftspeople
That is a brilliant question. The jewellery material you are brewing needs to be moisture, heat, and grease resistant. But how close does it have to resemble nature’s example? Jewellery artist Sae Honda is drawn to artificial materials with a natural appearance, such as imitation pearls and fake plants. It led to a collaboration with a factory in Izumi, Japan, that for over a hundred years has produced pearls from glass kernels coated with pearlescent paint. Honda did not want this craftmanship to go unnoticed, so she revealed the involvement of human hands. The pearls have a tear shape, some even with two tips. With ‘Tears of the Manmade’, Honda wants to blur the boundaries between natural and artificial, real and fake, honest and dishonest. (6)
Honda is exploring what she calls ‘the alternative aesthetics of our present culture’, and she is not the only jewellery artist who does. We, humans, are part of global dynamics and a not so pristine environment. At the same time, there is astonishing craftsmanship to be celebrated. Why try to hide that everything is inextricably linked? Man-made materials have always been there, but they no longer need to make people believe that they are something they are not.

Sae Honda, Earrings from Tears of the Manmade. Silver, glass pearls, 2021.
Photo by Lonneke van der Palen. Image courtesy of the artist.

(1) Forma Fantasma, Ore Streams 2017, Christien Meindertsma, Bottom Ash Observatory 2015.
(2) Email conversation with Conversation Piece, April 2021.
(3) Online conversation with Patrícia Domingues, February 2021.
(4) Sint Lucas School of Arts Antwerp, Research Platform Precious Dialogue: Jewellery, Matter, Time – True Cost of a Jewel (2020-2021) researchers Saskia van der Gucht, Irma Földényi; Jewellery, Matter, Time – Materials in the Anthropocene (2019-2020) researchers Irma Földényi, Liesbet Bussche. Email correspondence with Irma Földényi and the author, February 2021.
(5) Currently, Ph.D. scholar Sofie Boons is inviting the jewellery industry to share their thoughts on man-made crystals by means of a survey.
(6) Email conversation with Sae Honda, February 2021; statement on the artist’s website.


About the author

Saskia van Es​
(Amsterdam, 1972) is an art historian. She writes texts on contemporary jewellery, such as exhibition reviews. Her fascination: jewellery materials. She was a board member of the Françoise van den Bosch Foundation. More at