Published: 23.04.2021
Saskia van Es
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Gisbert Stach. Brooch: Smuggler. Ford Grit Spreading Truck N° 70, 2017. Baltic amber, Matchbox car, glue, steel wire.. Photo by: Gisbert Stach. Gisbert Stach
Brooch: Smuggler. Ford Grit Spreading Truck N° 70, 2017
Baltic amber, Matchbox car, glue, steel wire.
Photo by: Gisbert Stach
© By the author. Read Copyright.

Jewellery expert Marjan Unger, in her dissertation, sketched an ‘underworld’ providing the materials necessary for jewellery, such as stones and pearls. They serve to express ideas embedded in the "upper world". (1) To my ears, Unger's words resound with an opposition, probably unintentional, between nature (material) and humans (idea, technique, and form).

This is the sixth and last article to conclude the series Material Stories. Previously, the author listened to jewellery makers working with gold, gemstones, pearls, and artificial materials. This epilogue suggests that it is worth listening to the materials themselves too. 

For the Material Stories series, about the environmental impact of jewellery materials, I delved into the work of some fantastic jewellery makers. Often their work spoke about this supposed divide. It seems that the upper world is quite intertwined with that underworld. While the provenance of a chosen material could always be featured in the narrative of the piece of jewellery, today, I would like to proclaim that the material can no longer not play a role.
One of the reasons for this statement is that the opposition of humans and nature is my favorite to debunk. We are not "opposed to" but "part of". And, besides, often natural is not natural at all. Since the beginning of time immortal, we believe in a nature that has been manicured to fit our ideal. The ancient Egyptians were already messing around with gemstones. And today, chemical solutions and heat may have intensified the color of your agate. The balsa wood in that brooch comes from a plantation (hopefully the lumberers left the individual trees in the surrounding forest alone). And, the pearl in your earring was force-grown in an oyster. Many of these interventions were kept hush-hush. "Natural" is the magic word in sales. This goes for tangerines with green leaves, high-end yoga retreats, and jewellery. But could it be that we are shifting to a more realistic view of things? The understanding that humans and non-humans influence each other continuously?

Irma Földényi, Object. Cultured pearl, part of the project Round and Flawless by Jewellery Perspectives (Irma Földényi and Evelien Bracke), 2020-ongoing.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Tiny maps
Jewellery Perspectives, consisting of Irma Földényi and Evelien Bracke, scrutinized cultured pearls very closely. When cut in half, pearls reveal layers of growth. "Through this tiny cross-section, relationships and multi-species interactions between communities such as Chinese nucleus producers, oysters, farmers, jewellers and wearers can be decoded". (2) Round and Flawless, as the project is called, exposes the interactions between humans and non-humans in the pearl industry. Similar entanglements can probably also be seen in other jewellery materials, if you look at them from Jewellery Perspectives' perspective.
Annemiek Steenhuis, Necklace: The Red Thread, 2017. Found objects (wood), embroidery thread.
Photo Annemiek Steenhuis. Image courtesy of the artist.

So, not only man-made materials but all materials have become harder to categorise as either cultural or natural. Non-human materials cannot be pushed back in a distant natural realm or underworld. They start to demand not to be wasted and to be treated with respect. How do jewellery makers respond to this turnaround? Some of them use only what has already been discarded and thereby avoid the use of new materials, like American jewellery artist Corrina Goutos. The ready-made objects are Goutos' raw material, which she treats with matching craftmanship. Dutch Annemiek Steenhuis created a necklace with the smallest ecological footprint possible. This does not mean all jewellery makers are switching to such an understated palette. Many, like Danish jewellery maker Kirsten Bak, only use recycled silver and gold or sustainable gold. This could even be alluvial gold nuggets that have not been mined. Berlin gallery The Fair Traders solely represents artists who work "fair trade".
To raise awareness of ethical issues in contemporary jewellery, the international platform Not Only Decoration was set up. NOD has made a valiant effort to write down what the standard should be. The gathered makers are all very different; just like the buttons, they push to find a balance between the jewellery industry, the environment, and social and human rights issues. Some statements are impressive, others I find less convincing, but the value of the initiative is that it makes the complexity of the task at hand clearly visible.
Gisbert Stach, Smuggler - Ford Grit Spreading Truck N.° 70, brooch (pin side), 2017.
Baltic amber, Matchbox car, glue, steel wire.
Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Writing this series of articles, I learned a great deal about the problems involved with non-renewable resources. Fettolini  -and please forgive me for quoting this writer one last time- summarizes it like this: “Mining, which is linked to the jewellery sector, is a destructive, polluting and cruel industry.” (3) But the alternative materials are also burdened by dilemmas. As soon as we wake up, as soon as we walk out of the door, step into the studio, the shop or the gallery, we have an impact on everything. For me, this hit home beautifully with German Gisbert Stach’s brooch of a lorry with hollow spaces concealing amber.

Before I learned about Stach’s work, I liked to believe that amber is the most innocent of materials; the underworld washes it up on the shore after a storm and we can take it to the upper world without a bad conscience. But, unfortunately, there are stories here too, of criminal networks trafficking Russian amber to Poland against state regulations. Or, accounts of amber mafias coercing the local population in Ukraine to mine amber with illegal industrial pumps. (4) Stach sees not only these runners but also the states or big companies exploiting nature, as smugglers. And jewellers? After all, they benefit too. Are they smugglers? (5)

All materials come with a social or ecological impact. Stach’s lorry full of hot amber asks me to be more inquisitive than gazing at the reassuringly official outside of that mining company’s truck. We express an idea with this amber and give form to it. The material has already had a lifetime of non-human and human interactions. Its voice in the sequence of the idea, material, technique, and form is getting clearer. The question is (and please tell me if I am going a bit overboard here) to what extent the underworld "shapes us back". It would be interesting to find out together.

Many thanks
Caroline Bach, Liesbet Bussche, Anne-Karlijn van Kesteren, and Theo Smeets, it was fun and it helped to talk materials with you.

Irma Földényi, Necklace (detail). Cultured pearls, part of the project Round and Flawless by Jewellery Perspectives (Irma Földényi and Evelien Bracke), 2020-ongoing.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

(1) It is amazing to think that many of the natural materials used in jewellery come from 'the underworld': ores from deep underground, stones that are mined, treasures from the sea and the raw materials used to make synthetic materials. The things from the 'upper world' serve more as inspiration and model. This observation can serve as a metaphor for analysing the many forms of symbolism associated with jewellery.” The preceding excerpt cites one of the theorems of Marjan Unger’s dissertation ‘Jewellery in context. A multidisciplinary framework for the study of jewellery’, 2010, English translation 2019, Arnoldsche.
(2) Statement on the project’s website.
(3) Sustainable Jewellery: Principles and Processes for Creating an Ethical Brand, by Jose Luis Fettolini, Promopress 2018.
(4) Nicole Kalczynski, The Underground Economy of Amber: A Destabilizing Threat to Ukraine.
(5) Email conversation with Gisbert Stach, February 2021.


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.
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