Material Stories: Gemstones. Carrying Deep Time with You

Published: 23.02.2021
Saskia van Es
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Chloé Valorso. Brooch: Happy Spirit Stones, 2020. Bumblebee Jasper, silver eyes.. 
. Photo: courtesy of the artist. Chloé Valorso
Brooch: Happy Spirit Stones, 2020
Bumblebee Jasper, silver eyes.

Photo: courtesy of the artist

© By the author. Read Copyright.

Instead of driving up the demand for more material, jewellery artist Helen Britton decided to use up the stones she had collected over the years. Although it was too late to pay her respect to the anonymous people who had mined and cut them, Britton carefully brought these stones to the surface again as jewellery. She called it a metaphor of our responsibility.

Klimt02's Material Stories series attempts to examine various perspectives on the use of materials. This is the third article of the series of the Materials Stories series, on Gemstones. Stay tuned to explore gold, gems, pearls, and recycled materials. 

While delving into various jewellery materials, I encountered a personal conflict. Stones. I just love them. I don’t really want to hear it if mining them is questionable. Wouldn’t these stones have eroded anyway, in the perpetual rock cycle? Why then, do scarred landscapes of mining sites disturb me so much? An almost pitch-black photograph of a depleted mineshaft seems to illustrate my feeling. “The dark void is the negative of the lapis lazuli once concealed by this obscurity,” says artist Pieter Paul Pothoven. The absent blue stone that - I am carrying on with Pothoven’s thought - at this very moment, might be held up to the light by someone at a polishing wheel. (1)

Pieter Paul Pothoven, In Absentia, Main Mine, Adit #2, C-print (60 x 100cm), showing the darkness of the lapis lazuli mine in Sar-e-Sang, Afghanistan from which the stone is mined, 2010.
Photograph: Gert Jan van Rooij / courtesy of Dürst Britt & Mayhew, The Hague, the Netherlands

In Helen Britton’s statement, I hear: is it still okay to extract precious stones? Perhaps the artist thought of social concerns such as child labour and pulmonary diseases. Or of wars financed by precious stones. Of how we often extract a lot very quickly, while stones take form and move very slowly. I wonder if passing her stones on to her customers was also some sort of relief? A relief Britton would not say it was, more "a pleasure to see these particular stones have the life intended". (2)

Helen Britton, Ephemeral Phenomena, Jewellery. Rrecycled silver and recycled precious stones, 2019.
Photographer: Dirk Eisel. Image courtesy of galleries Rob Koudijs and Sienna Patti.

The draw of stones and rocks
Jewellery and precious stones have been synonymous since time immemorial. Many people feel a powerful connection, for various reasons. One position is taken by Theresa Storbacka. In her native Finland, she picks up all the stones she needs for her rings, in the natural environment surrounding her. “Creating jewellery from found stones works as a metaphor for becoming aware and embodied at an individual and societal level.” Recently she did use discarded spectrolite from a mining site. The leftovers do not flaunt their blue shimmers that generously, which made them quite useful for her purpose: "to reveal preciousness, by being aware that it is closer than you think.” (3)

Theresa Storbacka, Deep Waters, ring, spectrolite, 2020. Photo: Erika Lind. Image courtesy of the artist.

French ‘spirit artist jeweller’ Chloé Valorso, sees matter as energy. Chunks of minerals are equipped with eyes, so you can engage with them and “perceive the re-enchantment of our world”. The stones are meant to be worn and touched to share their energetical magical properties. Valorso’s spirit stones have been sourced all over the place: “This special stone, for example, comes from Java island in Indonesia, I collected it during my last trip there. The bumblebee jasper embodies the strong energy of the volcano from which it was birthed, it shakes you to the core to call on your inner fire.” (4)

Alison Jean Cole rockhounding in the Mojave Desert, 2016. Photo: courtesy of Alison Jean Cole.

Alison Jean Cole, an American jewellery maker and geology enthusiast – rock hound she calls it – understands the draw of that kind of magical thinking. “But I am so captured by the geological stories of the stones, that the metaphysical stories don’t even compare. Some rocks were formed pre-dinosaur era, they are ancient core remnants from once high mountain ranges now eroded and carried to the coast by river systems. It is just really nice to carry around Deep Time with you.(5)
In spite of the ‘preciousness of stones’, as Chloé Valorso calls it, it is my prediction that freshly mined stones will become less obvious in contemporary jewellery. Before I call anything unethical, I remember Alison Jean Cole asking, “But, ethical, what does that mean? The gem world is full of contradictions.” Cole would never consider Congolese malachite because she knows for a fact that the owners of those mines don’t even give respiratory protection to the miners. But she does buy lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, realizing the stones may have passed Taliban hands. And even then: “If I go digging or collecting from the beach or the riversides in the US, it is just as unethical. My family arrived on the Mayflower as colonists. 400 years later I am picking up rocks from indigenous land that was stolen and never returned.

Rocks collected by Alison Jean Cole at Smokey Butte, USA. Photo: courtesy of Alison Jean Cole.

Room for all materials?
What does Theo Smeets, head of the University of Applied Science in Germany’s gem city Idar-Oberstein, think about these contradictions? “A jewellery maker,” Smeets makes it clear directly, “does by definition use, let’s say, tainted materials such as gold and stones. On top of that, stone cutting is a reductive process, not to say destructive. The result gets smaller and smaller as the grinding waste washes down the sink. That in itself should make one think, whether the artistic aim of the piece can outweigh aspects of sustainability. Also, finding answers and developing an attitude towards these kinds of questions is part of the educational process.

Sihui Li, The Narrow Gate #1-12, studies, arkansas, aventurine, basalt, agate, carnelian, quartz, 2019 (4th Semester BFA at Idar-Oberstein). Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Our students learn how to form stones. But, during their studies, the choice of material does not necessarily have to be stone,” Smeets continues, “it can be. The material just has to serve to express an idea predetermined by the maker.” Does Theo Smeets say there is room for all materials, whether they are gems you had lying around, rocks you stumbled upon, stones bought from a mine, or far more uncomfortable matter? My internal conflict strained his ears. Says Smeets: “Yes of course there is, the artistic process shouldn’t be restricted. But, one of the undisputable benchmarks for contemporary applied art is the awareness of resources and where materials come from. This criterion, in fact, unmistakably distinguishes present-day works from most earlier works, as awareness is growing. So there is certainly room for all materials, as long as their provenance is, in one way or the other, part of the artistic statement - either loudly or silently”. (6)
Find out more
For a broad overview of jewellery makers who currently apply stone with unusual solutions, have a look at the images of the exhibition Stones - The Final Cut / Steine - der letzte Schliff at Galerie Handwerk, Munchen, Germany.

Recent jewellery of students and alumni of Idar-Oberstein can be found in the exhibition catalogue ROCKstars Idar-Oberstein, edited by Ute Eitzenhöfer, 2020, Arnoldsche Art Publishers. The exhibition ROCKstars Idar-Oberstein is on show at Schütt, Pforzheim, until July 18th 2021.

For more on the cultural meaning of precious stones and their 'reception' over time, there are several texts by Wilhelm Lindemann such as an essay in Thinking Jewellery // Two, 2020, Arnoldsche Art Publishers or in NSAIO6 Neuer Schmuck aus Idar-Oberstein, 2016, Arnoldsche Art Publishers. This last title also gives a good impression of the philosophy of the academy in Idar-Oberstein.

For more on mining and advice on sourcing jewellery materials that respect environmental protection, economic growth, and social development, see the commendable book Sustainable Jewellery: Principles and Processes for Creating an Ethical Brand, by Jose Luis Fettolini, Promopress 2018

Businesses producing man-made stones: Diamond Foundry and Pure Grown Diamonds.

(1) Pieter Paul Pothoven’s original words: “The dark void is the negative of the bluestone, now dispersed throughout the world. It is the present absence of the blue cloaks painted by Giotto, Titian, and Vermeer, from the death mask of Tutankhamon and the eye shadow of Cleopatra. Constituted in absentia, the true meaning of the mines remains elusive.”
(2) Email correspondence with Helen Britton and the author, February 2021.
(3) Artist statement Theresa Storbacka; email correspondence with the author, February 2021.
(4) Artist statement Chloé Valorso; email correspondence with the author, February 2021.
(5) 20 Nov 2020, NYCJW, online IGTV talk, Foraging for Rocks - Alison Jean Cole and Marge Hinge in a conversation about foraging for rocks, collecting materials for their practices.
(6) Theo Smeets interviewed by the author, Idar-Oberstein, 27 February 2019; email correspondence 17 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. More at