Material Stories - Neutral Materials? There Is No Such Thing

Published: 17.01.2021
Saskia van Es
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Katharina Dettar, 1.540 = 0,0021kg, ring and its spoil, 2016.
. Photo: Guillem Trius..
Katharina Dettar, 1.540 = 0,0021kg, ring and its spoil, 2016.
Photo: Guillem Trius.

© By the author. Read Copyright.

The jewellery you are now wearing, what material is it made of? Silver, wood, glass? Eggshell or 3D-printed algae by any chance?
A jewellery maker needs materials, but boy, they are tricky! They hold beautiful stories but embarrassing ones too. On your work bench or around your finger, they throw dilemmas about the environment and social inequality in your face.

Klimt02's Material Stories series attempts to examine various of these perspectives. Stay tuned to explore gold, gems, pearls and recycled materials. But first, an introduction: if materials are not neutral, what is at stake?

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Divination by pouring molten metal in water.
Photo: Micha. L. Rieser / Wikimedia Commons.

Metallurgy as obstetrics
Did anyone pour molten lead or tin in water, to predict what the New Year will bring? That same tin inspired a scholar for his theory that Homers' Troy was not located in present-day Turkey but in England. A few thousand years B.C., groups of Celts were fighting each other over access to tin mines in Cornwall. Although the theory has been called into question, the precious material tin was definitely worth fighting over. It was key to alloy the soft copper and make bronze.
Imagine this miracle: a mountain provides you with ore. Fire helps split the metal from the rock. No wonder ancient myths exist that link mining and giving birth. Just as the Roman writer Pliny the Elder described metal as ‘ripening’ in the earth. A giving earth is an alluring notion. The connection entered my mind when Brasilian Juliana Notari revealed an artwork cut out in the hills. A giant vulva, yes, but according to the artist, also a wound. Hasn’t Mother Earth gotten tired of giving?
Juliana Notari, Diva, 33m high x 16m wide x 6m deep, 2020-2021.
Usina de Arte and the Museum of Modern Art Aloisio Magalhaes (MAMAM), Brazil.
Photo: Juliana Notari.
Matter from matter’s perspective
After decades in which the Form or the Concept prevailed or the Technique, it now seems that another component of a work of art, the Material, is gaining prominence. Good news! In our neighbouring field of design, research into materials and alternatives – leather from pineapple peels, ink from collected air pollution soot, bricks made of e-waste - has gone through the roof. The catalyst behind that - and this will be no news - is a growing concern about our excessive consumption pattern of resources and energy.
So, compellingly, the relationship between humans and matter is changing. As yet in, fits and starts. For the jewellery tribe, at least two aspects are worth mentioning. First, the tendency to step out of the human perspective. We, humans, are getting better at listening to non-humans such as a moth, a styrofoam cup, the ocean, or that rock rich in ore.
Another shift runs parallel with this development: a more serious interest in the practices and traditions of so-called indigenous people. Think of groups who perceive animals, plants, and objects as possessing a soul. It then makes sense to first ask permission if you need to use something. And to take only as much as you need, instead of maximizing profit. Nothing to be giggly about.

 Stone beads at Panjiayuan Market, Beijing, China.
Photo: Unsplash/Eric Prouzet.

A mountain of rubble
The current state of affairs in jewellery? I am curious to find out! What I learned so far is that there are quite a number of jewellery makers out there who are extremely knowledgeable about their choices of material. Or that others let the material be the protagonist of the story they tell with their work. Of the latter category, I would like to mention one here already, Katharina Dettar. You may recall the heap of rubble, on top of which she balanced a plain golden ring. It showed the ratio of ore needed for the gold. More recently, in an exhibition, I saw a garment of silk. Not of the thread but of the number of actual moths that are necessary for a blouse. Dettar again.
In the coming four posts some of the most archetypical, most appealing ingredients of jewellery will be spotlighted: gold, gems, and precious stones, pearls, and recycled materials. I will look at their symbolic, even mythical meaning, at the ecological Catch-22's and at how some contemporary jewellery artists work with them.
One last thing, did you just grow a promising alternative substance in your lab? Did you recently break a material habit? Do you feel you need to give a voice to your favorite jewellery material? I am looking forward to your suggestions in the comments below.
Katharina Dettar, 1000 moths for a blouse, object, 1000 bombyx mori moths and silk thread, 2016.
Part of the Collection of CODA Museum Apeldoorn.
Photo: Guillem Trius.

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