From Phalera to Anti-War Medals: A Study of Contemporary Jewelry by Kimia Parang

Article  /  History   CriticalThinking
Published: 19.03.2024
Kimia Parang
Edited by:
Edited at:
Edited on:
Roman Phalera, Bronze, 5 x 4.5 cm, Musée du Louvre Paris.
Roman Phalera, Bronze, 5 x 4.5 cm, Musée du Louvre Paris

© By the author. Read Copyright.

From the ancient symbolism of war medals to the cutting-edge creations of contemporary artists, this article explores the transformative power of adornment in conveying social critique and reflection. Unravelling the intricate narratives woven into the physical and conceptual dimensions of contemporary jewelry, this exploration offers fresh perspectives on tradition, beauty, and societal engagement.
The history of objects ravels the definition and function of the object in the period that we consider for the object. There are some objects that have been vanished because their function seems irrelevant due to different social, scientific, and cultural evolution. When it comes to decorative objects the rolls are more challenging.

According to the Grove Art Online entry on decorative arts, decorative objects are designed to enhance the beauty of a space or to add a decorative touch. They can take many forms, such as ceramics, textiles, metalwork, furniture, and glassware. These objects are created primarily for their aesthetic value and exist to be admired rather than used for practical purposes (Fleming et al., "Decorative arts").
According to Penelope Curtis, modernism "saw decoration as an unnecessary adornment, a form of embellishment without meaning, and a hindrance to the pursuit of functionalism" (Curtis, 2005). This rejection of traditional ornamentation led to a shift in the meaning of decorative objects, with simplicity and functionality becoming the focus of design. For example, in the work of modernist designers like Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, ornamentation was often eliminated in favor of clean lines and functional forms. By these revolutions in the definition of decorative objects, in this article, I will study an example of decorative object Roman war medals in comparison with Peter Chang's contemporary medals; I will study the physical and conceptual aspects of Peter Chang’s anti-war medals.

Peter Chang, (British, born 1944). Brooch, ca, 1995. Acrylic resin, steel, 9 x 7 x 2 cm

From Phalera
War medals have a long history of serving as symbols of military valor and heroism. The practice of awarding medals for military service dates to ancient Greece and Rome in wester world and has been adopted by various societies throughout history. The first war medal that we know certainty used as military ornaments, is called "phalera”. These medals have traditionally been made of precious metals and adorned with decorative elements, such as ribbons and inscriptions, to signify the wearer's bravery and contribution to the war effort. (Bourke,2017).

Contemporary jewelry has emerged as a distinct art form in the latter half of the 20th century and has continued to evolve and gain recognition in the 21st century. This field encompasses a wide range of styles, techniques, and materials and is influenced by a variety of cultural and historical contexts. (Skinner,2013). Contemporary jewelry is capable of effecting change in the world due to its unique characteristics, particularly its ability to engage with cultural contexts.

As Skye (2019) notes, contemporary jewelry often incorporates cultural symbols and references, allowing for a deeper exploration and understanding of diverse perspectives. This cultural engagement can foster empathy and promote social change, as seen in works like the Crafting Resistance exhibition by Sklar and Vicuña (2017), which highlighted the art and activism of Chilean women.

Through its incorporation of cultural context, contemporary jewelry has the potential to be a powerful tool for shaping societal attitudes and promoting meaningful dialogue. One artist who has contributed to this field is Peter Chang, particularly through his Anti-War Medals series.

Roman, phalera. Silver, bronze, 10.16 x 3.5 cm. Photo credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

The characteristic of Material
Contemporary jewelry has been greatly influenced by contemporary art, particularly the use of unconventional materials and the emphasis on concept over technique. Jewelers have embraced a wide range of non-traditional materials, such as plastics, found objects, and industrial materials, to explore new forms of expression and challenge established conventions. (Steele, 2018) This emphasis on non-traditional materials and techniques can be seen in the work of contemporary jewelers such as Alexander Calder, who is famous for his abstract wire jewelry, and Manfred Bischoff, who often incorporates unexpected materials, such as leather and paper, into his pieces. (Steele, 2018).

According to Sian Evans, contemporary jewelry is characterized by "a concern with materiality, a focus on the relationship between object and body, and an engagement with the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which it is produced and worn" (Evans, 2019).

Chang's work is a powerful example of how contemporary jewelry uses unusual materials. He used acrylic, resin and steel which is a significant choose of material. The colour the material shows is eye catching and makes you notice the pieces of jewelry. Craft techniques along with the form he used in his anti-war medals gives you a feeling of children toys. All forms are organic mostly round with soft and polished surface. In his jewelry pieces serves as a critique of the military-industrial complex and highlights the devastating environmental and social impact of war. By transforming these materials into objects of beauty and value, Chang subverts the traditional meanings and uses of war medals and encourages viewers to reflect on the costs of war and the importance of peace.

Concept Development
Contemporary jewelry, in general, has been associated with political and social critique, as artists use the medium to comment on a range of issues, from gender and sexuality to environmentalism and globalization. According to Damian Skinner and Kevin Murray in their book Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective, contemporary jewelry is characterized by its emphasis on individual expression, experimentation, and innovation, and that it challenges traditional hierarchies of value and taste in the art world.

Chang's work can be contextualized within the larger tradition of contemporary art that uses the symbols and materials of war to critique dominant narratives of military valor and patriotism. In this tradition, artists challenge traditional notions of heroism and military glory by repurposing materials that are typically associated with violence and destruction. The use of such materials can also prompt viewers to consider the human cost of war and question the values and ideologies that underlie the awarding of military decorations.

Comparing the content and Material
While there are similarities between the work of Peter Chang and other contemporary artists who use materials and imagery associated with war, there are also distinct differences in their approaches and objectives.
For example, Pedro Reyes' Disarm project aims to turn weapons into instruments of peace, focusing on the transformation of destructive materials into something positive and creative. In contrast, Chang's Anti-War Medals series uses war materials to create objects that are critical of war and militarism. He does not attempt to transform these materials into something positive, but instead uses them to subvert the traditional meanings and values associated with war medals.

Similarly, Brian McCarty's photographs of children's toys in war zones focus on the impact of war on civilian populations, particularly children. Chang's work, on the other hand, is more broadly focused on the social and environmental impact of war, highlighting the costs of conflict and the need for peace.

Despite these differences, all these artists use their work to engage with important social and political issues, using art as a means of critique and reflection. Through their use of materials and imagery associated with war, they encourage viewers to consider the human costs of conflict and the need for alternative approaches to conflict resolution.

Contemporary jewelry has emerged as a formidable medium for social and political commentary, with artists like Peter Chang utilizing this art form to shed light on the destructive nature of war and militarism. Using unconventional materials associated with violence and destruction, contemporary jewelry artists can defy conventional norms and values attached to military medals and question the dominant narratives of military heroism and patriotism. This unique approach offers a fresh perspective on traditional ideas, and provides an outlet for experimentation, innovation, and individual expression. Contemporary jewelry challenges established hierarchies of value and taste and invites critical reflection and transformation by engaging with pertinent social and political issues. As a result, contemporary jewelry continues to push boundaries and evolve into a dynamic and relevant art form.

- Bourke, J. (2017). War and Art: A Visual History of Modern Conflict. Reaktion Books.
- Bishop, C. (2012). Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. Verso Books.
- Curtis, P. (2005). Modernism and the Decorative Arts in France: Art Nouveau to Le Corbusier. Yale University Press.
- Dalceggio, M. (2020). Returning to the Disc Brooch of Grave 422 in Chiaromonte, San Pasquale (Prov. Potenza/I): Observations and Interpretative Proposals. Archeologia e Calcolatori, 31, 1-20.
- Skinner, D., & Murray, K. (2013). Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective. Lark Crafts.
- Sklar, J. K., & Vicuña, C. (2017). Crafting Resistance: The Art of Chilean Women. Duke University Press Books.
- Skye, M. (2019). Contemporary Jewelry: Perspectives and Definitions. Fashion Theory, 23(2), 273-293.
- White, A. (2013). The Cultural Politics of Contemporary Art. Routledge.

About the author

Kimia Parang is an Iranian jewellery Artist, designer & the founder of Kimia Parang Atelier and Atelier N 5 where the wearable and non-wearable objects are creating. Her concern is to create a meaningful form of object with the help of a new narrative and rediscovering historical objects and techniques. In addition to her work at her studio and benchwork, she collaborates with museums and private collections. She also actively engages in academic pursuits and publication endeavors.

Website Kimia Parang:
Instagram Kimia Parang: kimiaparang_atelier