What is Contemporary Jewellery? A Proposal for a Contemporary Definition of Art Jewelry by Klimt02

Article  /  CriticalThinking   History   Collecting   Market
Published: 22.05.2024
What is Contemporary Jewellery? A Proposal for a Contemporary Definition of Art Jewelry by Klimt02.
Cécile Maes, Klimt02
Edited by:
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Bernhard Schobinger. Neckpiece: Flaschenhalskette, 1998. glass, Metal wire. Bernhard Schobinger
Neckpiece: Flaschenhalskette, 1998
glass, Metal wire
© By the author. Read Copyright.

The jewel, a small crafted object, precious in its material or workmanship, must serve the individual while also having 'style', as Georg Simmel points out. In fact, this is the result from the interplay between individual expression and collective appreciation, forming a shared experience accessible to all.

However, the narrative grows more intricate when it comes to contemporary jewellery. This complexity arises, perhaps, from the difficulty faced by those unfamiliar with the field in distinguishing contemporary jewellery from its traditional, classical, or high jewellery counterparts. Each term carries distinct connotations, making it challenging to explain simply and clearly what contemporary jewellery truly entails.
​As witness to both significant and everyday moments, as the bearer of memories and history (with a small or big h), the jewel plays a key role in creating and interpreting narratives. Whether by the creator, the wearer, or the observer, jewellery weaves itself into the fabric of our lives as human beings.

Located at the border between art and design, it is one of the oldest objects conceived by humans. Since using shells as pendants as early as the Paleolithic era, it has evolved to become a means of expression, transcending the necessities of daily life and survival. It is as if the human sought to appropriate elements of his environment and connect them durably to his body. A demonstration of humanity within humanity. Quite remarkable, isn't it?

Left: Shell Beads. Cro Magnon Reconstructed Necklace, about 30,000 years old. Right: Lisa Walker. Necklace, 2012. Plastic, ebony, 22k gold coin, glue, fabric, thread

When worn, jewellery expresses a way of thinking and a mindset attentive to history and society. It enhances the wearer and makes the individual tangibly present through the gaze of others. However, as others activate it, adornment is not of individual essence. Thus, it raises the big question of whether it can claim to be considered a work of art, supposed to exist solely in individuality. 

But well, this kind of definition refers more to the separation of minor and major arts, a somewhat outdated notion. Because art is life, and life is beings.

However, as early as the 1950s, some jewellers disrupted traditions by inscribing their creations in artistic approaches akin to those of plastic arts. The creative process then takes precedence over practical execution.

Artistic movements like Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and the Bauhaus revolutionised the concept of jewellery, questioning the hierarchy of materials and exploring the interaction between the body and the jewel. But later, in the 1970s, this new way of thinking about jewellery also gave rise to a new sale venue: the jewellery gallery. The gallery owners increasingly gained a key position in the new network of creators, customers and cultural institutions that began to exhibit and collect what was called Modern Jewellery [...] This approach to modern jewellery- (jewellery as a medium of personal expression that reaches a small clientele through a select circle of specialised galleries) became a connecting factor for individual jewellery designers in various parts of the world, with centres such as Munich, Barcelona, Philadelphia, London, Tallinn and Amsterdam. (Jewellery in context by Marjan Unger, 2019, p.43-44)

Left: Gustav Klimt. Detail of Adele Bloch-Bauer's Portait, 1907. Right: Hermann Jünger. Brooch, 1970–72. 18K gold, emeralds, chrysoprase, sapphires, opals, lapis lazuli, and enamel

Left: Brooch. Germany around 1900. Red and yellow gold, green enamel, mother of pearl. Photo by Uwe Dettmar. Right: Sharareh Aghaei. Brooch Autumn. 2023. Green eight, rock crystal, mother of pearl, steel, stainless steel, cement, pigment, epoxy resin. Photo by Nima Ashrafi. From the exhibition Brooches in Dialogue between Past and Avantgarde at Gfg in Hanau

So, long gone is 'Ornament and crime' (Adolf Loos 1908-1910), and welcome to interpretations and different responses to the questions raised by jewellery.
Artists use and claim jewellery as an ingredient in a device questioning society, the body, and its interaction with it, but also assuming its ambiguity between art and craftsmanship in an artistic approach where the piece's production holds significant importance.

Borders and rules are transgressed. Other parts of the body are exploited and constrained. Jewellery is developed as an installation or sculpture according to the emotional or critical impact sought, creating a stimulating dialogue between the maker, the wearer, and the spectator.

Critical inquiry, intellectual awareness, and essential analytical qualities establish this period's very definition of contemporary jewellery.
Questioning everything to rediscover its interest. Hat's off, folks, that was great!

Left: Costumes by Oskar Schlemmer (Bauhaus) for the Triadic Ballet, at Metropol Theater in Berlin 1926 Photo: Ernst Schneider. Right: Gijs Bakker. Shoulder Piece, 1967. Aluminium. Ad 2000 Girls Aka Fashions In Aluminium

Well, today, the excitement is not the same anymore. Galleries and collectors promoting contemporary jewellery of that time are ageing and leaving us one by one. Institutions facilitating education and transmission between the public and creators on what contemporary jewellery are still scarce.
However, a new generation of artists and actors for promotion continues to present their vision and interpretation, enriching the landscape of contemporary jewellery with propositions and perspectives. A landscape maybe too rich to fully capture the ambiguity of this medium. But how can we complain about this generosity that sparks debate on the challenging task of defining contemporary jewellery?

In a society where everything is moving too fast, where production methods seem to denature intimate and conceptual diversity, contemporary jewellery seeks to reintroduce meaning. 

Especially to reintroduce meaning while acknowledging its long history. By questioning its place, by exploring the interactions between the body, the skin, the object, and by examining its values.

The great text What is a brooch by Pravu Mazumdar explains in a relevant way the evolution of the brooch, from a symbolically charged object with functional and cult significance to a contemporary artefact imbued with exhibition value and social importance.
This perspective presents the brooch as a complex stratification of three types of value, offering insights into broader cultural shifts in perception and identity construction.

Left: Roman crossbow fibula: 4th century A.D. Bronze. Met museum. Right: Peter Bauhuis. Pin: Fussel, 1997. Silver or Gold

It's not just the constant debates about whether or not it is a work of art. Contemporary jewellery embodies a liberation from conventional forms, where craftsmanship serves the artistic vision to provoke introspection on self-awareness and societal dynamics.

Through its multifaceted references and open-ended interpretations, contemporary jewellery embodies an ongoing quest for meaning and freedom, evolving alongside the ever-changing landscape of artistic expression. 

As a starting point, we could define contemporary jewellery as a mostly unique artwork that is born conceptually from the artistic legacy, embracing its role as a dynamic reflection of our times. So let us persist in our discerning inquiry into the essence of art jewellery. 

In any case, why shouldn't the new avant-garde language be transferred to jewellery as it has been for a long time in the rest of the artistic disciplines? The Jewellery we try to define here as contemporary is, or should be, a very natural event. Using the concept Contemporary might even seem like a redundant, unnecessary, untrustworthy term... As Kim Buck said, contemporary jewelry is jewelry that is made today, simply. There may be contemporary artists who do not live in today. Or are there still people who consider contemporary jewellery strange? Maybe we could talk about a new theory of paradigms? Worlds within worlds. Perhaps we would have more success...



- Jorunn Veiteberg: The Jewellery Box, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2021
- Marjan Unger: Jewellery in Context. A multidisciplinary framework for the study of jewellery, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2019
- Monika Brugger: Juste du bijou ? Ein Arbeitsbuch, Naima, 2018
- Ursula Ilse-Neuman: Jewelry of Ideas. The Susan Grant Lewin Collection, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2017
- Art Jewelry Forum: Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective, Lark Books, an imprint of Sterling Publishing, Inc., 2013
- Liesbeth den Besten: On Jewellery. A Compendium of international contemporary art jewellery, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2012
- Cindi Strauss: Ornament as Art. Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2007
- Adolf Loos: Ornament and Crime, 1908-1910
- Georg Simmel: Exkurs über den Schmuck, 1908, translated by Kurt H. Wolff


- Céline Robin: Contemporary Art Jewellery: The appalling French exception, Ateliers d'art Magazine n°166, 2023
- Pravu Mazumdar: Gold and Mind, Klimt02, 2022
- Loukia Richards: Why doesn't contemporary jewelry take off?, ZLR Betriebsimperium, 2022
- Saskia van Es: Material Stories: a clever exploration through six articles on Gold, Gemstones, Pearls and alternative materials, Klimt02, 2021
- Pravu Mazumdar: What is a Brooch?, Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, 2020
- Philip Warkander: Art Jewellery. A Reflection on Terminology, Klimt02, 2016
- Ezra Satok-Wolman: After Identity Crisis: Ceci n’est pas “art jewellery” (2/4), Klimt02, 2015

Klimt02 Resources:

> Where to find Art Jewelry: Galleries, Museums, Organizations, Jewellers & Jewels
> Where to buy Art Jewelry: Jewels on Sale
> What to read about Art Jewelry: Articles, Interviews, Publications
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