‘How would you describe your style?’ As a designer, you’re probably going to hear that question throughout your career. Thankfully there are terms in jewellery lingo that can help summarize what category your work falls into. Some of these terms, such as Antique, Estate or Costume Jewellery, already have a specific meaning that can easily be deciphered by collectors, professionals and authorities in the industry. Clients too. But then there’s the term ‘Contemporary Jewellery’. New designers may be tempted to slap this on their description section and call it a day. After all, doesn’t contemporary mean ‘belonging to or occurring in the present’? Not quite.
After going through a couple of thesis and studies, we’ve concluded that trying to define this term is like a Paul Coelho book. Forces you to leave your home, go through the dessert, maybe even climb a mountain, only to tell you that the answer is within you. Even though the terms has been around or the past 50 years, you’ll still find a disparate array of definitions from publications, exhibitions and conferences; all trying to dissect what contemporary jewellery really is.
Even the label differs among regions. While France calls the movement ‘creation or creative jewellery’, Italy refers to it as ‘art goldsmithing’ and the USA knows it as ‘studio or art jewellery’. Part of why it’s so hard to define is because it’s so internally diverse; vulnerable to the whimsicalities, attitudes and trends of the time. Thus, rather than identify the definition, it’s easier to ascertain the objectives of this term to know if it’s the right category for you.
The first argument we came across is that contemporary jewellery is more than just decoration. It’s an artistic approach or specific practice that utilizes both traditional and modern techniques to conceptualize an idea. A vessel of expressing individual talent if you will. This form of jewellery hopes to not only reflect on the culture of the moment, but also influence it. Consequently, it takes into consideration a range of concerns from the materiality to the social context, to formulate the final product. While many of these pieces are one of a kind, contemporary jewellery also boasts everyday wear jewellery too.
Then there’s the perspective of looking at it as a type of practice. Thanks to the fundamental jewellery movements in the 60s, jewellery-making and design was no longer confined to precious jewels and stones. It ushered in a new era that had a more flexible approach to materials, encouraging designers to diversify and get creative. This, in turn, gave the designer more say in the outcome of the piece, as well as, the message it would convey. Some research argues, this is about the time where designers were favouring craftsmanship and individuality. Certain designers began designing for themselves and their message, running on the presumption that consumers would buy based off the name/message rather than the demand-supply module.
Thirdly, is the issue of wearability. Contemporary jewellery can easily be on a fashion runway and at a jewellery exhibition, but it can also sit quite comfortably at a contemporary arts gallery. And though it doesn’t survive off massive appeal to consumer audiences, read limited commercial availability, it still needs to be able to work with the human body to some degree. According to a thesis paper by Jielu Zhang – ‘Wearable or Not?: Experiencing Contemporary Jewellery’ – “Contemporary jewellery does not exist with the same level of familiarity or comfort as that of traditional forms. Accordingly, contemporary jewellery challenges widely shared notions about form and function.”
Thus, traditional limits of wearability can’t apply to this term since it lies between craft and art. In fact, the only way it can be physically and psychologically wearable is if we shift our understanding of jewellery as artwork and how it relates to the body. With this kind of jewellery, the body can be restricted by it or given the freedom to interact and perform with it. It’s not always suited for practical purposes and plays with scale; going beyond the traditional suitability and comfort of traditional jewellery.
So why the confusion?
Granted, contemporary jewellery is a fast-evolving profession, there are a few theories as to why it has identity concerns. For starters, there aren’t that many full-on contemporary jewellery designers out there that can influence a larger population to develop the standards for contemporary jewellery. Secondly, the fact that many of these designers abhor mass reproduction and distribution means that it doesn’t have a heavy presence in the industry. Which equates to little media coverage and access to mainstream consumers. It doesn’t help that these designers aren’t fond of assertive self-promotion either. Contemporary jewellery has even been referred to as a micro-profession or a subsidiary activity.
Understanding jewellery terms as a designer is a key asset in ensuring you’re representing your work appropriately. While we can’t give you a concrete definition, we at least understand now that contemporary jewellery is “fluid and evolves with the practices of makers in the field” (Zhang). It’ll continue to explore new forms of relationships with clients and critics, as well as challenge the norms when it comes to jewellery.