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“Jewellery by artists“- When artists from other fields dabble in jewellery

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So, Ai Weiwei is going to have a jewellery exhibition in London starting now in November called Rebar in gold. For a maker of art jewellery like myself this seems a trifle weird. Why should Ai Weiwei all of a sudden decide to make jewellery? Was it his intention to create wearable art pieces, which are of equal artistic value to his other work? Or are these jewellery pieces merely some kind of promotional items/ a commercial gimmick for him?

The gallery Elisabetta Cipriani (subtitled: Jewellery by Artists), which will be hosting this exhibition, is actually specialised in jewellery of (well-known) artists, who normally work in other fields. I even found Erwin Wurm amongst them, an artist I really like.

Looking closer into this, you can find surprisingly lots of examples of famous contemporary artists of other mediums, who have dabbled in jewellery. To name but a few: Damien Hirst made a charm bracelet with pills in silver, Jeff Koons collaborated with fashion designer Stella McCartney to bring out platinum rabbit pendants and Anish Kapoor creates whole collections of cufflinks, rings and pendants, which I found represented in a another gallery subtitled just like the former.

So should I be happy about the fact that these art-world superstars bring attention to jewellery? The question is what message they convey with their jewellery work…

There are definitely better and worse pieces from these artists who make an excursion into jewellery. Koons’ bunny is actually still pretty cool in a small version, but at this scale the balloon effect is missing and so compared to the rabbit sculpture, I cannot see the bunny pendant as anything more than a very exclusive souvenir. In the big picture I must say, that I am not convinced by the majority of this “jewellery by artists”. More than that, I think artists are harming the art jewellery field when they make e.g. miniature copies of their usual works in precious metal and add a few stones to it.

The Cucumber necklace, brooch and ring of Erwin Wurm are a good example of this. I really like his installation Selbstporträt als Essiggurkerl (Self-portrait as a pickled cucumber), it is funny, cheeky and nonconformist. In my eyes, the Cucumber jewellery, on the other hand, is a poor version of his icon; cast in silver and decorated with sapphires. Where has the humour gone? Or the free spirit? Why does he use precious metals and stones, when these materials don´t fit to his expressive language? It seems that Erwin Wurm doesn’t know that contemporary jewellery can be funny, cheeky and nonconformist too.

The problem is; these artists make people believe that this is what art jewellery needs to look like, whether the artist himself/herself values it as part of their artwork or not. It only makes sense that if these great artists created them, then these pieces of jewellery must be art too. And if the viewers then encounter pieces of art jewellery from makers who dedicate their lives to this field, they will probably not be able to appreciate it, and that´s a shame. If these artists put as much thought and heart into their jewellery as they do with their other projects, the art jewellery world could gain a lot from that because we don’t have these kind of superstars who can reach the masses.

It is always problematic if an artist switches to a medium in which he/she is not fluent, but then equally promotes it as art. I like to draw for instance, but I am surely not thinking of showing my drawings in a gallery at this point. Just because I am an artist, it doesn’t mean that everything I do needs to be out there for sale. Of course artists should change to other mediums if they want to, provided that they invest in this medium in an equally profound manner.

Cartoon: Original version by The Daily English Show
Text edit: Hayley Grafflin


  1. You certainly take up a topic worth discussing… But I don’t agree with your final thesis ( in which you state that artists should be more well versed in art jewelry when they decide to create jewelry.)

    I think that whats going on here, in my opinion, is that artists in this gallery, and specifically Ai Wei Wei, are using the concept of jewelry, the traditional concept (as in a representation of value, luxury, wealth, etc) in order to develop a kind of statement about their work. The tradition of jewelry (traditional jewelry) is far older than art jewelry, so it only makes sense that all of the works in this gallery express traditional ideas.

    But lets really look at some of the works for a minute, because in my opinion, this gallery is doing quite a good job. It has a very specific mission statement, to show jewelry created by fine artists, and it has quite a breadth of expression within that mission. Its no surprise that someone like Tom Sachs in on there (he at one point designed a pair of Nike sneakers and jackets) and never was really initiated into the design / craft / art jewelry circle. He’s an artist that plays with roles be it producer, boss, designer, or artist. And this is something that Ai Wei Wei does as well. Wei Wei has amassed the bulk of his monetary gains from working as an architect, he’s a high budget artist that incorporates the concept of high-budget into his art, for better or worse. It seems to me it was just a matter of time before he started to incorporate gold (as was definitely the case with Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons)

    Where it gets really interesting for me is with Wim Delvoye… Uninitiated in the world of jewelry, his works on this page would seamlessly fit in at any contemporary jewelry show. They even share aesthetic and conceptual qualities of a few very famous contemporary jewelers.

    Its a complicated question right? Well I think its very easy to get angry about Ai Wei Wei making some cast gold earrings and calling them art. Personally, I like them, I think they work, and I know this opinion is unpopular amongst the crowd of contemporary jewelry artists. But I wonder why, why is this such a problem? It seems to me that this conversation is infused with some amount of jealousy (for art jewelry not yet reaching the soaring heights of these fine art superstars), and delves into the age old frustrating conversation of art vs. craft (with no discernible thesis or attempt at resolution (other than, and this is really dangerous, that it is OK for a contemporary art jeweler to aspire to the realms of fine art, but not OK for a fine artist to explore jewelry and all of its related fields)

    And one last thing… A question we could as ourselves: Would we, as contemporary jewelry artists really want a high profile fine artist like Ai Wei Wei to join our field? Would we really be happy with a celebrity in another field encroaching in on contemporary art jewelry and inhabiting the spaces and channels that were set up specifically for a relatively young and developing field?

    • karmachroma

      Hi Adam,

      thank you for sharing your thoughts about this subject.

      My overall conclusions didn´t result only from what I saw on the website of Gallery Elisabetta Cipriani and I took only one of her artist´s work as a bad exemple. There are more in my opinion, e.g. Rebecca Horn, but there are also good pieces there I agree. The gallery brought my attention to the topic though, that there seems to be a whole market of high profile artists making an excursion into jewellery.

      Now to the question if the gallery owner is doing a good job or not: Her intention is to invite well-known artists to design jewellery pieces from precious metals and she is doing a really good job achieving what she wishes for. She has a remarkable collection of artists there. What I find questionable is the fact that she limits the artists´ freedom by making the use of precious metals a precondition. Would a gallery invite these artists to an exhibition and tell them they can only paint with specific colours/ use a specific technique? Unlikely. I am aware of the history of jewellery, of course … nevertheless I find this is problematic. It fuels the ample opinion that jewellery has to be from precious metal and stones (also if made by artists), which makes my alarm bells ring for obvious reasons. Then it doesn´t make sense for me to ask someone who is working e.g. with modern materials or techniques to make a statement with a traditional concept. Precious metals may fit to some of the artists works like you stated, but to others it doesn´t fit at all and the pieces show that.

      I don´t think all of these artists of the gallery would have chosen precious metal as their material of choice for a jewellery project, knowing about art jewellery or not. But as it is, they didn´t have the chance to freely think in which way they would approach jewellery as a new medium. By restricting the artists choice of material to precious metal I believe that there is a higher risk that superficial accessories will be the result rather than good artworks, because this is still a big connotation of jewellery in general. If you are unaware, being an artist does´t save you from having the same prejudices like anybody else. I am not saying this is always the case, but I do wonder how many of them value these jewellery pieces themselves.
      A good read is this article, which might show more clearly what I mean:
      Jeff Koons lends a Hand and a Name

      No, I am definitely not angry with Ai Weiwei for making jewellery, on the contrary, I find it very interesting and didn´t judge the pieces (which are bracelets) I saw on the website. I think it is surely worth seeing the whole exhibition before making up your mind about this work. I was raising questions about his intentions with these pieces though, which is reasonable if someone like him all of a sudden starts to make jewellery.

      Would I like Ai Weiwei to create art jewellery? Yes, why not? I think it would be great if he showed jewellery in a museum exhibition for exemple! Making art jewellery respectable and presentable in such a scale as he entails would be great for our field I think!

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