VIP Login
SOFA Essays
Future Fair Dates
Apply To Exhibit
Contact Us

Geography: An Exhibition
Organized by Art Jewelry Forum

By Mike Holmes and Susan Cummins


Lisa Walker
Pounamu neckpiece, 2010
silver, lacquer, various pounamu
(New Zealand jade/greenstone)
4.75 x 2.75
courtesy of The National

As the title of this exhibition attests, Geography draws on the framework of the science of geography to curate a survey of international contemporary jewelry, drawn from the member galleries of Art Jewelry Forum. The complex field of geography includes many themes, and this exhibition has chosen to limit itself to two: physical geography and cultural geography.

As Valeria Siemelink writes in the Geography catalog: Geography is both a form of common knowledge and an academic discipline; its language of cartography and topography is so familiar that it seems natural and incontestable. But it is far more than a mode of charting the known world, geography is a source of authority in the fundamental question of inclusion and exclusion, and plays a crucial role in the determination of identity and belonging.1.

And for Ted White, a practicing geographer, also writing in the exhibition catalog: While much human effort in the modern world has gone toward more and more fragmentation and specialization, the perspective of geographers is to keep looking at the world as a whole and to look continually for connections between people and places across its wide spaces. Geography is a large and growing discipline, and geographers are investigating a wide swath of events, conditions, and relationships to better understand how the world works and how we, its human inhabitants, both instigate and respond to various changes.


Julia Turner
Break brooch, 2010
wood, paint, steel
2.5 x 2.5 x .5
courtesy of Shibumi Gallery


As a way to organize the discipline, geographers have come up with five basic themes: Location (absolute and relative), Place (which accounts for both natural and cultural characteristics of places), Human-Environment Interaction (e.g. global warming leading to climate change), Movement (migrations, transport and/or the ‘diffusion of ideas’ via radio, books, movies, the internet, etc.) and Region (’culture regions‘ such as the Basque region of Spain, or a ‘functional region’ such as Silicon Valley in California).2.

What geography has to tell us about cultural diversity is at stake, and in this case, it is also a framework for this exhibition of contemporary jewelry. As White asks in his essay, “Is the world getting smaller, more complex, more homogenized, more diverse, more resilient, more fragile? Answers to all the previous questions: yes and no.”3.

According to Liesbeth den Besten, “In Europe today it is hard to find a jewelry school in the sense of a specific body of knowledge, dependent not only on individual teachers, but also on factors such as a sense of place, history, tradition, and availability of materials (and skills), intensified by isolation, whether geographically, politically or through language.”4. As contemporary jewelry has developed over the past four decades it has become more international, leading to the erasing of obvious national identities in jewelry practice. In 1970 den Besten suggested it was possible to distinguish on exactly these terms. “Dutch jewelry was abstract, radical, plain and made of cheap industrial materials; British jewelry was colorful, flexible, and had a more or less theatrical, staged character; while German jewelry was rather formal and combined precious and contemporary materials.”5.


Joyce Scott
Yellow River necklace, 2009
peyote-stitched glass beads,
13 x 8.75
photo: Emily Garfield
courtesy of Mobilia Gallery

The same is not true today. While we can distinguish between the styles of individual makers, national jewelry identities have dissolved to the point where, as den Besten writes, “we no longer bother to distinguish whether a piece of jewelry is made in Switzerland or Estonia, Holland or Spain, Finland or Germany, Sweden or Portugal, England or Belgium – it all belongs to this European “fusion kitchen” of jewelry.”6. Each country now has its own practitioners of minimalism, formalism, conceptualism, narrative, etc. Variety increases within each country while diversity diminishes globally.

Den Besten’s argument has some force. A globalized practice of contemporary jewelry has become apparent in the last few years. Previously the issues of contemporary jewelry – such as modernism, the critique of preciousness, the social and cultural significance of the body, etc. – were explored through local resources, leading to distinctive regional practices of contemporary jewelry. The rapid globalization of the jewelry scene means that now the reference points are shared, no matter where in the world you live. The contemporary jewelries that used to exist because each region had different reference points and histories are being replaced by a shared set of reference points and histories. We live in an age – not of contemporary jewelries around the world – but of global, contemporary jewelry.

And yet this is also the era when what might be called “a naturalistic trend” in the study of art and aesthetics is gaining traction. Emerging from art history, a practice facing the question of how it needs to change in order to encompass global art (e.g. art from all over the world rather than just the western tradition), this shift involves embracing geography and ecological sciences in order to gain new insights into the materials, style and even subject matter of art. Art history is concerned with temporal ways of accounting for art objects, but the explanation of what and why art is the way it is can come just as easily from environmental influences. A geography of art looks at art as a result of human engagement with geographical factors, either directly (in the materials used, the kind of objects made), or indirectly, in the sense of that diverse geographical conditions shape human differences that in turn lead to the production of different kinds of objects.7. Green art studies takes this even further, arguing that while art history usually treats objects as embedded in social contexts, it is possible to view place as the primary force behind objects and their particular characteristics.8.


Dana Seachuga
Hierarchy neckpiece, 2010
walnut, pau amarello (yellowheart),
oak, mahogany, silver, paint, wool
3 x 12
photo: Anouck Wolf
courtesy of Caroline Van Hoek
Contemporary Art Jewelry


According to Ted White: When the Internet boom first began, some said this signaled the end of geography. Along with globalization, the increasing reach of the Internet into all aspects of our lives seemed to suggest that place was no longer important. Anywhere was everywhere. The exotic was no longer remote but immediately downloadable or delivered ‘next day air’. But our growing interest in hand-made, fair-trade, organic, locally grown, native species, etc. proves that geography still matters very much. We still care about who produces objects and ideas, where they came from and what processes it took to produce and distribute them…Despite our technology, we’re still living breathing bodies with keen senses, yearning for tangible experiences.9.

The point is that place still matters, which in turn leads us to ask whether globalization is quite as destructive to regional diversity as developments in contemporary jewelry might suggest. Is there still something to be gained from looking again at the way contemporary jewelry responds to place, diverse materials, social and cultural forms, and distinct histories?

In this the Geography exhibition we look at two aspects of the study of geography: the physical and the cultural. Physical geography describes aspects of the natural world: weather and climate, the landscape and the forces that create it, plants and animals and the ecosystems they inhabit. Translated into jewelry terms, this means representations of the natural world and natural processes in contemporary jewelry, and a certain sensibility in the way that materials are used. Cultural geography explores how landscape and humans interact. Culture has developed differently in different regions as humans utilize the materials at hand. The objects traditionally produced in Arctic regions were made mostly from the skin and bone of marine mammals. In the same way the extraordinary lace produced in the Low Countries reflects the tradition of flax farming in an area with few other natural resources. These traditions are now the subject of some of the most interesting contemporary jewelry being produced today, as jewelers find ways to translate these specific reference points into the wider practice of international contemporary jewelry.

The work featured in the exhibition reflects the global nature of the contemporary jewelry field and the different ways jewelers react to their environment. This may be the use of indigenous materials such as stone and wood or an urban recycling of found objects that are the products of global trade. The personal resonance of these materials reflects how powerful a sense of place remains. Some of the jewelry relates to other cultures, gone or drastically changed, and demonstrates that ideas of place are constantly changing. The exhibition is a celebration of the amazing variety of the natural world and humanity’s part in it, and proves that contemporary jewelry continues to have a singular ability to construct culture and place even in a rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected world.

This is Geography.

Susan Cummins is chair of Art Jewelry Forum. Mike Holmes is on the board of Art Jewelry Forum.

Published in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO 2011 special exhibit, Geography presented by Art Jewelry Forum.

1. Valeria Siemelink, “The Traveling Goldsmith”, in Mike Holmes and Susan Cummins (eds.), Geography. San Francisco: Art Jewelry Forum, 2011, p.19.

2. Ted White, “Why Geography still Matters”, in Mike Holmes and Susan Cummins (eds.), Geography. San Francisco: Art Jewelry Forum, 2011, p.10.

3. White, p.10.

4. Liesbeth den Besten, “Academy Hopping”, in Carole Guinard (ed.), From Hand to Hand: Passing on Skill and Know-How in European Contemporary Jewellery. Laussanne: MUDAC, 2008, p.54.

5. den Besten, p.54.

6. den Besten, p.54.

7. Thomas daCosta Kaufmann, ‘The geography of art: Historiography, issues, and perspectives’, in Kitty Zijlmans and Wilfried van Damme (eds.), World Art Studies: Exploring Concepts and Approaches. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2008, p.169.

8. Elisabeth de Bievre, “Green Art Studies and the Local Subconscious”, in Zijlmans and van Damme, World Art Studies: Exploring Concepts and Approaches. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2008, p.183.

9. White, p.11.

No media download found.

The Sculpture Objects Functional Art + Design (SOFA) Fair in Chicago is the premier gallery-presented art fair dedicated to three-dimensional art and design. On par with Art Basel and TEFAF Maastricht, SOFA is produced by Urban Expositions.

Critically acclaimed and continuously running since 1994, what distinguishes SOFA from other top art events is its focus on three-dimensional artworks that cross the boundaries of fine art, decorative art and design.  SOFA is noted for its exceptional presentation, with an elite selection of international dealers presenting for sale one-of-a-kind masterworks in handsome, custom-designed gallery exhibits.

SOFA is held annually in the fall at Chicago's major destination, Navy Pier, with an average of 80 dealers and 35,000 people attending.

SOFA CHICAGO / Tickets & Showtimes

Urban Expositions presents SOFA CHICAGO 2015 at Navy Pier's Festival Hall (600 E. Grand Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60611) Nov. 6 - 8, with the Opening Night Preview Thursday, Nov. 5.

Day Date Hours Purchase Tickets
Thursday Nov. 5 7 pm to 9 pm Tickets ($50)
Friday Nov. 6 11 am to 7 pm Tickets ($20)
Saturday Nov. 7 11 am to 7 pm Tickets ($20)
Sunday Nov. 8 Noon to 6 pm Tickets ($20)

One general admission ticket of $20 admits visitors to the fair, related lecture series, special exhibits and events. $30 three-day passes and discounted student, senior and group tickets are also available. The public is also invited to the Opening Night Preview, Thursday, Nov. 5, 7 to 9 p.m. Preview tickets are $50.