2011 Essay | A to Z Guide to European Jewelry

2011 Essay | A to Z Guide to European Jewelry

A to Z Guide to European Jewelry

By Damian Skinner


Alexander Blank
Bunny pendant, 2007
gold, deer horn
3.75 x 2.25 x .25
photo: Alexander Blank
courtesy Galerie Rob Koudijs

A is for A to Z Guide, in which your author, courtesy of the SOFA New Voices research grant, traveled to London to attend the Collect craft fair. In this text he presents a series of observations, reflections and speculations about his experiences there.

B is for Iris Bodemer, whose sophisticated awareness of materiality is a classic and elegant manifestation of this tendency within contemporary jewelry. Whatever other meanings exist in her jewelry, a primary issue is how materials and juxtapositions of materials create meaning. She demonstrates how a jeweler can create rich and intelligent objects without necessarily appealing to other kinds of conceptual investigations or narratives.

C is for Collect, the event which styles itself as ‘The international fair for contemporary objects’, and is organized annually by the British Crafts Council. It was first held in 2004 in the galleries of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London, one of the world’s great decorative arts museums. In 2009 the fair moved to the Saatchi Gallery, a change that was partly pragmatic (the event had outgrown the V&A, the new Saatchi Gallery was available for hire and sufficiently large) and partly aspirational (Charles Saatchi and his gallery were perceived to be at the hub of contemporary art market). Collect is a great place to see contemporary jewelry from Europe. In 2011 there were 44 exhibitors, split between galleries from the United Kingdom and galleries from mainland Europe. Of the 44, twelve showed contemporary jewelry alongside other kinds of craft, and five showed contemporary jewelry exclusively. There were no American galleries present. (See Yankee.)


Esther Knobel
Magnet brooch, 2010
enamel on copper


D is for Dr Damian Skinner, an art historian and curator based in New Zealand, who is also editor of Art Jewelry Forum. (See A to Z Guide.)

E is for Encyclopedic Galleries, such as Galerie Ra, Galerie Rob Koudijs, Galerie Marzee and Galerie Louise Smit, all from the Netherlands (contributing to this country’s renowned status for contemporary jewelry production and design). Taking part in Collect, these galleries have an extraordinary representation of work by European jewelers. They offer the illusion that one event can introduce you to almost everyone – and every thing – important in the European contemporary jewelry scene.

F is for Function (of contemporary jewelry). (See Wearing.)

G is for Geography, which is an interesting and valid concept for understanding contemporary jewelry. That is, as long as geography doesn’t become confused with national identity or nationalism. While it is fine for contemporary jewelry to reference or engage with place, it is not fine for it to be limited by place. Contemporary jewelry in Europe strives to attain a state of internationalism (belonging everywhere, confined nowhere). (See Nation.)


Iris Bodemer
Necklace, 2010
copper, pearls
10.5 x 9.5x .5
photo: Julian Kirschler
courtesy Galerie Marzee

H is for Horology, the art or science of measuring time. (See Volker Atrops.)

I is for Individuality, as in the individuality of a jeweler’s style and the uniqueness of individual pieces, which enables the overwhelmed viewer to distinguish one piece of jewelry from another. A distinctive visual language is a major advantage in such situations, as is the production of strange objects that resist categorization or easy analysis. The double take, or the “what is that?” reaction, is a powerful tool in the crowded market place of contemporary craft fairs and may lead to the desired consummation of the relationship between contemporary jewel and collector.

J is for Ike Jü╠łnger, whose enamel and silver brooches could be mistaken for everyday, found materials worn by use. They are, in fact, highly calculated surfaces and combinations of geometric forms that flirt with the problematic (because it comes from another art form) but entirely appropriate description of ‘painterly’.

K is for Esther Knobel, whose new work is surprisingly odd. (See Individuality.) Layers of viscous color swamp the objects littering the surface of these brooches, rendering the recognizable detritus of the studio or workshop into hieroglyphs that reward and demand attention in a way that the mundane objects hardly ever do.


Vera Siemund
Brooch, 2009
copper, silver, enamel
3 x 2.75 x 1.5
photo: Vera Siemund
courtesy Galerie Marzee


L is for Looking, which, in the context of a fair like Collect, means paying attention to contemporary jewelry as a creative or artistic endeavor. The relationship between object, wearer and everyday life disappears from view. What comes into wonderful focus is the diversity of individual practice, the plethora of artistic investigations and interrogations of jewelry forms and histories. Fairs highlight one aspect of contemporary jewelry exceptionally well: its nature as a self-reflexive craft practice, in which artistic expression is paramount.

M is for Mia Maljojoki, and her selection of extraordinarily ugly necklaces. If there were a ringleader of a new aesthetic within European contemporary jewelry (see Trends), then Maljojoki would be the best candidate for this role. Her work is clumsy and ugly in the most unrelenting and productive way, with Day-Glo colors, congealed surfaces and crude-looking technical solutions. The work demands attention, and feels like an important leap away from the kind of de-skilled ugly that has dominated the contemporary scene in the last few years. It introduces a new, unapologetic rudeness that is bracing, original and convincing.

N is for Nation, a concept without much currency within the European contemporary jewelry scene. While jewelers are acknowledged as having countries of origin, this information is not considered to be a useful or interesting factor in understanding and explaining the kind of contemporary jewelry they make. European contemporary jewelers make contemporary jewelry, not European (or German, or Swiss, or Dutch) contemporary jewelry. (See Geography.)


Bettina Dittlmann
Yellow Clouds brooch, 2011
acrylic glass, silver, stainless steel
4.3 x 4.2 x 0.35
photo: Michael Jank
courtesy Galerie Rosemarie Jäger

O is for Optical Effects, which are important in the brooches of Bettina Dittlmann. Plastic squares and circles are incised with complex patterns, networks of irregular, quasi-organic grids. Sometimes a double layer creates additional optical effects, and in all cases the shimmer or polish of the surface, its reflection, is important because it affects the viewer’s ability to see into the brooch, and thus the specific effects of individual pieces.

P is for Power Objects, which seems a suitable description for Catherine Truman’s beautifully carved brooches. While small, they somehow gather force into themselves in a way that produces an effect of presence and power that is incommensurate with their physical scale. Truman is an Australian jeweler, but this doesn’t matter. (See Geography and Nation.)

Q is for Quaff, which in the sense of ‘to drink deeply, luxuriously or copiously’ is both a description of your author’s willingness to make the most of the hospitality at Collect’s VIP opening, and a metaphor of the almost gluttonous engagement with objects that the fair format enforces.

R is for R-rated and Racy, which ultimately is not the point of Alexander Blank’s appropriation of the Playboy Bunny in one of his pendants. Clustered with a blank shield and a fabric covered tank as it was at Collect, the Bunny becomes part of a conceptual project which, while avoiding the appearance of effort in favor of a kind of casual engagement with the world of signs, offers a productive speculation about jewelry and its particular place in the world.


Mia Maljojoki
Explosive: Frozen Fireworks
necklace, 2010
plaster, pigment, paint, silver,
ruby, strap
5 x 4.75 x 1
photo: Mirei Takeuchi
courtesy Galerie Rob Koudijs


S is for Lucy Sarneel, and the wonderfully fauxclumsy objects (a car, for example) that have started to inhabit her jewelry. This turn towards odd elements is impressive. It represents a giving up of what is, within her practice, an easily achieved style dealing with folk culture and old materials. Sarneel seems to be plundering the toy box via the hobbyist’s studio, and the resulting jewelry rewards sustained attention.

T is for Trends, and the prevailing trend at this year’s Collect seemed to be a kind of DIY/self-made aesthetic, in which weird forms and materials are to the fore, with or without conceptual exploration. This approach seems to have replaced the popularity of assemblage, which was dominant a few years ago, and which favored the ready-made or found object.

U is for Ugly (power of). (See Mia Maljojoki.)

V is for Vera Siemund, whose jewelry consists of strange objects that resist easy analysis. Her brooches, sometimes with grim overtones, are distinctive and encourage questions: What are these things? Whose drama have I stumbled into here? What would it mean if I put these objects on – how will I become implicated?

W is for Wearing, which has a complicated relationship to contemporary jewelry. Fairs like Collect tend to downplay the relationship that contemporary jewelry has to the world, and to its wearers. This in turn emphasizes a disconnect that contemporary jewelry frequently flirts with, in which the work’s status as an expression of the jeweler’s artistic intentions displaces the wearer entirely. There is no space for the piece of jewelry to be useful by becoming an expression of the wearer’s needs. Sometimes contemporary jewelry is so caught up with being contemporary that it ignores the potential and possibility of being jewelry. Collectors, who are sometimes wearers but more often owners, exacerbate this tendency through the nature of their attention and the spaces (including the museum) into which they usher contemporary jewelry through their purchases.

X is for best use of an x-tinct (extinct) mammal in Volker Atrops’s mammoth tusk watch face, which is accompanied by a picture of a mammoth and the slogan “Time is on your side”. (See Horology.)

Y is for Yankee, and thus for an American, or person from America, a country and a practice of contemporary jewelry that tends to be represented at Collect by way of collectors rather than makers. While contemporary jewelry in Europe professes to care nothing for geography or nation, not all countries and practices of contemporary jewelry are created equal, and jewelry from Europe is much more accepted in America than jewelry from America is embraced in Europe. (See Geography and Nation.)

Z is for Zoo, and the delightful menagerie of animals, real and represented, that pop up with increasing frequency in contemporary jewelry from Europe. (See R-rated and X-tinct.)

Damian Skinner is editor of Art Jewelry Forum, the inaugural recipient of SOFA’s New Voices Grant for Discourse on International Contemporary Arts and Design Research.

Published in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO 2011 lecture, “The Bluffer’s Guide to European Jewelry” with Dr. Damian Skinner presented by Art Jewelry Forum and SOFA CHICAGO.

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