2012 Essay | Gothic Jewelry: Sinister Pleasures

2012 Essay | Gothic Jewelry: Sinister Pleasures

Gothic Jewelry: Sinister Pleasures

By Valerie Steele


Wayne Werner
Carbon Pod, 2008
carbon, diamond, black pearl, 18k and 14k yellow gold
2.25 x .5 x .5
Photo credit: Ralph Gabriner

“Gothic” is a strange epithet with a layered history, evoking images of death, destruction, and decay, the power of horror and the erotic macabre. The term, which derives from the Goths and Visigoths of antiquity, was first applied to the art and architecture of medieval Europe, then to the Victorian era’s Gothic Revival, and now generally to literary and cinematic genres that glorify the allure of mystery, terror, and the supernatural. This preoccupation with the dark side persists today in goth subculture, gothic rock and heavy metal, and the so-called “New Gothic Art.”

The artists I selected for Metalsmtih’s 2012 “Exhibition in Print” on Gothic Jewelry address a wide range of ideas and imagery: alchemy and armor; taxidermy and transience, including blood, bone, and body parts; mourning and memory; razors and reliquaries; and, of course, skulls and skeletons. Although the artists drew on many different associations, the theme of the gothic invariably provoked a sense of embodiment that made it especially appropriate for an exhibition on jewelry.

“Gothic” was originally a pejorative term, implying barbarism, as contrasted to the classicism of Western civilization. During the eighteenth-century, or Age of Enlightenment, the art and architecture of the Middle Ages were often disparaged as barbaric remnants of feudalism and superstition. As tastes changed, however, the nineteenth-century’s Gothic Revival became associated with the birth of Romanticism, and the Neo-Gothic style in architecture and the decorative arts tended to acquire more positive, often spiritual, even nostalgic, connotations. Few artists seem to have been directly inspired by the original Goths, although the popularity of Celtic motifs in gothic jewelry seems to allude indirectly to the indigenous “barbarian” cultures of northern Europe.


Diane Falkenhagen
Gothic Revival Brooch (The Sublime and the Beautiful), 2012
mixed-media image, sterling silver, 24k gold plate, brass, stainless steel ,2.5 x 3.5 x 1.75,
Photo credit: Bill Pogue

By contrast, many jewelers have been inspired by medieval art and architecture, such as Diane Falkenhagen, whose Gothic Revival Brooch captures the period’s “characteristic arches, über-decorative ceilings and jewel-like details,” as the artist states. The gothic also has another genealogy, originating, not in art and architecture, but in the lurid, eighteenth-century literature of terror, which typically portrayed the Middle Ages in terms of witch burnings, sacred relics, and dances of death. Such works spawned a literary (and later also a cinematic) genre of supernatural horror exemplified by the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker, who in turn inspired the goth subculture and goth music.

Alchemy was the focus of considerable attention during the Middle Ages, although the practice was controversial and alchemists were always liable to incur accusations of sorcery. Operating on the borderline between the study of chemistry and the practice of magic, alchemy had the goal of transmuting one substance into another, ideally base metal into gold. Wayne Werner, a metalsmith from Baltimore, whose customers include David Bowie, has created a number of works relating to alchemy, including Carbon Pod, which is “based on the idea of a chrysalis, or pod form, as a transformative space.”


Dauvit Alexander, The Justified Sinner
The Four Cocktail Rings of the Apocalypse: Pestilence, 2010
Found, corroded iron gas pipe, silver, porcelain and gold cameo (by Lisa Stevens), quartzite, white CZ
1.5 x 1.25 x 1.75
Photo credit: Neilson Photography


Medieval religion was often apocalyptic. Dauvit Alexander of Justified Sinner is a self-taught jeweler, whose work often displays a gothic sensibility, as found in his The Four Cocktail Rings of the Apocalypse. The set includes one ring for each of the Horsemen: Death (the green horse), Famine (the black horse), Conquest or Pestilence (the white horse) and War (the red horse). Each ring is distinctive in appearance, but all combine precious or semi-precious gemstones with metals representing the detritus of industrial civilization – found, corroded steel and iron, for example. Pestilence (the white horse) features the image of a human skull wearing a gold crown, thus alluding to what is perhaps the most ubiquitous form of contemporary gothic jewelry – the skull ring.


Memento mori; remember, you must die. An object, such as a skull, is considered a memento mori because it reminds us that life is transitory. With that sobering thought in mind, certain goth-inspired artists create facsimiles of skulls or skeletons in precious materials (Damien Hirst famously covered a platinum cast of a human skull in diamonds, calling it For the Love of God.); others take a different approach to the material body. Religious relics – including actual body parts, bones of saints, sacred blood – were venerated during the Medieval period, and have had a profound influence on the work of certain artist-jewelers, who incorporate bone, dead animals, hair, skin, and blood into their work. But by the late-twentieth century, as artists looked back on the past, it was no longer just the medieval period which seemed bizarrely different, but also the Victorian era with its cult of mourning, decadent poetry and fondness for taxidermy.  

Julia deVille is also fascinated by the concept of the memento mori and by “the methods the Victorians used to sentimentalize death with adornment.” She works not only in traditional gold and silversmithing techniques, and with materials such as human hair, but also, most importantly, with taxidermy.”  I consider my taxidermy to be a celebration of life, a preservation of something beautiful,” writes deVille. “To accentuate this point, I use only animals that have died of natural causes.”  Featured here is her Mechanical Wing Brooch, which is Victorian in its aesthetic sensibility, and reminds us not only of the aerial symbolism of birds and wings, but also of the horrific number of birds slaughtered to create nineteenth-century fashion accessories.


Julia deVille
Mechanical Wing Brooch, 2007
sterling silver, Kingfisher wing
6.75 x 4.75 x .75
Photo credit: Terence Bogue

Jennifer Trask frequently interrogates the concept of “embodiment,” both in terms of “physical sensation and emotional sentiment.” Quizzing Glass, a necklace with a circular pendant partially filled with blood, is one of her most striking works. Blood is a powerfully symbolic aspect of the material body – closely associated with life and death – which Trask has used in other work, such as her Poison Elixer Bracelet. Also obscurely sinister is her Queen Anne’s Lace Brooch, which refers to a flower that often has “a dark red spot in the center… that resembles a drop of blood, said to be from the Queen pricking her finger with her needle.”  Delicate in appearance, the object is constructed from steel sewing machine needles and python’s ribs.


Francis Willemstijn
Gone with the Wind (necklace), 2009
human hair, jet, glass, silver, textile 
8.75 inches diameter
Collection Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, NL
Photo credit: Francis Willemstijn


Lorena Lazard
Between Light and Darkness (brooch), 2002
sterling silver, 14k gold, titanium screw, coral
3.25 x 1.5 x .5
Photo credit: Paolo Gori


Mourning jewelry has a long history, involving mementos of the deceased worn on the body of the bereaved. Historical examples include hair jewelry, sometimes embellished with pearls, representing tears, and jewelry made of matte black materials, such as jet. The widowed Queen Victoria helped launch a veritable cult of mourning in the later nineteenth century, and Victorian mourning jewelry has had a profound impact on many contemporary artists, whose jewelry often includes references to the idea of pain and loss – both physical and emotional.

For Francis Willemstijn, an artist based in the Netherlands, works such as the Gone with the Wind hair necklace “bear the traces of the past” and make “a connection between death and life.”  Certainly, hair is an especially rich material symbolically, because it is a part of the body that may be cut and will grow again, thus alluding to the idea of rebirth. Lorena Lazard’s Between Darkness and Light is a constructed brooch incorporating an orthopedic screw made of titanium that was removed from her mother’s elbow after a surgical procedure: “The object represented pain and fear,” she says, “and I felt the need to transform it into a piece of protection and strength.” At the center of the brooch is a piece of red coral that resembles a heart, flanked by two wing-like forms in gold and silver. Lazard uses the heart as a source of imagery because it “embraces the whole of existence, life and death, presence and absence, love and hate, good and evil, happiness and sadness, passion and despair, faith and disbelief.”

Medieval reliquaries and Renaissance cabinets of curiosity (wünderkammer) are intriguing, in part because they contain strange and wonderful – and sometimes bizarre and horrifying – objects, both natural and artificial. But it is not simply that they are containers filled with treasures; they are also precious objects in and of themselves. After traveling to northern Europe to research reliquaries, Lynn Cool created Origin: radiant/evidence, a tripartite piece consisting of two wearable components: a silver and copper neckpiece of twigs (radiant), and a pendant (evidence), which includes pearls, teeth, and recycled wedding rings as “relics.” The wearable pieces are combined with a tree-like stand to make a sculpture, which, Cool says, “shares an affiliation” with historical reliquaries “through its embedded subtext that expresses preciousness through commemoration.”


Lynn Cool
Origin: radiant/evidence, 2010
copper, sterling silver, teeth, pearls, 14k gold recycled wedding rings, pearls, lenses, patina, two wearable jewelry
components in situ
20 x 23 x 18
Photo credit: Aaron Paden

Loves Lies Bleeding by Madelyn Smoak is a necklace incorporating a vintage straight razor, which appears to be dripping with blood. “My work is informed by the high drama and trauma of my Southern Gothic childhood,” says Smoak intriguingly, whose art frequently incorporates found objects, like this one, “an artifact from a vanished age,” whose original owner is long dead. The “challenge of turning a… dangerous item into something that is wearable” inspired her to begin making a series of necklaces, of which this is the first.

As we have seen, many natural forms – bones, thorns, snakes, skulls – carry powerful symbolic meanings. The artist Lyn Stanionis combines and modifies them to emphasize the “shifting and unresolved nature of the symbols in the context of uncertain fate.”  According to Stanionis, “Almost all of these forms are either cast or modeled from plants and the remains of animals I collect outside my studio in rural Kansas.”  For example, in her work Rapture, she explores “the idea of death as the final release – there is fear (the rattlesnake head) and hope (the broken egg with the knotted rope) and inevitability (the clutch of tiny rattlesnakes hidden in the grass)."


Madelyn Smoak
Love Lies Bleeding (neckpiece), 2009
antique straight razor, fine silver,
etched copper, jewelers' resin,
Czech crystals, garnet, found chain
24 inches in length(excluding razor blade)
Photo credit: Seth Tice-Lewis


Lin Stanionis
Rapture, 2010
cast urethane resin, 18k gold


Stanionis views such works as gothic because, according to her, they evoke “the notion of the sublime, the mystery of existence, and the accompanying sense of awe and fear.”  In addition, “the use of ornamentation is in some ways Gothic as… the symbols and the ornament are one and the same, and it is a dense ornament, one that is primal and speaks on an emotional level.” Gothic work, Stanionis suggests, has a “dual emotional quality of fear and attraction.”  It is “a pleasure to the eye but fused with a sinister undertone.”  It “engages the imagination” at the site where “visual pleasure is offset by what is dark, uncertain, and confused.””

So here is gothic jewelry in all its sinister beauty and mystery – contemporary works that transform fear and desire into living art.

Valerie Steele is director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The author of more than a dozen books, including The Corset and Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Culture, she is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture.

This is an abridged version of an essay that first appeared in the 2012 “Exhibition in Print” issue of Metalsmith magazine, published by the Society of North American Goldsmiths and made possible with the generous support of the Rotasa Foundation.

Appears in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO 2012 special exhibit Gothic Jewelry: Sinister Pleasures – Metalsmith's 2012 curated Exhibition in Print Presented by Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG).

Copyright © Sculpture Objects Functional Art and Design 2018. All Rights Reserved.
Produced by Urban Expositions, a Clarion Events Company | Privacy