Are jewellery exhibitions art, and why the recent rise in them?

This month, seven exhibitions that celebrate art jewellery are presented concurrently across Australia. Are we witnessing a rise, and what are the contemporary triggers for expression across this genre?

When we think of jewellery it is usually as body adornment or a status symbol, perhaps an expression of love or a sentimental reminder of the past. Largely, such pieces sits under the mantle of fashion, power and accessories.

However, for some, jewellery is art. Jewellery has pushed beyond the craft or design label and entered our art galleries as a contemporary artform and expression of our times. A suite of new exhibition currently on show across Australia is testament to this refreshed thinking.

The “frocks and rocks” approach to exhibition programming has escalated since the turn of the millennium, with the exhibition From Picasso to Koons: The artist as jeweller at The Bass Museum of Art, Miami in 2012, a milestone that challenged the long history which jewellery held within the craft tradition, turning to some of the world’s great “brand-name” artists to chisel away at perceptions.

Curator of that exhibition, Diane Venet stated: ‘…jewelry is not a lesser art, either. It should be about new ideas, new materials, new techniques. Artist-designed jewelry is its own field.’

Read: Jewellery as art

Locally, Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria (2014) was a good catalyst for this extension of design and jewellery into the art museum space, as was the first blockbuster in Australia devoted exclusively to jewellery will be held in Canberra, Cartier: The Exhibition (2018).

In 2019, the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) presented To Have and to Hold: The Daalder Collection of Contemporary Jewellery, which took a look at 100 years of art jewellery, while later that same year, the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) also turned its lens to jewellery with the exhibition Beyond Bling!

This month, Australia is witness to seven individual jewellery exhibitions.

Geelong Gallery Director & CEO, Jason Smith weighted in on the topic. ‘Jewellery and wearable objects have cross-cultural and cross- generational appeal due to human fascination with adornment and the evolution of jewellery as a discipline and a form.’

The Gallery has just opened the major exhibition, Blanche Tilden ripple effect: a 25 year survey, which will tour nationally.

Artist-jewellers who have smashed the stereotypes

The impact that artists can make through jewellery is not new.

In the spring of 1936, artist Meret Oppenheim proposed the idea of a fur bracelet to iconic Paris fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and the furry metal cuff appeared in that year’s winter collection.

In 1956, one year before he would trademark International Klein Blue, the artist Yves Klein began producing Petite Vénus Bleue in an edition of 500, each version mounted within a Plexiglas box outfitted in gold leaf. Whether worn as a brooch or strung as a pendant, the small Klein Venus takes on new meaning, providing something sacred to wear.

There are countless examples across history. What appears to have shifted more recently is an awareness that artist-made jewellery can co-exit in the hallowed vitrines of an art museum, the gallery shop, and the bespoke specialist jeweller’s studio.

Perhaps we can find the answer to this cultural shift in the words of ex-Sotheby’s jewellery expert, Joanna Hardy, who has turned to curating jewellery exhibitions. She believes that it is time jewellers were seen in the same light as other artists.

‘Jewellery has had this problem of being seen as a commodity and not an art form, particularly when diamonds feature so prominently,’ Hardy said.

Blanche Tilden wearing Blanche Tilden’s Long Conveyor II (necklace) 2021. Geelong Galley collection. Photographer: Marcus Scholz.

Current exhibitions that feature jewellery as art

Tilden ripple effect: a 25 year survey is a major statement, and has opened at Geelong Gallery (8 May – 1 August) before it will tour nationally.

The Melbourne based jeweller Blanche Tilden is known for transforming everyday and industrial materials into aesthetically refined, conceptually rich wearable objects, explained Geelong Gallery Director & CEO, Jason Smith.

‘Tilden’s work appeals across art, craft, design and industrial design disciplines and is often interpreted as accessible and democratic rather than exclusive,’ said Smith, adding that her work ‘has a strong contemporary relevance in terms of its materiality and the techniques of its production’.

Embracing the key themes of mechanical movement, and industrial and architectural uses of glass and translating these concepts to the intimacy of the jewellery object, these ‘mini sculptures’ speak of now, as well as tapping into zeitgeist conversations of our urban footprint.

Also turning to an environmental message is the exhibition Kyoko Hashimoto: Bioregional Bodies presented by UNSW Galleries (Sydney) from 7 May – 31 July. Hashimoto is a Japanese-born Australian designer concerned with sustainable practices, and creates objects that address existential threats posed by globalised resource extraction.

Hashimoto is interested in how designers engage with materials for production and their relationship to the land, and for this exhibition has used materials found in the Sydney Basin.

Installation view Kyoko Hashimoto: Bioregional Bodies at UNSW Galleries. Image supplied.

UNSW Galleries explains: ‘Hashimoto prompts their examination from different vantage points – political, ecological, aesthetic and temporal – and questions the role that coal, concrete and sandstone play in our culture and economy. In revaluing local materials, Hashimoto’s jewellery questions the design, making and manufacturing paradigms of our time, as well as the ethical complexities of local versus global resources’.

Opening this week at Australian Design Centre, Sydney, is Made / Worn: Australian Contemporary Jewellery, which presents 22 outstanding contemporary jewellers working in Australia now.

In her essay for the project, Melinda Young writes, ‘Contemporary jewellery practice sits at the crossroads of craft, design, and art, it positions “the human body as a general working area”. Contemporary jewellery not only sees the making of recognisable forms of adornment using “known” materials, it also has an “open attitude to methods and material”, questioning and pushing against ideas of what traditional jewellery can (or could) be’.

And in Canberra, Craft ACT: Craft + Design Centre has a suite of three exhibitions also opening this week that explore the nuance of storytelling through jewellery.

Small Connections is a group exhibition featuring JamFactory Metal Studio staff and associates, and is centered around the concept of connectivity and communication that jewellery offers the giver, receiver and wearer.

Sarra Tzijan, neck piece, 2021. In Small Connections at Craft ACT Gallery. Photo: Grant Hancock

Body Layer; Semblance and Self has been curated by Simon Cottrell and presents the works of 11 Australian and International artists who push beyond the familiar constraints of conventional physical jewellery formats.

‘Through their expanded propositions each of these artist’s works also hints at what may be missing from the dominant globalised preconception of “jewellery” as merely a trend based decorative object, i.e., that conveying one’s true self through jewellery can be a means of heightening compassionate understandings of each other. Moreover, that the action of socially acknowledging the breadth and diversity of human identity can enable a more equitable and cohesive society’, writes Cottrell.

Completing the trilogy is The Neck, a group exhibition curated by Bridget Kennedy that zones in on that sensual part of the body, a site of vulnerability and strength. She has invited artists to explore the neck as a vehicle for political, social, and environmental critique.

Perhaps best illustrating the contemporary blur around the jewellery genre is First Nations artist and designer Maree Clark, who makes sculptures using the vernacular of jewellery. NGV Australia has just this week announced the first major retrospective of the Melbourne-based artist and designer: Ancestral Memories.

Clarke’s multidisciplinary practice traverses across photography, sculpture, glass and more, with her contemporary jewellery incorporating kangaroo teeth, river reeds and echidna quills.

And one for the diary: Radiant Pavilion is the Melbourne Contemporary Jewellery and Object Biennial – a celebration of the many aspects of contemporary jewellery and object practice in Melbourne and around the world. It recently announced its next edition will be held 4-12 September 2021.

Co-Directors Claire McArdle and Chloë Powell take the helm for this next event, which has been presented over the past five years. The last edition in 2017 ran from 26 August – 3 September 2017, presenting the work of 324 artists through 80 events, and was accompanied by two writing projects featuring eight writers and three professional practice seminars.

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Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina