THE BAD NEWS
First, some cold hard truths about the fine-jewellery industry in this country. It’s in somewhat of a crisis: excessive regulation of the industry by government and cheap imports from the East have systematically eroded the market for locally produced jewellery over the past 15 years or so, closing down countless businesses as a result. Add to that the ever-increasing numbers of the affluent middle-class emigrating, the high price of precious metals and stones due to the unfavourable exchange rate, and the growing reluctance of wealthy clients to spend on a commodity that comes with a high risk of being stolen, and it’s a bleak picture indeed. Not bleak in a romantic, Wuthering Heights kind of way, but actually bleak.
Given all those negative factors, it’s quite surprising that the category of jewellery known as contemporary or art jewellery is relatively unknown and under-appreciated here. It’s well placed to provide an alternative kind of adornment from that provided by the traditional industry, and it could function as a stimulus for fine jewellery by making consumers care again about where and by whom their jewellery is made. Granted, it’s a niche category. Very niche. Couldn’t really get niche-er.
WHAT IS IT EXACTLY?
Truthfully, it’s kind of hard to define but is often characterised by an experimental approach to unconventional materials. Art jewellery can also be made from precious metals and stones, it can be quite conceptual, communicate specific ideas, and even be unwearable — but it can also be playful or simply beautiful. It can be much larger and bolder than traditional fine jewellery, but also very tiny and delicate. Broad-ranging — like all art, in fact.
The common thread that binds it all together in its own category is that it is made by an individual artist/craftsperson (which is why it is sometimes referred to as “author jewellery” overseas), so it is very much about that person’s idiosyncratic artistic expression. Each piece is also emphatically unique. These factors are both its strength and weakness: most contemporary jewellers are forced to make more commercial work or teach to earn a living because it’s very difficult to access the right buyers for their art pieces.
ALIVE WITH POSSIBILITY
What we lack in SA are collectors for this kind of art, yet it has all the potential to be a great thing to collect. A piece of art jewellery is significantly cheaper than most pieces of fine art, and its portability means it can travel with you to social environments where it can act as an immediate starting point for a conversation. Jewellery’s intimate scale and connection to the body make it a great vehicle for engagement and communication. This relatively untapped potential of art jewellery to be collected by connoisseurs is starting to be exploited in Europe and America, with some of the big-name auction houses including more contemporary pieces in their jewellery sales.
The biggest obstacle in getting collectors for contemporary jewellery is, of course, showing it in spaces where those potential collectors can see it. It is not regarded as fine art so it is difficult to get art galleries to exhibit it, and there is only one gallery in the country dedicated exclusively to showing art jewellery (Tinsel Gallery in Johannesburg — of which I am an owner), which is not nearly enough. It’s extreme niche nature means it often falls into the cracks between categories — not quite fine art, not quite craft, not quite fashion — with the result that it is generally ignored by those three fields. But it could just as easily be embraced by all three, and exhibited on those platforms.
It does help turn the spotlight on contemporary jewellery when fine artists choose it as a medium, as happened recently with the cameo pieces produced by Cindy Sherman and Catherine Opie for the Venice Biennale, and in the past with artists like Picasso, Dali, and Koons designing various jewellery pieces. Of course, those pieces are not art jewellery in the sense that we’ve been describing it here, because they were not made by the artists themselves, but they certainly help with bringing an awareness that there is something different from your usual gold-and-diamond fare out there.
THE GOOD NEWS
Locally, there have been some positive moves in the past few years to coax contemporary jewellery out of the dark shadows of the art world, where it has been skulking for a long time. The first of these was the launch of the South African Contemporary Jewellery Awards by Eugene Hön, director of the Fada Gallery at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). It is the first jewellery competition to focus exclusively on design rather than materials (the other big competitions were sponsored by the big mining houses). The second is the creation of the African Contemporary Jewellery Association, and the yearly conference that it hosts, which was spearheaded by the head of the UJ jewellery department Farieda Nazier.
The third is the invitation given to Tinsel Gallery to exhibit work in Germany in March next year at Frame, a prestigious showing of contemporary jewellery that is part of Munich Jewellery Week. And finally, the inaugural SA Jewellery Week, started by two young lecturers from UJ, Khanya Mthethwa and Thato Radebe, has just taken place in Joburg.
Jewellery as art needs to be seen to be believed, and we have many great contemporary jewellers in this country whose work deserves to be shown, seen, and worn with pride.
• From the November edition of Wanted 2019.