The loudspeaker blares: “Ladies and gentleman, in this corner, we have BIG ART JEWELRY!” With huge armlets keeping his arms akimbo, sweating meaning and ideas, BIG ART turns to reveal his breastplate emblazoned with I Am Jewelry, I Really Am to the thunderous applause of those in the know.

“And in that corner, striking a classic pose, the traditional, the decorative, BOURGEOIS BIJOU!” Those with money cheer wildly as B.B. displays his diamond studded fingers and tasteful single pearl earrings. The bell rings for yet another round in this never-ending dispute…

Production Bench
Catherine Butler, Caryatids earings, sterling silver, brass, copper, 2¼ x ½ x ⅛” each (approx..)

While these two duke it out, I would like to address a portion of the vast playing field that falls between them. I tire of a polarization of our field that is not helpful. Both art jewelry and (for lack of a better term) accent jewelry have their place in the pantheon. The makers of big art jewelry should acknowledge that decoration itself can have significance, meaning, and importance. They need to admit that their own work is aimed at the jewelry cognoscenti, and stop lamenting, that the average person will not forego wearing a coat in January to accommodate their work. The school of jewelry as accent needs to concede that jewelry can be forthright in making a statement, and that even jewelry which is not suitable for everyone and every occasion is still jewelry and has value.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Although we live in a culture that craves spectacle, very few people have the panache to pull off wearing performance style jewelry. The very fact that people wear our work gives it a power not available to the other arts. Even seemingly innocuous jewelry reveals something about the person wearing it. This can be subtle or blatant; the message can be in the jewelry itself or in the manner in which it is worn. We risk creating a vacuum for ourselves if we cling to arguing that the only work of consequence in our field is that which pushes the boundaries of wearability. Jewelry has at its core other issues too: beauty, remembrance, group identification, self-expression, status, and fashion come to mind. In our heterogeneous society, how each of us deals with these issues keeps our field exciting. Pigeonholing ourselves keeps us from a wider, more interesting discussion.

Catherine Butler, Sprites earings, sterling silver, 1½ x ¾ x ¼” each (approx.)

It is vital that we educate the public at large to the relevance of both the decorative and fine arts, in order to counteract the numbing sameness of homogenized mall culture. The decorative arts have an advantage in this task as it, especially jewelry, can play such a familiar and intimate part in people’s daily lives. We are fortunate to be jewelers. It is a calling with deep prehistoric roots. In an era when many people are losing their jobs to technology and downsizing, we still have ours. The human need for jewelry is not about to disappear. Jewelry is used for gifts, as awards, to show affection, and to mark milestones in people’s lives: birthdays, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, and retirements. Some of those pieces are subsequently handed down as family heirlooms. It is an honor to be able to fill these human needs in such an extraordinary way. Our task as jewelers is to tap into these needs of individuals, to exceed their expectations and to cultivate audiences for our work.

Production work often seems to be left out of the jewelry dialogue entirely, unless it is being sneered at as being merely mercenary repetition. I would like to argue that good production work not only fills a need for affordable jewelry, but it can also provide an entryway to the public’s understanding of more difficult work. In some ways, because of its affordability production work can be more subversive and have a greater impact than one-of-a-kind work, simply because it serves as a broader way to reach more people. I do not think this in any way diminishes the power or value of one-of-a-kind pieces. I do think they serve different purposes and fill different needs. Doing both production and one-offs myself, I find that my production lines always evolve out of my one-of-a-kinds. It is a challenge to distill the essence of a unique piece into something with a quality that can bear repetition. One of the beauties of running a small production studio is that it is possible to explore so many variations on a given theme. Determining the breadth of repetition requires attention; one needs to use good sense as to when a one-of-a-kind series has run its course. However, by its nature production is repetition. It can be limited from the start like a print edition and numbered accordingly. It can also be left to run its course in the marketplace. Some pieces fizzle in a year or two. Other series may go on for many years. If a goal for making production jewelry is to get it out there into people’s lives, and if the work continues to sell, that is a bonus. It is difficult to make a living doing such work. I get angry when small production jewelers are accused of selling out and are put in the same boat with the mass production jewelry outlet stores. It is possible to do production work with integrity and it is a way of making an honest living.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Catherine Butler, People earings, copper, brass, nickel silver, epoxy inlay, 1⅞ x 1 x ⅛” each (approx.)

One of the factors leading to my own production lines was economic – both for myself and for those who buy my work. I wanted the satisfaction of making a living and seeing my pieces worn, and I knew people who hungered for jewelry that was both out of the ordinary and affordable. In the past 15 years I have found that there are a lot of these individuals. I have also found in this audience a great need for education. Through residencies in schools, I have worked with students, parents, and teachers, people whose ideas about jewelry come primarily from magazine advertisements, the mall, or perhaps a family heirloom. For the most part, they are fascinated with the idea of an individual conceiving of a piece of jewelry, producing it and making a living in the process. An interesting side note is that once some people know that I make jewelry, they assume that I make all the jewelry I wear. It is enlightening for them to learn, that like other artists, jewelers too, have individual styles and directions. When someone makes a remark about the earrings I’m wearing and I tell them that they were made by another artist or myself, that person is often intrigued. My experiences lead me to believe that people are more receptive to new ideas about jewelry than we often think. I have known both men and women to pierce their ears so they could wear my smallest, simplest earrings. He may go on to buy a pin. She may save up for a pair of one-of-a-kind earrings or a necklace. They may never wear big art jewelry, but eventually they may enjoy seeing it and thinking about it.

At times I think the reason that the more dramatic jewelry gets the focus in publications is because it reproduces so stunningly in photographs. Jewelry which functions well as an intimate detail and which may be very much alive on one’s clothing or body can be difficult to capture in a photograph. If it is not a glamorous piece, fashion-style photography does not suit it and it seems to be lacking something when photographed on its own. One of the delights offered by jewelry is in noticing it moving with someone’s body, when passing by, in conversation, or in more intimate surroundings. Photography, though necessary for documentation in publications and periodicals, does not show the way a piece moves, sounds or interacts with the person wearing it.

Catherine Butler, Feeding the Birds necklace and earings, copper, brass, sterling silver, epoxy inlay, glass beads, 2⅞ x 2½ x ⅛” (large figure)

In Bali, art is so entwined in daily life, that there is no word for it; art is not seen as something separate and apart. In western civilization, throughout this century, a major artistic pursuit has been to challenge bourgeois values and set art apart from common ideas. As jewelers, we do not need to disadvantage ourselves by making our work less accessible merely to prove a point about our stature as artists. Today, with the marginalization of the arts’ the impending disappearance of the middle class, and the creeping chaos of the approaching millennium, the idea of a constant linear progression to new, better territory needs to be questioned. We need to reconstruct some stability for an inclusive, civilized society using the best ideas of the past.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

In our own field, it behooves us to look closely at all that the word jewelry signifies. We need to look at our aversion to the word jeweler in both our critical writing and among ourselves. We should take note that our criticism often discusses issues and aesthetics only as they pertain to the work itself and the maker, but not the wearer or the wearer’s needs. Function is usually examined only in terms of wearability if at all. Jewelry has emotional, spiritual, and sentimental functions too. How contemporary work deals with these uses and needs is left unaddressed. How does our work counteract the banality that the industrial revolution and mass production have engendered, and reach people who want more than what the mall offers but who do not know where to look? These are issues that bear investigation. In our own culture alone, there exists a profusion of views of beauty and desirability from one who feels elegantly beautiful in diamonds and pearls to one who feels exotically beautiful with multiple piercings; and that is looking only at the beauty aspect of jewelry. A vast arena exists in which we can play. As jewelers we need to look at what jewelry is and can be in people’s lives, and encourage the best work in all aspects of our field.

Catherine Butler is a jeweler in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.