Modes of Working with Jewelry

This short paper offers a set of names to describe how the jewellery metals field is made up in terms of the way practitioners approach their medium. There is no great truth to the way this has been done; it is just to have tools to discuss the subject with.

8 Minute Read

By Charles Lewton-BrainMore from this author

This short paper offers a set of names to describe how the jewellery metals field is made up in terms of the way practitioners approach their medium. There is no great truth to the way this has been done; it is just to have tools to discuss the subject with.

I think it is useful to analyse systems and give names to their parts so as to be able to discuss them with others. Therefore we will look at some of the ways that people approach working in the field; their modes of working. I've rather arbitrarily decided to call them industry, fashion, process oriented, formal, intuitive, expressionist, folk, conceptual, political and confrontational, international and jewellery as image.

By considering such categories one can choose or at least observe how one works and with which biases. This allows greater choice in composition and more freedom in composition due to more conscious decision making. Some people concentrate within a given mode while others such as Barbara Heinrich work across the entire spectrum of choices. Like most I use aspects of many of them when I work. There follow some brief definitions of these modes of working. One can consider these definitions tools for discussion, with others and oneself.


This is the cast gold and gem work one sees in most commercial jewelry stores. Design variations are often limited and conventions such as the use of white gold heads with yellow shanks and standard gold alloys are common. Just as in Detroit car design older designs are disassembled into components and re-arranged in a formal manner according to commercial conventions, almost always using precious metals with gemstones. The importance and value of the work is as product . The context and references the work has are commercial, social, economic and have to do with status in society. Work is also produced that functions as a type of signifier, a uniform; telling the viewer of the adornment of the achievements, religious, organizational, corporate or economic affiliations of the wearer.


This jewelry resembles that seen in fashion magazines which is mass produced and sells well for a time period to be superseded by a different or varied mass produced style. Marketing is an integral part of what makes fashion jewellery sell, and marketing occurs using images. Frequently of inexpensive materials, the design or surfaces are often derived from some element of International or Art oriented modes of working. The design strength is frequently watered down from the original type. The quality of the work is usually compromised by market factors, aspects of function and manufacturing and production requirements. Nevertheless the work serves as a useful conduit or filter by which ideas pass from a relatively small avante garde group of innovators to the general public, creating slow change in what constitutes acceptable design to the buying public.

Process Oriented

The final resolution of the work is influenced or guided by the working process used to make it. The artist is open to the use of serendipity and utilizing effects produced by the process of working the material. The marks of process are used as part of the composition, design or references the work may have. Visual feedback is used to determine the composition of the object; decisions are made in an aesthetic response to changes observed during the making: form is derived from the working process and the nature of the material rather than being forced upon it as may happen in other modes of working.


The composition consists of fixed or regular elements organized according to traditional or non-traditional design rules: strict design. Often the elements are simple in form, sometimes geometric. The organization is based upon rhythms, visual balance and mass, texture, color and form relationships. While the work may make references to other works it is in a formal manner and is essentially self-sufficient; able to stand by itself without knowledge of context or reference. One needs little or no further information to understand it. One should note that to some extent all working modes involve some kind of formal approach to the actual composition of the piece.


Work that is made in ignorance of, or deletion of traditional or accepted design rules. It is where the maker's decisions during the working process are made by what "feels right" rather than being governed by formal compositional rules and systems. While it can result from active avoidance or discarding of design rules on the part of the artist it often results from educational institutions that no longer teach 2D and 3D design systems; to my mind all too common in North America in the last decade or so. I would not wish everyone to follow rigid rules of extreme formalism, merely that students have an understanding of design systems so they can refer to them or dispose of them at will rather than choosing an intuitive approach through lack of choice. Intuitive work is by no means naive. An experienced practitioner will have developed their own system of personal design rules and considerations, symbols and repeated relationships of elements, colors, textures and references, all of which are manipulated in a formal manner that is personal to the maker.


Work that deals with emotions; emotive expression. When such work appears in jewelry there is often a relationship to recent events in painting. It usually involves a less geometric approach to design and often uses imagery. Sometimes narrative it makes reference to personal feelings experienced by the artist. Personal symbols are created by the maker, elements and materials are assigned symbolic value and their meaning and relationships to other symbols and elements in the work become a compositional element for the artist; some people work intuitively, some more formally.. Bruce Metcalfe's work is an example of work that deals with expressionist issues. Such work is often artist-centered, that is it serves as a way for the artist to externalize their psychological concerns and even to work these out through making such work. It is then less audience dependent and interactive than other modes of working though part of its role may be in the evocation of emotions. We can see and infer information from the work, its materials and symbols but part of it is private, available only when the artist chooses to reveal it to us. There is then a certain mystery to work in an expressionist mode.


Jewelry made according to established tradition of an ethnic or culturally defined group. Vernacular jewelry that is made in a certain way because that is how one makes it. Commercial jewelry in the West is almost a type of "folk" jewelry because of its numerous conventions.


Related to International, political and confrontational work. The idea is of paramount importance and the piece exists in service to the idea. At its best it provokes thought and questioning in the viewer which reflect the thoughts of the artist when they designed the piece. Often a juxtaposition of elements or contexts is used. Formal composition, material and subject are in service to the concept of the piece and while the piece may stand on its own usually the provoked thought is necessary for full understanding of the piece. Sometimes it is insular jewelry world contexts that are necessary to understand the work - it is played (in a theatrical sense) for other jewellers. Otto Kunzli and Peter Skubic are examples in this genre. There are few North American examples of this type of work. It seems to me that the market, salability and preciousness as an issue prevent many North Americans from approaching jewelry in this manner.

Political and Confrontational

Political jewelry derives from or refers to political issues, usually current ones. Humor, irony and satire may often appear in political work. Confrontational jewelry is designed to provoke a reaction or response in the viewer. The response desired may be pro or con the subject addressed or it may simply be to raise questions in the viewers mind. For its function to be fulfilled it must be interactive with the viewer. This is special in that it uses the viewers experience and thought to complete itself, a quality it shares with conceptual work. The roles and contexts of propaganda are often important in dealing with such work. Examples of it might include campaign buttons and the work of Harriet Estel Berman.


This is the "New Jewelry" of Ralph Turner and Peter Dormer. I might define it as jewelry that resembles in style the work published in the international magazines and major exhibition catalogs in any period of several years. It is a phenomenon of image, that is that it exists and is experienced and responded to internationally primarily as image and media product.

Jewelry as Image

I inferred above that "New Jewelry" is dependent on and effects responses in working goldsmiths by means of magazines, catalogs and other images: documentation. Its influence is worldwide and real but the work is experienced as photographic images by most people interacting with it. The physical experience of the work is removed - and so are subtleties of visual and tactile experience that normally provide much information about an object. Peter Dormer writing in the December 1987 Lemel (Australia) notes that "New Jewelry" is often disappointing when viewed in person.

Nevertheless communication through imagery is a vital, real method of interaction between makers. Those who experiment with light projections as jewelry or set up careful photographs have recognized the nature of what they are doing and understand that their creation is not physical jewelry but a reference to it. It is essential to make images of your work and share them with others. Just don't confuse an image object and experience with an physical object and experience.

To conclude, the foregoing definitions may be useful as a way of evaluating how one works or likes to work and therefore allow one greater choice in how to work, design and compose.

All rights reserved internationally. Copyright ©Charles Lewton-Brain. Users have permission to download the information and share it as long as no money is made. No commercial use of this information is allowed without permission in writing from Charles Lewton-Brain.

You assume all responsibility and risk for the use of the safety resources available on or through this web page. The International Gem Society LLC does not assume any liability for the materials, information and opinions provided on, or available through, this web page. No advice or information provided by this website shall create any warranty. Reliance on such advice, information or the content of this web page is solely at your own risk, including without limitation any safety guidelines, resources or precautions, or any other information related to safety that may be available on or through this web page. The International Gem Society LLC disclaims any liability for injury, death or damages resulting from the use thereof.

Charles Lewton-Brain

Master goldsmith Charles Lewton-Brain trained, studied and worked in Germany, Canada and the United States to learn the skills he uses. Charles Lewton-Brain is one of the original creators of Ganoksin.

The All-In-One Jewelry Making Solution At Your Fingertips

When you join the Ganoksin community, you get the tools you need to take your work to the next level.

Become a Member

Trusted Jewelry Making Information & Techniques

Sign up to receive the latest articles, techniques, and inspirations with our free newsletter.