This article series from Metalsmith Magazine is named “Recent Sightings” where Bruce Metcalf talks about art, craftmanship, design, the artists, and techniques. For this 1991 Spring issue, he talks about gender related nature of jewelry designs.
Before becoming a jewelry designer and goldsmith I was a sociologist. In the late 70s, I left behavioral science to follow my need to create, to use my hands and to indulge in the beauty of precious metals and gemstones. Along with two friends, I opened a design/jewelry store where, perhaps unconsciously, our feminist values showed in our approach to retailing and in our one-of-a-kind products. This store remains the primary retail outlet for my work, but at least hall of my time is devoted to commissions.
Those who buy my jewelry reinforce my belief in the gender-related nature of jewelry and design. I feel that the way I find my clients and the way I work with them represent a departure from “the norm.” But before I elaborate, the sociologist in me insists on a “framework” – hence the pedantic background notes that follow.
In contemporary Western societies, the traditional mores regarding precious gems and jewelry have dictated that women wear “fine” jewelry more often than men – and more of it as well. In most cases, the jewelry worn by women has been given to them by men. This arrangement not only underscores the favored economic status of men as providers but also emphasizes their control of discretionary giving.
A man’s act of bestowing is essentially the proffering of a contract. It is tacitly understood by the “parties to the transaction” that a woman’s acceptance of the gift serves as her consent to form or renew a commitment to some level of personal agreement, obligation or compliance. To both parties, the consequence has immediate and anticipated long-term reciprocal value. In addition to the testimonial joy of giving, the giver gains social recognition for the observable value of his gift and for the affectionate assent its acceptance implies. The receiver gains the talisman of personal esteem as well as an ornamentation of recognizable value and beauty, which enhances her visual appearance. At the same time, her adornment serves to display the attentive devotion of a partner or admirer, thereby confirming her social value as a female. (Not unimportantly, the gift of gold and gems also represents an actual commodity transfer to a woman, increasing her personal wealth and status.)
These mutual exchanges of confidence usually manifest themselves in predictable designs. Engagement, wedding and anniversary jewelry, along with most other gifts to a beloved, display a narrow range of possibilities: a simple graphic arrangement of gemstones or symbols such as hearts, bows, locks, flowers or animals. The design choice generally belongs entirely to the giver; it is his “indulgence” and the factors that influence his decision are respected as appropriate.
As women have gained economic stature and the power that comes with it, their own purchases have given rise to the concept of jewelry as a form of self-affirmation: defensible gratification, meritorious reward for accomplishment and commendable selection of the attributes of social status. Realizations of “I am my own woman” and “l am successful” have led to recognition of independent identity and assertion of artistic confidence. Decisions about jewelry – what kind it will be, where and when it will be worn, what esthetics it will represent, what colors it will include and how much money will be invested in it – are more and more frequently the owner’s option and the owner/buyer is a woman with her own design choices. With this growing category of jewelry buyers, the parameters of design have expanded.
Almost all of my clients are women buying jewelry for themselves. They individually and collectively represent a spirit of liberation and freedom to which I respond with respect and exuberance. The words that I hope would be chosen to describe my work would also describe my clients – beautiful, strong, intriguing, evocative, challenging, ebullient, original, skillful. These women come from all walks of life. Many are connected with colleges and universities; many are corporate executives and health professionals. Some are artists and musicians and small business owners. Some are tradespeople. Several are lawyers; two are judges. Others are in less remunerative positions. Many have survived and surmounted personal challenges often associated with relationships to men in business or family. In common, these women customers choose to herald themselves with jewelry and they have the confidence to choose out-of-the-ordinary designs.
The method I use actively involves the client and produces what I believe are singularly distinctive pieces. Initially, I meet a client at her office or home, preferably the latter. I like to see the art and style with which she surrounds herself. After a few moments of conversation, during which I learn a little about the person and listen to a bit about what she has in mind, I explain my perception of jewelry design. I think of my skills and knowledge of gemstones and metals as a reservoir from which to create sculptural forms that are conceptually provocative, dynamic in feeling and still essentially wearable. I do not meet a client with preconceived notions about what techniques and design elements should be incorporated in this woman’s jewelry. The resultant piece may be fabricated, cast, formed or “all of the above.” Accordingly, each client interaction is just as open and new for me as it is for the client.
Using a Caramate slide projector, I then begin a portfolio presentation of 80 slides I think are representative of the kind of work I have done and still like to do. I ask the client to look at the slides twice – the first time I make a fairly quick pass through the portfolio and ask the client to identify which pieces she has a positive feeling about and which pieces she does not. This process serves the client by reassuring her that I am a competent jeweler and designer and that I can do so many different types of work that she is not likely to get stuck with something she doesn’t like. (Of course, I have already reassured her that no design will be executed until she has approved a drawing, a mockup or a war model.) By the conclusion of this first round, I have a fair idea of what forms and methods the client will probably like. The second, refining round proceeds much more slowly around an in-depth discussion of preferences. I try to stretch the client’s imagination by stressing design elements, options in colors, textures and forms, and by asking for the maximum dimensions that she will enjoy.
By my attitude and suggestions, I invite, if not almost dare, people to go as far as they can with their hopes and expectations for the piece. In the course of our dialogue (which lasts about an hour), we mutually determine if we want to work together. If I do not want to make what someone envisions, I will recommend another jeweler. Our success rate, however, is quite high: the client has the assurance that she will have my total attention and receive a piece of jewelry as fine as those that she has liked in the portfolio, and I will have the opportunity to create an entirely new object based on techniques and design elements that I like and that are energized by the input of an interested and vital person.
Like other artists and craftspeople, I find my inspiration in myriad sources. In commissions, what I come to know of my client serves as one of these sources. I enjoy “intuiting” a person’s spirit and having that breathe life into a conceptual design. When I see the client again, I find the presentation of the promised mockup, drawing or wax model design to be an exciting and anxious moment. There is a definite thrill in presenting the “factualization” of my intuition and the creativity that I feel has its sources in our collaboration.
I attribute this type of dramatic, interactive art experience to the expansion of feminist consciousness and economic power. When people, women or men, are able to surpass the restraints of sexism, racism and financial hegemony, when they are able to develop their inherent and potential value, then they are in a position to push out their boundaries and to exalt their own creativity.
*In this article, I am referring only to what we call “precious” or “fine” jewelry–jewelry incorporating gold, silver or platinum and diamonds and/or colored gemstones. Less expensive jewelry, commonly referred to as “costume jewelry,” opens up the doors for self- expression through ornamentation and expands the latitude of the “meaning” of jewelry; but it is not governed by so many shibboleths regarding its gift and receipt.