Recent Sightings: Quality Jewelry

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By Bruce MetcalfMore from this author

This article series from Metalsmith Magazine is named "Recent Sightings" where Bruce Metcalf talks about art, craftsmanship, design, the artists, and techniques. For this 1995 Fall issue, he talks about quality jewelry.


No coherent explanation has been advanced for the specific qualities of so-called art jewelry. Jewelry with ambitions to the status of art, production jewelry, social jewelry, and fashion jewelry are all mushed together in a single category. Unfortunately, many potential collectors don't realize that there are distinct types of jewelry, and they're confused as to why art jewelry should be different (and more expensive) than any other type. As long as those distinctions remain obscure, art jewelry will face a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace.

The first distinction that sets art jewelry apart, is degree of formal and conceptual invention. Art jewelry is invested in the Modernist idea of originality: that something new can be contributed to an existing context. Obviously, nothing is completely original, but degrees of newness exist. For instance, the way Fred Woell and Don Tompkins used found objects to make jewelry into social commentary was new. Even though historical .jewelry has often incorporated found material, and found objects had been widely used in painting and sculpture since the early Cubist era, Woell and Tompkins did something fresh with the idea. They combined things in a new way, within the context of jewelry.

To discern innovation requires knowledge, and this is one of the major problems in the marketplace. The failure to properly attribute innovations in American jewelry bedevils this field. The history of contemporary jewelry is fragmentary, and there is no authoritative text for reference. Qualitative distinctions, based on who made the innovation and who followed later, can't be drawn until the history is documented and disseminated. That's why jewelers must educate gallery owners, and the owners must educate their clients.

To further clarify the picture, distinctions can be made between good one-of-a-kind jewelry and production jewelry. Production jewelry is a design repeated in an (usually) open-ended series. In printmaking, the number of repetitions is specified on each print, making explicit how many of the prints exist in the world. While this is not an aesthetic consideration, it is a factor in marketing. The marketplace values rarity, and supposedly, the more scarce a commodity is, the more valuable it can be. The indeterminate numbers of production jewelry editions should render them less valuable, compared to unique jewelry. If gallery owners were honest, they would admit that production series may extend into the hundreds. Also, jewelers should number their editions. However, such rectitude is unlikely, and it falls upon the makers of one-of-a-kind jewelry to stress the uniqueness of their work.

After all, part of the value-added of unique work is the fact that it is individually considered. We are perhaps accustomed to thinking of labor being only physical, but part of the labor of art is thought. Production work is considered once, and then replicated. The second, tenth, or hundredth reproduction only needs to be manufactured. Even though setting up an efficient production technology requires a special creativity of its own, conceptually the edition is completed with the prototype. One-of-a-kind artists must start anew for each piece.

Mental effort is paralleled by technical effort. In production, techniques that can be taught to minimally skilled bench workers are desirable, so that large numbers of objects can be made at low cost. For this reason, molded and cast jewelry, which can be endlessly repeated by semi-skilled workers, predominates at the low end of the market. Profile dies (for cutting out shapes) and conforming dies (which give form to fat shapes) serve the same purpose. But the best one-of- a-kind jewelers tailor their techniques to fit the idea at hand, and will abandon a technique if it no longer serves their intentions. Lisa Gralnick offers an instructive case. She made a series of fabricated black Plexiglass® jewelry between 1985 and 1989, but turned to silver and gold constructions by 1990. Even though the Plexi jewelry was well received, she embraced a different technology in order to express a different idea.

Alternatively, extraordinary mastery of a narrow range of techniques is also a mark of real achievement. Richard Mawdsley's elaborate constructions of tubing come to mind.

Lastly, there's the importance of integrity. Jewelry is now a vehicle for the exploration of ideas, and I think the best jewelry features an appropriateness between the concept, and the nature and history of jewelry. The newest generation of jewelers use traditional forms and functions of jewelry as an intellectual platform. Keith Lewis, for instance, refers to traditional mourning jewelry to address his personal experiences with the AIDS plague, and Jan Baum uses lockets to talk about psychological masking and layering.

Integrity becomes important when the artist feels an idea is played out. No matter how great the demand for a popular style of work in the marketplace, a good artist will not repeat himself if he feels the idea is exhausted. For example, Daniel Jocz finds that galleries are constantly asking him for the famous series of rings that incorporated organic forms in polymer clay, which he made in 1990. But he refuses to make any more; the idea no longer compels him. In a perfect world, such integrity would be honored and rewarded.

Innovation, uniqueness, variation within series, technical range or technical mastery, integrity of idea: these are distinctive markers of good jewelry. However, it takes time to recognize such qualities. A casual observer who knows little about the history and craft of jewelry won't necessarily be sensitive to such subtleties. One must learn to see these distinctions, which is what connoisseurship is all about - and the future of jewelry as an art form depends on it.

Bruce Metcalf makes jewelry and teaches occasionally in Philadelphia.

By Bruce Metcalf
Metalsmith Magazine – 1995 Fall
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Bruce Metcalf

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