Recent Sightings: Standards

This article series from Metalsmith Magazine is named “Recent Sightings” where Bruce Metcalf talks about art, craftsmanship, design, the artists, and techniques. For this 1992 Fall issue, he talks about the standards.

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Standards

It has been more than 5 years since Ettagale Blauer proposed that “being wonderful, decorative, and salable” could be adequate criteria for judging jewelry. We can safely assume that she was talking about market-oriented jewelry and not exploratory work like the “New Jewelry” that appeared from Europe early in the ’80s. We can logically add that good jewelry should also be conveniently wearable and durable, as Garth Clark pointed out two years ago. These positive qualities were accepted without debate, and so far a better list of criteria has not yet appeared.

What should be expected of good, marketable jewelry? Certainly it should be appealing to its audience, and it should function as a successful accent in the overall design of clothing and ornament on the body. That covers “wonderful” and “decorative.” And from the point of view of good business management, it’s a sound idea to produce work that will actually sell. Nor will anybody argue that this type of jewelry should attach to the body unobtrusively and should stand up to normal handling. But the more I think about these criteria, the more they seem to describe not a standard of excellence but a medium level that any competent designer and manufacturer should be able to achieve. Jewelers should be sophisticated enough to pass all five of these criteria without breaking a sweat.

Jewelry teachers will immediately point out that marketable jewelry should be designed well. The word “design” is used in two different senses: first, in the sense of mechanical design; second, as the innovative organization of visual elements. This implies that good jewelry function flawlessly at the physical level and also that the composition avoid familiar solutions. However, there seems to be some wiggle room here: some traditional designs – especially mechanisms – are just so good that it makes no sense to abandon them. For instance, very few jewelers would choose to invent a new joint and catch mechanism every time they make a pin.

At this point jewelers get caught up in one of the central debates about Modernism. For more than a century, a primary value in the art world has been invention. We were told that a new solution is inherently better than the old solution, partly because the old solution was generated by the outmoded (and sometimes destructive) ideologies of the past. While this kind of thinking fails to persuade anybody these days, another argument for innovation remains harder to refute. When designers face a choice between utilizing a traditional design and having to invent a new one that is as good or better, they must expend far more effort to propose the new design. Modernism respects the effort and rejects any reflexive easy choice.

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What you have is a clash between two cultures. One group concludes that the “old ways” are invariably the best ways and that anybody who proposes alternatives is mindlessly pursuing mere novelty. The other group holds that all traditions are open to interrogation, that creative solutions are both possible and desirable, and generally that innovation is a positive value in its own right. They would claim that certain solutions are so obvious, or so overexposed, that a good designer will not use them. The two cultures shift the debate to peripheral issues like function versus art, but the real conflict is about how respectful jewelers should be about the past. (And what, in fact, is the past?) The conflict also extends to a view of the present: do the tastes of jewelry buyers represent an obstinate resistance to change or authentic expressions of need?

What else can we expect? In North America handmade jewelry is produced against a background of industrialization, and any assessment of quality must consider this relationship. When mass production can do so many things more efficiently and at less expense, why bother to make the thing by hand? What can be done with the handcrafted object that the manufactured object cannot accomplish? One jeweler who consciously exploits the inherent advantages of hand production is Michael Good. His hammered earrings are made from thin sheet metal and are therefore light and easily wearable. If the same design were manufactured, the earrings would have to be cast, making them considerably heavier. In this case the hand process is plainly superior to the industrialized process.

Handcraft also accommodates very short (or one-of-a-kind) production runs, which offer several competitive advantages. Handmade jewelry can be designed for a very small audience, which can serve niche markets that industry is incapable of reaching. Joel Bagnal, who used to run a custom jewelry shop in the Boston area, offered an insight to how limited production impacts on a type of quality. He pointed out that the jeweler provides a service to his clientele in that he can make a piece that uses imagery of special importance to the buyer. In responding to his client, the jeweler can design personal meaning into the object, which a mass-produced ornament could never have. In a very real way the jeweler gives a voice to his client, and often she is very grateful.

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Seeing jewelry as speech is a useful analogy. We all know that jewelry is a form of communication, representing the persona of the wearer. We also know that mass production offers only a rough, generalized form of speech, not tailored to individual needs. One of the most profound potentials for jewelry is in the way it can act as a receptive screen for the projection of meaning. Cara Croninger is a production jeweler who designs her work to accommodate meaning. While her pendants with hearts and stars might seem trite to critics who demand innovative imagery, many of her buyers find those symbols to be perfect markers for personal events. Cara tells the story of a woman who meditated on a heart pendant during labor. The pendant became more than mere decoration, but an intimate symbol of the birth of a child. Jewelry can transcend the status of commodity and serve as a vehicle for authentic meaning. This service is not examined enough, and we understand it poorly.

Reflection of tradition, vehicle for invention, servant of human need: these are some of the aesthetic functions that jewelry can perform and some of the ways by which jewelry can be judged. There are other uses and standards yet to be articulated. Unfortunately, until jewelers and their customers begin to talk and write about these qualities, our understanding of jewelry remains stunted. So, please, all of you jewelers out there – start telling the rest of the world what you know.

Bruce Metcalf writes a regular column for Metalsmith.

  1. “Opinion: Soul Searching at 7000’,” Metalsmith, Winter 1987.
  2. Friedlich and Mitchell, “The Closing of Doors: An Interview with Garth Clark,” Metalsmith, Summer 1990.

By Bruce Metcalf
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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