The contemporary jewellery movement is driven by a democratic mission. Aotearoa New Zealand took this further than most in making adornment first out of rubbish and then out of love.

By Kevin Murray

The critique of preciousness is a key concept in the contemporary jewellery movement. It involves giving value to the jewellery that is not reduced to its monetary value, such as weight of precious metal or the size of diamonds. The initial focus was the artistic value that is evident in the skill and creativity of the artist.

Order of Domestic Disorder (2015). brooch, resembling a military medal and ribbon. "Ribbon" made from blue, white and yellow toweling fabric with brass safety pin stitched at reverse. Suspended from this is a ball of coiled oxidised sterling silver and 9ct gold, mimicking steel wool.

Pauline Bern © All Rights Reserved Auckland Museum 2015.66.1

From the late 1960s, Dutch jewellery designers Gijs Bakker and Emmy van Leersum gave this critique a democratic turn. Based at Gerrit Rietveld Academie, they added a conceptual dimension and mocked aristocratic jewellery through the use of cheap industrial materials, such as laminated photographs.

Their work mirrors the political evolution of the modern era as democracies have overcome traditional hierarchies, such as monarchy or tribe. We thus see the critique of preciousness itself develop to become a tool of populism.

Sarah Read developed a “post-object” practice that involved offering her services to households after the Christchurch earthquakes. In Free Time (2012) Image - local newspaper scan. Credit: Sarah Read

Sarah Read © All Rights Reserved

Never mind the bracelets - punk jewellery

Few countries took this to the extreme of Aotearoa New Zealand, where there was a major push to make jewellery out of the lowest form of materials - rubbish. The Fingers exhibition Guaranteed Trash (1978), including defiant adornment such as a pink toothbrush with a blob of fake toothpaste and a fake diamond resting on it. The groundbreaking exhibition, Bone, Stone, Shell (1988) overturned European values of preciousness by privileging local materials for their traditional meanings and as symbols of regional identity.

Jewellery artists embraced techniques and materials that transgressed the traditions of gold and silversmithing. The glue gun replaced the soldering iron, featuring worthless trash rather than precious gems.

Meanwhile, a new generation of Pacific artists turned the value of authenticity around by using materials that related to the urban experience, rather than the traditional focus on nature. These were often made of plastic rather than natural materials.

Later, a generation of NZ jewellers pursued the critique of preciousness to address the hierarchy of work and home. The ceaseless activity of domestic making had been seen as of lesser value than the creation of art works in the studio.

Wearing is sharing

In 1998, Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics proposed a radical new agenda for visual arts. The purpose of art was no longer to produce beautiful objects for the few, regardless of how radical they might be. Instead, art should be evaluated by how it connects people together, especially in democratic spaces where different identities can intermix. While written for visual arts, this framework offers a relevant context for the social dimension of jewellery.

The art jewellery scene in Aotearoa New Zealand has its own flavour of collaboration, often taking the form of convivial group activities. In 2008, Kirsten D’Agostino developed the 'Broach of the Month club' in Auckland, in which twelve artists offered their work to a pool of twelve hosts, who would wear a work for a month before the regular swap, collecting feedback about the work for the maker. This distributed exhibition was both a clever way of getting work out while at the same time showing the value of jewellery as a way of bringing a group of people together.

In Wellington, a number of graduates from Whitireia took jewellery practice into a public space through collective ventures, such as cooperative exhibition platform, The See Here.

Areta Wilkinson’s project Nga whatu piataata (Stars in my eyes) (2011) involved the making of a matariki brooch out of a satin ribbon, which can be done by anyone. After the earthquake destroyed homes in the Maori community of Rapaki, her project Arohanui (much love) for the whanau of Rapaki (2012) involved distributing brooches along with emergency supplies. These brooches were not valuable for their rare materials or skill, but for their capacity to be distributed to everyone in the community.

Finn McCahon-Jones © All Rights Reserved, Areta Wilkinson

Jewellery is for everyone

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the relational also has a customary dimension. The concept of taonga ascribes value in the connections between generations. At an everyday level, the practice of koha (gift) also provides a value for jewellery as a connection between people.

Where will the relational turn lead jewellery as an art form? How will Instagram and Facebook change what we see as precious? Is there still a place for rarity in the twenty-first century? Watch this space.

Header image: Lisa Walker, 'What Karl didn't take with him' (2010). Lisa Walker is interested in how the act of wearing can transform ‘stuff’. She assembled this necklace from pencils, paperclips, and felt-tip pens – things left unpacked by her husband, the jeweller Karl Fritsch, as the pair prepared to move back to New Zealand. All Rights Reserved. Te Papa,  2010-0024-2

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

Buy now


Murray, Kevin 'Questioning Preciousness in Jewellery', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.

Further readings 

Bone Stone Shell (1988) exhibition catalogue (PDF)