The history of adornment is inextricable from the geopolitical tectonics of power; jewelry has always signified the taste level, social status, and religious affiliations of those that own it, from the Ancient Egyptian headdresses designed to inspire godly approval to the Victorian tradition of 'Lover’s Eyes,' cheekily clandestine evidence of extra-marital activity gracing the lapels of Europe’s 19th-century social elite.
The Crown Jewels and Tiffany Diamond have enchanted generations of onlookers not just due to their exceptional beauty, but because the aspirational narrative embedded in that beauty traces the contours of empire, belying a shared, sharp longing for hegemonic luxury. We’re a contradictory culture replete with promise rings, Cash 4 Gold windows, and custom Avianne pendants in the shape of Yoda (if you’re a member of Migos, that is). We want to sparkle badly.
As wealth disparities in the West approaches Great Depression-era statistics, a performative distaste for inhumane mining practices spreads steadily throughout social media, and difficult conversations about cultural appropriation and aesthetic colonialism become more commonplace, our collective relationship to jewelry feels both truer and more conflicted than ever before. The artists bringing sculptural metalwork to the fine art sector, commercial appeal notwithstanding, buck the teleological expectations of ornament in favor of weirder inquiries, the sort that implicate the burdens of embodiment, the intricacies of identity, the weight of art history, and the limits of wearability as discursive procedures. Studio jewelry practices forge increasingly porous relationships to genre; metalsmiths are making objects, sculptures, and installations that tap into the ambient selfhood native to decoration’s theatre of intimacy.
Contemporary jewelers traffic in destabilization as their primary mode of artistic stagework, teasing out the unexpected intersections of presentation, experience, and craft. There’s an argument to be made for applying a post-Internet lens on jewelry’s recent pivot towards self-reflexivity; in an era of constant surveillance and curated media feeds, this hybridized approach to ceremonial identity construction, fusing commentary and utility, seduction and context, slows our frantic pace by engaging physicality on a one to one basis, often to eerie, confronting, or radical ends. Craft, design, art or bling—why not all of the above?
Here are 7 artists on the forefront of contemporary jewelry.
Multidisciplinary artist Massey locates the lexis of self-decoration in personal empowerment, centering the black female experience both in her large and small scale projects. Drawing inspiration from African traditions of adornment and their diasporic legacy, life-long Detroiter Massey filters much of her aesthetic through the stylistic signifiers of ‘80s hip-hop, an uncommonly gorgeous and expressly political undertaking. Massey, the first black woman to graduate from the Metalsmithing department at Cranbrook Academy of Art, is a 2015 Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellowship awardee, a Red Bull Arts Detroit 2019 Artist in Residence, and a recent recipient of Art Jewelry Forum’s Susan Beech Mid-Career Grant. Her work has been widely exhibited nationally and internationally, and she has been profiled in Cultured, Art 21 Magazine, Forbes, ARTnews, the Huffington Post, and Metro Times.
Paris-based Hanagarth has long maintained an interest in carnality as a leitmotif, offering each piece as the eerie, open-ended answer to a different question. Her pieces track the arc of a prurient impulse—rings suck fingers, bracelets bite, necklaces threaten to lash the wearer or flog whomever gets close enough for an errant touch. Hanagarth’s erotic vocabulary is dark, but not self-conscious, reflecting the elemental organicism of human desire. Born in Switzerland, Hanagarth graduated from the Academy of Applied Arts in Geneva in 1995 and has been teaching jewelry design at the Academy of Arts du Rhin in Strasbourg and AFEDAP in Paris since 2002. She has been the recipient of the 2011 Herbert Hofmann Preiss award and the 2014 Francois van den Bosch Award, and her work has been included in a variety of museological collections worldwide.
Born in Kumamoto, Japan and currently based in Massachusetts, fabric wizard Kusumoto creates effortlessly buoyant, sumptuous sculptures with all the sugary verve of a cartoon patisserie. Driven primarily by material exploration and accident-based experimentation, Kusumotos’ breezy, ethereal pieces prove a fruitful departure from her impossibly detailed, rigorous metalwork, which reimagines her personal history in Dadaist terms. Her work has appeared on the Jean Paul Galtier catwalk at Paris Haute Couture, the Museum of Arts and Design, and numerous collections private and public all over the world.
Israeli artist Attai Chen imbues his fractal, multivalent pieces with the colorscapes of his native country and present home in Germany. Deploying fierce, feathery layers of wood, paper, metal, graphite and paint, Chen recalibrates the visual ethos of waste in three dimensions, creating covetable reliefs from his Renaissance-redux scenic amalgams. Chen graduated from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, and holds an MA from the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich. He has received numerous prizes for his work, including the Herbert Hofmann Prize, the Oberbayerischer Prize for Applied Art, and the Andy Prize for Contemporary Art, which resulted in a solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Chen is represented in the collections of the Die Neue Sammlung in Munich and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, among others.
Trask’s stunning, alchemical combinations find their inspiration in the curiosity cabinets of yesteryear, ensconcing displaced or discarded fauna in the context of precious metals. This material remix lends polish to the primal undercurrents in her canon, encouraging the wearer to commune with their wildest instincts while simultaneously serving as totems to mortality. Trask, educated at the Massachusetts College of Art and SUNY New Paltz, has been exhibiting nationally and internationally for the past twenty years. Her pieces have been including in the collections of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Arts and Design , and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Hawaii native Soliven acts as an interlocutor between gesture and want, creating haunting reliquaries for touch deferred. Caustic and gentle in equal measure, her practice maps the impossible topology of affect, an emotional matrix where wax can sigh, bronze can ache, and shadows assume the weight of steel. Having received her MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2016, Soliven currently works as a Lecturer in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a Teaching Artist at the Honolulu Museum of Art School; she has exhibited her work both nationally and internationally.
High fashion regular Filmer has collaborated on catwalks for Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen, and Shelley Fox, cementing her status as a strikingly original design brain since the early 1990s. She describes her work as “wearable objects about the body” rather than jewelry, a distinction that feels remarkably self-evident upon further inspection. Her pieces reify the residue of movement as imprints in space, collapsing time and experience into objects that almost seem to breathe through and with the wearer. A research fellow at Central Saint Martins School of Art in London, the Milan-based artist lectures in schools throughout Europe and maintains a booming freelance design practice.