Jewellery in the bigger picture

Once more with Love gathering at North City 4

Once more with Love gathering at North City 4

As the Melbourne post-industrial suburb baked on a hot February afternoon, a gathering of 40 or so contemporary jewellers talked about the ethical nature of materials they use. The forum preceded the launch of Once More with Love, a touring show of jewellery resulting from a recycling challenge. The organisers Suse Scholem and Simon Cottrell introduced the issue in their own distinct ways. Suse spoke of the need to build a body of research that could help inform jewellers about the choices they make in materials. More generally, she advocated for a kind of ‘artivism’ that linked creative output to good causes. Simon gave a more personal talk reflecting on ethics as a subject of contemporary jewellery. He mentioned a work by Johannes Kuhnen that exhibited a gold wedding ring along with the 35 tons of ore produced to mine the metal.

Despite the energy sapping heat, the audience was quite vocal throughout the day. There were ‘real world’ considerations, such as Caz Guiney’s point that a couple commissioning a wedding ring will normally presume it is virgin gold, as it is seen to symbolise a new relationship. But sometimes frustrations erupted. At one point, a woman broke down in tears when describing the environmental devastation from mining, implying that talk was useless. Roseanne Bartley, who had previously warned that certain talk about ethics was ‘middle class’, defended jewellery as a form of knowledge that can make a difference.

The call to action was well captured by Ali Limb and Anna Davern who set up a whiteboard to gather suggestions for making a difference. One suggestion that seemed to get traction was the use of celebrities to champion ethical jewellery.

This discussion certainly brought people together in a common cause. The obvious challenge was to find a platform to carry this work further. Once More With Love as the prime mover will be critical, but this is a project rather than an organisation. There was talk of raising this issue at the next JMGA conference in Brisbane, but the scope of that organisation is much broader than ethics. One possibility to consider is the formalisation of a link with the USA based organisation Ethical Metalsmiths, whose project Radical Jewelry Makeover had been the catalyst for this issue in Australia. Does that mean setting up an Australian chapter? Would it operate under the main board in the USA? Do jewellers in the USA and Australia face the same ethical issues?

Sitting lightly alongside the pragmatic discussion was a more speculative conversation about the various interests at play in jewellery. Vicky Shukuroglou demonstrated the creativity of children in responding to artistic challenges. Catherine Truman focused in on the body as the site of the experience of making. While not strictly relevant to mining, their talks did serve to open up jewellery as a space of different interests.

While mining was the most salient issue in the Once More with Love forum, the ethical domain invites other concerns into jewellery. Like much of modern ethics, the day’s discussion implied an extension of the franchise of ethical interests—not just to sub-groups like queer, but also to non-human actors, such as nature itself.

So the day presented two complementary platforms for ethical jewellery. One was a pragmatic focus on specific activist goals, such as reduction in mining through increased use of recycled metals. The other was a more speculative reflection on the kinds of interests at play in jewellery production and consumption. Ethics does often demand some imagination, particularly when the interests cannot speak for themselves, as in nature. As with most forms of action, it seems important to have reflective space for mapping your direction, to ensure you are on the right track.

One important issue in this speculation is the recent thinking about the agency of the object itself. The sentimental value of jewellery is premised on a contact between wearer and object. While humans enjoy the capacity of enjoyment in the world, we are fundamentally limited for four score or so years. On the other hand, as they say, diamonds are forever—along with other metals and stones. Our bodies are thus imperfect hosts for the kind of enduring connection we seek with others. Through the act of empowering objects to carry our affections, we do qualify objects themselves to have an interest.

This issue emerged several times during the discussion, particularly regarding recycling. Caz Guiney, for instance, questioned whether she should recycle her unsold exhibition work. In everyday life, parallel dilemmas arise when we question whether we should give a keepsake away—is it better to preserve its original message or pass it on to someone who will use it more?

This may seem an indulgent exercise, evocative of the more arcane versions of thing theory found in the academy these days. But these speculations can be useful for extending the ethical space of jewellery. It has potential power as counterweight to the consumerist paradigm that sees the world as reducible to human need. Indeed, the alternative model of custodianship has strong associations with Pacific notions of power in the object, such as taonga.

Dear jewellery, would you mind if….

5 thoughts on “Jewellery in the bigger picture”

  1. Sounds like you had an interesting discussion, wish I could have been present.
    From reading the above the thing that stands out as missing is the discussion about ethical, small scale mining. Recycling is great, 99% of the metals we currently use are recycled but it is only part of the issue. Ethical small scale mining that focuses on environmental protection and inclusion of native peoples, fair pay and certification provides stable community development with a far smaller energy footprint while protecting the environment and providing materials for us all to use.
    Mining will not stop, so we need to guide the way it is done. This goes for metals and gems/diamonds. The coloured gem industry is an absolute mess with no regulation at all. Mercury is becoming a huge problem in our seas through unregulated and illegal small scale gold mining. We can have an impact on these things but first we have to embrace there use ourselves.
    I run a eco or sustainable jewellery store, Studio Eco in conjunction with our design and manufacturing workshop Utopian Creations and currently we only have about 10 artists work in our store.
    For me its been a long path but I was able to sort out the basics of becoming a more ethical jeweller quite quickly. Recycled or ethically mined metals, low impact chemicals, green power, ethically mined and vintage/antique diamonds and gems, these are all now readily available to all of us. The thing that angers me the most is that our JAA does not support ethical jewellery choices. It does not supply any information about how to make these choices or who can provide them. Not only that but their Code of Ethics suggests their members are in fact already working as ethical jewellers which is totally untrue.
    If anyone needs assistance finding info or suppliers just let me know. I have contacts all over the world and I’m always happy to help.
    Ben Manning

  2. Kevin, thank you for this window into how jewelers in Australia are handling issues of ethics and meaning and the work they create. It would seem to me that there are many commonalities related to sourcing, education, ethical practices, etc., that we share between our two countries, as we have with so much of our mutual histories. I look forward to and encourage greater dialogue between jewelers, and organizations, in both countries.

    Martin Taber
    Taber Studios
    Ethical Metalsmiths Futuring Committee, Chair

  3. While mining was the most salient issue in the Once More with Love forum, the ethical domain invites other concerns into jewellery. Like much of modern ethics, the day’s discussion implied an extension of the franchise of ethical interests—not just to sub-groups like queer, but also to non-human actors, such as nature itself.

  4. Your thoughts please;

    Ethics is no less a construct than any jewellery object: its overt difference lies in its materiality.

    Ethics is a culturally–specific construct – sometimes racial; sometimes organisational.

    The ethics object is a narrative – based construction. As such, its fluidity is observer-dependent.

    The ethics object is evanescent, chimerical, and miasmic. As a filter, It is also imbues transcendence, or apriori absolutes to the situation under observation – mining.

    There is a direct correlation between transcendence and ideology: both perceive prior to looking.

    Keen to get your thoughts on the above, because as I see it, ethics is by no means a fixed, extant entity: it exists in a state of relational flux.

    My question is; what process are you going to deploy to arrive at a working model of an ethics object?

    Many thanks. Thomas.

  5. Very interesting responses. On the one hand is a code of ethics that outlines the boundary conditions in which jewellery practice might continue, such as substitution of recycled metals. And on the other is an engagement in ethics as the creative activity of jewellery making, in designing objects that connect people together in equal social relationships, such as the exchange of wedding rings. Of course, it need not be one nor the other. It would be good if we could keep both discussions going.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.