In a new series of articles about the changing face of contemporary jewellery, JACK MEYER investigates recent changes to the market in contemporary jewellery, and what this means for the new generation of designer-makers entering the industry now.
Over the last nine years I’ve been working with independent professional jewellers in London, providing training in CAD for jewellery manufacturing. While many of my students and colleagues would classify themselves as fine jewellers, there are many more who classify themselves as jewellery designer-makers.
Whether they come from the 50-year-old British art school tradition of experimental contemporary studio jewellery, or one of their counterparts elsewhere in the world, contemporary jewellers’ style of work is distinctive and unmistakable. At their best and boldest these designers have always been jewellery’s answer to haute couture, free to take chances and try new ideas for wearable accessories. They are the brave ones who dare to dream up wild new ideas before they are filtered down into something commercial and safe for the high street.
Recently a paradox was brought to my attention: venues catering to contemporary jewellery have been steadily closing down over the past decade. The Electrum Gallery closed in 2012, and Leslie Craze Gallery closed just this January. At the same time, however, we’re seeing as many designer-makers emerging from art schools as ever. Indeed, if you were to believe the Klimt02.net online jewellery community, or exhibitions such as the Design Museum’s Unexpected Pleasures and the Crafts Council’s Collect, the field of creative experimentation in contemporary jewellery design seems very much alive and well.
So which one is true – is contemporary jewellery design as we know it dying out, or is it seeing a renaissance in the next generations of buyers? This also begs another more fundamental question: who, exactly, is buying designer makers’ jewellery now?
Oh! You Pretty Things!
To help us find an answer, let us look at a related question: who bought the original studio jewellers work in the first place?
If you were to believe jewellery history books, or the stories told by the first generation studio jewellers from the 1960s, then the earliest contemporary jewellery stemmed from performance art itself as much as jewellery design and fashion, and the very act of wearing these pieces took on an element of performance.
“I started in the theatre, so I was used to taking risks. I learned how to make jewellery at a friend’s workshop. I was a bastard silversmith,” Leslie Craze said when I asked her about starting out at that time. “I took a big risk opening my first stall in Camden, then another when I ran my first store in Essex Road. But it worked – 5 years later I was bought out, and I set up my gallery in Clerkenwell.”
What kind of person would wear contemporary jewellery? “I’ve found people who were visually aware were most attracted to the work of the artists in my gallery. Architects and intellectuals. People who were willing to take risks. I had to educate a lot of the client base at the beginning, to coerce them into something more and more adventurous.”
From her Clerkenwell gallery, Leslie Craze built up a loyal following of clients. These were people who enjoyed the attention, the act of performance which wearing her jewellery became. People who would travel all the way from Manhattan to purchase another piece, or introduce her work to their children.
Not unlike the fashion design customers who attend catwalk shows and enquire about purchasing the show pieces, or patrons of sculpture and fine art, it seems the customers of contemporary jewellery were brought in by the vision of the artists, wore their pieces boldly as dramatic statements, and often became repeat customers.
What Are We Coming To?
While many of this first generation of daring muses are still alive and wearing the bold statement pieces as ever, it does not seem as if they left obvious successors.
“Ha! They’re getting older, like me!” Vicky Forrester from Flux Studios said when I asked her how her clients have changed.
“When I started out, there seemed to be a clear path for jewellers to exhibit their work and establish a client base; specialist contemporary jewellery galleries like Electrum and Lesley Craze really encouraged jewellers to take risks creatively while also exacting the highest standards in making and technical skill. These were the people who established and defined the ‘Contemporary Jewellery’ scene in the UK. To show at these galleries gave a sense of achievement and recognition, and I think the public understood that here they could find future heirlooms, beautiful treasures made to live and last. It’s very sad that their vision doesn’t seem to be carried forward to the next generation. I hate to think that there is no longer the space for well considered, ‘challenging’ jewellery in this fast-changing world.”
So where does this leave the market for this kind of work when the old source of demand tapers off?
I Think About a World To Come
“Three things have changed over the years: diversity of materials used, diversity in the manner of making, and diversity of selling,” says Leslie Craze. “There have been huge changes in materials and techniques available, whether you go to Marks and Spencer or Graff. They have all caught onto an aspect of contemporary jewellery. You can buy bold pieces off the shelf now for £150 or £20.”
It’s interesting how easy it is to find examples of what Leslie is talking about in online marketing. Websites like Boticca and NotOnTheHighStreet show how the public’s taste for bold experimental design is undergoing a resurgence, but in a different way and for a different market than the previous generation of designer-makers.
To understand what’s happened with the market, we need to look at two parallel trends happening now. The first is the way the speed of fashion has been fed by the internet. Millennials seem to be more comfortable than ever purchasing clothing and accessories online than any previous generation. And just has pop culture has picked up speed as the continual search for novelty online has taken on a frantic pace unlike anything ever seen before, so has the appetite for unusual, bold jewellery. “The internet’s diversity of selling has really affected the way jewellery is sold,” says Leslie, “but it has led to a dumbing down of work.”
The other trend is the Maker Revolution. As cheap factory-made goods flood the shelves of shops, this grassroots movement indicates a growing interest in all things hand made and bespoke. The proliferation of 3D printers and the ability to use them as a kind of digital hand-craft has only fuelled this even more.
All the Strangers Came Today…
While they seem as receptive to bold design as ever, there are differences in how this new market spends its money. For one, they have less money to spend than their parents, as can be seen from the most successful of the new generation of contemporary jewellery sales platforms such asKabiri and Gill Wing Jewellery. That’s not to say that higher value contemporary work isn’t still sold online, but this work tends to be found more nowadays with larger labels in fashion jewellery.
For another, buying online itself has also changed the kind of jewellery sold. “You cannot buy and try one-offs online, ” Leslie says, “some jewellery has to be worn [and experienced in person].”
But while online sales have diminished the tactile nature of the handmade one-off, another interesting factor has entered the equation – CAD/CAM.
It would seem the new generation seem quite comfortable with purchasing pieces made using new technology. Indeed, some of the new and innovative sales methods opened up using CAD are particularly suited to this market. The use of online jewellery builders for making semi-bespoke jewellery seems to be doing well in this market. Likewise, we’re now seeing 3D printing communities like Shapeways and i.materialise emerge where customers can purchase a 3D model and ask the community host to manufacture the model on demand in their choice of metal.
While computers may not seem like a natural avenue for experimental jewellery design, the number of designer-makers who are unafraid of CAD/CAM and 3D printing only seems to grow. With each year, new faces seem to appear, each with interesting and resourceful ideas for how to use new technology to express design led jewellery. One glimpse of what a designer-maker collective might look in the future is Stilnest.com. They are an international craft design collective which specialises in design-driven craft using 3D printing, creating innovative and bold designs in the traditional spirit of designer-makers, but with the help of the latest technological innovations in tools and making methods. The results are quite exciting.
…And It Looks As Though They’re Here To Stay
So who buys designer-maker jewellery now? Strange as it may sound, it seems as if a new market of millennials are discovering design-led jewellery in their own way through technology. Perhaps it’s better to say that rather than the previous generation of contemporary jewellery disappearing, their mission has actually been successful, and the drama and flair of their vanguard is now taken for granted by their children, who buy it from new venues peculiar to their generation.
In my next articles I will discuss ways in which jewellery education is responding to changes in the market, as well as explore new opportunities opened up by these changes to the market.