The relational function of jewelry (towards a thesis)


working draft towards a thesis. May 2015. 

Jennifer Lee Hallsey

Jewelry goes beyond its mere physical form; jewelry becomes an instrument, a language, prompting encounters to occur. In this context form takes on a different connotation and becomes a relationship between individuals around an object. When discussing the functions of jewelry, jewelry should not only be assessed as object. It should be considered as the relationship it establishes through these encounters.

Jewelry as a mode of creative expression exists between the realms of the applied arts and the fine arts because of its interconnectedness with the human body. Isolated from the body, it is easy to argue that a ring is inactive. Conversely, the body has the power to elevate an ordinary object to the status of jewelry (e.g. a rubber band becomes a bracelet). Since body adornment is inherently superfluous, the function of jewelry is not obvious and needs clarification. Art historian Liesbeth den Besten divides these ‘functions’ into six main categories: social and religious, economical, ornamental, sentimental or memorial, magical, and symbolical.[1] To den Besten, this is why we wear jewelry: “a piece of jewellery is one of those small and intimate artifacts completely suited to remind one of a person or an important moment in life.”[2] It is important to note that these functions of jewelry that Liesbeth den Besten speaks of are not exclusive to Contemporary Art Jewelry. They are a universal set of signs found in all jewelry. Contemporary art jewelers exploit this common language, creating meaning and often narrative in their work.

Contemporary jewelry artists are accustomed to using terms such as maker, wearer, and viewer. They understand that intent flows from the maker through the piece; the wearer is an intermediary. It is the wearer that completes the circuit and allows the message to be transmitted from the maker to his audience. It is at this point that many contemporary jewelry artists diverge in viewpoint about authorial intent and about the role of the wearer and, and most importantly, the viewer in this model.

Often posed is the question, at what point is jewelry most heavy with meaning?[3] Is it when the maker is at his bench, when the piece is worn, when photographed, or when it is viewed? To den Besten, pulling from the tradition of Roland Barthes, there are two moments when meaning is created: “‘The first involves the author, but is no more “original” or “primary” than the second, whose subject is the reader.’…The narrative is in the piece, but it has to be stirred up by the viewer, who will complete it.”[4] This is partially true. These ‘moments of meaning’ that den Besten speaks of can occur in fact between maker and maker, maker and wearer, wearer and viewer, and in any infinite combination. These moments – relational moments – are in fact the primary function of jewelry.

To be relational can only be understood in terms of the connected interactions between individuals or groups of people. Nicolas Bourriaud stated that, “relational aesthetics(i) does not represent a theory of art, this would imply the statement of an origin and a destination, but a theory of form. […] The artwork does not have an exclusive hold on it, it is merely a subset in the overall series of existing forms.”[5] Jewelry, as art object, is not the starting point or ending point to define this form. Jewelry is a vehicle and the objects themselves become the language for an encounter to occur. This encounter defines the object.

It is the encounter (form) that defines the object (jewelry), rather than the object (jewelry) that defines the encounter (form). A form being defined as a lasting encounter[6] may seem faulty in logic. The matrimonial function of a wedding band is the most obvious purpose for this type of ring. When viewed on the body of another, however, a wedding band is merely a symbol of the concept of marriage (religious, social status). It does not openly tell the outside viewer the state or the nature of the marriage it represents. The symbol of the wedding band is can become an open vessel. The ring, though, is imbued with a history and an aura for the married person, as well as anyone who knows them, or even a stranger who wishes to pass judgment.

The same standard wedding band may seem unremarkable behind the glass case of a jewelry store counter. Upon closer inspection, even before being purchased for its intended purpose, this ring has already been a channel for many relationships; these are that of miners, refiners, manufactures, designers, makers, wholesalers, retailers, and browsing customers. Though quite a reductive reading of my postulation, these relationships are functions just the same. Each jewelry piece becomes a totality of transitions within this larger form comprised of many encounters. The meaning is not fixed and will be different for everyone involved in the encounter; whatever is observed is changed by the act of observation.

In 1985 and 1986 artist Otto Künzli explored the power of the wedding rings with one of his pieces. Künzli placed a series of ads in the classified section of a local newspaper requesting unwanted, used wedding band. Künzli took the forty-eight rings he received through donation and linked them together creating seemingly innocuous chain. The piece, simply titled Chain [fig. 1], does not overtly imply what it is made out of. One must take a closer look. During an interview Künzli was asked about Chain:

I showed it to a museum director and on another occasion to Hermann Jünger without commenting [on the material], both of them put it on and initially noted how the various sizes of rings with slightly different colours had created an archetypal and beautiful chain. Then this growing awareness that every single ring stands for a journey quickly made it pass from being easily wearable to unbearable. The fascination immediately turned into repulsion, and both spontaneously went to the bathroom. Subsequently, they both told me that they had had the strong urge to wash their hands.[7]

Each ring, forty-eight in total, came with its own biography; for example, “A ring, 8 kt, not engraved, from her first husband. Her comment, ‘He was a brutal dog.’”[8]   It becomes clear that encounters, no matter how brief, define the object. This encounter that defines the object is also the art form.

Simon O’Sullivan wrote that, “An object of an encounter is fundamentally different from an object of recognition.”[9] Continuing on,

With the latter our knowledges, beliefs and values are reconfirmed […] An object of recognition is then precisely a representation of something already in place. With such a non-encounter our habitual way of being and acting in the world is reaffirmed and reinforced, and as a consequence no thought takes place. Indeed, we might say that representation precisely stymies thought. With a genuine encounter however the contrary is the case. Our typical ways of being in the world are challenged, our systems of knowledge disrupted. We are forced into thought. […] Art then is the name of the object of an encounter, but also the name of the encounter itself, and indeed of that which is produced by the encounter. Art is this complex event that brings about the possibility of something new.[10]

There is notable distinction between expression and communication; expression is more internalized whereas communication implies a dialogue.[11] O’Sullivan writes, “it follows that different encounters will have different characters, and indeed that certain encounters will be more productive, others less so.”

Artist and photographer Mah Rana has many sub-pieces within her major project Jewellery is Life. In 2002 she began Meanings and Attachments, a public participation project creating a written archive personal connections to jewelry. As of 2012, over fifteen hundred people have been interviewed and photographed for the archive [figs. 2-3].[12] Liesbeth den Besten writes of another project within Jewlery is Life, Every Piece of Jewellery is its Owner (2004), “photography, research, text writing and study replace jewellery. According to Rana ‘remembering often exists in the photographs we have of our relatives.’ The physical piece of jewellery may be gone but lives on in an image.”[13]

Den Besten describes Mah Rana’s work as an “extreme example of the blurred boundaries”[14] of practice, but I could not disagree more. Mah Rana’s work is not on the fringe of jewelry, rather it underscores that jewelry exists and lives beyond the physical object. The strength Otto Künzli’s Chain is that it recontextualizes a universal symbol and plays upon the the basic function of jewelry: its inherently relational nature. Künzli and Rana recognize the power of encounter and understand it as dialogue.

Within my own studio practice the notion of a dialogue is paramount, even if it is often only my own work and a camera (the ‘other’). Werner Heisenberg wrote in 1958, “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning. […] One must never forget that in the drama of existence we are ourselves both players and spectators.”[15] The never-ending cycle of creating and questioning is my driving concept. The act of making is not a means to an end, but instead is a constant, on-going practice of a larger whole. One piece is not simply born of a single concept or aesthetic ideal and then constructed and concluded. Instead, I make forms that exist in a continuous state of flux.[16]

The entire ‘life-cycle’ of one of these pieces may be weeks or months and I work on many projects simultaneously. Parts marred or scratched are not discarded as mistakes, but instead selected for their artifacts of process. The resulting formal qualities (form, texture, finish, etcetera) have arisen out of the inherent characteristics of the material, techniques, and processes. I document through photography (or other forms of mechanical image reproduction) the stages of change. This allows me to reassess the three-dimensional as two-dimensional before dismantling or remaking. IThe process allows me experience my work as both creator and spectator. [17] This act becomes a dialogue. O’Sullivan wrote in his “Fiction: Manifesto for A Future Art Practice”,

Our practice is a collective enunciation, even when there is only one (we are always the group) […] Always dissent and affirmation. Our practice is the precursor of that specifically immanent utopia to come, an exemplar of a new world that is already contained within this one. Our practice is a future fragment projected backwards in time.[18]

My work exists as a discussion of and about process; metal fabrication is only part of the ongoing discourse. Through the lens of photography, digital reproduction, and the photocopying of my work created in metal, I have explored and continue to explore concepts of authenticity and aura, value, degradation, and entropy.[19] In my newer work I am exploring the nature of the encounter and the collective, as well as the inherently collaborative nature of jewelry, by directly working with other artists and referencing the viewer. Bourriaud stated,

Like any other social arena, the art world is essentially relational, insofar as it presents a “system of differential positions” through which it can be read. There are many ways of stating this “relational” reading. […] “art is an extremely co-operative system. The dense network of interconnections between members means that everything that happens in it will possibly be a function of all its members.”[20]

A Conversation in 18k (2015) is an ongoing project with a fellow artist, Seung Jeon Paik [fig.5]. I first created this piece as an accompanying element to my A copy of a copy (2014) ring series. I made the decision one day to saw through the piece and put it together again, reshuffling the elements. I did this a second time. Before ‘reshuffling’ for a third time I asked Paik if he would do it. I gave no directions, set no parameters or limits. I am not present when he works on the piece. To date, the piece was last worked on by Paik, and the project is ongoing.

Double-sided brooch (2015), like most of my pieces, once existed as a different object before [fig.6]. Previously it was part of the Make Me a Status brooch series (2015). Double-sided brooch explores the roles of spectator and player and the relationship between the wearer and the viewer. I refer again to Bourraiud,

Every artist whose work stems from relational aesthetics has a world of forms, a set of problems and a trajectory which are all his own. […] What they do share together is much more decisive, to with, the fact of operating within one and the same practical and theoretical horizon: the sphere of inter-human relations.[21]

The piece is toying with Baudelaire’s “moi c’est, tous, tous sont moi” (I is everyone, everyone is I).[22] By placing the brooch apparatus on the front of the piece as well as the back, both viewer and wearer experience a sense of duality by physically sensing (by wearing or by viewing) the functional mechanism of the piece.

Many of my pieces begin as an exercise in free-play or unconscious making in paper [fig. 4]. I am usually not aware of these ‘fidgets’. I have to try and catch myself after the fact to document the work but not hinder the initial, unencumbered process. The Copies of copies series (2014-15) is my longest project to date. This series is a continuation of the A copy of a copy ring set (2014) [fig.7]. The first in the series was an automatic, three-dimensional sketch. I photographed the paper piece and remade the form in fine silver. I photographed the silver object, later remaking the form in 18k yellow gold. In this process the three-dimensional work becomes two-dimensional; the work’s self-referential cycle of 3D to 2D back to 3D continues to no end, and there is a push-and-pull of subjectivity and objectivity[23] and I become a copyist.

With the continuation of Copies of copies I have increasingly become interested in other forms of mimetic technology, beyond the camera and photocopier, and my naive flirtation with machinery. For this series I am using a 3D scanner app and my iPhone [fig. 8]. I have also had, and will have, the help of many other artists, technicians, and companies to see the piece(s) to fruition. The “final” step (and I use the term final loosely because there is no end, only my disinterest) will be having the 3D scan cast in 22k gold by a casting company. The notion of having to complete every move, every advance, myself is no longer relevant; there is no author-God. “I am not the author but I have got the order of things, the direction. I choose which play is on the plan.”[24] I am open to new directions and let the process dictate which direction to go. I am captivated by what is lost, what is gained, and what changes with every development within the process. The form is no longer the object(s) presented, but the relationships between each step.

My work must be made in metal, most often fine metals, because this material has an intrinsic value that is not lost once the form has been altered.  Jewelry is an occurrence difficult to define because it carries a separate, adopted value.  This value exists on the body, in the jewelry box, in a photograph, in memory;  it is instilled and impressed by the wearer, viewer, and artist.   ‘At what point is jewelry most heavy with meaning?’ is no longer the right question to ask because it fails to understand the true interconnectedness of humans with body adornment and jewelry.  The question presupposes jewelry is an isolated moment rather than a totality of transitions, yet always in transition. The relational function of jewelry is the primary function of jewelry and the resulting form is defined by our encounters with these objects. The raison d’être of jewelry is not its relation to the corpus, it is our holistic relationship with jewelry.


Works cited.

[1] Liesbeth den Besten, On Jewellery: A Compendium of International Contemporary Art Jewellery (Stuttgart: Arnoldsche, 2011) 11-12.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Lena Vigna, “Narrative Illusion: Jewelry from Painting, ” Metalsmith (2012).

[4] den Besten, 104.

[5] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses Du Réel, 1998, 2009) 19.

(i) Bourriaud defines ‘relational aesthetics’ as “aesthetic theory consisting and judging artworks on the basis of the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt” and relational (art) as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” p. 112-113

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Otto Künzli, Interview with Roberta Bernabei, Contemporary jewellers: interviews with European artists (New York City: Berg, 2011) 125.

[8]George Pendle, “The Power of One: The Strange Allure of Amulets,” Frieze Magazine (2012, Accessed May 10, 2015).

[9] Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought beyond Representation (Basingstoke England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) 1.

[10] Ibid., 1-2.

[11] Elizabeth Goring, “Jewelry and Communication: Breaking the Code,” Metalsmith (2006).

[12] Sanna Svedestedt, “We Are Our Stories – Mah Rana: Meanings and Attachments,” (March 12, 2012, Accessed May 26, 2015).

[13] den Besten, On jewellery, 119.

[14] Ibid., 120.

[15] Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, 1958.

[16] Jennifer Lee Hallsey, “A review of process as concept (“I is another.”)”, November 2014.

The noted paragraph is an excerpt from my MA extended artist statement, discussing my process, interspersed with new research.

[17] Ibid, The noted paragraph is an excerpt from my MA extended artist statement, discussing my process, interspersed with new research.

[18] O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari:, 157.

[19] Hallsey, A review of process as concept (“I is another.”)

The noted paragraph is an excerpt from my MA extended artist statement, discussing my process, interspersed with new research.

[20] Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 27.

[21] Ibid., 43

[22] Svetlana Boym, “Death of the Author” in Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991) 99.

[23] Hallsey, A review of process as concept (“I is another.”)

The noted paragraph is an excerpt from my MA extended artist statement, discussing my process, interspersed with new research.

[24] Manfred Bischoff, interview with Pieranna Cavalchini, Manfred Bischoff exhibition, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, June 6-Sept. 22, 2002 (Vienna: Schlebrügge, 2002) 13.