A History of Contemporary Jewellery in Australia and New Zealand: Place and adornment, by Damian Skinner and Kevin Murray (Bateman Publishing, 2014), 248 pp., $69.99; Fingers: Jewellery for Aotearoa New Zealand: Forty years of Fingers Jewellery Gallery, by Damian Skinner and Finn McCahon-Jones (Bateman Publishing, 2014), 152 pp., $59.99
Amulets, lodestones, talismans, totems: the bodily adornments made by craft jewellers are precious objects – not necessarily through their materials but by containing psychological and emotional capital. They are worn as emblems of ritual significance, as metaphors for states of mind. Aspiration, allusion, myth, memorial can all be contained in a brooch, an earring, a necklace, a bracelet. At their best, each artefact is a compressed and contained wearable work of art. Each is a one-off piece embodying original ideas, and is a reflection of the aesthetics of the maker rather than of the marketplace. By contrast, machine-manufactured and mass-produced retail jewellery produces standardised objects according to formulaic templates and avoids idiosyncrasy, iconoclasm or too much individuality. Such industrial objects may be sensibly designed but they aim to be anodyne, placeless.
How might jewellery represent place? These two books explore the most significant historical trends in craft jewellery as a form of identity in Australia and New Zealand, uncovering not so much a trans-Tasman partnership as trans-Tasman differences. While the two nations have settler cultures in common, cross-cultural borrowings between Māori and Pākehā artisans and makers are much more evident than exchanges between Australia’s indigenous and non-indigenous inhabitants. Indeed, there’s little evidence of any Aboriginal jewellery influence right up until the recent emergence of a generation of urban Aboriginal craft jewellers. And while Australia has never been able to claim one distinctive national style, instead displaying a plurality of styles drawing on a number of international influences, New Zealand has formed and maintained a national design vocabulary based first on local fauna and flora, second on the nature of its landscape as a South Pacific archipelago, and third on Māori motifs (with occasional significant exceptions to this trio of influences). This nationalist and neo-nationalist emphasis parallels the character of other New Zealand art-forms, including painting.
Place and Adornment points to goldfields jewellery as the first important Australian jewellery movement. It was one based to begin with on the 1840s discovery of opals in South Australia, the 1850s discovery of gold in Victoria, and the commercial pearling that got underway off northern Australia in the 1860s. The craze for jewellery-mounted emu eggs leads to a consideration of the rather ornate decorative effects of Australian jewellery as a characteristic that persisted through the Arts and Crafts era, the Art Nouveau era, the Art Deco era, and which still lingers on even today in a certain grotesque flamboyance.
Meanwhile in New Zealand, in the absence of whole moa eggs, it was pounamu that was emblematically combined with silver and gold. Always highly valued, pounamu was banned from export in its raw state in 1947. The influence of Māori carving, in particular the hei tiki form, took hold early on, but the breakthrough into a style approximating early European-style Modernism was made by the pioneering Dutch artist Theo Schoon, who arrived as a war refugee from Indonesia in 1939. His jade carvings became the exemplar for later leading bone and stone carvers, including John Edgar. Essentially, Schoon created forms that adapted or blended Māori traditional motifs with Modernism’s abstracted shapes, celebrating the latter-day primitivism promulgated by Picasso and others.
The next major arrival on the New Zealand craft jewellery scene was the Swiss jeweller Kobi Bosshard in 1961, part of the post-war wave of European migration – and one of the very few local jewellers fully trained in Bauhaus design techniques and philosophy. Bosshard gradually established himself as a highly influential jeweller over the next two decades, eventually setting up the Fluxus workshop in Dunedin in 1983, at first in partnership with Stephen Mulqueen, but soon joined by others, forming a loose confederation of South Island craft jewellers sharing similar aims. Bosshard led by example, with his sterling silver jewellery employing clean simple lines and geometric designs so as to assert Modernism’s ‘honesty’, its truth to materials, where form meticulously follows function. What mattered was the skilful handling of materials, demonstrating tension, vitality, complexity.
Several other influential jewellers also arrived in the sixties from Europe, notably Jens Hansen in 1965, originally from Denmark and an adept of Scandinavian Modernism. Hansen had the advantage of having spent part of his childhood in New Zealand and, as a consequence, had strong emotional connections to the land. He made jewellery by forging lumps of silver into emblems that encapsulated contours of hills, headlands and lakes, the smooth polished surfaces of which reflected the light.
Both Hansen’s and Bosshard’s work acknowledged that craft jewellery produced freighted objects: concentrated, load-bearing, lustrous forms on a tiny scale, able to be apprehended in a single glance. But while Bosshard’s formalism emphasised self-sustaining good design, Hansen’s jewellery suggested objects that, though externally lightweight, had an interior heaviness. Hansen’s objects were anchors, tethering you to place, carrying the imprint of an identity based on landscape. Both jewellers, though, stood for high Modernism, and both resided in the South Island.
Fingers: Jewellery for Aotearoa New Zealand is the narrative of a different tradition, one that was based in Auckland and which emerged in the early 1970s in the form of a hippy collective: they were initially a small group of Auckland west-coast beachcombers with a common philosophy and resolve of purpose. Rather than form following function, material follows attitude. Fingers: Jewellery for Aotearoa New Zealand is designed as a scrapbook of press-clippings, group photos and period-era images of just-made jewellery, presented in chronological sections all joined by brief linking essays.
Fingers, in this telling, was a collective that emerged out of a craft idealism connected to living on the land. It began boldly in concert with the mood of the times as a peripheral or counter-culture activity related to pot-throwing, tie-dyed clothing, home-brewing and homemade sourdough bread, and found its first outlet in the Browns Mill craft market located just off Queen Street. Fingers (it was an era of hipper-than-thou names: ‘Fingers’, ‘Limbs’, ‘Snaps’, ‘Hot Licks’, ‘Split Enz’) was initiated in 1974 by Alan Preston, and its central figures were, like him, essentially self-taught, their neo-primitivism supported by techniques garnered at night school and informed by visions experienced on the hippy trail through India, Nepal and Afghanistan.
Preston, Roy Mason, Ruth (Schofield) Baird, and later Warwick Freeman (who joined in 1978), were the best exponents of the original Fingers vision. They set up their own shop at 6 Lorne Street in central Auckland with come-hither window dressing and cabinets beckoning with a gemmology of the occult. Traditionally, gemmology is rich in superstitious beliefs: carrying topaz cures madness; turquoise prevents broken bones; carnelian stems blood flow; amethyst wards off drunkenness. That this was known to be not literally true did not matter; what mattered was mood, aura, atmosphere – a shared wellspring of energy.
The slogans said it all: ‘we set your stones’; ‘high rings and high stones’; ‘reminders of past events’; ‘earth orientated’; ‘not decorations but declarations’. Attitude made all possible. As Roy Mason averred: ‘the guts of the message will design the outer surface of the thing.’ Alan Preston, a trained psychologist, did not deny the mystical dimension. They were questers after lost cultural mythologies: his brooches drew on the Book of Kells; Roy Mason took inspiration from artefacts of the ancient Scythian Empire; Ruth Baird fused ancient Egyptian motifs with notions about earth cycles and an organic outlook.
What then happened was that they maintained the momentum, taking their clients with them as they evolved their ideas and their designs. As the book’s text states, jewellers and wearers ‘were actively challenging each other to articulate new identities through materials and forms’.
The Fingers co-operative, with its core group of six or seven, survived and prospered by transforming its mantra from ‘jewellery for the beach’ to ‘jewellery from the beach’. As the aims of the counter-culture craft movements metamorphosed from the making of talismanic trinkets and rural escapism to the construction of objects expressing a sense of identity and a new-found confidence of place (in the Lange years of a nuclear-free Pacific), so too did jewellery transform and adapt. Fingers remains not only the oldest craft gallery in Aotearoa New Zealand but also one of the longest-running jewellery galleries in the world, because of this ability to adapt while remaining faithful to an essentialist ideal.
Beyond the folkloric, the gypsy mystique, the references to R.D. Laing and Buckminster Fuller, and later to the ‘funky’ and the ‘tribal’, Fingers championed ‘independent non-conventional symbols of meaning, not status symbols’. They sought, in Warwick Freeman’s words ‘a New Zealand feeling’.
This obsession with a distinctive South Pacific identity separates New Zealand contemporary jewellery from Australian jewellery, even today. In 1988 an important New Zealand Craft Council travelling exhibition, Bone Stone Shell: New Jewellery New Zealand, curated by jeweller and sculptor John Edgar (himself known for pendants carved from chunks of stone), endorsed the Fingers’ ethos. This exhibition proclaimed the centrality of ‘bone’, ‘stone’ and ‘shell’, with ten out of twelve of the exhibitors being strongly associated with the Fingers co-op. Previously, too, there had been exhibitions featuring only ‘bone’ or ‘stone’ or ‘shell’ (lashing, binding and riveting pāua shell, that formerly maligned material).
In the 1990s, the Bone Stone Shell movement made its influence felt in a variety of ways, from the ethnicity and identity issues explored by a young generation of Māori jewellery-makers – including Areta Wilkinson and Gina Matchitt, fusing cross-cultural insignia – to another young group of jewellers who turned back to settler culture to find expressions of place and identity. This group included Jane Dodd (settler origin stories in metalwork) and Octavia Cook (whose cameo brooches are reminiscent of nineteenth-century genteel Victorian jewellery), while Lynn Kelly revisited colonial legacies by taking motifs from plant specimens gathered by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on the first James Cook expedition in 1769.
Lynn Kelly, who in the 1990s was part of Kobi Bosshard’s Fluxus workshop group in Dunedin, suggests half-jokingly that South Island Fluxus-style jewellery was a response to the Southern climate – metal jewellery designed for heavy coats – as opposed to Fingers-style shellware made for Auckland’s subtropical climate.
Maintaining that sense of polarity, Kobi Bosshard, dismissing the notion of a self-conscious Pacific Rim identity, in 1996 reasserted his high Modernist belief that contemporary craft jewellery and its makers needed to serve ‘the needs of the wearer … rather than to devise ever more novel ways to express ourselves and self-consciously try to imbue our work with message or content’. Nevertheless, he accepted, as Damian Skinner points out, that the Fingers-associated jewellers had ‘established the prestige of bone, stone and shell as signifiers of living in Aotearoa New Zealand’, and even came up with his own version of the aesthetic, using found pebbles – made of brick – mounted in silver frames, arguing, ‘shells have no history, stones have no history; but brick has a human history: it has been a building.’
But though Fingers continued prospering in the late 1990s, it was in a radically changing cultural climate, one that demanded a new professionalism and a new eclecticism, where not all Fingers jewellers swore by indigenous materials and local imagery. Versatility was needed for survival. While Warwick Freeman confirms that ‘earrings are the bread and butter stuff of being a jeweller’, Elena Gee, at one time a prominent member of Fingers, asserts: ‘It is possible to sell one of anything, even something you found crushed on a road and attached to an earwire.’
In the twenty-first century there are more niche galleries, newer methods, and a more sophisticated infrastructure, along with an influx of graduates emerging from tertiary craft design courses. Meanwhile, ‘ethnic’ jewellery has morphed into ‘ethical’ jewellery, with provenance being context. Alan Preston continues to make beautiful objects from shell, acknowledging a strong Pasifika influence; while Warwick Freeman creates delicate filigree-like shapes that flirt with faux, kitsch and camp styles, confirming their renewed relevance as value systems and their evergreen fascination.
Craft jewellers now may be formalists, minimalists, conceptualists or story-tellers: a non-hierarchical relativism prevails, along with a certain global homogeneity – the ‘fusion kitchen’ of ‘melting pot’ jewellery, hence continuing international fascination with Aotearoa New Zealand’s project of place-specific identity construction.
And if, contrariwise, Lisa Walker, with her magpie assemblages of brightly coloured recycled materials held together by glue (a symbolic expression of the creator’s will) expresses the hypnotic fairground luridness of non-specific locations, Jacqui Chan, with her ‘Host a Brooch’ in the wake of the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, brings relational aesthetics back to the local, back to the landscape, by offering brooches made of earthquake debris to people living and working in Christchurch to wear around the damaged city, and then further share with others as a communal memorial. Making do with abject or ‘poor’ materials, she establishes that the value is in the sharing.
And then there’s Joe Sheehan, who carefully carves, with immaculate precision, everyday objects in jade sourced from a variety of countries: a key, a ballpoint pen, a pair of spectacles, a cassette case, tubes of paint. He’s carrying forward the legacy of Theo Schoon’s ‘Jade Country’, which co-exists with Te Waipounamu.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall Review Online. His books include Towards Aotearoa: A short history of twentieth century New Zealand art (Reed/Raupo, 2008).