A Bit of Clay

The appeal of ceramic jewelry

Versatile and alluring, ceramic jewelry has manifold appeal. Clay, and porcelain in particular, is especially well-suited for creations of personal adornment. Porcelain has extraordinary qualities. Although it appears fragile, it is actually highly resistant.  It is smooth, pure, and easily adaptable in texture and color, whether used alone or in combination with other materials such as metal, wood or stone.  It can be formed into endless shapes, modeled by hand, or cast in molds. In modern times porcelain is most often used for functional purposes, such as for tableware or laboratory vessels, but when it is made into a wearable object it takes on a new life.  It becomes highly compelling and can be experienced in conceptual, poetic or sensual ways.

In the past, clay was primarily used by jewelry makers to imitate other materials. Egyptians produced seal rings in faience to stand in for more precious materials, and the Greeks and Romans gilded terracotta to imitate solid gold. But the use of ceramics in the fabrication of jewelry was abandoned centuries ago. However, since the 1970s, when jewelry artists began to explore non-traditional material in their creations, clay has again become a popular choice for objects of adornment. "A Bit of Clay on the Skin: New Ceramic Jewelry", an exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, showcases examples of these new currents in ceramic jewelry. Over 100 ingenious pieces by eighteen contemporary cutting-edge jewelry artists show how the field has been revolutionized and popularized.

 
Trained in European schools, these jewelry artists have embraced this medium in their designs. Some of the artists draw inspiration directly from the body in creating pieces that interact with, mimic, or replicate the human form. Others look to nature and science to bridge the gap between artist and wearer, using the bone white of pure porcelain to refer to both natural forms and human anatomy. A number of the artists make witty and ironic connections between ceramics for the table and for the body. By playing with scale, traditional jewelry is transformed and takes on new meaning.

 
 Dutch designer Peter Hoogeboom's large "Spanish Collar" dramatically evokes certain ritual body ornaments from Africa and Oceania but also the lace ruff worn during the Golden Age of Holland. With his "Coffeecup Brooches" Ted Noten (also Dutch) humorously undermines conventions and preconceived ideas of jewelry and its associations with value and status by reinterpreting an everyday object. In "Breakfast at  Tiffany's" Swiss creator Natalie Luder comically arranges a dessert service like beads. The beads—plates, really--grow progressively larger towards the center. The guests at her party are not treated equally; some will get only bite-size portions! Gesine Hackenberg. A German living in the Netherlands, offers a hybrid, dual-purpose ornament in her "Kitchen Garniture," a necklace punched out from and still connected to an ornamental plate. All of these works are twists on items associated with status and memory.

Willemijn de Gref's dramatic and over-size terra cotta and hemp pieces are inspired by the styles of the Zuiderzee, a fishing region in his native Holland, and are worn in lieu of jewelry. Shu-lin Wu, from Taiwan, makes elegant, contemporary variations on Asian and European traditions. Adapting an ancient Japanese technique, mokume game, she fuses different metals and then laminates them to create a marbled effect. She then carves the pieces down to reveal different depths – and achieves a polychromatic effect in the process. And last but not least, Marie Pendaries, from France, challenges the importance of social rituals in her "Dowry" piece, in which a woman ornaments her neck and arms with pristine dinnerware, as though wearing a suit of wedding armor

 
A Bit of Clay runs through September 4th, was organized by the Fondation d'Entreprise Bernardaud, in Limoges, France, and curated by the German-born goldsmith and jewelry artist Monika Brugger.  The Fondation was established by the Bernardaud Company, manufacturer of Limoges porcelain.

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