Sunday, June 13, 2010

is jewelry functional?

Is jewelry functional?

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately, as it relates to the art vs. craft issue (don't worry, I'm not gonna beat that dead horse). I think an object needs to be functional to be considered craft, and I'm not sure that personal adornment qualifies as a function. If it does, then aren't paintings made in part for wall adornment? Now it sounds silly.

Or is the function of jewelry to interact with the body and become a vehicle of self-expression for the wearer? Does that make it fashion?

Certainly jewelry has had many functions throughout history. Beads have been used as currency for thousands of years, and in many societies a family's wealth is still largely kept in jewelry made from precious metals and gems. In some cultures the ruling classes show their status and power by draping the body with jewels, in fact it is only relatively recently that the lowest castes in India have been allowed to possess fine diamonds.

Here in the US people display wealth and status by driving big cars and wearing big rocks. But this discussion is not about the plethora of mass-produced jewelry made for stone transport - it's about unique, artistic pieces made by individual artisans. Nor am I referring to conceptual jewelry, which I consider art that is unconcerned with function.

It seems to me that craft objects are functional in a way that creates action in and on the world around us. We fill a bowl with fruit, we sit in a chair, we use a knife to dice zucchini. Where does jewelry fit in?

*6/14/10 I posted a link to this discussion on Facebook and had some very interesting responses, here are a few of my favorites:

"Jewelry is functional only if you can open a beer bottle with it."

The iron bangle 'Kara' that all Sikh people wear on their wrist is perfect for popping the top of an frosty bottle of Guru Nanak beer... also In India, warrior Sikhs are still seen wearing several karas of large sizes, designed to be used as a weapon in hand to hand combat."

"Lots of African peoples used to have pieces of jewelry that served as both weapon and decoration. Try knife-blade bangles - OUCH"

"I think jewelry is just a medium, like paint. It depends what you do with it. Paint a wall, paint your face, paint a canvas. Same with adornments, the form can be used for anything from the most conformist trendy fashion statement to artful sculpture...and everything in between. I love that it's primordial. People don't even know why they feel an impulse to adorn themselves. They just do."


  1. In short I think it is a form of non-verbal communication and as such it can be art. And as all art forms it is also magic: the animal inside us still cannot believe that these kind of things can be conceived and created without the works of a superior power, thus these objects must carry some of that power.
    Just as literature or "fine" arts are not discredited by the trash, jewelry is not touched by mass produced shit. It is also conveniently attached to our bodies, so we can constantly broadcast the message and wield the power. Then some artists have such an important message, that overrides the we arability requirement and uses the attachment of the message to the body as an additional layer of meaning. Just like your oil spill installations showing how deeply we are involved and affected by the disaster.

  2. Thanks, Pal! I was hoping you would add to the discussion. The magical, powerful talisman angle is one I overlooked, and one of the things that draws me to work with these forms.