All jewellery is a miniature sculpture worn on the body, but a raft of young contemporary designers are directly expressing artistic approaches gleaned from famous names in sculpture. Playing with form, their focus is less on material value than a creation’s shape-shifting allure and activation by the wearer.
Sculptural aesthetics often treat jewellery as an extension of the self or physicality of its owner and, less so, pronounced style statements.
Charlotte Chesnais is only 31, but has an enviable Paris fashion coterie – she counts Nicolas Ghesquière as a mentor, having worked for him for a decade at Balenciaga, where she was eventually tasked to direct his jewellery division. Exploring her own jewellery since launching her brand at last year’s January couture shows, she juggles “accessories gun-for-hire” roles for numerous companies.
With a presence in so many corners of the fashion capital, it comes as a surprise that her eponymous collections – which have secured her the inaugural Accessories Prize at a barometer of French fashion talent, the ANDAM Award 2015 – aren’t primarily fashion driven or editorially-led. The subtle pieces, worn by the likes of French actresses Catherine Deneuve and Léa Seydoux, and Chesnais herself, are instead personal signatures, composed of elegant lines of gold.
Their sculptural demeanour reveals that she views jewellery as an object or piece of art that takes on another life once it is worn.
The visual references of Chesnais and her peers are numerous, but an affinity with the legendary contemporary sculptor Alexander Calder, and what he believed was a mutual influence between jewellery and its wearer, continues four decades after his death.
His relevance was demonstrated this autumn in London at the Louisa Guinness Gallery, which held Britain’s first solo exhibition of his jewellery called “The Boldness of Calder”. One way Calder’s work was forceful was the metals he used for necklaces, brooches, bracelets and earrings (brass, copper and cutlery) and his lack of soldering. Another was provocation, like his Jealous Husband necklace that traverses one shoulder to the other, with spiky elements to ward off encroaching suitors.
Calder’s jewellery is mostly pleasure-giving though and as recognisable as his large artworks, sharing motifs and that sense of movement, just on a smaller stage. Spirals, swirls, circles and curves loom; in orbit or stoking a chain reaction.
Sculpture demands the viewer trace its shape with their eyes or even touch it, especially when it is jewellery that is kinetic. The wearer and jewellery play together in the hands of New York-based Mateo Harris, who emphasises the human conductor of jewellery’s movement with joyful, diminutive homages to Calder’s most famous invention, the mobile, this time perched on the ear lobe and swaying with a delicate whimsy as the wearer shifts and displaces the earrings. Louis Vuitton’s “Wish Bone” earrings have a dancing litheness that jolts to attention and then releases itself as they are carried along with a person’s gait, compelling the admirer’s eyes to follow.
It’s not always about mobility. The relief of jewellery, against the body’s, can also be the interest, whether a creation resembles molten metal deposits or textural panels. Some jewellery designers are using their treatment of metals to reveal sculptural aims and cultural influences.
London’s Imogen Belfield’s powerful “Goddess Necklace” took Best in Gold at the COUTURE Design Awards 2016 jewellery industry event in Las Vegas, and it’s laden with tribal resonance; Calder himself was stimulated by African items and rudimentary, ancient jewellery practices. This favouring of organic forms – such as Stella McCartney’s spring/summer 2017 ready-to-wear show’s driftwood chokers – does not preclude the opposite however: mechanical or geometric ideas by creatives such as Ute Decker, who tests trapezial dimensions; and France’s Elie Top, seen to employ rotating discs.
Inspiration can coalesce right at a designer’s elbow apparently too. Elie Top’s Mécaniques Célestes have a root in entirely mundane shapes observed in daily life: like the round, silver flip-top sugar pot found in Paris cafes and restaurants. Of course, the body speaks most potently to those exploring three-dimensional jewellery, such as Australia’s Elyssa Sykes-Smith.
The figurative sculptor explored jewellery for the first time in Sydney’s Stanley Street Gallery exhibition, “Borne: Sculpture for the Body by 28 Artists”, the culmination of the invitation of a diverse range of established, mid-career and emerging sculptors to consider wearable sculpture. Her “Clothing Climbers” were the most evocative of human curvature among the works displayed; acrobatic or scaling bodies appearing to ascend a wall. While Chesnais’ jewellery is deliberately minimal in mood with its luxurious and comfortable simplicity, Sykes-Smith’s study of more overt sensuality summons the imagination with a knowing smile.
A standout was a pair of earrings named “Ear Swingers” that leap in a balletic rapture of sorts, forming a neat sweep back to all things Calder. It is hard to fail to see echoes of the tightrope acrobats, tamers and strong men of his famous miniature Calder’s Circus (1926-31) in the limber duo.
A final observation of sculpted vignettes is that fewer are often enough. The suspended beauty and subtle balance of airborne weighted dynamics is prevalently parlayed into single earring offerings such as Maripossa’s “Ad Infinitum” earring, with its ever looping infinity symbol. This preference for asymmetry and solo options is underpinned by notions of individuality and a freestyle mix-and-match, and the strength of the sculptural concept alone, physically and metaphorically.
Maripossa’s artistic director Lauren Besser says proportions can also necessitate costs that single earrings can help minimise: “I know that a pair of my solid gold or silver earrings may be too expensive for my customers due to the density or heaviness of the style, hence the offering of a single can open up [a design] to a wider market.”
Whatever the desired aesthetic, the implication of these cleverly forged adornments may be their eliciting of an incipient consideration of an impact beyond mere decoration.
With this nascent awareness of portable art taken to the boardroom or street, they possess the ultimate impression of curatorial exploration and uniqueness.