The trick is to regard tradition not as a collection of ironbound rules, but a loose structure that allows room for creative movement. It may be a typically European misunderstanding to regard tradition as sacred dogma. A close look at any preliterate or ancient culture will reveal that tradition in the visual arts allowed for ongoing, organic changes. It also allowed for considerable variation and personal invention. People have decorated themselves for tribal ceremonies from New Guinea to Africa, and many of these performances are recorded in books and magazines. At first glance, a Western observer often thinks that all the patterns are identical, and every individual must be the prisoner of custom. But a longer look shows that every person is different, and that within a group style there is also divergence. Further study will reveal that tribal styles gradually evolve, reflecting changes in community and environment. Clearly, pre-literate peoples regarded tradition as a framework and a starting-point, not as a rulebook to follow blindly.
My point is this: the traditions of jewelry can be honored and understood, but not taken as holy scripture. The history of jewelry is far older than the history of painting, and far richer than the history of sculpture. Jewelry is firmly grounded in the human condition, and we are neither so enlightened nor so creative that we can afford to ignore the combined experience of hundreds of cultures and dozens of generations. At the same time, we must realize that not all lessons from the past are relevant today, and tradition can be tailored to fit present conditions. The past is not the only referent in modern jewelry.
A new type of jeweler has emerged since mid-century. Usually trained in a University-level art program, she is fully aware of the achievements of modern art. She often regards herself as an artist, and compares her activity to that of a sculptor. Frequently, assuming the role of artist means she feels responsible to artworld concepts, alongside (or, if she’s lucky, instead of) the economic demands of making a living. For increasing numbers of jewelers, jewelry has become a pure expression of thought and feeling, only loosely connected to the traditional roles of ornament.
The incursion of artworld values into the craft of jewelry-making has been ongoing for most of this century. Ever since the 1940’s, textbooks on the craft emphasized design over social meaning, which was an ideological position advanced by the Bauhaus and other early Modernist institutions. As jewelry instruction became a fixture of the art academy, it’s not surprising that the artworld’s privileging of concept (over materiality, function, or social meaning) should be internalized by young jewelers.
The same shift in values has affected all the craft disciplines that are taught at the University level. Fiber arts, ceramics, glass, woodworking, and enameling have all followed the same trajectory. (Blacksmithing, leather-working, and musical instrument making, not having found a place in the art academy, are much less influenced by formalist design and conceptual art.) The result has been the production of much sculpture made from craft materials. The vestige of function has become a referent, establishing a historical context for an object, rather than serving a physical or psychological purpose.
Of course, as jewelry embraces formal design values and art concepts, some of the old purposes of jewelry are diminished. As inventiveness becomes more important, the social coding of jewelry is neglected. Jewelers ambitious to become artists rarely make straight “social jewelry” that have familiar meanings: class rings; wedding and engagement rings; picture lockets; or religious symbols. Additionally, the rich and varied meanings of traditional non-white and non-European jewelry appear to have no place in college curricula. Among artist wannabees, jewelry’s former role as status symbol and portable bank account has been devalued. Of course, this development seems to be confined to the industrialized countries, where the influence of 20th century Western art is strongest.