Feeling Myself with Jewelry

Kellie Riggs, jeweler and art critic, reflects on the current state of jewelry.

Imagine yourself as a kid. Sorry, I should say that this might work better for the girls reading this. But maybe you’re a father to a daughter, or a brother to a sister, or you don’t participate in binary gender norms. Whoever you are, go with me on this. Mom is in the kitchen. You, be it alone or with some friends or siblings, are not. You’re in your mom’s closet. You look through her wardrobe. It’s all in there! The jackets, pantsuits, and every seldom worn dress saved just for special occasions. Velvets and prints, long hems, wide skirts... You choose one. You're swimming in it, but it’s fine. Now the shoes. You slide your tiny feet into a pair of your favorite heels mom never wears and you wiggle across the carpet, one foot after the other, to the mirror. But the look isn’t over, is it? Saved for last are the goodies inside her jewelry box and sprawled across the vanity. You look before touching, choosing with your eyes. Is it a big gold pair of clip-ons that you go for, a classic string of pearls, some stone-encrusted ring, or as many pieces that you can fit at once? The choice you make is not arbitrary, but there’s no real logic to it either, is there? You follow your instincts, not even consciously. It’s just right. Think about it. Maybe it’s the shiniest thing in the box: wow. Maybe it’s the most colorful: yum! Or maybe it’s just the fanciest: yessss. But you're a kid and you don’t even know what that means exactly. And you certainly don’t care about matching. The right choice is merely a feeling.

«I wanted success for young artists, and more places for their work to go. I wanted broader appeal. I wanted cool, young people, like the makers themselves, to be able to have it too.»

Kellie Riggs
Tone Vigeland, bracelet, 1985, silver. H. 6,4 cm, Ø 7 cm. Private collection
Tone Vigeland: Bracelet, 1983 Silver. B 6,5 cm; D 7,1 cm. In the collection of the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.
Tone Vigeland

Fast forward some twenty-five years or so to adulthood. 

I am a writer, writing about, of all things, jewelry. But not any and all kinds of jewelry, right? We think this particular jewelry is special. It’s smart. And above all, it’s hard to find. Let’s face it: it’s niche jewelry. I write about a niche within a niche. Interesting. Perhaps that is part of what makes it so special, no? The niche-ness. That it’s not for everybody.  

I once did a lot of complaining about this. I wanted everyone to have access to this special jewelry.
I thought that the niche-ness ensued because there wasn’t enough comparison being made about Contemporary Jewelry’s relationship to art. You know how a painting is a painting even if it’s a bad painting, and most of the time a painting just gets to be art no questions asked? Well, when good contemporary jewelry has all the same ingredients that good art has, it rarely gets the same kind of pass. Of course, there are places of exception, like the Pinakothek’s Die Neue Sammlung in Munich, and artists of exception, like Tone Vigeland – institutions that acknowledge jewelry’s artistic value, and jewelers recognized as artists. And both have the people that collect jewelry as they would any other fine art object to thank. All fine. Despite what I knew about this world back then, everything still somehow felt a little 2nd class to me. “More people should know about this jewelry, damnit!” I would say relentlessly.  I wanted success for young artists, and more places for their work to go. I wanted broader appeal. I wanted cool, young people, like the makers themselves, to be able to have it too.

Sigurd Bronger: Carrying device for the last gallstone. 2013. Gold, chrome plated brass, glass, gall stone.
Stefan Heuser: The Haunch Gold Project. 2008. Human body fat, gold.
Nanna Melland: 687 Years. 2006- 2008. Electroformed and bronze cast IUD`s. In the collection of Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum in Trondheim.

«Wearers put on jewelry simply because it brings us joy, makes us feel good, or better, or sexier, nostalgic, or more confident.»

Kellie Riggs
Tone Vigeland: Sculpture IV, 1999. Lead and plastic. 485 x 7,5 cm. In the collection of the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.

I thought that through writing I could come up with ways to make it easier for everybody to talk about Contemporary Jewelry and therefore disseminate it, by developing new vocabulary and playing games of association to other, artier things. But I realized a few years into this pursuit that there was a flaw in my logic. Connecting how jewelry is handled to Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (though it’s still cool, as André too mentioned) for example, or to Alan Kaprow’s text Art Which Can’t Be Art, wasn’t exactly going to generate greater appeal or more popularity, especially for a younger crowd. Connecting it to design could be a much more viable path, but I digress. At the time, I also wasn’t quite seeing things for the way they were, and had been for decades, in the field itself. Throughout the last fifty years or so, the effort to legitimize this kind of jewelry as a real and honest art genre has already been quite extensive. Happenings were created. We built white cubes around it. We donated it to museums. We developed jewelry academia. And we’ve written about it, and continue to write about it. Now we have books and magazine and blogs, too. We copied all the things the art world does! And these are all good things, as the field is an ever-growing global enterprise. Yet, the niche-ness remains. And maybe more so than ever in a way, if the closing galleries across Europe are of any indication.  

So perhaps our expectations were wrong, or we may have tried too hard. And as a result we ended up cultivating a new culture around this jewelry where our students think they are expected to make work that’s ‘big and difficult’ and ‘about something’; jewelry that ultimately has quite little to do with, well, jewelry. In all that time we were trying so hard to relate jewelry more towards art, this over- conceptualization ended up distancing jewelry from itself.

Forgetting to relate jewelry to jewelry sounds silly, but it’s to be expected when we lock it up in a vault, or erase its context via a neutral, white background. Again, of course, there are exceptions: enter again Vigeland.  Certainly her foothold in the modern Scandinavian jewelry tradition  - which of course once reflected the political climate with well-designed jewelry for all and everyone, the anti-elite - continued to be relevant throughout her career, even in her most intricate and extravagant works. You’ve already read how: no matter what her pieces looked like, they always had the body in mind, skillfully contouring it in order to be comfortable. It’s simple really. Vigeland retained a powerful balance of self-expression through making, with an acknowledgement that it’s ok if the object is simply 'pleasant to wear,' as she puts it. This kind of unpretentious harmony thus lends itself well to cross-cultural appeal and relevance, which we know she achieved.

Reinhold Ziegler: Meteorites in the Formation of Casiopeia Constellation. 2013. Stony meteorite, silver.
Liv Blåvarp: Voice of the Forest. 2013.

It’s almost primitive if you will, an acknowledgment of the universality of jewelry. That wearers put on jewelry simply because it brings us joy, makes us feel good, or better, or sexier, nostalgic, or more confident. It’s that urge to identify ourselves at play too, to differentiate, to be unique.

As a writer and also maker of jewelry myself, it’s interesting to me that jewelry’s true and fundamental nature gets so often overlooked in this Contemporary Jewelry world. So I guess I wanted to remind us all – the students especially, our future makers – that jewelry’s role is actually quite simple, with the privilege of being this special, decisive moment of your day. It can set the tone, reflect your mood, be transcendental, make you feel amazing.

Ok. I’m going to take a leap here. Have you seen that Nicki Minaj/Beyoncé music video, Feeling Myself? Short clips of the pair sitting on inflatable pool floats or in a kiddy pool with squirt guns pepper the video. They are wearing one-piece bathing suits, pink faux-fur jackets, colorful bands around their wrists, and door-knocker hoops with gold chokers. Most I bet would say that it’s not our kind of jewelry, but to me that doesn’t matter. Look how much fun they are having, how great they feel about themselves! It’s a kind of adult dress-up, and you and I do it too, everyday. Glamour is subjective. Just ask the kids in their mom’s closet; they don’t know pearls from plastic. They are just feeling themselves.

That’s why we wear jewelry, isn’t it?

Kellie Riggs is a freelance writer, editor, jeweler, and curator:

Co- curated CULT exhibition:

Editor at Current Obsession Magazine:

Founder of Greater Than or Equal To:

Currently in Florence, Italy working in a shared space called Officine Nora: www.officinenora.it

b. 1986 USA


This commentary was initially written for Norwegian Crafts Paper #1: Contemporary Jewellery (2017)