Those are pearls that were his eyes, Lindsay Missen

Fingers: Jewellery for Aotearoa New Zealand: 40 Years of Fingers Jewellery Gallery
Damian Skinner and Finn McCahon-Jones
David Bateman, $60.00,
ISBN 9781869538620

Place and Adornment: A History of Contemporary Jewellery in Australia and New Zealand
Damian Skinner and Kevin Murray
David Bateman, $70.00,
ISBN 9781869538200

If you have an interest in New Zealand craft jewellery, it’s very likely you’ll enjoy Fingers: Jewellery for Aotearoa New Zealand: 40 Years of Fingers Jewellery Gallery. The layout is a scrapbookish mélange of photos of work, reproductions of associated print design, and numerous group shots of the principal craftspeople involved. If you’re old enough to recall the four decades covered, here is a treasure trove of illustrative material to be searched through and remembered.

Fingers draws the reader into a fascinating little area of our country’s creative history. Some fairly indifferent photos in the early sections just add to a sense of rediscovering the past and poking through someone’s carefully maintained archive and extensive jewellery box. The authors have divided the 40 years into four sections and provided a text that seeks to explain the significance of the collective’s work in the context of the nation’s cultural and political history over that period. Clearly the result of careful consideration and preparation, the story of these craft-people’s development links their work to a need to explore an emerging national identity and “our place in the pacific”. These assumptions ignore the possibility that the choice of materials is not always politically motivated, simply the need to find an interesting new medium to express an idea that interested the maker at the time.

Extensive acknowledgements indicate the time and energy many people have contributed to give this book lasting value as a record of our first contemporary jewellery gallery. The designer has managed the array of sometimes oddly proportioned and textured material well, but seems to have an optimistic view of the reader’s ability to read tiny type on black pages while needing a hand-drawn arrow attached to every caption in case it is not clear what image it relates to. Strangely, one important ingredient in any commercial enterprise seems to have been forgotten. I longed to turn the page and find customers actually wearing their purchases.

Place and Adornment: A History of Contemporary Jewellery in Australia and New Zealand: now that seems an interesting prospect. The generous format, hard-bound with a rather restrained jacket, and the size (248 pages) suggest a significant work. And so it proves: the two authors, one again Damian Skinner, who co-authored the Fingers book, have produced an exhaustively researched and skilfully constructed book, well-referenced with text and relevant illustrations always appearing as close as practicable to each other.

I am sure this book will provide a valuable reference point for future work with a similar approach. However, it has left me wondering what the craft of contemporary jewellery making has done to deserve this grey cloak of interminable artspeak. Grand proclamations about identity and the maker’s complex intellectualisations come face to face with the personal minutiae of critics’ and gallerists’ careers. One strange effect of this discourse is that the illustrations, relentless in size and position, assume a rather lifeless quality, small footnotes to a dominating text. Ironically, some of these images, particularly those of well-known pieces of historic importance, project more energy and significance in earlier, black-and-white publications. Why the publisher chose to fund this expensively produced vehicle for what is essentially an academic text for a limited audience seems a question worth posing.

Lindsay Missen is a book designer and jewellery maker.

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Posted in Art, Non-fiction, Review
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