Frederique Bailey, Handmade Pendant for Daisy Garland Trust, Sterling Silver
At Bailey Contemporary Arts, we have always sold jewellery alongside the usual array of paintings, prints, sculptures and other forms of ‘art’. This is not just because the gallery’s owner, Frederique Bailey, learnt jewellery making at Central St Martin’s – in one of her many lifetimes, she says. And it is not even because famous and established artists have experimented with jewellery – Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein or our very own Peter Spence, to name a few!
There is a valid, often scholarly argument for and against jewellery’s categorisation as art, since it is in fact a craft; and the distinction between art and craft is rarely a clear one. Functionality and value are terms that often feature in that debate.
The function of jewellery is to decorate the body, rings are crafted to perfectly fit the fingers, necklaces have clasps to keep them in place. Art, on the other hand, has allegedly no function, other than engage the viewer.
The lines become a little blurred when we consider Grayson Perry’s ceramic pieces or ‘pots’ and Andy Warhol’s advertising campaigns. Nobody would discredit them their status as art, yet their function is obvious. Of course, like these pieces of functional art, there are also pieces of jewellery that, it could be argued, lack function.
Kim Buck’s ‘String of Pearls’ functions individually as brooches, made of silver and 18ct gold. Yet it is clear that they are at their best when displayed in a group, as a work of art, allowing the viewer to see the full imprint of the necklace. Peggy Guggenheim’s ‘enormous mobile earrings’ made especially for her by artist Alexander Calder, may indeed serve their purpose as a decorative piece, but it is clear that functionality was not high on the list of priorities!
Kim Buck ‘String of Pearls’ Alexander Calder ‘Mobile Earrings’
18ct Gold and Silver, 2003 Brass and Silver Wire, 1938
The value of a piece is another crucial, albeit potentially confusing, element of the debate. Inherent value is the worth of the materials used to create the object. Retail value is the price the object would achieve if sold. Artistic value depends on the merit of the talent and vision used to create the object.
The ‘Nympheas’ by Claude Monet, an undeniable masterpiece, has an inherent value of very little, the oil paint and canvas used to create the work is worth a few pounds at most. But when we look at the retail value of this piece, it truly is astronomical, having sold as Sotheby’s just a couple of years ago for a staggering £32 million. In this instance, the artistic value of the piece is so great, that the inherent value is totally disregarded, leading to the huge retail value. We undoubtedly classify this as art.
Claude Monet ‘Nympheas’ Bvlgari Blue’ Colourless and Blue
Oil on Canvas, 1906. Diamond Ring, 1972.
Now to look at a similarly pricey piece, the ‘Bvlgari Blue’. This piece has a huge inherent value, being composed of a 9.87 carat colourless diamond and a 10.95 carat ‘fancy vivid’ blue diamond. It is nevertheless estimated by experts to be no more than £6 million, a miserly sum compared to the 31.6 million for which the ring was in fact sold at Christie’s a few years ago. The ring’s heritage, the tales and history behind its origins and the unique skills of its creator account for what is undeniably its artistic value!
Let us bring the debate down to our own, more ordinary lives and bank balances and let us go back to some very basic basics: why do we buy art? Without fetching 7 or 8 or even 4 figures, investing and collecting can still be important factors, but even those of us who are able to see the financial value in a piece would probably only buy art that appeals to their sense of aesthetic or in some way touches upon an emotion.
And why do we buy jewellery? Again, financial considerations can be part of the decision, but again, aesthetic and emotive appeal are usually the trigger to the decision.In other words, we buy what makes us feel good. It is as unashamedly simplistic as it sounds. That ‘feel good’ element, the evocative imagery behind a piece, the light that sparks in the eye of its new owner or the romance that motivates the purchase, all contribute to their artistic value.
When we buy jewellery, be it a pair of dangly earrings that will last a season or two, some solid silver cufflinks to mark a rite of passage, a unique necklace or ring that sends an emotional message, or, indeed, a rare brooch by Pablo Picasso, we buy into the artistic value of the piece – bringing beauty, poetry and dreams to the fore of our lives!