The past and future of BA Jewellery Design at Central Saint Martins
There is quite a gap between the old evening classes for only Fine Jewellery Apprentice boys at the Central School of Art & Craft, to what the BA Jewellery Design at Central Saint Martins is today. I sat down for a conversation with my course leader, Caroline Broadhead, who I see every day in the workshops. We spoke about what made her pursue her passion, willpower, and motivation through that same medium as a process since she graduated. And, moreover, about how her work, inspirations and choices matured since the 1970’s. What difference does it make for us in terms of art education now compared to then?
It was a time when jewellery and art tried to merge together and construct what must have been one of the first Contemporary Jewellery Design scenes. Naturally and instinctively creating new boundaries around the object and its surroundings, Caroline claims that she doesn’t consider herself as a jeweller anymore, but rather as an artist using jewellery techniques. We spoke most of all about the future of jewellery and what needs to be done: critics, collective art, new spaces.
You graduated from Central Saint Martins in 1972, how did you start working in the field of jewellery?
I was offered a space by a friend in a building in Covent Garden. It was at the time the home of the Opera House and the fruit and vegetable market, with very few shops or passersby. The building was shared with architects and designers, with a common kitchen, meeting rooms, a receptionist and a coffee area. It was underneath the pavement, so no one would really want it. Now this is a fairly regular way of organising space, but back then it was the second one in London. Julia Manheim, Nuala Jamison and I all graduated from Central and were looking to start making jewellery somewhere. We rented some of the space out to other jewellers to help to pay the (very nominal) rent.
How was the jewellery approach at CSM back then?
The BA course was very different then, 11 of us graduated. At the time, the jewellery side was very traditional and very technical. The criteria were very much about technicality rather than how you generate and develop ideas, or research something. The jewellery world seemed to be divided into precious and non-precious. One standard way was that you designed jewellery in precious materials and to commission the piece. It was not the way I felt comfortable working. I wanted to work things out before anyone saw what I was doing. I certainly did not work to accurate drawings or have a strong plan at the beginning. I explored through making and made decisions as I went along. The Craft Council (then Crafts Advisory Committee) began to offer funding for individuals, small workshops, and focused on work with non-precious materials and work that was questioning the norm.
How did you end up finding what you liked to do? Was it instinctive, in a way ?
I did not make any work I liked while I was on the course. I suppose I was trying to see what the tutors wanted, and trying to make something I liked, but it did not quite work. It took another year to actually start making some work that made me think “I like it”. Once you have made something you feel excited by — that is in tune with your ideas and you get good feedback — then you can start. My first piece, made out of ivory and called “the knot necklace”, was about making something that would look soft, but was created out of a hard material. It was something I could have worn myself, which relied on my own reactions. It is like testing out on your own responses and being self-conscious.
Do you think it was easier or harder to establish jewellery as an art medium?
It was definitely harder, nobody knew about it in the seventies. Now there are galleries all over the world and the internet links people together. Certainly it comes under “decorative art”, “applied art”, “creative art” banners, but most people do not consider jewellery as Fine art. I think it depends upon what the work is doing, what ideas are being explored and how, what its reach is, and whether it falls under a “fine art” category. One assumption is that if it is considered “fine art”, it must be ‘good’. There is much in all fields that could be considered as ineffective fine art. In other words, these definitions are flexible, it depends on who is making them and why. One simplistic interpretation of this question is that fine art has a higher status than craft-based work, and this view seems to be very hard to change, as the price for fine art work is high and the spaces are expensive.
Do you think it is still relevant to fight for jewellery as an art medium today?
If the work is well researched and executed, has a high impact… It is the maker who has the power to put a value on it, and present it professionally. It has to come from the work itself, primarily.
But locally awareness has declined, like in here, where rent is huge. We have lost some galleries –Lesley Craze and Electrum-, things got tightened. In galleries, you are not selling masses of things every day. It is quite hard to display jewellery. Even though it is small, it needs a bit of space. Somebody has got to be driven to open a space with all the resources that it involves, and there are not possibly enough sales to guarantee that you can be very extravagant with display, compared to fashion or fine art for instance.
Could we say that art education serves the industry more than the sake of art?
It depends on the individuals and the resources. At CSM for instance, we have close partnerships with the industry — they need creativity to keep the companies fresh and current, young designers need to see how they work, and there is a channel for their talents here. If a student wants to work in a different way, they are still encouraged to follow and develop their strengths and ideas. There are a lot of range of places where a jewellery graduate can operate.
You are still standing up for jewellery design as a course leader. Why is it relevant to use jewellery techniques to make art?
Strangely I went to jewellery because I wanted to work with metal, and I haven’t since then. I have come from a background of jewellery design, so the approach is fairly fine, detailed and I am aware of the sense of touch. One of the reasons that made me decide between jewellery and textiles at the time, was that jewellery can stand for so many different things, and it seemed like a very active object as well.
Do you see a difference between being a jewellery designer and a jewellery artist? Or aren’t there any, and it just depends on the work you produce and who sells it?
No, I think when the definition becomes over important, there is a need for more words and then they don’t always serve a purpose. You can be either or neither. Loosely and stereotypically, a designer tends to be one who can design first on paper; for function or commerce, and an artist is one who is pursuing an idea, taking a position, expressing something more than making a product. But this is something interchangeable and there are probably very few who fit solely into these descriptions. You can call yourself a jewellery designer one year and the next year something else, because actually you change and develop ideas over time.
Do you think a piece of jewellery is enough on its own, or does it need a context for its understanding?
This is dependent. Sometimes you just want a lovely piece of jewellery to wear, or to give, and there is nothing wrong with that. If we are talking about a complex idea made tangible through materials, there are a number of scenarios. If we are talking about pieces of jewellery, then the material object might have enough impact or intrigue to draw the intentions and complexities behind the piece; it will serve to further engage.
I think what happens when there is a piece that does not immediately engage, but its context is made clear, is that a dialogue is then created. People tend to talk about it and pass on their attitudes and reactions. That is a successful way of working. If a piece relies totally on the understanding of a context, then that to me is not an effective way of operating. To sustain the field of jewellery as a vibrant area, it is healthy to have a dialogue, conflicting views, several different approaches, investigations into current ideas and appraisals of traditional ones.
Is the language of contemporary jewellery as understandable and limpid as contemporary art’s could be?
The word ‘jewellery’ has expectations to contend with. It is still associated with gold and precious materials — wealth — by a lot of people. Contemporary art is seen in more places, talked about in newspapers, TV. It can be anything and that fact is more widely accepted. But I don’t think jewellery needs to be exclusive any more than art is. As jewellery can be about a sense of value, identity, relating to the body. It maybe has a mode of communication that is quite fundamental. I think there is a question that has to do with gender. Jewellery is often considered to be the territory of women, and often as a gift from a man. But sometimes the most interesting thing is when somebody is bringing ideas from outside the norm of jewellery.
It seems that nowadays pieces can be quite anonymous; do you think the wearer should be more involved in what s/he wants?
That is why people still commission pieces, but in the world of contemporary jewellery there is very recognisable, authored work. Elsewhere, jewellery can be an impersonal, mass-produced product, some good, some bad. I don’t think anything should be a ‘should be’. By making personal connections with makers and following their ideas, individuals can get very involved with creative work.
Why aren’t there more critics within contemporary jewellery?
It would be excellent if constructive criticism and comment could be encouraged. Jewellery has got to stand up for itself. It is about communication, we base our criticism on how eloquent the object is. The basic element is what you get from that piece of work. However, this is something that has increased over the past few years, and I imagine it will increase in the future.