"Diamonds are a girl's best friend" sang Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Yet, we may argue, that happened in 1949 and we now live in very different times. Indeed, in the past the value of jewellery was intrinsically linked with the material it was made of, but nowadays there are conceptual pieces that may be made with simple or waste materials and that may be worth more for the symbolical meanings they represent.
Between the '50s and the '70s Swedish jewellery designers introduced for example minimalism in their pieces and alternative materials to gold, silver and precious gemstones. Natural stone, glass, wood and bone entered the jewellery language of designers such as Vivianna Torun Bülow-Hübe, artists who were celebrated in an exhibition entitled "The Triumph of Simplicity" in 1980 at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.
In the '90s things changed even more and a new generation of Swedish jewellery designers introduced further alternative materials: Mona Wallström's 1997 necklace "The Beauty of Woodlouse" revolved around the dichotomy "attraction/disgust" and was inspired by woodlice seen as larvae and as fully developed insects.
Around the same time Helena Sandström designed her "Eggshell" necklace that featured delicate flowers made with hens' egg shells linked together with a 24 carat gold cord. The piece was meant to make the wearer think about special occasions and the value of things: as soon as the wearer would have donned the piece, the necklace would have destroyed itself since it was incredibly fragile.
In more recent years jewellery showcased in Sweden museums developed along different paths: Åsa Skogberg's project "I Want Pearls" (1998) did not include any proper necklace, but consisted in a photo of the artist in a cameo-like pose and wearing a necklace made of love bites rather than pearls, an image that served the artist as a comment about beauty, value, dominance and gender.
The theme of the pearl necklace returned in Aud Charlotte Ho Sook Sinding's "Jane" (2007), incorporating a pearl necklace and three silicon growths in a soft pink shade, reminiscent of liposuction and of the modern obsession with perfect bodies and plastic surgery.
As the years passed, quite a few jewellery pieces were eventually acquired by institutions and galleries in Sweden and featured in dedicated exhibitions.
Inspired by them and in collaboration with Sweden's Nationalmuseum, Palazzo Mocenigo, the Venice-based Museum and Study Center of the History of Fabrics and Costumes (one of Irenebrination's favourite institutions), dedicated a compact yet intriguing event - entitled "Transformations" - to six Swedish jewellery designers (until 26th November 2017).
Located on the ground floor of the Palazzo, the event opens with Märta Mattsson who uses materials she can find in nature and works around the life and death dichotomy. Mattsson thinks indeed that, as human beings, we do have an interest in death, a fascination that goes through history and that has often prompted us all to look for uncanny objects.
Fascinated by things people do not want to see or do not want to look at (but they eventually look at them...), Mattsson gives new life to insects, refining them with layers of copper, pyrites, azurites and other decorative elements.
Seen from a distance one of her delicate necklaces looks as if it was made of lace, but, close up, you realise its laser cut goatskin incorporates a layer of butterflies; real cicadas form instead the main decorative elements on a simple necklace or they are split in halves and incorporated in a wood and resin brooch; from repulsive, skeletons of beetles are turned into desirable brooches filled with sparkling ruby red cubic zirconias.
Like her also Catarina Hällzon finds materials directly in nature: the designer catches fish to feed the family, but she then employs the skin for her pieces. Hällzon uses an ancient technique to tan the skin and creates rather large pieces with it.
Yet her works combining traditional silversmithing techniques and waste products, are not merely decorative: her perch skin brooches, necklaces made from the scales of pikes and pigs intestines are ways to make a comment upon consumer society and suggest us to preserve and recycle, without forgetting to take only what we need for nature.
The leftover materials are considered by the designer as a way to keep something forever and create new memories and stories.
There is something primitive about Agnes Larsson's pieces: diamonds are usually formed from carbon subjected to extreme pressure and high temperatures, but the designer opted for her pieces to go for rough materials such as black coal combining it with horsehair (a variation is provided by coal in a lighter shade or metal, animal hides and white horsehair).
Her monumental coal designs feature shield-like surfaces, they look like ritualistic armours kept together by fragile hair and in some cases her creations look as if they were dug out of a pile of earth after having been buried for centuries.
Hanna Hedman's complex works are made of powder-coated copper and sheet silver perforated into a lace-like pattern. Hedman's experiments with metals and filigree-like techniques are more evident when her pieces are showcased outside of a glass vitrine, with the light creating intriguing shadows hinting at nature, animals and plants.
At times these pieces help us reminding us about the destructive behaviour we have on nature; in other cases they represent melancholy, they hint with their flowers and dark undertones at the tradition of the vanitas paintings or they are the embodiment of the designer's personal experiences.
One of her necklaces for example is extremely long and almost touches the floor: symbolising a long period of mourning, the piece was developed when the artist felt a great personal grief.
Sara Borgegård Älgå uses instead cheap materials such as iron or sheet metal manufactured industrially for her modernist necklaces.
She covers their surfaces with paint (borrowing colours from old factories) that acts at the same time as a protective and decorative layer. Her jewellery pieces look used and worn out and she hopes to send out through her necklaces a special message about preserving locations and buildings that may tell urban and industrial stories.
The chatelaine, the (17th century) tool belt hook or clasp worn at the waist with a series of chains suspended from it that secured household appendages such as scissors, thimbles, watches, keys, vinaigrette, and household seals, inspired Tobias Alm a new modernist investigation. His research eventually took him to the creation of hybrids between the tool belt and the chatelaine that could be conceived as ways to discuss gender, power, status structures and society.
After looking at the cabinets dedicated to the creations by these six designers you will clearly understand that this is just the top of the iceberg and that the selection for "Transformations" is definitely not complete. Yet, this small and coherent event, reunites designers who look at jewellery as a way to extend the wearer's personality, reach out to other people and trespass the boundaries between art and craft, jewellery and conceptual gesture. These pieces touching upon themes such as identity, the environment, waste, consumerism, recycling and social issues, make us ponder about the state of the world, pushing us to realise that jewellery can be a form of public art, a social communicator that can open up dialogues between people.
Special thanks to Chiara Squarcina, Director of Palazzo Mocenigo, and to the Mocenigo staff, in particular Monica Giani at the ticket office for facilitating my visit to the museum.