Making it in glass
Glass is not used extensively in jewellery in Australia. The contemporary jewellery movement has tended towards other industrial materials of modernism, such as aluminium, acrylic or rubber, alongside the use of more traditional materials. Technical expertise in glass is not readily available, nor do Australian gold and silversmithing courses have the facilities or technical backup to enable students to experiment with glass. Also, glass is taught in a separate stream and in very limited locations.
All this has meant that there is a problem of exclusion. There are few Australian jewellers who work in glass, there are jewellers who occasionally use glass in their work to answer a design or concept, there are glass craftworkers who sometimes make jewellery, and there are some who collaborate. But generally it is rare to find a jeweller with expertise in glass, or vice versa. Helen Aitken-Kuhnen is one of the few craftspeople who has studied both disciplines.
The history of glass in Australia is clearly delineated by Nola Anderson in her paper 'Glass Roots - Australian Studio Glass, History as Contemporary Narrative'1. We learn that glass is a relatively new craft medium sponsored by the concerted efforts of a few glass artists and the now defunct Australia Council Crafts Board. The development of glass in Australia has followed on from the acquisition of technical skills rather than from any coherent base of ideas. Of course, any craft or art could not exist without the requisite technical skills. But it becomes equally critical to maintain a balance between the idea and its technical source.
Ideas can come from a myriad of sources. In contemporary Australian craft disciplines there are so many approaches: cultural expression, personal experience, political statement, private fetish, social statement, exploration of form, or type, or function, investigation of material or technology. While it is very difficult to develop clear criteria for evaluating such diverse approaches, I always look first for communication of the maker's personality in the concept. This allows me to stand aside from my own taste values and 'objectively' enjoy work that would otherwise not belong to my frame of reference.
One of the joys for a maker is in selecting the most appropriate material for its suitability and effectiveness in expressing the idea behind the piece. The most successful work conveys a maker's philosophy, and ideally the piece also leaves the impression that the object could have been made in no other material.
When thinking of glass jewellery which does explore material as a response to idea, the prolific Art Deco period springs to mind. Materials, precious or otherwise, were used not for their intrinsic value but their suitability and effectiveness in expressing design concepts.
While Art Deco imagery was still involved with the predominant use of precious materials, its manifestations were perhaps more than at any other time tightly linked to the artistic expressions of the era. Changing lifestyles of the 1920s and 1930s introduced different demands of both technology and social symbolism, so that the emergence of new materials and production techniques became highly influential in redirecting new approaches to both exclusive hand-made jewellery and costume jewellery.
Costume jewellery formed an important counterpoint to haute joailliers, representing a democratic approach to jewellery in the context of the machine aesthetic theory, thus breaking with the 19th-century conservatism and elitism that persisted in jewellery attitudes up to World War 1. Rapid development in technology facilitated novel combinations of surfaces and colours which had not been possible previously, and endless multiple possibilities of materials were explored.
It was not until 1960s that materials were used with the same inventiveness as the Art Deco period. At this time, when art sought to break away from its previous positions, so craft disciplines attempted to break from their traditions. Change has been slow, being first centred in technical innovation before challenging the domain of ideas. The same desire for change has touched both jewellery and glass mediums, though revolution has been much slower.
We have seen how the development of glass jewellery in Australia has suffered from jewellery and glass being treated as separate entities. The jewellers have little understanding of what glass can do, and glass makers seem to be concerned merely with the effect of the glass, often only glueing their works together and using bought jewellery fittings. In addition to this lack of technical quality, most work to date also has failed to reflect the possible diversity of ideas from either discipline, jewellery or glass.
So, it is with relief that we now see an exhibition that brings together new people, from both jewellery and glass back grounds, who are attempting to address these problems. This is also the first Australian glass jewellery I have seen that both reflects individual makers and that demonstrates a concern for quality throughout all aspects of the work. And it is particularly valuable to see jewellers and glassworkers collab orating, both attempting to explore the possibilities of the other discipline, endeavouring to enhance the work of their partners, and learning in the process something new – perhaps about their own medium.