"Every passion borders on the chaotic"-- Walter Benjamin

When Marbeth generously asked me to write an article about myself for ModernSilver Magazine, I instantly got cold feet. Yes, I'm a jeweler. But as someone without formal training, a posh art degree, a long list of exhibitions, or other concrete manifestations of what it means to be an "artist," I have always felt ill-at-ease in attempting to put tangible words to my jewelry in the form of an artist's statement or something like that. Does anyone really care whether my jewelry references architectural forms or modernist art? Does it matter that I chafe against the distinction, inaugurated by Giorgio Vasari in the sixteenth century, that a "craft" like jewelry does not constitute an "art" like painting?  Is it relevant that I consider art (or craft) a political activity? Or how long I've practiced it? Or where? Or how?  

Most artist's statements hinge on questions like this. And no doubt they are useful and interesting, conforming, as they do, to established notions of how we talk about "art" and "aesthetics." They shed light on influences, place a person's work within the larger historical context of the practice of art, and sometimes reveal a personal philosophy towards one's own aesthetic praxis.  

Hinged Sterling Cuff Bracelet with Abstract 18K Mesh, 1999

So why not write one like this?

 

Because I think they miss the point. For me, the issue in art is not only how someone expresses his or her interests through an art form, but rather perhaps why, if such a thing can be divined.  

Sterling Silver and Gemstone Rings, 2003

Although I have been in love with the idea of jewelry since childhood, I came upon it as a vocation much later in life, after more than ten years of being steeped in academia and teaching, earning a Ph.D. in the process. My approach to thinking about jewelry is, therefore, of necessity, philosophical--the vocabulary I inhabit and love. And as someone whose academic work has hinged on issues of identity, representation, and ontology--that is, being--it's impossible for me to think about jewelry as an object/field divorced from overriding cultural concepts. So with jewelry, as a functional object of personal adornment, the how of its creation is even less relevant than the why.  


For me, jewelry is a passion, plain and simple. Since I was a child, I have been obsessed with the idea of adornment--someone's style, personal self-expression, and the persona that someone creates through the clothing, jewelry, hair and "look" she chooses. What is endlessly fascinating to me are the choices people make to express themselves and their personality. My interest in jewelry has less to do with formal concerns of structure and function, and more to do with the idea that it is an expression of an individual's vision of him/herself.

As an object of passion, jewelry is therefore potent and powerful to me--it's a concrete manifestation of a personís self-fashioned image he or she projects onto the world. It functions, therefore, sort of like a fetish, one of the words I've chosen for the tagline of my commercial collections. The classic definition of a fetish has nothing to do with the whips-and-chains version promulgated by popular culture.

 Rather, a fetish is simply an object which has almost supernatural power for its owner, and possibly power over other people as well. Adopted by Marx, and later by Freud to mean an object which acts a substitute for a beloved thing that may have been lost (or perhaps never existed in the first place), a fetish is perhaps best summed up by French philosopher Michel Leiris, who calls it an "objectified form of our desire."  

Sterling Silver Coliseum Rings, 2003


To me, it's easy to see how this notion can be applied to jewelry, clothing, shoes, makeup, hair, or any other components of personal style. The earrings a woman chooses to wear reveal much about her desire--not only the look she's going for, but the way in which she approaches it, and her relationship to the objects themselves. She bought the earrings to reflect her personal style: as such, the earrings "spoke" to her, they had sort of power over her, and compelled her to purchase them (or perhaps compelled someone to give them to her).
 

Kinetic Sterling Silver Neckpiece with Tiger Eye, 2002-2003

Additionally, many people have a lucky shirt or something like that, an item they have invested with power and which reminds them of something good. This item means something different for each person: it may have been worn when a significant event happened, like the night of a marriage proposal, or the day of a longed-for promotion, or when a child was born: the particulars of the event and the way the item became important do not matter; what's important is that the shirt or earrings or pendant or shoes became powerful to their wearer as a result of their involvement with the event. And as such, that item conjures the positive feelings associated with the original event.

 

 

So jewelry, as a manifestation of personal expression and possibly a link to significant emotional states, is magical: as an object which reveals something about its wearer, it has the power change a person's look, and, therefore, a bit of him/herself. That's the totemic power of adornment--it has the potentiality to alter ontology, that is, one's being.  

 

Interestingly, the recent filmic adaptation of J. S. S. Tolkien's 1930s masterpiece Lord of the Rings speaks to some of these issues, revealing, as it does, the power a simple piece of jewelry can wield over those who come in contact with it. The ring--conceived as a relatively benign wedding band style in the films-- not only holds sway over many of the characters in the film, but also changes them in profound, unmistakable ways. 

Sterling Silver Pierced Ring with Crystal, 2002

 

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the way in which the films birthed an interest in jewelry for people who, perhaps traditionally, would have no such interest. An anecdotal example: one of my students made a ring for her 11-year-old son. At first he shunned it, perhaps on grounds that it was an inherently feminine thing. However, he soon warmed to it, telling his mother that he was going to wear it around his neck "like in Lord of the Rings." It might be easy to write this as merely an example of a child mirroring the pop culture forms around him and wanting to conform to that trilogy's notion of what constitutes a hero--but one could also see it as a recognition of the power of a ring to compel its owner to wear it, crafted, as it was, with love by a person loved by the recipient.  
Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings sequestered in Northern England during a time of incredible political and social upheaval. With the horrors of World War I in the background and fascism and Nazism looming in the future, Tolkienís imaginative universe cannot be thought outside of its historical context, meaning, as a political allegory of crisis and hope. I think it bears consideration that the recent filmic adaptation of these novels created a fervor, indeed devotion, in the American public at this particular historical moment. And at the center of the epic story is a simple, but magical, ring.  

 

Org.anik Sterling Silver Body Jewelry, 2003

 


I believe in this sort of magic, the way objects can conjure things for people, the way they can shape a person's self-perception, and therefore self-expression. As a collector whose passion really does border on the chaotic, I have amassed jewelry nearly all my life, beginning with ethnic jewelry, particularly Turkoman and Northern Indian examples. More recently, I began collecting, and then selling, modernist and Scandinavian jewelry. My own jewelry designs emerge from this background, inspired by my love of collecting and wearing bold, outrageous, even controversial, forms.

 

I work primarily in sterling silver, and my designs oscillate rather bizarrely between organic and highly regimented forms. I crave precision and like to exploit the almost anti-human quality of machine parts like gears in some designs. Some of this has to do with my love of cars and motorcycles - the aesthetics of the engine. Iím particularly interested in machine and architectonic shapes, evinced in the 2003 Speedloader series, for example.

 Sterling Silver and Hematite Speedloader Ring, 2003

Sterling Silver and Hematite Spike Set, 2003

 

Sterling Silver and Hematite Speedloader Choker, 2003

The designs are based on a device which allows one to load a revolver with ease, and uses hematite spikes in the series as bullets. They both beckon and affront the viewer. However, precision also gives me a headache at times! Itís then that I turn to forged, biomorphic forms for a relief.  

 

My jewelry has been influenced, also, in ways that I have yet to be able to articulate, by years of study of literature and critical theory, and is driven by the persistent pull to create unusual objects of beauty which may, in some small way, transform those who wear them. I'm less concerned with the utilities of wearability, how we define what is contemporary and fashionable, and the notion of what constitutes ďpretty,Ē than I am with creating powerful pieces with great presence, "statement" pieces, if you like, which cannot go unnoticed. True fashion is self-fashion--being true to oneself despite the prevailing aesthetics of the time, and I like to think my jewelry is about the magic of individualism and transformative power of style.

   

 

Org.anik Sterling Silver Choker, 1999

__________________________________

Victoria lives in New York City with her husband. She teaches jewelry making at School of Visual Arts, and English at Long Island University. In January 2000, she launched modvictoria.com, her website for modernist jewelry www.modvictoria.com, and, in September 2003, her original jewelry lines at www.victoriatillotson.com

  Article by Victoria Tillotson
Photographs courtesy of
Victoria Tillotson
Web design by Marbeth Schon  
 Copyright © 2004 Modern Silver Magazine and Victoria Tillotson

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