If you haven’t noticed already, I’ve been eyeballs-deep in the Arts and Crafts movement, reading about the historical origins of today’s crafts styles and philosophies in Makers: A History of American Studio Craft. Most recently, I learned something truly fascinating (though not too surprising) about Arts and Crafts jewelers in the early 20th century. Their jewelry, crafted rather laboriously by hand using more inexpensive and easily attainable materials, was associated with progressive culture and politics. Handmade jewelry made a social statement.
These jewelers “rejected both costume jewelry and social jewelry, the two professional types of their day.” Costume jewelry is made from inexpensive substitute materials, such as tin alloys and fake stones, rather than gold and precious stones, and is “produced in the least labor-intensive, most mechanized way possible.” Like the cheap jewelry you find at Forever 21 and Target, and even more expensive pieces you can find in more “high end” retail outlets that are still made in bulk from cheap materials in factories overseas. Costume jewelry is imitation social jewelry, pieces made from the real materials–gold, platinum, diamonds, emeralds, etc. Social jewelry is a sign of wealth and status. Beyonce’s 18-carat diamond engagement ring, anyone?
“Arts and Crafts jewelers,” on the other hand, “proposed a hierarchy of taste instead of a hierarchy of wealth,” and their works were associated with “reform clothing,” which advocated for more casual, practical clothing, especially for women of the time. Their pieces were commonly made from sterling silver or copper and included glass beads, carved bone, enameling, and semi-precious stones. Their works also featured nature-inspired motifs, including a variety of flora and fauna. This was a common feature of Arts and Crafts works, as the movement often praised more rural ways of life.
While reading about this, I immediately thought of the “statement necklaces” that were everywhere a couple years ago or so (and are still pretty popular?). Sadly, the only statement most of these necklaces were making was just a “fashion statement,” as they were only large pieces of costume jewelry. However, there were and still are quite a few craftspeople and artisans creating jewelry that make both a fashion statement and a social statement—bold, colorful, original pieces of art that are handcrafted, often from affordable materials, like embroidery thread and wooden beads, as well as recycled metals and stones.
The next time I purchase a piece of jewelry, I’ll try to be more conscious of the statement I’m making….