The precious qualities of today’s art jewelry


Staff Writer

“The difference between art jewelry and a painting or a sculpture is that jewelry is closer to the heart — literally. Because you can wear it, it’s actually even more intimate and personal than other artwork.”

In a recent interview, Chitose Ohchi of Tokyo’s O-Jewel was careful to use the term “art jewelry” when discussing the pieces shown at her gallery’s exhibitions. That’s because it’s a term that specifically refers to works that have been designed to be unique; jewelry that, unlike most commercial pieces, is handmade to express its creator’s vision. It’s also the kind of work that has been at the heart of the ongoing debate about whether contemporary jewelry should be considered a craft or an art form.

That debate, however, has yet to gather momentum in Japan, where the art jewelry market is so young that O-Jewel is one of only three accessory-exclusive galleries in the country, along with gallery deux poissons, also in Tokyo, and gallery C.A.J. in Kyoto. All three will be showing at this weekend’s Art Fair Tokyo 2012 — in the event’s first-ever jewelry section.

“There’s almost no difference between Japanese, European and American contemporary jewelry in terms of quality, but the opportunity for people to see that kind of work in Japan is very limited,” said Art Fair Tokyo Director Takahiro Kaneshima, who went on to say that museums and galleries in Europe and America have a long history of actively collecting and exhibiting jewelry. “By including such galleries at the fair, I’m hoping that we can help bring about the establishment of a Japanese contemporary jewelry market.”

It would appear that Japan has a lot of catching up to do. In Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired its first piece of jewelry in 1851 and now has more than 3,000 items. In the United States, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis both held major jewelry shows in the 1940s, while The Museum of Arts and Design (then The American Craft Museum) in New York started its collection in 1958. In Germany, which is renowned for its high-quality craftsmanship, the government set up programs to foster the nation’s modern jewelry designers in the 1960s.

“Abroad there are now collectors, galleries, exhibitions and special curators, but Japan has yet to develop such an appreciation of jewelry,” said Ohchi, who explained that the nation’s limited government support for the arts, compared with many European countries, has also had an effect on its development.

Japan’s lack of historical context, though, might have a silver lining. Tomohiko Mori, the director of gallery deux poissons, mentioned that the lag in the acceptance of art jewelry means that the nation could experience interestingly different developments as its creators’ work becomes recognized by collectors and galleries. “This country will likely have its own unique evolution,” he said, pointing out that the Japanese market already has a preference for subtler, smaller works.

“A lot of jewelry presented at art fairs in Europe is simply too large,” he said. “Japanese jewelry design excels at delicate works — items that are both aesthetically and physically lighter. It’s also more literal and visually understandable.”

The work of Kimiaki Kageyama, represented by gallery deux poissons, is a case in point. His iron rose brooch seems impossibly detailed and is a unique use of a base metal and resin to create a slightly decayed appearance.

Hitomi Kondo, owner and curator of gallery C.A.J., likewise, sees much potential in Japanese art jewelry and her gallery focuses on promoting Japanese contemporary artists who also create jewelry.

“Most people in Japan think of jewelry as just an accessory for women, but to change how we think and to realize an environment that includes jewelry collectors will take time,” she said. “That’s why a lot of our artists study overseas — but their choice of materials and their aesthetics remain very Japanese. And I believe that their work can become internationally popular.”

Taking a slightly different approach to gallery deux poissons, gallery C.A.J. presents more abstract pieces, including Yoko Izawa’s acrylic-and-elastic-knit “Veiled” collection and Emiko Suo’s cork, wood and metal works.

At O-Jewel, Ohchi focuses on well-established foreign artists, particularly ones from Europe, explaining that currently it is still easier to find original art jewelry in countries with fairs and programs that foster artists. But the gallery does also represent Japanese artists, including Jun Konishi, known for his quirky colorful plastic brooches and necklaces, and Mari Ishikawa, whose works are inspired by and reflect Japanese culture through the use of traditional materials and symbolic imagery.

“I choose artists who are passionate about their work, whose great personalities are reflected in the pieces they make,” said Ohchi. “It doesn’t matter where they are from or what materials they use. It’s the creativity behind a piece that makes it beautiful.”

For Art Fair Tokyo, Ohchi asked her participating artists to create pieces under the theme of sakura (cherry blossoms). “It’s incredible the different interpretations that each artist has of this very Japanese idea of beauty — that unique aesthetic of the fleeting and temporary, here manifested in short-lived cherry blossoms,” she said. Taiwanese artist Yu-Chun Chen’s creations perhaps exemplify as well as any what art jewelry can be. Her sakura flowers are created from recycled shampoo bottles, yet are hand-crafted to be as delicate and beautiful as real blossoms — so charging them with an emotional value as precious as anything made from gold or silver.

Japan might not be ready to call jewelry an art form, but the three galleries exhibiting at Art Fair Tokyo will surely do much to change this.

“I think the inclusion of jewelry galleries in Art Fair Tokyo is an important step, but there’s no telling what kind of milestone it will be for jewelry design,” said Mori. “That really depends on what the public think and decide when they visit us as the fair.”

Art Fair Tokyo at Tokyo International Forum Exhibition Hall runs from March 30-April 4; 1-day pass ¥2,000, 3-day pass ¥3,500. O-Jewel: gallery deux poissons: gallery C.A.J.: