What is Art Jewelry?

You may be seeing messages about LSU MOA’s upcoming exhibition Adore | Adorn: The Elsie Michie Contemporary Jewelry Collection and wondering what you will see. “Contemporary jewelry,” after all, just means recent jewelry, which may seem unexpected in a fine art museum. Elsie Michie, a professor of English and Associate Dean of The College of Humanities and Social Sciences at LSU, doesn’t merely collect new jewelry, but a certain type: art jewelry. These pieces are occasionally made by artists who also paint or sculpt—what we consider traditional forms of art—but largely are made by artists who work specifically in the medium of jewelry. Through jewelry, these artists seek to deliver a message, tell a story, or explore new forms and media just as a painting, print, or sculpture would.

So, what is art jewelry?

Think of this medium as micro-sculpture. The materials used by jewelry artists are incredibly diverse, including polymer clay, glass, new forms of plastic, and post-consumer recycled material, just to name a few. The forms art jewelry takes range even more widely, with roots in modernism, surrealism, Dada, and beyond. And while these artists certainly consider, and many even prioritize, the objects’ wear-ability, art jewelry is not meant simply to accessorize. Rather, art jewelry infiltrates daily life—they are works of art disguised as baubles.

And indeed, while gold, silver, and precious stones can be exquisitely beautiful, art jewelry’s interest is often not in what is traditionally accepted as beautiful. Elsie Michie’s collection reveals her preference for experimentation over preciousness, unconventionality and play over ornamentation. Art jewelry is frequently visually challenging and sometimes absurd or kitsch. Michie’s collection further exemplifies a subset of art jewelry: narrative jewelry. Often taking inspiration from the surrealist movement of visual art, these works utilize recognizable elements such as found objects and juxtapose them in surprising ways (see Emiko Oye’s Dawning II and Kiff Slemmons’ Penannular Brooch). Some works, such as Wendy Ramshaw’s Her Knight, even reference specific stories from popular culture (here, Alice in Wonderland).

As well, many of the artworks in her collection are the same ones those artists selected for publication in books and catalogs; one volume on Ramona Solberg even shows the artist wearing Michie’s Jet Stream necklace. The world of art jewelry collection and display is tight knit, relationships built at makers fairs and in small galleries. The personal connection between Michie and the artists in her collection parallel the personal nature of jewelry as a whole—objects kept private in dresser drawers and fastened tightly to the breast. Adore | Adorn will be the first culmination of Elsie Michie’s collection and a celebration of a fruitful passion, as well as LSU MOA’s first exhibition of contemporary jewelry, a clearly exciting and diverse subsect of art that is frequently overlooked.

—Olivia Johnson, LSU Art History MA ’20 and LSU MOA Curatorial Assistant