Unlike many of the artists who dabble in jewellery design, sculptors Tim Noble and Sue Webster regard it as a core part of their portfolio. “We definitely see our jewellery as mini works of art,” says Webster, before explaining that the mother of Noble, who is her partner in life as well as art, is a silversmith. In consequence, Noble grew up “hanging around in his mother’s workshop” and acquired the skill to create pieces of his own.
“When I met him, he was wearing a skull ring which he had made himself,” she recalls fondly. “And many years later, he made one up for me in gold.”
Noble’s bauble caught Webster’s eye back in the 1980s, when the pair were studying at Nottingham Trent University. Twenty years later, they have established themselves as two of Britain’s most original contemporary artists. Born of a vision that is in equal parts macabre and meticulous, their works are assembled from a stomach-turning repertoire of materials, including rubbish, animal parts and blingy neon lights, sometimes with shadow sculptures cast on the wall behind them.
Boasting names such as “Toxic Schizophrenia” and “Excessive Sexual Indulgence”, their oeuvre has prompted one critic to dub them “genuinely nasty artists”. Yet it has also won the patronage of Charles Saatchi and the support of top galleries including Gagosian and Blain Southern.
Those seeking gems of the fit-for-a-princess variety should steer clear. Made in 2004, their first piece was a heart-shaped necklace that spelt out Fucking Beautiful in a chain of silver letters. It was born out of an encounter with Louisa Guinness, whose London gallery specialises in jewellery made by artists. “I bumped into Louisa at an art opening and she was wearing a necklace [bearing an obscene word] that Sam Taylor Wood had made it as a derivative of a piece of her art,” recalls Webster. “She asked if we would like to make some jewellery [for her gallery].”
Inspired by a neon sculpture they had made which bore the same provocative message, Noble and Webster worked with jewellers in Hatton Garden to translate “Fucking Beautiful” into a necklace.
“I wanted a necklace or bracelet which is really dangerous to wear,” remembers Webster. “As my hand-writing is quite spiky, when it was cast in silver, it became like wearing a piece of barbed wire around your neck. It’s almost like anti-jewellery.”
The rapport with punk style is evident, although Webster was never an all-out practitioner. “I was obsessed with the DIY aesthetic of punk. You take something off the shelf and you ... cut the sleeves off, or stick safety pins all over it.”
Eight years after that initial foray, Noble and Webster have built up a reputation that has seen their jewellery bought by many of their fellow artists, including Jeff Koons.
Today, their jewellery and sculpture have a symbiotic rapport. “[Through jewellery-making] we met some expert craftsmen and that opened our minds to other things you could do with precious metals,” explains Webster. Their fascination with the grotesque led them to cast animal parts – “You’re never too far from a rat in London,” observes Webster. “We catch them in traps, dry them out and mummify them” – and assemble them into sculptures. Recent pieces include “The Gamekeeper’s Gibbet” (2011), which displays a pair of gleaming tangles of limbs, skulls and claws in brilliant gilded silver, mounted on sticks in front of shadow portraits of Webster and Noble’s profiles.
In turn, the sculptures inspired their latest range of jewellery, which includes a necklace whose delicate silver links are cast from rats’ bones and pendants cast from crows’ claws and dried frogs. Crafted with enormous skill and devoid of Pop-style kitsch, only their Gothic subject matter deprives these pieces of the delicate grace of traditional precious jewellery. It is a paradox which arguably makes them even more shocking than the artists’ sculptures. Simultaneously repellent and seductive, they are a testament to Webster’s conviction that “you can find beauty in anything.”
Skill prized beyond rubies
Not since the Renaissance have so many artists turned their hand to making jewellery. Then, the newfound market for luxury goods saw guilds loosen the boundaries between disciplines. Artists such as Lorenzo Ghiberti, who designed the gilded reliefs on the doors of the Baptistery in Florence, became as proficient in sculpture as they were in metalwork, while painters such as Botticelli and Ghirlandaio started their careers apprenticed to goldsmiths.
Today’s generation of artist jewellers includes Anish Kapoor, Tim Noble and Sue Webster and Yoko Ono, who earlier this month unveiled a range of crystal key pendants, made in collaboration with Swarovski.
In the 21st century, such multi-disciplinary creativity barely raises an eyebrow. The democratic mood of modernism set artists such as Picasso, Dalí, Braque and Calder free to explore different mediums. For Dalí it was as much a part of his anima as painting. “My object is to show the jeweller’s art in true perspective – where the design and craftsmanship are to be valued above the material worth of the gems, as in Renaissance times,” he wrote.
No one looking at Dalí’s jewels could doubt his passion. From the gold “Telephone Earrings” dripping with emeralds and rubies, commissioned by Elsa Schiaparelli, to “Ruby Lips Brooch”, whose glowing red mouth and pearl teeth were inspired by Mae West’s smile, they possess the same revelatory wit as his paintings.
Now artist-designed jewellery is winning institutional recognition. Recent exhibitions have included From Picasso to Koons: The Artist as Jeweller at the Museum of Art and Design in New York last winter. Based around the jewels owned by collector Diane Venet, it featured pieces by artists as diverse as Frank Stella and Max Ernst. In 2008, the Philadelphia Museum of Art dedicated a show to the jewellery of Alexander Calder.
Little wonder the market is healthy. “People are drawn to [artist-designed jewellery] because the works, which were made in multiples, are much more available than paintings,” explains Jessica A. Fertig, specialist in Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in New York, adding that brooches and medallions by Picasso can be bought for between $10,000 and $40,000.
Fertig is especially proud to have presided, in 2010, over the $32,500 sale of the necklace worn by Françoise Gilot in the famous photograph where Picasso shades her with an umbrella as they walk along the beach.
“They made it together,” explains Fertig. “He carved the owl out of a blue stone; she assembled the bones and stones to go with it.”
Few pieces of jewellery could boast more romantic origins.