With his mix of sparkle and safetypins, neon and spikes and pearls, Tom Binns has been challenging jewellery conventions for more than 30 years.
The Belfast-born jeweller made a name for himself working with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in London in the early 1980s, and is widely regarded as the inventor of punk jewellery. Now based in Venice Beach, California, Binns is known for combining elegance and anarchic wit (his collections have names such as “Rainbow’s End” for a multicoloured strand, and “Last Laugh” for a metallic shark’s tooth on a chain). Fans of his pieces range from Lady Gaga to Michelle Obama.
“I am just a working-class boy from Belfast,” says Binns. “I got given talent and was able to hustle. I went to college in London [graduating with a BA in jewellery design from Middlesex University in 1982] and learnt the rudiments. But, of course, I rebelled against everything.
“I worked with Vivienne and Malcolm in the early 1980s. I went in one day to show Vivienne what I was doing. And she said, ‘That’s fantastic, come and work with me.’ We had a brilliant time creatively. Malcolm was one of the most interesting men I’ve ever met. He was very good at packaging. He’d walk into a showroom and Vivienne would be making clothes and I’d be helping her – putting paint on them, sticking on bits of wood, all kinds of stuff. And he’d come in and say, ‘Right, got it. This is called Punkature.’ And you’d say, ‘So it is!’
“Malcolm had no fear at all and he had the best sense of humour of anyone I ever met. Marcel Duchamp, who I love, has a brilliant sense of humour and he turned it into art. [Punk] is similar: it was irony, kids trying it on. It is part of a bigger movement in art, an adversarial point of view. That’s what great art does – it questions your thinking. And that’s what I’ve always done with jewellery: try and get people to see it in a different way, democratise it.”
Binns’ work is not included in the Met’s Punk exhibition, which concentrates on clothes rather than jewellery and other accessories, but the designer has reservations about the show.
“Punk at the Met? Punks would really just piss all over Karl Lagerfeld. They would make him cry. The fashion world has trivialised punk. They’ve made a cartoon out of it. Just putting safety pins on stuff – that’s not doing anything. There’s no act of resistance to fashion trends. They should set fire to a Chanel jacket in real life. Instead, they have homogenised it, made it commercial.
“But what is happening now is everyone wants to wear my stuff at the Met Ball [the opening party of ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture,’ which takes place on Monday evening]. I think, ‘Good, it’s even better than being in the exhibition.’ I’m hovering around, like a fart in a telephone box; you can’t get rid of me.”
Binns reveals that one of his biggest thrills as a jewellery designer was when Michelle Obama wore one of his necklaces when she and President Obama visited the Queen. “They are on the balcony at Buckingham Palace and she’s next to the Queen, who has got her crown on and her real jewellery, and there’s Michelle Obama with this messed-up necklace of mine. I thought, ‘Get in there! That’s how you bring down the Bastille.’
“Sticking a pin through the Queen’s nose [on an album cover] is one thing but having [my work there] there beside her is pretty punk rock. You’re in the heart of it, ruffling it up.”