Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Shock of the Old

Robert Smit, Sleeping Beauty, c.1990, gold, from the Marjan and Gerald Unger collection

One of the big news stories from across the Atlantic has been the significant donation of almost 500 pieces of jewelry from the Marjan and Gerald Unger collection to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Marjan Unger, a leading authority on Dutch jewelry, has among other things published a book called Het Nederlandse Sieraad in de 20ste eeuw (Dutch jewellery in the 20th century), which unfortunately is not yet available in an English translation. One of the notable things about the Marjan and Gerald Unger collection is its obvious agenda in relation to Dutch jewelry history, what the Rijksmuseum press release somewhat cryptically describes as an ‘academic approach’. AJF was keen to find out how Unger’s collecting activities were affected by her scholarly interests, so we asked her to summarize how she approached Dutch jewelry in her book.

Van den Eersten en Hofmeijer, Pendant, 1920s, gold, amber, from the Marjan and Gerald Unger collection
One of my problems is the term ‘contemporary jewelry’. Every piece of jewelry is contemporary if you place it in the light of its time. In the Netherlands we use the term modern jewelry a lot – same point to make.
One of the reasons I wrote my book is that is was a standard notion amongst ‘our kind of people’ that before the late sixties no jewelry worth any attention at all was produced in the Netherlands, and that those modern jewelers emerged very unexpectedly from nowhere at all. The fact is that information of the work of the jewelers before then was so repressed that it seemed to belong to the stone age – a pun of mine in several respects.
Chris Steenbergen, Rope Skipper, 1954, silver, gold, from the Marjan and Gerald Unger collection
So I started digging and unearthing makers and their work. I was so happy with everything interesting I found from the first six decades of the twentieth century, that I used it all. I needed it to create a timeframe and set out cultural developments, which are sometimes very specific to the Netherlands, certainly where jewelry is concerned.
One of my main targets was to define a certain Dutch mentality towards adorning the body, with jewelry and clothes, and to analyze social structures and behavior that is typical for the Low Countries. A backbone of my research was a professional magazine that appeared in 1875 and has continued to be published until now. In fact, I created a multi-disciplinary approach, including social, economic and political developments, and I relied a lot on the history and the theory of fashion.
Joseph Citroen, Brooch, c.1963, gold, pearls, from the Marjan and Gerald Unger collection
In such an approach, all kinds of jewelry play their part. I’m talking about real jewels – that means lots of diamonds and pearls in the Netherlands, as well as popular jewelry, folk dress, fashion related jewelry, and the work from independent gold-and silversmiths and jewelry makers.
When I reached the late sixties and seventies, I did not change this approach. I talked about the ‘modern jewelry’ but I kept looking at the other kinds of jewelry too, the work of the traditional jewelers, etc. And one of the things I found out is that the group of designers that we like to call avant-garde are more often than not a few years behind the cultural developments that they claim to be part of.
Paul Derrez, Pills, c.1997, synthetic, metal, from the Marjan and Gerald Unger collection
Most of the well-known jewelers from the gallery-circuit were not so happy with this, but they have mostly looked if they were in my book and how often they were mentioned. I got a lot of good comments from historians and people who are interested in jewelry from many different perspectives. They could find a lot that was not described before the publication of my research.