What is contemporary jewellery?

Otto Kunzli Ring for Zwei

Ben Lignel the editor of Art Jewellery Forum describes it as: “Contemporary Jewellery is a type of practice – understood as the contemporary offspring of a craft-based design activity that finds its origin in medieval workshops.”

There will be differing descriptions of what contemporary jewellery is, reliant upon who you ask that question.

One thing is certain – the history of body adornment is as old as humankind itself, with tools, small sculptures and beads being amongst our oldest artifacts as as species.

The 100,000 year old Skhul Cave beads discovered in Haifa, Israel in 2006 are made from sea snail shells which archaeologists note, would have had to have been collected from the coastline three and a half kilometres away. 

The Skhul Cave beads are considered evidence of complex social systems – the beads may have been used as markers of personal or social identity, for gift giving, trade or perhaps even as amulets.

The making of adornments for the body by our ancient ancestors are an early expression of modern behaviour. The creation of wearable art has developed with us over the ages and has always had a close relationship to the tools and materials available to the artisans who made them, intertwined with the cultures and times in which they were created.

Marian Vanhaeren of the University College in London says a “long-lasting and widespread bead-working tradition existed throughout Africa and the Middle East long before anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe”… “When you put a personal ornament on your body, you are sending a message to other people, it is a silent language, but very powerful”.

That silent, yet nuanced language in body adornment remains present today and Contemporary Jewellery is no exception.

The making of jewellery has a rich and varied history, and this most recent development – Contemporary Jewellery – has its origins in the end of the second world war in Europe. Many jewellers of the time advocated an active role for themselves in the design and creation of their works drawing upon their own artistic vision. This was in part driven by scarcity of materials after the war, but equally it was motivated by the cultural climate of the time.


Hermann Jünger / Detail of a brooch-1970-72 Gold, emeralds, chrysoprase, sapphires, opals, lapis lazuli, and enamel.

Hermann Junger an accomplished German Goldsmith led the way as a master jeweller who turned away from the rigid constraints of precision in fabrication which defines traditional practice, and rather approached the use of precious materials in new ways within his pieces.  His artistic ability was nourished under the guidance of his mentor Franz Rickert at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich who encouraged his students to break with traditional perceptions of jewellers and their craft.

Junger went on to become the Chair of Gold and Silversmith Art at the Academy of Fine Arts from 1972 to 1990.

He passed this position to another renowned and influential Contemporary Jeweller Otto Kunzli from 1991 to 2014.

The Academy of Fine Arts in Munich and the mentorship provided within its walls alongside many other fine institutions around the world, have become the fertile grounds in which the field of Contemporary Jewellery has blossomed.


Margaret West ~ Scratch 1997 stone, paint, silver (925) 42x49x17mm
Margaret West ~ Scratch 1997 stone, paint, silver (925) 42x49x17mm

An enduring theme of the last half century in Contemporary Jewellers works are designs which are driven by intellectual and artistic concepts realised with an on-going questioning of traditional processes, married with an embracing of new technologies and materials.

Contemporary Jewellery works are as varied as the artists who create them, and the field is a dynamic and vibrant one which keeps evolving.

To feast your eyes on Australian contemporary works be sure to visit the exhibition Made/Worn ~ Australian Contemporary Jewellery touring Australia in 2021 and 2022 presented by the Australian Design Centre with the support of the Australia Council for the Arts’ Contemporary Touring Initiative.

And, to learn more about the many, many talented and skilled Contemporary Jewellers out there take a look at sites such as:


Art Jewlery Forum

Current Obsession

Main image: Ring for Zwei (two) by Otto Kunzli

Sian Edwards, Crocodile_2020. Photo_Pedro Ros Sogorb

Back to top button