The Australian landscape has been an ongoing and vital influence on contemporary jewellery. Read more in this essay written by Kevin Murray for Made/Worn: Australian Contemporary Jewellery.

“Last Wattle Day, she had heard his jaunty whistle as he swung off to milking yards, with a little sprig of wattle fastened by her hands in his coat. And this September she was alone.” (“A sprig of wattle”, Violet Pettongall, Daily Post, Hobart, 21 October 1916)

During the First World War, as a generation sailed off to battle on the other side of the world, the wattle was a poignant token for the life that awaited them back in Australia. The green and gold became the emblem of a young settler nation, evident today in the green and gold sporting colours we parade at the Olympics. Though the observance of Wattle Day has faded today, it used to be common practice to pin a patriotic sprig of wattle on 1 September.

Much has changed a century since. Our celebration of settlement comes now with an awareness of the cost to the original inhabitants. Nevertheless, the urge to adorn ourselves with elements of the land on which we depend continues. As the jewellers in this exhibition demonstrate, with imagination and skill, we can express a powerful sense of belonging to where we live.

Vicki Mason has rediscovered the wattle for a more environmentally conscious time. Her brooches promote the wattle as a garden plant that suits a more arid climate. Jess Dare draws on childhood enchantment with nature. Her jewels are versions of the ephemeral "treasures" such as gumnuts offered by her son, which she casts into bronze. This reflects her earlier series of garlands produced in Thailand which preserved the floral wreaths in their decayed form.

Before Europeans arrived, adornment often involved organic materials. In a typical first contact scene, such as the Tanderrum welcome ceremony that greeted John Batman, colonists would offer metal objects like nails or beads in return for sacred offerings made from plants. Floral offerings were usually considered valueless to the invaders. From the perspective of capitalist culture, organic materials were seen to be of little worth as they could not be stored for future trade.

This century has witnessed a new appreciation of Indigenous jewellery made from and inspired by country. The 2001 exhibition Art on a String elevated seed necklaces to the status of valued objects for museums and art collectors. Some of the key figures in twenty-first-century Aboriginal and Torres Strait jewellery are highlighted in this exhibition. Lola Greeno has forged a new language of jewellery in the revival of necklaces from Tasmanian shells. Maree Clarke has shown now the gathering of materials can have significance beyond the art object itself. Her works are often activated through ritual that brings her community together. Grace Lillian Lee also works closely with her community in Northern Queensland, adapting traditional weaving techniques to new materials.

For settler Australians, jewellery was also an important medium for establishing a sense of national identity. This was particularly evident in the Goldrush when some of the precious gold and silver was diverted for the crafting of elaborate centrepieces and jewellery. Tools, such as picks and shovels, as well as some local flora and fauna, expressed their time and place, though the artistic style was difficult to distinguish from similar objects made in California. The reference to Australian flora in the cultural expression following Federation drew on the northern hemisphere palette of Art Nouveau. Australia didn’t begin to develop a unique style until the post-war period, thanks to the arrival of professors from northern Europe whose modernism embraced the applied arts. This emboldened many Australians to develop individual and original forms of jewellery.

Rather than import the universal materials of jewellery, these artists often drew from their immediate world, transforming the mundane into something precious. The first generation of contemporary jewellers such as Marian Hosking and Susan Cohn helped pave the way for one of Australia’s most important art forms. In this exhibition, Julie Blyfield has developed a style that reflects the tarnishing of metal over time, which she now focuses on the landscape of the Western MacDonnell Ranges around Alice Springs, reflecting a combination of iron-oxide and the golden yellow of Cassia blooms.

Helena Bogucki is part of a unique jewellery scene on our West coast that has embraced the outback. Bogucki has previously collaborated with Aboriginal artists like Jimmy Poland and Jilinbirri Metals. In this exhibition, her jewellery involves the recovery of battered objects from the outback which, despite their humble origins, offer surprising intimacy.

In Sydney, Bridget Kennedy is part of a generation that prioritises activism through their jewellery, offering models of social change. Here she responds to the tragic bushfires of the 2019–20 summer by incorporating ash and wax into rings. These form a powerful memento mori that prompts us to commit ourselves to protect nature.

The use of ordinary materials often reflects an egalitarianism in Australian jewellery. Clare McArdle combines a car exhaust and redgum wood to create a piece that magically combines the practicality of planting trees with the endangered Black Cockatoo. Pennie Jagiello is especially strict about using only materials that can be gathered for free, even if they are leftover plastics. The ingenuity that she demonstrates reflects the creative alchemy that makes the jewellery craft particularly miraculous into transforming what’s common into something precious.

Australian jewellery also reflects the urban condition experienced by the majority of the population. Inari Kiuru is inspired by the industrial environment of the inner-Melbourne suburb of Brunswick and even often uses material like concrete.

The story of a “lucky country” is partly based on the mineral wealth contained in our continent. Once this has been all extracted, we may well question what we have made of this, apart from big holes in the ground. At least we can turn to our contemporary jewellery for reassurance that there is a way of wearing our country with pride. Our jewellery is certainly something we can pin our hopes on.

Dr Kevin Murray is editor of Garland magazine and secretary of World Crafts Council Australia. He is also the author of the book Place & Adornment: A History of Contemporary Jewellery in Australia and New Zealand, which he coauthored with Damian Skinner (2014, David Bateman Ltd, New Zealand).

Made/Worn: Australian Contemporary Jewellery is an Australian Design Centre exhibition that includes the work of 22 contemporary artists working in Australia now. Find out more here.

Image: Maree Clarke, River reed necklace, 2014. Photo: courtesy of the artist and Vivien Anderson Gallery.