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To broach the subject

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Jewellery collecting is a growing part of the art scene in New Zealand, writes Sarah Catherall.

Alister Harlow doesn’t look at a brooch the way many of us do. The Auckland accountant turns it over, and stares at the back of it, to check for a message from the artist who has made it.

‘Brooches often start a conversation between the maker and the wearer,’ says Harlow, who has been collecting them for more than 30 years and now boasts about 500 pieces of jewellery in his collection. He adds: ‘My view is that jewellery is sculpture on a small scale, and I generally buy things that I can wear.’

A growing number of collectors are choosing to collect jewellery, particularly as New Zealand’s jewellery-making scene is vibrant and internationally renowned. Public institutions like Te Papa, the Dowse Art Museum and Auckland Art Gallery all collect jewellery, holding works by New Zealand jewellery artists such as Warwick Freeman and Lisa Walker.

Alister never buys a piece because it’s fashionable, or the jeweller is in vogue. Rather, he covets the works of certain jewellers he likes − Peter MacKay, and Koji Miyazaki, the Japanese jeweller who owns Form Gallery in Christchurch. Alister also looks out for pieces by Swiss-born Kobi Bosshard, and the ring maker Jens Hansen.

Peter McKay, New Tomb, sterling silver, copper, 1992, 39x38x9mm

Why brooches, though? ‘Their makers say that brooches are the most challenging and rewarding format. Brooches are static, while other jewellery items are mobile and tactile. They also only suit a certain climate because you need a jacket or a coat to wear a brooch.’

‘A serious collector will look at the back of the brooch rather than the front. You can tell how serious someone is by seeing if the collector checks the back of the brooch.’

The criteria that guide what he will collect have stayed constant since he began collecting three decades ago. He says a brooch must be masculine, its design is important, and most of the works he covets are made of silver.

‘Silver is a semi-precious material that is permanent and a lot of jewellers are comfortable working with it. There is no other material like it,’ he says.

Alister is always interested in the narrative of a piece, such as Peter MacKay’s observations about nature. He is the proud owner of 30 brooches by Peter MacKay, including a number of the jeweller’s Metaphysical Hearts brooch series, along with his simple fish and bird brooches.

Peter MacKay brooches can also be found stored in a filing cabinet in one of Te Papa’s giant art storerooms. Since the early 1990s, New Zealand’s national museum and gallery has been building up an impressive jewellery collection. When Te Papa’s national art gallery, Toi Art, reopens in March next year after an extensive renovation, an exhibition by Wellington jeweller Lisa Walker will be a key part of it.

Te Papa’s decorative art and design curator Justine Olsen says the jewellery collection sits within the national art collection. ‘I look at the relationship between art and jewellery. That’s why Lisa Walker is so critical. She is a jeweller but she builds relationships with art and always has.’

Lisa Walker

Te Papa’s acquisition of jewellery really began when a significant collection – the Bone Stone Shell collection (a touring exhibition from 1998 to 1993) – was acquired by the museum in 1993. ‘The collection encapsulated contemporary jewellery as it was at the time, looking at New Zealand moving away from Europe to its place in the Pacific,’ says Justine.

With 47 pieces of jewellery and adornment art by 12 contemporary artists, the works in the collection from the 1970s and 1980s showcased New Zealand’s changing cultural identity. It features paua, bone and argillite necklaces by Warwick Freeman, John Edgar’s greywacke and jade amulets, Inia Taylor’s finely carved bone necklaces and Elena Gee’s pendants.

Says Justine, ‘The collection showed a shifting away from Europe to the Pacific, which was hugely significant. Local materials like pounamu, schist, and paua were used in the works.’ Bone Stone Shell was also a turning point as it sparked a deliberate effort by Te Papa to track the careers of some of the artists represented, and the museum continues to collect their more recent works.

Pulling out a filing cabinet, Justine points to two Alan Preston necklaces made out of pieces of road, which Te Papa purchased from a dealer gallery in 2013.

‘You identify leaders in the field and you follow their work. When it comes to acquiring now, we identify the younger generations and their strengths.’

Pointing to a sheepskin necklace by Lisa Walker, she says she also looks for key examples of a jeweller’s style when making acquisitions. Te Papa also considers questions of national and cultural identity. Most well-known contemporary jewellers are represented in Te Papa’s collection, and Olsen covers the whole gamut − from senior artists to graduate students dubbed ones to watch.

‘It is a very energetic scene,’ she says.

Te Papa is also trying to build up its historical jewellery collections from the colonial and modernist periods to show a wider spread of the development of the adornment art scene.

‘I tend to think long-term. You might think, in 50 years’ time, how will this look? You hope and think that because these objects resonated in so many ways at the time that they become incredibly important in the future.’

First published in ArtZone #72


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