Understanding contemporary jewellery

Curl | hand sculpture|Ute Decker

The world of contemporary jewellery can be an exciting place, and also a little confusing.

There are precious metals and stones, and also semi-precious metals and stones. Do you know your labradorite from your Chrysocolla? Your platinum from your palladium? Or perhaps it doesn’t matter; you just know what you like.

Peacock brooch|Graff Diamonds |2013 |

At the end of the day we tend to buy and wear jewellery that has some value to us in addition to monetary, but I will try to highlight some of the current issues around contemporary pieces.

The value of contemporary jewellery varies from $100,000,000 such as the diamond laden Peacock brooch above, to affordable pieces made by local artists working from small studios all around the country.

dazzle|dichroic glass pendant|Hildegard Pax

Let’s take a look at some of the issues that help us to choose a piece of art that we choose to adorn ourselves with rather than place in our homes.


Firstly, what about metals?

Gold, silver, platinum, palladium are the ‘precious’ metals. Platinum is the most expensive, mainly due to its rarity. Palladium is less expensive and much lighter. If you would like to learn more about the properties of the precious metals, then there is a good article here from ‘The Jewellery Editor’

Non precious metals include copper, tungsten, iron, titanium, zinc and nickel. They are rarely used alone in jewellery, but can be combined as ‘alloys’ in small quantities with precious metals to make them hold their shape better, such as ‘900 copper’ which is 90% pure silver and 10% copper.

white gold brooch | Jacqueline Ryan

The hardness or softness of different metals influence how they are used. Gold is one of the softer metals

Here is a video demonstration of pulling gold into a wire for working with. It highlights the softness of gold when heated.


Rarity of materials is one of the main determinants of the value of jewellery, and explains the popularity of some semi-precious gemstones over the rarer and therefore much more costly gemstones such as diamonds and emeralds.


There are so many different gemstones used in jewellery, and I cannot possibly describe them all, but here is a chart showing the beautiful selection of colours available.

gemstone identification chart

For a full list of gemstones and more about them I recommend a look at ‘Gemstone Facts‘ by The Silver Lady.

There is a whole world of interpretation and discussion about the meaning, and healing properties of different gemstones. I am not going to delve into this field today, but from a jewellery making perspective what matters is the quality of the stone for working with. It must be hard and strong enough to cope with polishing and wear. The rarer it is, the more its perceived value and cost.

Chrysocolla and silver necklace | Karin Keidel Henderson

Other materials

Gemstones and precious metals are not the only materials used in contemporary jewellery; A desire to reflect natural elements and modern life sees work incorporating wood, glass, fabric, plastics and recycled materials.

necklace in silver, plastic, felt, fabric and silicone | Laia Calatrava
Jewellery made from plastic packaging by Dorothy Hogg, Artist in Residence at V&A Sackler Centre.

Personal values, ethics and sustainability

What type of jewellery that you choose to wear is very much a statement of your personal values.Whether you are a nature lover or a minimalist who loves clean shapes and lines, your jewellery is a very personal way to express your values.

You may not opt for recycled plastic, but might want to find out about the values of the jeweller who makes the work. Buying direct from an artist, or from a small gallery is an ideal opportunity to ask questions about the sustainability and ethics of a jeweller’s practice ( and any other kind of artist for that matter).

Ethical jewellery is jewellery that has no negative impact on the people who make it, or the environment they’re produced in. This might mean using materials that can be traced back to the source, to ensure they’ve been produced in an ethical way, eg, fair trade materials and conflict-free diamonds.

Sustainable practice might include the use of recycled materials.

Earrings made from recycled magazines | Quazi design

Inspired by nature

A lot of the jewellery available at Artspring Gallery is inspired by nature.

This manifests itself in many different materials, whether it be sterling silver, pewter, copper, enamel or glass

Camilla West | Hedgerow earrings| sterling silver

Whether buying for ourselves or others, it is possible to find pieces that cost relatively little and yet have value in the fact that they are hand crafted, made lovingly and with specific value to the artist and later the wearer.

Poulton Woods | Polished oxidised silver pendant | Ruth McDonald

Much of my own jewellery is a reminder of happy times. My personal collection has very little monetary value, consisting mostly of items purchased on my travels abroad. I prefer collecting pebbles to precious stones and metals, but am probably unusual in that regard.

What does your jewellery say about you?

Blue Butterfly pendant |Enamel Copper Pewter S/Silver| Anne McArdle

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