Western Australia’s economy might have been built on mining, but little attention is paid to what happens to our minerals once they’re out of the ground.
Now the Art Gallery of Western Australia has focused attention on the jewellery produced in the state in an exhibition called Beyond Bling.
The gallery has collected jewellery for decades and included different pieces in exhibitions along the way, but it took an outsider to spot that altogether it made for an impressive display.
Curator of contemporary design Robert Cook was taking the new director of marketing through the stores and pulling out drawers of jewellery, to some amazement.
“We were seeing it through [the eyes] of a stranger to the collection and I think what he was responding to was the quantity and quality and the mass of it,” Dr Cook said.
“We have done a lot with jewellery over the years, but we have not done the intense blast of it before.”
The items range from historical mourning jewellery to modern pieces made of plastic straws, and much of it by WA artists.
“We have got great makers and they are as good as anyone on the planet,” Dr Cook said.
In addition to its own pieces, the gallery has invited local collectors to contribute in special displays.
For antiquarian jewellery expert Trevor Hancock, whose pieces of rare colonial jewellery are on display in the foyer, it’s an opportunity he hopes will encourage more people to take an interest in this little-known part of history.
“These are the little Aussie battlers, these pieces of jewellery, that represent so much for this state,” Mr Hancock said.
“They are disappearing rapidly.
“During the depressions most of these wonderful pieces of gold jewellery were sold off for families to live on.”
Western Australia’s population and wealth was built on a series of gold rushes, in Coolgardie in 1892 and Kalgoorlie in 1893, that brought people pouring into the state.
Some of the hopefuls were skilled jewellers, and when they didn’t strike their fortunes they turned to crafting highly unusual pieces.
“They were trained in Europe or London and many of them came out here to try and make their money on the goldfields,” Mr Hancock said.
“They were not successful, and miners heard that they were jewellers, so they would take the nugget to them and say: ‘Could you put this in a brooch?’
“And because there was a shortage of cash they would actually give them gold nuggets in payment for doing work; gold was the currency of the day.”
The jewellers didn’t attempt to imitate jewellery from Britain and Europe but instead crafted highly original pieces that often kept a nugget intact and referenced the place where it had been found.
“The jewellery very much represents the discovery of gold and the profit that came from gold for this state when it was a colony,” Mr Hancock said.
“Back then all we had in Australia was gold — we didn’t have diamonds or precious stones that they have in Europe.
“That’s why the standard of Australian colonial jewellery is equal to anything in the world; it’s just phenomenal.”
Sometimes in a bid to make their work stand out, designers went even further.
One piece in the collection, by Perth jewellers Levinson and Son, features rock containing asbestos suspended in glass.
“When they were creating jewellery they were desperately looking for unusual things, and back when this was created, when asbestos was just found, it was an amazing thing to find — it glittered,” Mr Hancock said.
At the time, colonial jewellery was an enormous status symbol.
“In the UK and Europe, if you were wearing a brooch that had come from the colonies of Australia, or Western Australia, it might as well have come from the Moon.
“It was so exciting, it was just the end of the Earth it has come from, so it was worn with great pride.
“Later, as the miners made money, they had magnificent gold fob chains made.
“Back then it was a great status symbol to show your gold pocket watch and chain.”
Much of the colonial jewellery has been lost as it fell out of fashion, was sold by families to pay bills in hard times, or even melted down for its gold.
Mr Hancock said he hoped the exhibition inspired visitors to go home and look through their drawers, reconsidering heirlooms they may have overlooked.
“Then what I’d really like them to do is bring it into the gallery and give it to the gallery,” he said.
“And it’s really lovely for your children and grandchildren to walk into the gallery and see something given by you.”
Dr Cook said while they were no longer using picks and shovels, local artists continued to reflect the look and feel of the state in their work.
“We have a bunch of work based on the Australian landscape,” he said.
“Jewellers have been remarkable at finding the hidden aesthetic and subtlety and using silver to bring that out.”
He is also hopeful that Beyond Bling will bring in visitors that don’t normally come into the gallery.
“I’ve got a good feeling about this stuff; it will get the cut-through and people will be digging it.”
Beyond Bling is at the Art Gallery of Western Australia until January 14.
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