Jewellery is one of the oldest human arts, a ubiquitous part of our everyday life. Rings, necklaces, brooches, watches and more—most of us wear some form of jewelry, even if it is as minimal as a wedding band, hoop earrings, or a nose stud.

Minimalism aside, jewelry remains one of the most consistent forms of conspicuous consumption we have in our cultural toolbox. Diamonds are forever after all, and a potential best friend. In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, advertisements for jewelry will dominate entertainment media, often mass-produced hearts and flowers made from low-carat gold and silver, studded with diamond chips, clichéd symbols of enduring love.

Like so much else surrounding the consumer festivals we have adopted as holidays, the jewellery obsession of Valentine’s Day is tiresome. Shiny and sparkly, sure, but ultimately banal. Is that all there is?

A trip to the Mary E. Black Gallery of the Centre for Craft Nova Scotia answers that question decisively: no, it is not.

Placement, on view until March 15, is a group exhibition featuring 45 works by 35 artists. A project of the Co-Adorn Art Jewellery Society, Placement was juried from submissions received from across Canada.

Co-Adorn, established in Nova Scotia in 2017 to promote art jewelry (the opposite of the mass-produced kitsch referenced above), has had annual exhibitions since its inception.

However, with this project the group makes a large step forward with an international tour . From Halifax it travels to Vancouver and then on to Seoul, South Korea. Curated by Halifax artist and NSCAD University professor Kye-Yeon Son and Vancouver jeweller and curator Barbara Cohen, Placement features works that examine the idea of jewelry’s relationship to place.

That is, the place of jewelry in relation to the body, place as geography and physical context, and place as a metaphor for being. Cohen writes in the catalogue: “many of the artists approached their work from a geographical and cultural perspective, using the place they were born or live as a jump off point for their work.”

Sixteen of the artists live in Nova Scotia, while the remainder hail mostly from Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec. Featuring the work of established artists, emerging artists, recent graduates of MFA programs, and current students, the exhibition is diverse and often surprising. Materials such as plastic, paper, fabric, nylon and guitar cable appear along with more familiar materials such as silver and gemstones.

While all wearable, technically anyway, much of the work in the exhibition veers much closer to sculpture than to anything found in a box atop your mother’s dresser.

Each of the artists chose to react to the theme of Placement in their own way. Quebec artist Katia Martel, for instance, chose to present an environmental message, making her sculptural brooches “Foreign Bodies 01” and “02” from, in part, waste plastic bags. These vaguely organic forms both repel and attract the eye, looking a lot like like nests, despite their synthetic materials.

Dorothée Rosen, from Nova Scotia, made a necklace called “Moon Pearl.” A long string of freshwater pearls, the beads are interspersed with small silver scales, evoking clamshells, as well as leaves or even fish scales. Looking more closely, you see that the patterned surfaces of the silver are fingerprints, the trace of the artist left in the material.

Another Nova Scotian, Maria Mosher, presents a brooch called July 1991 that is a small sculpture made from multiple materials, a cluster of almost architectural resin tubes offset by large lab-created stone.

Magali Thibault Gobeil, another Quebec artist, presented a large pendant made primarily from polyurethane. Colourful and playful, her Candy Cloud reminded me of the famous “Bagged Landscapes” by Canadian Conceptual Art pioneers the N.E. Thing Co. Samuel (Chen) Lin’s brooches, Patchwork and Pressure, combine unexpected materials such as steel and fabric swatches (even a pompom ball) with silver or brass to great effect.

Always visually engaging, the works in Placement are a pleasure to spend time with. With all the innovation in materials, unexpected processes and presentation strategies on view, one is rapidly forced to rethink what jewellery is, or could be. Banal or tiresome? Not in this place.

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