The narrative of jewellery design



Design and narrative have become important considerations as jewellery becomes more imaginative.

In our endless quest to make an impression through the clothes we wear, many of us forget that once the impact of your outfit has worn off, it’s the detail that will continue the intrigue. Jewellery is one such detail. Traditionally seen as symbols of status and wealth the pieces we choose to adorn our fingers, wrists, necksand ears are increasingly becoming art and small expressions of inner wealth and personality.

Tinsel is a Johannesburg-based contemporary jewellery workshop run by Geraldine Fenn and Eric Loubser who specialise in creating one-of-a-kind pieces. The pair view jewellery as more than just accessories to outfits, rather attempting to create pieces that reflect individual personalities.

Fenn started out studying archeology before studying jewellery design in Durban. She then completed a degree in Art History at Wits and discovered that the historically beautiful pieces she studied awoke the artist inside. Handmade and one-of-a-kind pieces appealed to her greatly and seemed an antidote to the mass produced sameness she saw around her. “We have such a small market for this type of work,” says Fenn.  “People are mostly unaware of the kind of creativity that goes into making these unique pieces. There is so much costume jewellery out there that is massed produced in China and India that the market gets flooded.” She’s the first to admit that earning a living in South Africa from contemporary jewellery is tough.

Ultimately, jewellery is about worth and value and designers like Fenn are now up against cheap imitations and cheap knock-offs of luxury items. Keeping the value of her work visible and evident is an additional challenge.

“In some ways we are held hostage by the value of our materials, such as the value of gold or diamonds, that have an obvious market value,” says Fenn. But there is a whole other dimension, especially in contemporary jewellery, which acknowledges the creativity, the unique idea.”


Fenn compares this to likening  the price of a painting to the cost of the oils and the canvas alone. She wants to educate consumers to transcend the physical, material cost of jewellery and recognise the artistry too. Contemporary jewellery  is sometimes made with unexpected materials that don’t have the traditional high values of precious metals associated with them.

“The added value is firstly the design, and secondly that it’s handmade,” she says. “There is so much out there that is easy to make with 3D printers and casting, for instance.”

Jewellery has historically been worn to impress, and South Africa has a big market of wealthy  people who are looking for pieces that reflect their wealth. They will buy a monogrammed handbag from Louis Vuitton because that is an obvious indicator of wealth. What Fenn creates is much more subtle. The ‘wealth’ signifiers are not necessarily that obvious and it’s not a big brand name either.

“People aspire to labels in much the same way  as jewellery,” says Fenn. “People will buy Cartier and pay a premium, because of the name. It might not be very unusual, engaging piece from a design  perspective, but because it’s associated with that name you’ll pay a lot for it.”

Tinsel have worked with fashion designers before, creating pieces to compliment their outfits. Fenn feels jewellery is very much the ‘accessory’ at these shows  and would love the opportunity of directing her own show that highlights her creative vision. An additional obstacle on the runway is size. Pieces can easily be lost among the dim lighting and striking clothes. “I’ve found that often you have to make pieces that are very big and dramatic so that they stand out on the runway,” says Fenn.

Her art and archaeology background has certainly given Fenn a desire to unearth originality and an eye for trend. “I love vintage pieces and trawl markets for old bits and pieces that have a strong figurative content, a lot of detail and strong narrative. Something that might tell a  story.”   Some of these inspirations have been anatomical drawings and models. She’s also  inspired by Victorian jewellery from the 19th century, anything with a lot of detail. “Jewellery from a few hundred years ago was very loaded with significance – everything had some kind of meaning. The idea of highlighting the intimacy of jewellery appeals to me,” explains Fenn.

Jewellery is not as affected by trends as fashion is. Fashion has four collections a year and moves swiftly, pushed along by international trends. Fenn wants us to  focus on artistry that  lasts a lifetime, rather than a season. “The narrative aspect of jewellery is important. A piece should be able to tell a story – where the material was sourced, for instance.” Fenn feels the recession has helped change ideas around buying lots of cheap pieces that break easily and has refocused consumers on the importance of investing in one amazing piece, with a healthy dose of provenance.  “People seem to be more interested in the story around a piece,” says Fenn.

Tinsel has discovered that there hasn’t been much of a decline in demand for jewellery. Rather, customers are choosing differently, sometimes heavily influenced by magazines.

“In some fashion magazines it’s interesting to note how they devote a lot of space to local designers, profiling pieces that costs R5,000 – R10,000. They then pair this with very cheap R100 costume jewellery, which I find quite odd because they are  obviously trying to show an aspirational quality in the clothing, but the jewellery seems like an afterthought,” says Fenn.

She admits that part of the battle for contemporary jewellery designers is to get local work by designers into these magazines, to show the real value of their work. “Consumers don’t realise the difference, other than the price,” says Fenn.

Regarding the ideal piece to give as a gift, Fenn feels that necklaces are always a safe bet.


“Necklaces are always great to give someone as there’s no sizing issues with it. People also like to collect pendants on chains and layer them together, creating a personal  story.” She likens this to collecting charms, usually worn on the wrist, but now clustered together around the neck.

She also does a lot of engagement and wedding rings,  made a little differently to the commercially available pieces. “I love creating custom design items, made specifically for a person that I get to know,” she says. “These kind of rings will always be important because they have been created with meaning and significance for an individual. They are pieces that will tell their stories to future generations.”

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