Wearable Art, Studio Jewellery, and Their Relationship to CAD

30 July, 2012
Image Courtesy baiang.com

For those who have never heard the term Wearable Art (also variably known as Contemporary Jewellery, Art Jewellery, or Studio Jewellery) before, I offer a short history lesson, and discuss the effects of CAD and 3D printing have had on this area of craft:

Origins of Contemporary Jewellery

After World War II ended, thousands of soldiers were coming back home to the US, UK, and other countries in Western Europe, only to find that their job prospects were uncertain. Several countries such as the US and Britain decided to offer vocational training en masse to these veterans in an effort to help these military personnel retread their skills for better adaptation to civilian life. From these initiatives in the 1940’s came the first ever trade schools and community colleges. While it is not the first time government money was used to encourage industry through vocational education (such government initiatives funded the Bauhaus school in the 20’s), it was particularly interesting to see how much money America was spending on this kind of education at this time.

Britain, meanwhile, was in the throes of rebuilding its own infrastructure after sustaining heavy damage to its infrastructure during the second world war. This was the golden age of social support structures when the NHS was created, the social benefits schemes we still see today first appeared, and massive amounts of money were poured into infrastructure and education. As the old apprenticeship systems could not cope on their own with the numbers of people who needed training (between the returning soldiers and large numbers of women who had already entered the workforce in the absence of men), a substantial amount of government money went to the new crop of vocational education schools.

Art School Experimentation Fosters Wearable Art

By the late 50’s some of these UK art and vocational schools matured and expanded into increasingly bold institutions, and had started to generate some very exciting names in fashion and jewellery design. What was particularly interesting is as these schools grew increasingly bold and challenging, this came to apply to all disciplines they inherited from the old vocational schools, and this included metalwork and jewellery.

David Watkins - Necklaces
Necklaces by David Watkins

It was certainly not a new thing to have jewellery and metalsmithing featured in a jewellery curriculum, but up until this point nobody had ever thought of training that many jewellers at once under a more open curriculum. This ended up having an interesting side effect—by handling jewellery as part of a fine art department rather than the hand craft and vocational skills, jewellers started taking more chances than ever before. Combining this with what else was happening with the art world at the same time (the 1950’s, after all, were one of the big peaks of modernism), and suddenly jewellery started to become a very lively medium indeed.

Needing to distinguish themselves from traditional luxury and fashion jewellery (and also with the luxury jewellers keen to disassociate themselves from these young and crazy upstarts), they collectively referred to themselves as “studio jewellers” or “art jewellers”. Examples of this kind of craftsman still work even today, such as Wendy Ramshaw and David Watkins, or the inhabitants of the Sculpture to Wear and Velvet Da Vinci Galleries, or shows like the Collect Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery.

Heidi Lichterman - necklace
Necklace by Heidi Lichterman

The Children of the Studio Jewellers, and Their Reactions to CAD

Nowadays, most jewellery students will experience tutors who work with this kind of jewellery at art school, and (depending on the school) will be pushed to use this kind of work as an experimental phase to loosen their design skills up, regardless of where they ultimately want to end up in their careers. For that reason, at least, these kinds of designers still serve an important purpose in the art world, even if their students end up ultimately trading their own private workshop for an in-house design job at De Beers.

This brings me to my point: Considering nearly all designer-makers (as they call themselves) are self-funded, and since outlets for their designs can vary, there is seldom money for investing in equipment, much less training. This has been a big obstacle with the adoption of new technology in this area until relatively recently. And as you might expect, if something remains accessible to someone, they’re likely to find reasons to dislike it.

Everyone involved with jewellery seems to have an opinion on CAD, informed or not. However, I have found those working in the area of studio jewellery tend to exhibit the strongest opinions on the subject. The irony, however, is not lost on me how traditionally most experimental jewellers can be the most hostile to exploring new and inventive methods of manufacturing.

Fortunately, shifts in the way jewellery design is being taught, combined with more widespread availability of CAD software and CAM service bureaus seems to have finally helped this to change. Since about 2006, there seem to be more and more studio jewellers working digitally:


I take this all as a positive step for new designers. Giving designers a more portable tool set for working in 3D is never a bad thing, as it means they’ll be spending more time on freestyle design. I am confident this, in turn, will only make for better designers.


Jack Meyer

Bespoke jewellery designer, and specialist in jewellery CAD/CAM and emergent technologies that affect jewellery.

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