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Merike Alber about A-Gallery

M. Pärtelpoeg’s window exhibition

Merike Alber in the book “A-galerii. Eesti autoriehte galerii 20 aastat” (2014)*

* “A-Gallery. Estonian art jewellery gallery for 20 years”

“Jewellery will not make people more beautiful, but let them feel more beautiful.” – Andy Warhol philosophy, 1975

It is a fact that people associate luxury items and jewellery mainly with women, although also men have worn jewellery already from the ancient times. Naturally we can declare jewellery a luxury, if we consider luxury as anything excessive that is pleasing us. Jewellery are not work only for beauty and pride; for millennia jewellery have denoted status and class, throughout the centuries jewellery have also included much protective and defence magic, they have been connected with beliefs. We still believe that jewellery can make us not only visible, but also audible. Through jewellery we can be ourselves, differ from the others. By transmitting mentality of the wearer, jewellery will make also values of the maker visible, thus being an object indicating the identity of the author/wearer. However, the message as well as jewellery itself can be a cliche.

Jewellery items are actually not beautiful or ugly; it is difficult to reach a common concept, what is beautiful, only the sight of a person will provide value for them – it is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Naturally, also the subconscious wish to impress the opposite sex is added to decorating “just for beauty”.

Jewellery can be taken as an independent form of art, but it will get real meaning and idea only when worn. Swiss jewellery experts Cornelia Vogelsanger and Katharina Issler have said that if a jewellery item is located in museum or showcase, far from people, it is in an alienated state.

Fashion changes rapidly, but traditions persist, even if they sometimes limit us too much. It would be wrong to see only inhibition of development in traditions; customs and habits keep us together, they contain mentality and wisdom. There are various traditions and we can make our own selections; Estonians selected silver as “their material”. Silver jewellery were popular already among our foremothers, the amount of silver around the neck and in the hand showed wealth and status of the wearer. The price of silver has usually been affordable, therefore people have been able to wear it and the glare of silver has been fixed in our traditional culture through various myths. Of course, traditions can be broken, thus shifting the limits – how much and how, will depend of the specific person.

The impact of mass culture on jewellery cannot be ignored. Expensive brilliants and platinum are meant for the rich, who judge the value of jewellery by the price of material; cheap imitations of such jewellery are available to broader public, and although they have no value from the standpoint of eternity, standard beauty is pleasing many people. Mass production also offers fashion accessories made of cheap artificial materials, lasting just couple of seasons.

When the contemporary jewellery art came into being in the last decade of 19th century, it changed the former value criteria, its impulse was the re-appeared interest in handicraft. For the first time the main attention was now paid to the form and colour of jewellery and the hand shaping all this beauty, leaving monetary value of materials on the background. The new principles did not reach Estonia, because preconditions for the birth of our professional jewellery art were still not mature, this took place only thirty years later. However, more radical jewellery movements of 1960s leaked also to Estonia and it was possible here to talk about liberalisation of form as well as material – of course, with some concessions, mainly in the context of exhibition art or design of serial production.

Economic and cultural reformations launched in the whirlwind of the beginning of 1990s touched many cultural people and jewellery artists were not exception. Unemployment hit suddenly many professionals, who had been successful freelancers or operated as designers and artists in the jewellery studio of the art production company (from 1986 Ars-Juveel). Decrease of national art subsidiaries and reorganisation of exhibition activities placed the artists into economically unstable situation.

Jewellery artists recovered quickly from the crisis and started to prepare for opening a gallery. It must be admitted that compared to some other speciality they had a certain position advantage. As in the entire Soviet Union, the production of jewellery of precious metals was subordinated to centralised control also in Soviet Estonia, thus depriving the broader public of almost any possibility for purchasing unique jewellery. Author series sold in the salons of the art production company were highly appreciated and usually accessible only through contacts. Only during perestroika, when the first private companies appeared, the first legal direct contacts were established between artists and clients. Naturally the women, who can value jewellery, made use of the new freedom. There was a client base with decorating habit, who considered it important to wear the creation of Estonian jewellery artists. With this knowledge we could plan the foundation of a gallery with higher confidence. However, it was still a risk, because author’s jewellery is always somewhat expensive.

A-Gallery, the first jewellery gallery basing on private capital in Estonia, opened its doors in 1994 at Hobusepea Street 2. Approximately in the same period also several other sales points specialising on applied art or only on jewellery were opened: Lühikese Jala Gallery, Gallery Kaks, jewellery workshop of Katariina Guild and author’s jewellery of Jaan Pärn in the Masters’ Courtyard. All these were born with the initiative and capital of artists. It must be said that business is running well, galleries are still operating and the original profile has been retained. Probably the advantageous location in the Old Town, in the busy tourism area, supported the business success at least in the beginning.

The year 2005 meant the beginning of a new stage for A-Gallery, as this was the year when the gallery moved to new, twice as large premises in the house on the corner of Hobusepea and Pikk streets. Naturally the “new premises” do not mean only physical space, but also the accompanying level of thinking and operation. Long-term metal traditions of the building passed directly on to the new location of the gallery; for decades it had been the address of Salon No 2 of the art production company. Opening of A-Gallery in the popular place offered nostalgy and memories proceeding from historical continuity for many visitors. In addition to the sales space several large showcase windows were obtained, which provide better advertising possibilities and tempt curious viewers to purchase.

Since the beginning A-Gallery has seen its role in bringing artists and purchasers together, but the extent of exposition offers to the visitors a possibility to study the development trends of jewellery art. Thus the gallery is also promoting and introducing jewellery as a whole. From the standpoint of sale it is important to offer as broad range of products as possible, to enable the right owner to find the right item from the showcase. In its 20th operating year the gallery is representing approximately 70 artists, many of whom have been visible through exhibitions for a long time. It is rather difficult (or even impossible) to find a common name for all this circle, because creation of artists varies highly by personalities. However, some criteria have been agreed – author’s jewellery or small series, dignified materials and classical methods. Thus the gallery positioned itself as a carrier of traditions and has achieved success and reputation in this field. Basic reserve of the gallery consists of artists, who acquired their profession in the State Art Institute; the gained academic education covered several speciality skills, but also instructions for work as a jewellery artist – jewellery must decorate the wearer.

Imagination of artists can get inspiration from various things. Nature with its unique forms, colours and patterns is an inexhaustible source material for jewellery. The jewellery sprouted from this evergreen theme – single fragile blossoms, ripe bolls, spirited compositions filled with natural feelings – are suitable for any age. The majesty of nature is balanced by rational geometry; for decades the artists have been interested in geometric style, such ornament-free geometric constructions seem to be suitable for our Nordic character. Minimalist jewellery, which look always modern with their simplicity, show the approach to fine art, while Baroque exuberance refers to the time, when the amount of jewels and glare of precious metal indicated position of the wearer in the society. Various architectural or sculptural forms still remain within the limits of jewellery art, and as the scale of a jewellery item is many times smaller, it requires much higher concentration from the artist.

Beside modern art trends and phenomena, our art has always derived vigour from folk themes. However, now we do not stand only face to face with national brooch shape or floral pattern, but study the magic symbols of archaic and mythological world view. Sometimes everything starts from the stone, but just the name of the stone, irrespective of its sound, does not mean anything – the stone will get life only through the hand of an artist. Jewellery items of the artists of older generation often reflect their own creative past, however this is not repetition, but re-interpretation, where some idea, pattern, form or technique is taken to the next level. In case of such development the tradition persists, but the result is a new jewellery, which speaks to us here and now. Some artists can perfectly join commercial and artistic sides into the service of integral impression; some artists deal calmly with their own style and care less of the sales numbers. Decades ago, one of our legendary jewellery artists – Salme Raunam – summarised the mission of her generation with the following words: “We did what we could and what the people expected from us.” This mission seems to continue also today. The range of techniques is as versatile as the sources of inspiration: filigree, granulation, casting, engraving, melting, enamel and many other classical working methods of a goldsmith.

Since mid-1990s we can see two dominating approaches to jewellery together with relevant images of the wearer. The first appreciates classical and traditional style emphasizing femininity, but allows some moderate innovations. The second is more related to free souls and art collectors. Interest of private collectors in jewellery is rather late phenomenon, which is probably increasing, however their purchase channels remain mainly outside the gallery. New generation opposing traditional approaches brought along new symbol images, which source, idea and nature differs from the past. When message takes the lead, material will become its transmitter; traditional and unconventional materials are used side by side, often together. New materials often bring along different forms and special technologies; unlike commercial jewellery, here the intention is not to conceal the character of material, but to stress the peculiarity. Such expressive or conceptual items turned jewellery into meaningful medium. This angle of view to jewellery has not been completely dismissed by the gallery, but left to the background. It seems that the artists, who are currently 20-30 years old, whose parents were young in 1970s and 1990s, and who accept new attitudes on the example of their parents, are now too readily discarded. Changing preferences of taste should reflect also in the jewellery made by our artists and sold by galleries.

As for the current scene of our jewellery, it is not as interesting as five years ago. The wind has calmed down, there are few newcomers and they tend to be lost in general flow. Although it does not concern all artists, there are too much attempts to please the potential audience.

Today, when money is becoming increasingly important gauge of values, a question arises, if author’s jewellery is good investment. Valuable family jewellery is usually left to the following generations, why not then also author’s jewellery, which carries similar timeless values and is not subordinated to the moods of fashion. Perhaps we should invest more into stories, emotions, positive energy and the knowledge that jewellery has been made with love.

The extent of scope is an indicator of viability of a gallery. In case of orders it is inevitable to take account of the requests of clients, which bring in personal level of a client and leave less space for free creation for the artist. Exhibitions in the historical safe room have undoubtedly drawn attention of the people interested in jewellery, the list of exhibitions is long and although the tiny exhibition room is meant first and foremost for own artists of the gallery, there have been also guests from outside. Such admittance of „strangers“ to own exhibition chamber shows openness of the gallery to the phenomena taking place in jewellery world. Issuing of annual exhibition award is not just a fair gesture, but also promotes creativity.

Twenty years is a sufficiently long time for assessment, if a gallery persists or disappears. A-Gallery has firmly decided to stay.