Bettina Speckner's Unsettling Jewelry Is Absolutely Not Art

We talked to the avant-garde German jeweler about how narrative is stupid and why she'd rather make something beautiful than something conceptual.

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Aug 19 2015, 5:15pm

All photos courtesy of Bettina Speckner

If nothing else, Bettina Speckner wants one thing to be very clear: She makes jewelry, not art. The German jeweler-not-artist has been pursuing this aim for nearly 30 years, since she switched from her university painting concentration to work under Hermann Jünger, a renowned gold- and silversmith (also German) whose avant-garde, playful, and often gemstoned pieces have been credited with elevating jewelry to the "art" status his student so vehemently rejects.

Her strong objection is understandable, though speaking to Speckner, who works out of her studio in Übersee, a village between Salzburg and Munich, you have to wonder if it's overcompensating. Although many of her one-of-a-kind pieces are wearable, not all of them are, and you can only buy them in a gallery. You'd think these trappings of the elevated would be more than enough justification for Speckner to count herself among Picasso and Hannah Hoch--after all, many lesser "artists" whose sunset watercolors decorate coffee shops around the world are more than willing to do so. But if she declared her pieces "art," they might be considered a lesser form of the stuff: "interesting," but at the end of the day, just necklaces, or just brooches, or just whatever. (The fact that necklaces or brooches or whatever are almost always made for and worn by women might also affect this diminishing categorization, but you already knew that.) So instead of pushing our understanding of what "art" is, she approaches tradition from the opposite direction: by redefining jewelry.

Broadly: How did you get started making jewelry?
Bettina Speckner: I loved the making--handling materials--and the relationship to the body--[jewelry as] making "signs" on the body, "sketches" on the body, attachments to the body. Form on form more than adornment. Maybe body as a three-dimensional "sculpture" confronted with a form or line or material.

Do people ever wear your stuff? Or is it purely within the realm of "art"? Do you believe in that kind of distinction?
I feel a bit irritated by this question--of course I make jewelry to wear and people wear it. Whoever said that I said that I'm making "art"? I'm definitely a jeweler. My earrings aren't too heavy, and my pendants aren't breaking after you wear them two times--it's very important to me to follow the rules of wearabilty.

Well, yeah--I was interested in your work because the jewelry is very conceptual, but it still functions as jewelry.
I don't think it's conceptual at all. I could make something up, but that's not how I'm working. It's not a concept.

How do you work? How do you come up with things if you don't have a message or a concept?
I'm letting myself be led through materials. I love to collect things--shells on the beach, boxes, beautiful papers--so I just bring my beautiful things together, more or less. I'm much more coming from this not-intellectual part--I just want to do beautiful jewelry. It's not a task to fulfill--it's not like I think, I want to make a brooch about blah blah blah. How could I do that? This would be illustration of a thought; my things, they have lives of their own. They come into existence, and they're not worked over. I don't want to talk about love and take a red heart as a form.

Anything I say is right--that's the good thing about being an artist.

I want for you to maybe associate something amiable when you see the piece, the piece or the photo or the material--they demand something. Now I'm making some beautiful pieces, and it's really difficult to make beautiful things. People look at it like it's superficial, like harmony is something to break. My new goal is not to break it, to have the courage to make really beautiful pieces.

What does a beautiful piece look like?
Ferrotypes, portraits...and then I put a stone on the face. This is an irritation, an act of covering or something. A different kind of beauty--maybe the stone I covered the face with is more beautiful than the face ever was, or I draw attention to other beautiful things on the piece. I'm creating a harmony.

What do you mean by harmony? Some people would understand that to mean symmetry. In jewelry now, you see a lot of minimalistic but hard lines, which maybe seem harmonious, but I would say that's not what I see when I look at your pieces.
It has to do with formal things of course, like with colors or thickness or length or material. Now I'm making a necklace with nephrite [a type of jade] out of a necklace from a [native] tribe in Brazil. This stone is not irritated by any materials; it's not plastic and stone or glue and gold--it's not disrupting any traditional ways of thinking. Though maybe in the end it disrupts another traditional way of thinking about how jewelry should look now.

What's the traditional way of thinking about how jewelry should look?
I'm definitely working in a West German tradition. Elsewhere, it was always the question of content: why are you doing these things? In Holland, for example, it [used to be] a no-go to use gold and precious stones in the '70s. That was a political statement, to not use gold because [they believed] you had to find different kinds of preciousness; so-called not precious materials can also be beautiful and precious. [The idea was that] a ruby can be beautiful to work with, but a red dot can also be beautiful.

I don't want to talk about love and take a red heart as a form.

This is very theoretical, and I don't know if I'm so good with theoretical statements. That's more my impression. I'm still a student of Hermann Jünger--[in his class] we were not talking so much about why we were doing things, but about how they look--if the wire should be thicker or thinner--things like that, things about form. I'm a child of both schools, I think.

What do you mean, a child of both schools? You don't seem to want to talk about why you're doing what you're doing--you just want to do it.
Maybe I don't like to know why I'm doing these things so much. Maybe it's a secret, and I like to work with this secret. All these artist's statements you have to give these days--it's horrible! You disclose all the secrets--if you're working like that, if you're working conceptually. I'm fascinated by materials and forms and words and things--for me there's a difference between using a ruby or a red plastic piece.

Is it frustrating when people interpret your work? Or do you think it's funny?
It's always frustrating, even though it should be funny. I think everybody should see what they want in the jewelry. Sometimes people even develop personal relationships to the pieces. My Ziel--my goal--is that my images [are] so open that a person could fill [them] with their own story or history or image. I'm not telling you about my garden or my home or my life. I'm not telling a story about the past or [depicting] a beauty of the past--oh no. Maybe it's an invitation for a second look. I would wish that the images don't interpret; they just say that something is there.

I also read some things about my jewelry that I don't agree with at all--for example, it's always "about nostalgia," I guess because of the photographs. I think it's because [the photos are] always black and white that people think of the past, but this is not relevant to me. They're my photos; I take them. My jewelry pieces are not telling concrete histories; there are no logical connections. They are just associative, not narrative!

Do you have a problem with narrative?
I do have a problem with narrative. I don't want to tell you anything. You have to find it out. I'm not doing little comics; I'm not illustrating histories; I don't know these people [in the photographs I use]. How uninteresting, this question!

It's like a portrait at the portrait gallery: If you see a portrait of a medieval Maria, you think, Who was that? What was her real name? How does the painter know her? But it's not influencing the quality of the painting, if they knew each other or not. It's about the look of the portrait-the composition the colors and how he painted it.

People want an explanation. Well, sorry!

Is your work particularly female?
Yes, even I do not think that's very interesting.

What I'm wondering is more about the form of the human body--the female body. Do you create your pieces by imagining them on a body? Does it function as a canvas for you?
The 3D thing interests me very much. My work is usually two-dimensional, and imagining the photographs sort of inside the body creates a three-dimensional plane in the body. Imagine a window, and you're looking out into a landscape [from the window], and [I want to make jewelry that lets you] look into the breast like that. Or a [photograph of a] path is going inside your body somehow. Or earrings that are two faces, hanging on the face. The photography helps me get the third dimension, and the body [helps me get] the third dimension as well.

People want an explanation. Well, sorry!

Is there a connection between what you do and design?
No, not at all. Design is something different. That is maybe more fashion? No no no. Design is for people and has to be [mass-produced]. My pieces are one of a kind. Design has totally different rules, and you think of production and of use--lamps--and I think like a painter: I want to do this picture, not I want to do something that combines well with this in this fashion. I think a contemporary designer thinks of what is contemporary, of showing something of our time. This is not my interest, to be contemporary. I want to make jewelry you can give to your child, and the child gives it to his child, who gives it to his child, who gives it to his child. I think if it's a good piece, [it makes] the person stop and think for a second, but in design you don't have to stop. In design it's selbstverständlich. [It is what it is.]

Here we have this very difficult question about beauty. I was saying that I want to do beautiful pieces, but actually I would say design is just beautiful, and that's not enough for me. (Anything I say is right--that's the good thing about being an artist.) That's not interesting to me, to make something just beautiful. Or let's put it more: pieces without a secret. You understand them, you put them on, and that's it. I want: What the hell has she done? Why did she put diamonds on the back? Why is there nothing happening here?