I interviewed Jess Tolbert, one of the seven winners of Preziosa Young 2020, the international contest organised by Le Arti Orafe Jewellery School, the first school dedicated to contemporary jewellery in Italy, founded in 1985 in Florence by Giò Carbone. Since 2008, Preziosa Young has promoted the creativity of the younger generations, rewarding the proposal of innovative concepts, techniques and materials used, in order to create unique jewels.

This year the winners are all women, selected from 147 applications from all over the world by an international jury composed by curators, artists and jewellery critics, like Giovanni Corvaja, Eugenia Gadaleta, Kazumi Nagano, Cóilín O’Dubhghaill, Renzo Pasquale, Carla Riccoboni, Sam Tho Duong.

Jess Tolbert will have the opportunity to show her “Grater-Than Series” jewellery pieces in occasion of the travelling exhibition PREZIOSA YOUNG 2020, together with Elwy Schutten, Chia-Hsien Lin, Dongyi Wu, Marie Masson, Rachael Colley and Zihan Yang, the other winners of this PY edition.

The exhibition starts in Florence in October, then moves to Spain and Germany next year:

  • 29th October – 8th November 2020, Galleria del Palazzo Enrico Coveri, Florence
  • 13th January – 3rd February 2021, Hannah Gallery, Barcelona
  • 12th – 28th February, Atelier Martina Dempf, Berlin
  • Oratory of San Rocco, Padua

The exhibition was supposed to take place in May during the Florence Jewellery Week, cancelled like many other cultural events due to the consequent restrictions caused by Covid-19, and specifically for that reason other dates and locations are being defined.

Let’s meet Tolbert and her stapled jewellery, handmade pieces realised with industrially made components:

 

Greater-Than Series, Brooch, 2019. Fused steel staples, steel, 14K gold pin wire, 53 x 25 x 115 mm. Photo credits: Jeanette Nevarez

 

  • When dealing with contemporary goldsmith artists or jewellery designers, the first curiosity is to know how ornament has been chosen as the main means of expression. Why jewellery in particular and what was your training in this field?

JESS TOLBERT: I began my training in this field in 2006, at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. I studied under the amazing metalsmiths Beverly Penn and Nicole Deschamps-Benke, as well as Billie Jean Thiede at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I didn’t know about the field, or that I could study it at the University level until a friend of mine showed me a necklace she had made. Wow! I was enamoured. So, I took a class and never looked back. I also have a background in dance and I think my connection to thinking about the body really lent itself to my studying jewellery and metalsmithing. I am fascinated by the things we use, how we use them, and why.

 

Greater-Than Series, Necklace, 2019. Fused steel staples, 760 mm length. Photo credits: Jeanette Nevarez

 

  • In your jewellery you choose a specific but very commonplace object of everyday life, the staple, transforming it into your trademark. The staple is a mass industrial product to which you give unique and individual character, creating jewels that are unique pieces. Would you tell us about that purpose?

JESS TOLBERT: My current practice explores the use of industrially made products to create jewellery that has the duality of being both manufactured and handcrafted. Certain objects hold utilitarian functions in our everyday lives and serve as a means to an end; however, once they are reimagined as raw material and manipulated by a skilled hand, a transformation takes place. This shift fuses the functional and decorative, as well as memory with imagination. Reconsidering the commonplace objects of everyday life and mass production as jewellery creates an intimate link to our relationship with labor and the built environment. A humble staple is often overlooked, simply used to bind pages together, or to post a flyer to a lamppost; its purpose does not often extend beyond what it was intended for. I am drawn to its recognizable form and to the rhythm of its use. Through repetitive actions of layering, patterning, and systemically constructing, I replicate the pace of mass production, but not its protocols. With infinite possibilities, I reflect upon the unknown makers and their process to create a product that is now my raw material. Capturing labor in the form of jewellery speaks to the associated value typically assigned to such formats. Jewellery is an inherently social form of art, representing wealth, status, and membership, yet also individuality and identity. It is the identity of the maker and wearer that I aim to highlight.

 

Greater-Than Series, Brooch, 2019. Fused steel staples, steel, 14K gold pin wire, 115 x 35 x 90 mm. Photo credits: Jeanette Nevarez

 

  • It’s impressive how you manage to give rhythm and shape to very complex jewels that are composed only by the repetition of the same basic module of the staple. What technique do you use?

JESS TOLBERT: In terms of process and materials, I do focus on mass-produced products as my raw material. The staple becomes my singular component, one part of a whole. I micro-weld, or fuse, them together one element at a time. I use the inherent form of the staple to create different patterns, ultimately creating my own ‘sheet’ of material with which I can treat as I would other sheets of metal. I fabricate and hollow construct with this ‘raw material’, creating unique constructions with infinite possibilities. The staples are made of steel and the surface is the result of the fusing process; brooches include the edition of hand-fabricated pin mechanisms in steel and 14K gold.

 

Greater-Than Series, Necklace, 2019. Fused steel staples, 559 mm length. Photo credits: Jeanette Nevarez

 

  • Is there an artist or an artistic tendency that inspires or influences you particularly?

JESS TOLBERT: There are so many! But I’d have to say that, of course, I’m inspired by artists who cleverly transform mundane materials, especially in mass and to the point of the material being somewhat unrecognizable upon first glance. I love the mystery and discovery in that. El Anatsui for instance. Also, artists who are interested in ideas about labor and our connection, or disconnection, to that – Ann Hamilton’s Indigo Blue project is great example. And finally, metalsmith and jeweller Tone Vigeland – a master of the multiple!

 

Greater-Than Series, Brooch, 2019. Fused steel staples, steel, 14K gold pin wire, 63 x 47 x 40 mm. Photo credits: Jeanette Nevarez

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