“I don’t know how it went wrong,” says Ted Noten leaning back in his chair, tearing the filter off his cigarette and lighting it with a blow torch. “Jewellery is our first art expression – humans didn’t start decorating their houses, they decorated themselves. Why hasn’t jewellery grown at the same speed that design has?” he asks, shaking his head. “When I go to galleries I see people who are wearing up-to- date clothes, hair styles and glasses – but no fucking new jewellery piece.”
But Noten’s jewellery isn’t really for wearing. The Amsterdam-based designer creates conceptual pieces, with mice wearing pearls, pill-shaped wedding rings that are swallowed rather than worn, and brooches made out of a cut-up Mercedes-Benz or cast from spat-out chewing gum. Often he seals objects within bag-shaped acrylic blocks, framing a story. Noten’s thought process is that of an artist.
“But I use gold and silver in the place of a paintbrush,” he says. He is probably the only jewellery designer who has printed a manifesto, including the declaration: “Jewellery must be shamelessly curious.”
Wild haired and energetic, Noten has the air of an impassioned history teacher. A blackboard hangs in the corridor of his studio, once a nursery, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he grabbed a piece of chalk and started giving me a lesson. Although 50 years old, Noten says he is trapped in a “permanent state of wondering”. Notes and sketches showing the early stages of ideas cover his work surface, and there’s a large rat in the corner, frozen in a run and undergoing transformation into an acrylic suitcase. “This was the first go,” he says, pointing to an acrylic box with another rat, completely flattened, sealed inside it. “The structure inside him melted and he got crushed under the ten bars of pressure.”
Noten designs one-off pieces for personal projects, as well as for commissions and galleries. He started making conceptual work in the mid-1990s, around the time that Dutch design collective Droog was founded, and like many of his contemporaries in the Netherlands, all of his work stems from a story. His work is loaded with social satire, and parodies greed, tradition, gun crime and status. It puts a hefty demand on the wearer and has the ability to turn you into a walking display case.
He embraces the unexpected, the random, splicing together contrasting elements to produce hybrid creations. “I started out as a psychiatric nurse,” Noten says, pausing to enjoy the surprise the statement brings. “I was looking through this book of professions – I had no fucking clue what to do. Then I saw ‘psychiatric nurse’. But I rejected the way people were treated there. You gave them shots so they would go flat. I learned subconsciously about the journeys they made in their head. I’m lucky that I found a method to deal with these journeys. The people there didn’t have a system. They had no tool.”
Aged 23, Noten took off travelling for three years and it was on a street in Athens that he found his tool. “I met this guy. He was making jewellery for tourists on a blue felt towel with very simple tools. I sat beside him and I was gone.” After studying silversmithing at the Academy for Applied Arts in Maastricht, Noten got a job making coffee pots, cutlery and jewellery, but after “hammering for three years”, he enrolled at Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, where jewellery-making was steeped in conceptual methodology. While his fellow students struggled to realise pieces due to their lack of technical know how, he was in his element.
Much of Noten’s work is fuelled by his frustration with the jewellery world. He loves the way icons of “bling” culture wear jewellery to paint their identity, but he hates the fact that the industry panders to those wanting to spend on big diamonds. “Jewellery has only to do with status,” Noten declares. “Status at this time is connected with diamonds. I find this a huge pity.”
Noten’s Princess, his first conceptual work, made in 1995, was born out of anger. He was asked to design a pearl necklace for a contemporary art event. “It’s the most frigid jewellery piece in the world,” he says. “Design a new pearl necklace thing? Shift around the pearls a little bit?” Instead, he presented a necklace within a necklace – a mouse wearing pearls set in an acrylic box that hung from a steel wire chain – asking the viewer, “Who is wearing the best piece of jewellery? The lady who puts on the necklace, or the mouse adorned with pearls?”
Noten sees the function of jewellery as somewhat redundant in Western culture, feeling that we have forgotten what it means. “What is jewellery? Why do we keep it?” he asks, pausing. I sense he is looking for a piece of chalk, but he reaches for another cigarette. “You know, we used to make jewellery for each other.”
He has the ability to get inside the heads of the people who commission him and design pieces that are personal to the receiver. In this way, Noten’s pieces are truer to the traditional meaning of jewellery than anything you could buy from a high-street store. He likes to play on the idea of sentimentality in pieces such as Ageeth’s Dowry, a bag given to a bride on her wedding day containing a ring from each of her relatives. Encased in acrylic and made inaccessible, the rings are framed in such a way that their sentimental value becomes their real worth rather than the gold or silver adorning a finger.
Alongside such personal commissions, relationships between people also form the basis of much of Noten’s gallery-exhibited work. Although he could be criticised for merely removing jewellery from people’s boxes and putting it in the context of a contemporary art gallery, such rarefied conditions do not necessarily sit easily with him. “I wanted to make jewellery people can afford,” says Noten. “There’s a kind of socialist feeling due to my upbringing – I don’t want to make pieces for the elite. But if you make jewellery that goes into the art field it’s only the elite who can buy it.”
By involving elements of performance and humour in the presentation of the work, however, people can buy into the concept of it, even if they can’t afford the actual pieces. For Noten’s ongoing project Chew Your Own Brooch, he hands out chewing gum at galleries and then casts what is returned to him in silver. Citing fairgrounds and the “bombastic processions of the catholic church” among his inspirations, Noten likes to act as an entertainer, invading the stale quiet of galleries and adding a little noise. For an exhibition about the use of gold in jewellery, he designed an installation inspired by claw machines in amusement parks. A kilogram of gold sat in a box, and visitors paid a euro to try and grab it. “When people didn’t get it out they weren’t angry with me, but with themselves – for being taken for a fool. Their greed was bigger than their rational thinking – I don’t insult people, but I play with that.”
The kind of jewellery Noten displays and sells through galleries is a declaration of the artist’s beliefs – wearing one of these pieces means wearing someone else’s story. Provoking the imagination, it is jewellery for the mind, and has the ability to take you into a world of fancy.
Noten is influenced by Francis Bacon, and a piece such as Mercedes-Benz Brooches, for which he sliced up a car, echoes the often violent fragmentation of Bacon’s paintings. One of his more affordable pieces, people could choose a slice of the car and have it made into a brooch, allowing everybody to own a little piece of luxury. But once reduced to fragments, the meaning of the whole changes, and the torn-apart car undermines its value as a status symbol. As with his recent Limited Edition series (icon 051), in which items such as guns and cocaine are encased in acrylic, he questions the innate value of objects and renders them less powerful, even lending them a sense of the ridiculous.
Noten has an endearingly tender relationship to his tools. He shows me some of his jewellery-making machinery, a mix of heavy industry and ballerina-like delicacy. He’s just returned from holiday and is concerned that nothing is going to work. “Why would they?” he asks. “You can’t leave them and then expect them to turn on. You have to earn their trust again.”
Noten has recently started working on large-scale installation work, and now has a studio with three staff. One of his next projects, Watching Monet By Carlight, will transform the first floor of a gallery in Rotterdam into a drive-through. But despite this change in his working practice, he believes making jewellery will be his dying act. A recent piece portrays the figure of Noten as an old man, lying on a slab of silver that he will transform into jewellery, with precious stones and beautiful women around him. Noten holds much store in the process of transformation and is optimistic about the future. “Jewellery’s about to boom. And I think we’re very close to that point. I hope I gave a part to that boom.”
images Richard Nicolson