Barbara Heath and the Language of Jewellery

Barbara Heath: Jeweller to the Lost
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
15 October 2005 – 26 March 2006

In most forms of visual art, public interest ebbs and flows. Judging by the success of international craft shows, the hand crafted object is the current flavour of the month. In April, the 24th Annual Smithsonian Craft Show at the National Building Museum, DC, drew crowds from across America vying for the first look at contemporary design in object d’art. The toast of the Smithsonian show was the announcement of a PBS television documentary planned for 2007 which will trace the evolution of American crafts in an ambitious three-part series. Ken Trapp, former curator of the Renwick Gallery, explains the public interest,


some dismiss the hand crafted object as an anachronism, a nostalgic throwback to an earlier and supposedly simpler and happier time. But for many more, the handcrafted object is an authentic experience that is personalized, individualized, and humanized.1


Trapp’s words resonate in the reception of a jewellery exhibition much closer to home, ‘Barbara Heath: Jeweler to the Lost’ held recently at the Queensland Art Gallery.

Often in an attempt to argue the significance of craft, critics treat objects like jewellery on a par with fine art forms such as painting and sculpture. This is a regrettable approach. Not because jewellery is somehow inferior to those other art forms, rather, it ignores jewellery’s specific associations with the body and factors of consumption such as wealth, status and sexuality. Theorising about jewellery as fine art militates against the likelihood of contemporary jewellery actually being worn. Barbara Heath’s jewellery cannot be divorced from the body, or more specifically, the wearer. As Amelia Gundelach points out in her catalogue essay, ‘(Heath’s) primary concern remains the … jewels which carry meaning for people throughout their lives… assist(ing) all manner of clients in a journey to locate jewels that speak to them’.2

Not to say that jewellery escapes all theoretical paradigms; an appeal to semiotics can enhance our understanding of its symbolic value, without besmirching the jewel’s relationship to the wearer. What Roland Barthes might have called the ‘Language of Jewellery’ is at play in Heath’s work. Those plastic signifiers voice memories, emotions, and beliefs shaped by the wearer, nuanced by their presence ‘in situ’, and enter a dialogue with other plastic signifiers in this codified society. In her own words, Heath’s jewels function as ‘aids for the hopelessly inarticulate’,3 assisting the wearer to project, position and define themselves.

In times past, jewellery was explicitly associated with meanings beyond ornament and adornment, meanings which were easily decoded by society. The Victorians attached meanings associated with wealth, status and all of those trappings of success in a pecuniary culture, as well as commemorative, ceremonial and sentimental values. In contemporary cultures far from western art centers, jewellery is loaded with social meanings ranging from status and rank to sexual availability and fertility. Jewellery has long been a site for prayer, for remembrance, for spiritual protection and for magic. For many wearers, Heath’s jewels perform these symbolic functions, over and above personal expression.

One wearer treasures a ring Heath designed in remembrance of a lost child. For her, the jewel commemorates a joyful spirit and a mother’s love, and signals to the world that something has been lost, leaving an indelible mark. For many, Heath’s work heralds unions, celebrates or inspires life, or marks a rite of passage. Heath designed a suite of rings based on the initials of a strong family of women which became symbols of their unity, bond and belonging. For another wearer, Heath designed a fertility charm, an organic form of perforated 18 carat gold, enclosing a free moving baroque freshwater pearl to be worn around the neck, (two daughters attest to its effectiveness). Heath’s design of a ‘love token’ is similarly invested with magical properties. Based on the form of an eyeglass, the design incorporates carnelian, tiger’s eye, bloodstone and smoky quartz, jewels which intensify the user’s gaze to ‘activate the power of the token to captivate and enchant the beloved’.4 The range of designs and their functions, from heartfelt commemoration to this kind of delightful eccentricity, demonstrates the depth of Heath’s talent, and the symbolic function of jewellery in contemporary culture.

Regarding jewellery exhibitions, one critic-who-should-know-better complained that he just cannot stand it when craft aspires to fine art. Neither can I. But not, I suspect, for the same reasons. So much is lost in Barbara Heath’s work if it is considered in the same terms as fine art forms. Much of its meaning stems from its peculiar relationship with the wearer, its discrete history and its unique engagement with society. Jewellery speaks its own language, and for the many admirers of Barbara Heath’s designs, it is a treasured dialogue.

Barbara Heath, Love tokens, 1987-91. Collection the artist. 

Barbara Heath, Brooch, 'babies', 1989. Anodised aluminium, sterling silver and convex mirror, 12.5cm (diam.) x 3.6cm. Purchased 1994 under the Contemporary Art Acquisition Program through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection Queensland Art Gallery.


1. Cited in Steve Fenton, ‘Community and the Art of Craft in America’, 24th Annual Smithsonian Craft Show, April 20 – 23, ex. cat. National Building Museum, Washington DC., 2006, p.4.

2. Amelia Gundelach, ‘Barbara Heath’s Manifesto: The Language of Jewellery’, Barbara Heath Jeweler to the Lost, ex. cat. Queensland Art Gallery, 2005, p.5.

3. Ibid., p.7

4. Ibid., p.10