Last year, I had the chance to follow the work of Marine Chabin, then a student at ESCP Paris, on her study on the crisis of know-how in the jewellery sector. If I found her thesis particularly fascinating, it is mainly because she is also a jeweller as she is currently training at the Académie des Métiers d’Art. By coming into contact with jewellers and professionals in the sector, she better understood the problems that many workshops are currently facing in terms of recruitment but also in terms of perpetuating skills and knowledge. I therefore suggested that she think about an article that synthesises her research work, which she brilliantly defended a few weeks ago. I also thought that her reflection was perfectly in line with the theme of the exhibition“Sacrés Outils” that you can still discover during a short week at the gallery La Joaillerie par Mazlo in the 6th arrondissement of Paris and which evokes the importance of the tool and its mastery in the valorisation of manual professions. Enjoy reading!
The crisis of jewellery know-how
By Marine Chabin
1- Expertise as a support and source of creation
The development of digital technology and new materials has opened up a whole new field for creation and design. All artistic fields have seized upon these new trends, whether it be painting, sculpture, music, architecture, textiles… or even jewellery, as this exhibition shows.
At the origin of the creation of designer jewellery lies a universal foundation: the know-how of the craftsman / artist. It is based on techniques learned over time and experience. In jewellery, these skills have many faces: sculpture, setting, engraving, enamelling, polishing, etc. The magic happens when these technical skills are used in the service of creation and are mixed with new and contemporary materials or techniques. In this way, a subtle blend of tradition and modernity gives rise to artistic creation.
Know-how is not only a vector of creation, it is also its source. This complementarity between tradition (techniques) and modernity (materials) allows the full expression of creativity and contemporary design.
2-Jewellery-making skills in danger of disappearing
However, certain French jewellery skills (such as engraving, lapidary, glyptic, polishing and enamelling) are going through an unprecedented crisis: they are disappearing. The once family tradition is now increasingly rare and some craftsmen are struggling to find a successor on the eve of their retirement. Workshops are closing and there are not enough new recruits or qualified workers to take over. There are several reasons for the decline of these skills:
A) Historical & economic reasons:
a-The democratisation of jewellery:
Over the last 50 years, the jewellery sector has expanded radically in terms of demand, supply, sales and exports. More and more people want (and can afford) luxury jewellery. This means that “beautiful” pieces are becoming available to a wider range of people, diluting the number of connoisseurs who appreciate the quality of the workmanship of the pieces. Today, some wealthy customers are willing to spend a great deal of money to own jewellery from certain jewellery houses simply for the pleasure of wearing designer items. Combined with the fact that these same houses want to maximise their margins, there is a general decline in terms of quality requirements for the manufacture of jewellery pieces. If customers are happy with a minimal finish, why spend more money on “over-quality” that will not be noticed by the customer?
Furthermore, by increasing their customer base, jewellery brands increase their profits. Thus, they strive to expand their customer base to a wider audience by offering products at more affordable prices (and with higher margins).
By lowering their quality requirements, the houses have no longer called on certain skills which, due to a lack of orders, have begun to disappear in France.
Industrial innovations have gone hand in hand with the increase in demand. These technological innovations (such as 3D) are intended to save time and money for the workshops. These gains have sometimes been made at the expense of the know-how of certain craftsmen. For example, hand engraving has often been replaced by machine engraving, which can cost up to half as much as traditional engraving.
Today, the globalised economy has allowed the relocation of the production of certain parts or know-how to Italy or China. This decision to relocate production has been taken by luxury brands to reduce costs and maximise margins. Another decisive factor was the reduction of customs duties, which allowed exports and imports to grow. Even if the quality of the jewellery pieces has been impacted by this relocation, the gains in terms of costs have supplanted the search for quality. Luxury brands gradually turned away from certain workshops that were considered too expensive or put pressure on them in terms of costs, leading to their closure.
B) Social reasons
In addition to historical and economic reasons, it is also the case that certain trades are not very well known or socially recognised in France. For decades, the French education system has contributed to glorifying so-called “intellectual” training to the detriment of “manual” training, reserving it only for certain young people considered to be in academic difficulty. Parents themselves have tended to push their children towards higher education, which is sometimes not adapted to the young person’s desires and abilities.
Even if a young person has been tempted by a manual trade in France, these remain very unknown and obscure to the general public. This lack of knowledge has largely contributed to the disappearance of certain trades that used to be passed down from generation to generation.
a-The difficulty of the trade is not well anticipated
Every year, young people nevertheless head for jewellery training courses, some of them full of hope at the idea of becoming jewellers. However, it is a path strewn with pitfalls that awaits them, with training that is often insufficient to work effectively in the workshop, unpleasant tasks at the beginning, and a standardised production line that is very oriented towards output and efficiency. So much so that many will not stay and will later change direction, disappointed by a profession they imagined to be different.
Those who stay and wish to become self-employed are confronted with an economic and administrative reality that is so difficult that many give up, even if they could have the opportunity to take over an existing business.
Thus, on the one hand, these professions suffer from a bad image and, on the other hand, they have difficulty in retaining talent because of their manual and economic difficulties, thus breaking the chain of transmission.
3-All is not lost
This is where exhibitions such as “Sacrés Outils” take on their full importance. The key to safeguarding these crafts is collective awareness coupled with an artistic will.
By highlighting traditional skills in contemporary creations, we “dust off” the little-known image of certain trades. They express their full potential when used in conjunction with new techniques and technologies, in an innovative artistic approach.
This is the kind of vision that this exhibition brings to us. It is in this way, by placing the jewellery of the author and design at the centre of creation, that we can open the public’s eyes to the multitude of skills that lie behind. Perhaps even awaken a vocation?
See you soon