Coromandel native Jess Winchombe studied in Wellington prior to moving to Queenstown six years ago with her husband but jewellery has always been in her blood. “I’ve been creating jewellery for a very long time, ever since I was a kid” says Winchcombe. The contemporary jeweller grew up in a creative environment – her parents were potters and Winchcombe was able to dabble in different art forms as a youngster. Winchcombe admits that while she was initially drawn to fashion at art school, it was metalwork that enticed her into jewellery. “Metalsmithing is a pretty amazing thing to do, and the community is incredible too. There’s a huge amazing contemporary jewellery movement happening, it’s quite new for an art form too, so it’s very exciting to be part of this.” We caught up with Winchcombe before she headed off to Milan, to show at the Artistar Jewels exhibition.
What’s the difference between jewellery that is art and the day-to-day jewellery most of us are familiar with?
It is a little bit confusing for people, but I think it’s become more accessible. Basically the difference is, that contemporary pieces have a concept behind them; they’re not as material driven like general jewellery. But then they’re very different to other art forms, painting for example, because they also have to function on the body. They’re small wearable pieces of art. And then the lines get a bit blurred because you can start with a concept and then end up with something quite beautiful which can be confusing but that’s also what we call gateway jewellery – it’s a nice bridge for the general public. The concept driven work can be hard to digest and even hard to wear. So many contemporary jewellers work with more obscure materials than your everyday jewellers do.
Do you draw inspiration from Queenstown?
Probably not so much the environment but being in the environment. I’ve just come back from Wellington. It’s a really quiet, beautiful place to live. There’s time and space to think. In Wellington there’s a show on every night; there’s so much on you don’t need to be making every night. But here there’s not a lot going on in the art scene so you’re really focused. When I come home I work really well. I enjoy it like that.
Can you tell us about the exhibition you’re showing at in Milan?
The exciting thing is that this is the first exhibition that I’ve done where I don’t know anyone in the show. Last year I had a group exhibition in Munich and in that show I met some Italians who asked if I’d be interested in doing a show. And then I got an invite about 5 months later asking me if I wanted to be a part of it. From a contemporary jewellery point of view it’s not very fashionable to link yourself with fashion, but I’ve always been on that boundary: I love fashion shoots, I love combining jewellery with the clothes you wear. Even though it’s a purist jewellery show, the editor in chief Vogue Accessory is on the panel for the judging which is really important for the industry because there are only about 5000 or people so involved.
Can you explain the concept behind some of the pieces you will be showing?
Because I’m showing in such a big audience in Milan I felt I needed to have a big voice and a big concept. The concept of death is something I’ve been exploring. It’s something people don’t like to talk about and I wanted to explore the idea that we pass through life and it’s not a negative thing when we die because we’re shedding our skin like a cicada, moving onto a new existence. Because so many people are obsessed with living longer, I wanted to explore the idea that maybe it’s not a bad thing to leave your old body and go on a new adventure. There’s a big ring: it’s supposed to be uncomfortable to wear because some people find it hard to talk about death, or if they have different religious views it can be quite challenging. The other pieces are lighter in to reflect new birth, they’re new and fresh. It’s very hard to attach concepts to jewellery because they have to be functional too.
Is there a particular type of person that buys your jewellery?
It tends to be people who’ve found their own style – they want something that stands out and is good quality. I do quite a few commissions, I recently did some quite simple wedding rings. The big bold pieces sell the best. They’re people who want to treat themselves to something funky, perhaps they want to stand out at an event. It gives them a license for a character change. People seem to feel a bit larger than life when they wear the pieces.
Jess Winchcombe’s jewellery is available in three galleries: Fingers in Auckland, The National in Christchurch and Quoil in Wellington.