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Maker of the month: John Moore and his transcendental jewellery

Brighton-based John Moore is a jeweller of a very different ilk

Both praised and lambasted for shunning labels, John’s unique and multi-award-winning work is about movement, nature and authenticity.

Wearable objects are his ‘thing’. From his foundation year at Warwickshire College where he made “garments out of transparent plastic with big bubbles of liquid and tubes that appeared to go into your neck, and big bondage inspired arm pieces with metal rods and tufts of red feathers” (sign us up), to his recent collaboration with choreographer Jenna Lee, “each piece is like a branch of a tree of ideas, and a different expression that comes from the same network of roots.” Having just received the coveted Goldsmiths Company Award (AKA ‘the jewellery Oscar’) for the second time, he is officially getting the recognition he deserves….

John's Goldsmith Company Award 2019 winning Lacewing Verto Necklace. Photographer: Chris Bulezuik

Music, making, movement and nature have all been important to John since a very young age. Born into a strikingly creative family (John’s mother is a jewellery-maker, his father a painter and his brother a dancer), he quickly became absorbed in the rhythm of life. He took part in drama and dancing, and eagerly observed structures in nature: “I had a fish tank and pond and was always looking at the insects and fish and observing their movement.” These reflections found their way into projects, and whether he was making paper birds, kites, masks or less kid-conventional automata sculptures, “there was always an element of bringing an object to life through interaction with it”. The dual aspects of nature and movement have since permeated John’s work, his jewellery becoming an extension of human expression.

  

John aged two with his Nanna

When it comes to designing, it all “starts with the figure, then negative space. An earring has air all around it, whereas a necklace is sitting against a chest – there are different ways to exploit those areas of the body to maximum effect.” After that, “the movement gives life to something.” In keeping with his connection to nature, John sees each piece as work in progress: “it’s like survival of the fittest – if you hit on something good it can take you on a new direction or avenue… I see it like your planting seeds for the future.”

Whilst at university, makers Jane Adam and Gunilla Treen introduced John to aluminium. Not only was the cheap metal student-loan friendly and wearable, it was also receptive to dyeing and experimentation. Most importantly, it did not plunder the natural world he’d sought so much inspiration from. “I remember playing about in my kitchen in my shared house with pots and pans on the stove heating up fabric dye and chucking in different things from the kitchen cupboards – it was like George’s Marvellous Medicine!” These early experimentations shaped his practice and his commitment to producing work that “makes the wearer feel good… celebrating the human form and expressing feeling. That’s why colour is so important.”

The Verto Necklace. Photographer: Pia Schweisser

The big, dramatic, colourful pieces John makes today have long been in his consciousness – some for decades – but financial stability hasn’t always been easy to navigate. “You water things down to make cheaply and sell – and in doing so become unhappy and bored. You become a slave to a group of work and it becomes hard to break away from that.” Thankfully, a commission for a large, colourful piece from collector Tuan Lee in 2010 provided the “eureka moment” he needed; “I felt so liberated; it was like she’d given me permission to do that…. From then it was a process of trying to shift the balance from making bits and bobs for £50 to taking more creative risks and making larger pieces – there are fewer people out there who want to buy it, but it takes on a life of its own.”

This more structural, concept-led work has frequently been described as blurring the boundaries between art, craft, fashion and design – and while John is the first to agree, others have been less forgiving. After winning the Eunique Worlds Crafts Council award at the Eunique fair in Karlsruhe, Germany, John was told they’d received complaints that he “wasn’t an artist or craftsperson, but a designer”. The WCC stood by their decision and having spent “a disproportionate amount of time worrying ‘am I a designer, am I a craftsperson, am I an artist?’” those labels became less important to John. “There is a magical energy transferred by human hands that a machine cannot replicate, but why hand-cut a hundred, uniform discs when I can make a tool and do it in a fraction of the time? Craft begins at conception then I do what’s necessary to achieve the vision.”

 

Winged Tiara. Sterling silver, 23.5 ct gold & stainless steel, commissioned by Robert Hiller for the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Photographer: John Moore

For him, it all boils down to authenticity – “it’s just about being yourself and listening to that voice telling you to do something, even if it’s going against the grain… the more I do that the more recognition I’m getting. You’re happier as the artist because you know it’s coming from the right place and you’re making what you love, and energetically it comes across to people. I tried for a long time to push myself down a route that wasn’t right, and it wasn’t working. I think it’s about realizing that you don’t need to please everybody, it’s much better to please a few people but for that resonance to be really strong.”

And oh, how it paid off…. This new lease of life led to a remarkable collaboration with choreographer Jenna Lee, dancer Nancy Osbaldeston, filmmaker Josh Cowdry and band GAPS. What started as a red-wine-plan that could have easily joined the zombie army of ideas born from the good stuff became the music video for GAPS’ ‘A World Away’. Lauren Lavern later included it in her top 60 Singles of 2016….  “There was no money to be made from it but it’s important to put your head with someone else’s from a completely different world and see what happens. Confidence is a big part of it and knowing that your contribution is as valid as theirs.” John is now collaborating with a physicist to create a visual representation of a technological venture, and working with a choir to create objects for live performance that manifest their sound.

Where from here? A few of John’s larger pieces have drawn on the “transportive effect that music like Papua New Guinea by Future Sound of London has” on him, but none quite enough. The goal is “to make objects that move people emotionally, in the way music can”. 

Advice for jewellers starting out? “People are very forthcoming about giving you advice as a graduate about the best way to do things – it’s not necessarily right. You can only be yourself because everyone else is taken, and in the words of Dolly Parton, ‘find out who you are and do it on purpose.’”

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