Meet the Maker
Interview by Tom Bowtell, 2013
"Ute Decker’s arrestingly beautiful creations – wearable sculptures to adorn the hand, arm or neck – caused a considerable stir when they erupted onto the jewellery scene in 2009, instantly establishing her as one of the UK’s most exciting new studio-jewellers.
Aptly described as ‘architectural jewellery’, the sweeping scale and ambition of her pieces, married to their minimalist design and unfettered originality, have since earned Ute recognition from prestigious galleries, acclaim from the international press and collectors as well as a coveted place at Goldsmiths’ Fair. Tom Bowtell visited Ute at her Islington home to learn about her unusual route into jewellery, her commitment to using and promoting ethically-sourced materials, and to discover the meaning of the word ‘terroir’."
With her geometric bob, striking attire and not inconsiderable height, Ute cuts a figure every bit as imposing as her work. Fortunately, any slight intimidation I might feel upon meeting her is allayed the instant she speaks about her work: impressively composed and erudite, she is also warm and whimsical, heating her hands on her coffee cup as she gives me a whistle-stop summary of her life story. And quite a story it is – encompassing several European nations, an intriguing array of careers, and a considerable splash of serendipity:
“I was born in a tiny little village near to Heidelberg in Germany, it was very rural - idyllic. My parents were winemakers – winemaking has been my family business going back to the 16th Century. My family grew and cultivated wine on the hills I played on as a child, and soon I was asked to help bring in the grapes. Initially we even did some grape crushing before things became a little more mechanised! Winemaking is a craft going back centuries and I grew up in that tradition, and in the tradition of stewardship of the land: looking after your resources, using the land sustainably so it keeps giving you the best it has to offer for centuries.”
Having decided to eschew a career as a vintner in the family business (although the lessons of sustainable land stewardship were to stay with her for life), Ute had an adventurous time in her teens and twenties; living in London and Paris and travelling widely before deciding that she had “better go to university, because I’d been having far too much fun…” After studying Political Economics at Hamburg University, Ute dabbled with a career in journalism; writing, creating TV documentaries and even working in the press room at a UN climate conference, before making another return to London: “Again, I only meant to stay for a little while – but 20 years later I’m still here!”
Astute readers will note that up to this point, no mention has been made of Ute doing anything involving jewellery, and it is true that her formative years contain few inklings of the artist she was to become. Settled (unexpectedly) in London she finally made her first forays into jewellery-making in her early 30s:
“I love serene minimalist jewellery, and while there is a lot of beautiful jewellery out there, it wasn’t quite me, and being the kind of person I am I thought: ‘I’ll learn how to do it myself!’ And that’s how I started, only making jewellery for myself. Once a year I went to an evening class, had everything prepared as much I could, and I used the equipment to make my annual piece of jewellery.”
Despite entreaties from friends to ‘do something’ with her jewellery, Ute made it clear that there was no way she was “going to become a starving artist” and continued to make her ‘annual piece of jewellery’ for the best part of a decade. During this period she honed her individual style, creating minimalist statement pieces informed and inspired by the ancient Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi. Eventually, in what she calls “a total serendipity” she accepted an invitation to take part in a small group exhibition as part of London Jewellery Week 2009:
“I thought, ‘why not?’ - it’ll be interesting. And then I actually sold quite a few pieces, including some to collectors, I won a prize and then I thought ‘oh, this is interesting’ so I signed up for another exhibition and started to make some more pieces… It was totally unplanned, I was simply intrigued by the reaction my work received, I had no expectations.”
Bearing in mind her expressed intention not to become a starving artist, the fact that Ute had a modicum of financial security from her other careers (at this time she was running a legal translation agency working with international law firms), meant that she could dip her toe into the world of jewellery-making without risking everything:
“I think that gave me a great sense of freedom. I didn’t come out of university having studied jewellery with a need to make money from my creative practice. I had some savings, didn’t have to make any concessions to commercial concerns, so I just created pieces which I enjoyed. This meant that I could stay authentic and make experimental, large sculptural pieces. I could take risks with my work, which I think made it better.”
Ute also points out that just three years into her career, she is now a professional studio-jeweller who is making a living from this unfettered, non-commercial approach. She only makes one-off pieces, or small series of work, using a “serendipitous, experimental process” which allows her pieces the space to evolve as they are created.
Ute’s transformation into a full time artist (“actually, I’m a triple-time artist now!”) did not happen overnight. While the response to her initial exhibitions was extremely encouraging, there was one element which still held her back from committing fully to a career in jewellery – the ethics of the precious metal trade:
“When I was making jewellery as a hobby I just bought my silver. But when I started to sell my work – becoming professional – I thought, ‘OK, I haven’t a clue about the metier I am about to make my own, so I’d better read up on everything: techniques, history – anything’ and it was during that reading that I discovered very few mentions of ethical issues. So I searched more, and there was this ‘a-ha’ moment as I discovered the human rights and environmental nightmares connected with the mining of precious metals, such as warlords in the Congo financing their militias through mining and smuggling.”
Having discovered these ethical concerns, Ute was faced with a dilemma:
“My initial thought was that if I couldn’t find an alternative, there was no way I could support the status quo. I would not have continued making jewellery: jewellery is discretionary. I didn’t need it, and I could not live with having a piece of gold on my arm if I wasn’t certain that it hadn’t been used to fund militias in the Congo or the like. I couldn’t do it.”
It was now that Ute’s journalistic background came in handy as she threw herself into researching the ethics surrounding the sourcing of precious metals as she sought other options:
“I tried to read more about ethical jewellery to discover whether there are alternatives, but even though it’s only three years ago (2009) – and I really did do proper journalist research – it was surprisingly difficult. I asked everybody I met in the jewellery world, ‘do you know of how to find recycled or sustainably mined metal?’ and nobody did until finally a journalist pointed me towards Cred – the pioneering ethical jewellery company – and Greg Valerio, the person we have to thank for Fairtrade and Fairmined gold.”
While the alternatives Ute discovered through Cred gave her peace of mind to continue her jewellery making, they are not, as she puts it “the panacea which solves everything”. Recycled silver is affordable, and ensures that no new silver is mined, but it does little to alleviate the issues on the ground. Fairtrade and Fairmined Ecological gold, which Ute sources from the “wonderful” Oro Verde (Green Gold) cooperative in Columbia, offers a more complete solution:
“They’re using land where mechanised mining has destroyed thousands and thousands and thousands of hectares of rainforest, and they are now reforesting the area and carrying out small scale artisan mining. It’s the gold that has been washed down from the Andes which they are now hand-panning from the river, so they can collect the gold without using chemicals. The co-operative supports the local communities, and the individuals don’t have to sell the gold to middle-man after middle-man, meaning that they actually receive a fair wage. This is close to my heart: and it echoes the stewardship of the land I learned to appreciate in my childhood.”
In addition to the ethical benefits of using Fairtrade gold, Ute feels that using Oro Verde gold lends a deeper authenticity to her jewellery:
“There is a sense, terroir – which is an important term in winemaking, reflecting how you can taste the hill, taste the earth through the wine – and here I have met one of the miners from Oro Verde when he came to London, and we shook hands, and that’s something precious: his hands that dug out the gold from the earth and my hands which turned ‘his’ gold into a ring or a cuff. For him it was special to see the final piece made from ‘his’ gold, and for me it was special to meet the person who’s hard labour brought the gold from the ground. That’s a total rarity today: what object do you have where you know the complete provenance of the material from the terroir of the material to the final maker?”
Ute makes no effort to hide her passion for Fairtrade gold, and my brief further research has confirmed that Oro Verde is indeed a marvellous venture, but there is one drawback: the price. Ute confirms that gold from Oro Verde comes at a 15% premium and acknowledges that in these still-trying economic times, metal prices remain a constant challenge for jewellers and silversmiths. Yet, despite a higher price she and her clients appreciate the story and values a piece of Fairtrade gold jewellery embodies.
Throughout our conversation, Ute is keen to stress that she does not use Fairtrade and Fairmined gold to be holier-than-thou, or morally superior but because she, ‘could not fathom doing it any other way – these are my personal values’.
Ute also recognises that exemplary co-operatives such as Oro Verde will not be able to supply all the world’s gold needs. Yet, as small scale miners are the majority workforce in mining, Fairtrade practices can lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty and minimize environmental degradation from mercury poisoning and cyanide leaks to deforestation. She is equally passionate about improvements which can be made to make larger mines adopt safer and greener practices.
While she acknowledges that these are still very much the early days of the process of realigning the status quo, Ute has seen considerable change in a short space of time:
“We started with 20 UK licensed jewellers for Fairtrade gold in 2011, and now we’re 50 and, slowly, there are changes happening with EU and US legislation about the use of conflict minerals. But there is still a lot of work to do, and we jewellers – small or large – together with consumers, have the power to drive these changes: the developments of the last few years are testimony to this power.”
Having had to search so hard for information when she was starting out, Ute has ensured that others’ search is rather easier by using her own website, and Facebook as a bible of contacts for jewellers wanting to ethically source their materials. She also regularly lectures at universities and art schools, addressing young designer makers upon how they can affordably adopt ethical practices, and it is here that she finds most encouragement:
“Compared to three years ago, when I struggled to find details, everyone is now talking about the ethical issues. I don’t think the argument needs to be made anymore, when I give ethical seminars I don’t need to mention the specific issues, and now that people are informed, there is a real thirst for knowledge about ethical jewellery practices, especially among the younger generation, and it’s growing. We’re still only making a tiny little difference, and there’s a real risk from greenwashing, but I’m thrilled that there’s a lot happening, and that we’re moving in the right direction.”
originally published in 2013 in
Ethical Geometry –
into the World
of Ute Decker
Editor of Adorn London, Juliet Hutton-Squire talks to ethical jeweller, Ute Decker, in an insightful interview about the inspirations behind her sculptural collections, her passion for ethical jewels and more.
Ute Decker is a leading proponent of ethical jewellery renowned for her wearable sculptures in recycled silver and bio-resin. In 2010, within one year of setting up her own studio, she has been voted ‘trendsetter’ and one of ‘Britain’s most inspirational jewellery designers’. Ute Decker is also one of the first jewellers worldwide to create a collection in Fairtrade and Fairmined gold.
Described by the Financial Times as ‘the architectural jeweller’, Ute combines organic, angular and clean minimalist dynamic forms with exquisite surface textures creating striking jewellery art as individual and limited edition pieces imbued with a refined timeless elegance. It was clear to me, that, with the emergence of a ‘new geometry’, I wanted to find out more about what inspires the artist within to create pieces that communicate beyond the context of the wearer. I am delighted to introduce Ute Decker, a fellow ambassador with me for London Jewellery Week.
Your pieces communicate with the space they occupy and are more than just body adornments, what is the inspiration behind this dialogue?
The Greek word for `form` is IDEA. `Forma` in Latin (from which we derive the term `form` in English), translates directly as `Idea` in Greek.
For me, creating a from, be it in jewellery or any other medium, is a very personal abstract expression of my ideas, aesthetic sensitivity as well as values.
Consequently, it is important to me that the beauty of my pieces is not only on the outside but is an integral part; from the mindful choice of the materials’ provenance through to the careful hand-crafting of each individual piece in my studio.
Beauty as a material version of ‘goodness’ can remind us about the qualities to which it alludes, such as love, trust, intelligence, creativity, kindness, justice and courage. By having such works around us, we can be subtly reminded of the constituents of virtue.
This is particularly true for jewellery, which we wear directly on our body.
By working ethically as a jeweller I strive to acknowledge this complex relationship between beauty and ethics, between outer beauty and inner beauty.
While I like to create one-off and small-series pieces that would be just as suitable to be displayed on a plinth; it is in the context created by the interaction with the human body that these wearable sculpture invite a broader dialogue.
Just as the silence between notes in music is vital, in my minimalist sculptures I strive to create a harmony between the solid form, minimalist lines and the empty space within and around them to magnify the intensity of expression.
I would like each pieces of my jewellery to give the wearer sensory pleasure through its external beauty, a sense of contentment and certain shared values through the knowledge of its inner beauty, as well as invite dialogue and encourage communication through the expressivity of its form.
Your jewellery has a strong reference to architectural elements, has this always been a fascination?
Recognising that we are as much sensory as cognitive, rational creatures the relation of ethics and aesthetics in artifacts, the built environment and the goods we produce has interested me for a long time - you might call it the question of social beauty.
For an exhibition during the London Festival of Architecture in 2010 I was inspired to create a series of pieces that were not so much literal re-interpretations of actual buildings but rather major pieces of “jewellery that can be inhabited” , influenced by architectural forms.
By showcasing jewellery created in a sustainable manner in the context of the Architecture Festival, my aim was to invite the viewer to consider the environmental and social impact of jewellery; a debate by now mainstream in architecture and urban planning, yet relatively new to jewellery in the public’s perception.
There is a trend that speaks of a new geometry, how would you describe this aesthetic?
The harmonious relation between solid minimalist shapes and clean angular lines, whether as an expression of auspicious proportions or for their expressiveness has been a recurrent theme since the Egyptians build their pyramids according to the golden mean ratio.
You are an advocate for ethical jewellery and campaign for ‘good practice’, what have been your greatest challenges?
The promotion of a more ethical approach to jewellery has come a long way. We have achieved a significant milestone with the launch of the world’s first certified Fairtrade and Fairmined gold in February 2011 (and I am very excited to be among the first jewellers to work with this ethically mined gold.)
Jewellery departments in many universities now plan t offer courses on ethical jewellery and are building up information resources for their students: the next generation of jewellery makers.
There are still many challenges ahead in particular when it comes to gemstones, eliminating child labour and other exploitative practices during cutting and polishing, as well as their sourcing - not just from the Congo, Burma and Zimbabwe.
Fairtrade and Fairmined gold is already oversubscribed – clearly there is not only a developmental need for a more equitable and sustainable approach to jewellery, there is also a solid and growing consumer demand.
This is also reflected during London Jewellery Week where a key feature this summer will be ESSENCE – the Ethical Jewellery Pavilion. Located within Treasure, the cornerstone selling exhibition of LJW, Essence will showcase leading ethical jewellery designers who share the vision that sustainable jewellery does not have to sacrifice design or quality and are committed to sourcing our materials and managing our business in a way that is socially, environmentally and culturally responsible.
I look forward to presenting new sculptural work in recycled silver alongside my Pure collection in Fairtrade gold at Essence this June.
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Spring 2011 extract from an interview published in Adorn London –