Rethinking Value: How Much? Reimagines Contemporary Jewelry Using Unexpected Materials

Can a functional object be art?
Does a commodity’s value change if you call it ‘art’?
Is creativity a commodity?

How Much?, on view last week at Lower East Side gallery Chinatown Soup, was conceived as a inquiry into the value we place on objects, materials, labor and implied status using jewelry as its departure point. Curated by NEW INC Project Manager Alex Darby, joined by members HE+HU and Miriam Simun, the show ventured to reassess value by using unexpected materials and forgoing limitations associated with traditional jewelry-making practices.

NEW INC Project Manager and curator Alex Darby and her sugar-crafted skulls.

NEW INC Project Manager and curator Alex Darby and her sugar-crafted skulls.

An artist and jeweler, Alex Darby created four works for the show. Her pieces are designed to disrupt people’s ingrained perceptions of the value of jewelry, often heavily based on complex technical processes and the financial value of materials utilized. In the artist’s own words, her works serve as a “material critique.”

In one of her exhibits, 45 one-inch tall skulls are lined up in rows and rendered with a glittering metallic finish. But beneath the façade, they are in fact crafted from sugar. And embedded into each skull, there are nine tiny and very real single-point diamonds. With this juxtaposition of materials, Darby forces viewers to conceive of the 'true' value of a piece composed simultaneously of a mass-produced, inexpensive product, and a high-priced, limited-quantity luxury material. She explains:

"What I am trying to get people think [about] is the preciousness of ownership of a piece of jewelry. For example, you may value a necklace you mother gave you or even a crappy ring you got out of a vending machine when you were a little kid. If you treat it by valuing it as an object intrinsically special rather than something that is special based on its materials, then you will expand your mind to understand jewelry in a much broader context."

HE+HU and their  Yum! Yum!  Series.

HE+HU and their Yum! Yum! Series.

For HE+HU, traditional jewelry has served as an accessory to the human body, epitomizing what is extrinsic to an individual—things like wealth and social status. But unlike its traditional counterpart, contemporary jewelry has the power to look into the intrinsic value of an object and its relationship to the user, both physical and emotional. In this sense, HE+HU think that a contemporary jewelry piece can take on any form.

Their contribution to this exhibition is Yum! Yum!, a contemporary jewelry series adopting the imagery of food, such as chicken, bananas, eggs, watermelons, and steamed buns. In this duo’s world, while jewelry addresses the human body from the outside, food “approaches people from within”—both our preferences for certain types of food and our eating behaviors indicate the culture in which we are raised. As He says, “jewelry and food are two different aspects of showing who we are, and it was this notion that helped us make this connection [between food and jewels] that challenges the traditional production of jewelry.”

In this case, viewers are invited to put on the duo’s ‘delicious’ pieces and play with them. The inspiration for the series stems from a long-lasting custom in the northern parts of China, where parents surround a newborn with necklace-shaped steamed buns that carry good wishes. The jewelry HE+HU has made represents not only this aesthetic resemblance to a Chinese cultural practice, but also its ability to measure the dimension of an individual’s life, both physical and spiritual.

A piece in Mirum Simun’s collection uses a hare’s ear.

A piece in Mirum Simun’s collection uses a hare’s ear.

Miriam Simun, just beginning to investigate the form of jewelry, has created a series of pieces entitled organophilias and organophobias. The work adopts human and animal body parts—human hair, a deer’s hoof, a hare’s ear, and a duck’s wing, all of which are hunted by the artist herself.

Simun’s approach to jewelry making draws upon her long use of hunting as an artistic medium. In one of her previous video pieces, I Did Not Have to Kill in Order to Survive (which is part of her art project, Survival Trilogy, which explores life and death in the technosphere), Simun registered individualism in the deserts of the American Southwest: hunting, butchering and eating one animal at a time with only a truck, a rifle and a knife.

In the project, Simun explores the suppressed instinct of human nature to express dominance and violence: “It took two months for me to finally catch and kill her (the hare). To say desire for death didn't enter the equation at some point along that road is to lie [...] Your predator instinct comes out, I'm told.” Simun was deeply affected by how quickly life turned into just another material in her hands, which she expresses through the surreal ‘trophies’ she has contributed to this show.

Gallery view of How Much? at Chinatown Soup.

Gallery view of How Much? at Chinatown Soup.

How Much? is the first in a proposed series of curatorial projects conceived by Darby to investigate the  perception of value and its relationship to craft practice. In the future, she is planning to expand on the ideas and themes presented in this show to include other genres of craft works. Accompanying the curatorial series, an interactive catalog has been made available online, inviting people to post and answer questions pertinent to the relationship between art and commodity.

Want to be part of the discussion? Join the curator and artists at to put down your thoughts of the show’s inquiries.

*images were shot by Alex and Maya Darby, camera courtesy of Canon