Susan Cohn on the personal and political power of jewellery


With a practice spanning four decades, Melbourne-based jeweller Susan Cohn makes both highly wearable and deeply political work. Her current project, Meaning(less)ness, responds to 2016 Danish legislation that allowed authorities to seize cash and other valuables from refugees, including jewellery deemed to be ‘meaningless.’ Ahead of the biennial Radiant Pavilion jewellery festival, where she will perform the latest iteration of this project, Tracey Clement spoke to Cohn about the political power of jewellery and what makes it precious.

Tracey Clement: As a jeweller, you are well aware that jewellery is almost never meaningless…

Susan Cohn: Exactly. That’s why I had such a strong reaction to that Danish legislation, I felt the need to find out more about it. And do something; say something.

TC: And in your experience, what sort of meanings do people attach to jewellery?

SC: The full spectrum: intimate, delicate meanings as well as long family history meanings. But there are also little trivial things, like buying something in a market: a memory of where you were at a particular time, or who you were with.

TC: When did you first realise that jewellery was more than just bling? Was there a particular lightbulb moment?

SC: I don’t know if it was a lightbulb moment, but I didn’t just stumble onto jewellery. I talk about this in the performance, my relationship with jewellery began when I was a teenager living on the streets.

I was one of a group of girls; life for us was very dangerous. We were constantly on the lookout and we used jewellery to signal danger. So by shifting a ring from one hand to the other we would be saying ‘We have to get out of here,’ or ‘Be careful of that person.’

And no one else would pick it. So it was our code. It was a survival code. That’s when it began. Although I didn’t realise until much later.

Our rings, even though they weren’t valuable, were really precious to us. It was a symbol of our sense of belonging to each other, to the group, and our jewellery was usually given to you by your closest ally.

TC: This idea of jewellery as a bond between women makes me think of the fact that traditionally, in many cultures, jewellery was the one type of wealth women could lay claim to. Did the fact that seizing jewellery was likely to affect more women than men play a part in your reaction to the Danish legislation?

SC: Jewellery is definitely currency when people are fleeing war and trauma because it’s portable and it is tradable anywhere.

I have a family story that I tell in the performance about when my family had to flee overnight in China and they took all of their furs and jewellery with them, which they then used to set themselves up in a new life. And I think it was more from that point of view, not necessarily the gender specificity.

And a lot of the stories I have gathered about jewellery have been right across the board.

Susan Cohn. Photograph by Dane Lovett.

TC: Last year you performed Meaning(less)ness in Denmark. How did audiences react?

SC: People don’t think of jewellery as being a prism through which to see politics. And I think it just allowed people to talk about something that was very difficult. Because they could apply their own personal history to it. So that was really interesting.

During the Danish performances I made the fourth leaf of a four-leaf clover pin, and after the show I gave one to each person.

I offer that one of the ways that we can rewire our society, think more about the hope of what we might gain instead of the fear of what we might lose, is through gifting.

Because gifting binds us together. And it acknowledges our belonging. So I open that door by giving the first gift.

And I’m already working on my next exhibition which is going to be about the peace gift, an idea which has certainly grown out of the experience of these performances and talking with people about what the whole notion of a peace gift might be.

But I’m not giving gifts in Meaning(less)ness II for Radiant Pavilion. This will be more like a conversation. I look forward to the discussion with jewellers; getting direct responses about the political idea of what jewellery is, or just how you communicate these things.

TC: Your performance for Radiant Pavilion takes place on 11 September. That’s a pretty loaded date…

SC: I chose that date deliberately. There are moments in time in which the world changes. And that day it really changed, for everyone.

Everyone can remember that moment.

And jewellery got involved in some of the stories after 9/11: suddenly a ring that someone was wearing was something given to them by a person that they were no longer going to see. So a whole lot of layers come in from the personal to the public realm.

TC: Your works have responded to current affairs before. Specifically I remember your 2006 Last the Blast pendants, designed to allow victims of fatal bombings to carry messages in bombproof jewellery. How does this process work for you? Do you go looking for ideas or do some issues just seem to demand attention? Do ideas take a while to percolate after reading the headlines, or do you have sudden flashes of inspiration?

SC: It’s a combination of all of the above. That piece came from watching an interview on ABC television with parents who had lost a daughter in the Bali bombings. And they were saying that they didn’t have anything left of their daughter. And it just bubbled up. ‘What if I made something that could send a message back? What if it was a piece of jewellery that someone was wearing?’

So they bubble up, I get stirred by something.

TC: You said before that people don’t think of jewellery as a prism through which to explore politics, but it is actually quite well-suited…

SC: Because it is about people. The wearer is the person that puts the value and meaning into jewellery by storing their own stories.

And those stories are political. It’s the whole gamut of experience and history, not just past histories, jewellery lays future histories as well. People pass something on, or give something, and that becomes a part of someone’s history. And I think the politics lies within that.

TC: The personal is political…

SC: Exactly. Absolutely.

Meaning(less)ness II
Susan Cohn
Limited numbers, bookings essential
4:30pm, 11 September

Radiant Pavilion: Melbourne Contemporary Jewellery and Object Biennial
Various venues
7 September – 15 September

Interview Words by Tracey Clement