Episode 143 Part 1: The Theory of Jewelry: Why Do We Love to Wear It, and What Does It Mean?

Episode 143

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • How we can examine almost any political topic through the lens of jewelry 
  • Why it’s important that jewelry be embraced by academia, and how every jewelry enthusiast can help make that happen (even if they’re not in academia themselves)
  • Why a piece of jewelry isn’t finished when it leaves the hands of its maker
  • How matt works with collaborators for their column, “Settings and Findings,” in Lost in Jewelry Magazine
  • How jewelry has tied people together throughout time and space

About matt lambert

matt lambert is a non-binary, trans, multidisciplinary collaborator and co-conspirator working towards equity, inclusion, and reparation. They are a founder and facilitator of The Fulcrum Project and currently are a PhD student between Konstfack and University of Gothenburg in Sweden. They hold a MA in Critical Craft Studies from Warren Wilson College and an MFA in Metalsmithing from Cranbrook Academy of Art. 

lambert currently is based in Stockholm Sweden and was born in Detroit MI, US where they still maintain a studio. They have exhibited work nationally and internationally including at: Turner Contemporary, Margate, Uk, ArkDes, and Sven-Harrys Konstmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden, Museo de la Ciudad, Valencia , Spain and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN, US. Lambert represented the U.S in Triple Parade at HOW Museum, Shanghai, China, represented the best of craft in Norway during Salon del Mobile, Milan, Italy and was the invited feature at the Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece during Athens Jewelry Week. Lambert has actively contributed writing to Art Jewelry Forum, Garland, Metalsmith Magazine, Klimt02, Norwegian Craft and the Athens Jewelry Week catalogues and maintains a running column titled “Settings and Findings” in Lost in Jewelry Magazine.

Additional Resources:




Made in collaboration with Maret Anna Sara

Image credit: Talya Kantro


Pile Power is a new, elaborative section of Máret Ánne Saras bigger body of work: Pile O ?Sápmi. The project has developed into a multi prong exploration using the remaining material from Sara´s Pile O’ Sápmi as shown in Documenta 14. Sara invited matt lambert to enter a dialogue with the intent for finding methods to use all available material that was remaining from earlier pieces. Matt Lambert is recognized through international exhibitions in platforms such as craft, jewelery, performance, design, sculpture and fashion, and has been listed on the top 100 designers for jewelry and accessories by the Global Jewelry and Accessories Council as well as receiving the Next Generation Award from Surface Design Association.  Sara invited Lambert to collaborate using the materials remaining from the Pile O´ Sápmi project after finding a connection through a conviction for socio-cultural sustainability as well as minority comradery between indigeneity and queerness. The Pile Power collaboration is producing larger performative objects using the remaining jaws of the reindeer skulls used in Saras earlier work, as well as more wearable works from the remaining reindeer-porcelain skulls that Sara commissioned to her Pile O’ Sápmi Powernecklace shown at Documenta 14. Both of these veins of working promote the conversation around sustainable practices of indigenous  peoples. In Pile Power, body and material form a new basis for approach for themes addressed in the Pile O ?Sápmi project. Based on creative dialogue, a thematic jewelry collection will nomadically carry a new segment of an urgent discourse through bodies and humans.

the integumentary system as dialogical fashion

installed at  IASPIS Stockholm Sweden 2017

8 x 5.5 x 3 feet

Comprised of 15 wearable objects 

temporal drag only accepting gaudy currency, saving for kitsch omega and sugar free nirvana

installed at  IASPIS Stockholm Sweden 2017

10 x 5.5 x 2.5 feet

Comprised of 55 wearable objects 

Tools of Ignorance

As installed at Pried 

The Society of Arts + Crafts

Boston MA USA, 2019


matt lambert doesn’t just want us to wear jewelry—they want us to question it. As a maker, writer, and Ph.D. student, matt spends much of their time thinking about why we wear jewelry, who makes it, and what happens to jewelry as it’s passed from person to person. They joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about the inspirations behind their work, why jewelry carries layers of meaning, and why wearing jewelry (or not wearing it) is always a political act. Read the episode transcript here. 

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is a two-part Jewelry Journey Podcast. Please make sure you subscribe so you can hear part two as soon as it comes out later this week. Today, my guest is matt Lambert, who is joining us from Stockholm. matt is a maker, writer and performer currently pursuing a Ph.D. 

matt’s jewelry journey has taken them from country to country. What sticks in my mind is one of my first encounters with them on an Art Jewelry Forum trip. I saw them in a hotel lobby in Sweden wearing one of their iconic creations, a laser-cut leather neckpiece I flipped over. We’ll hear all about their amazing jewelry journey today. Matt, thanks so much for being here.

matt: Thanks so much for having me, Sharon. It’s a pleasure.

Sharon: Your jewelry journey has taken you all over the world. I’m always amazed when I hear how you hop from country to country. So, tell us about it. How did you get into it?

matt: Originally I was trained as a psychologist.

Sharon: Wow!

matt: It’s kind of strange, but it makes perfect sense for what I do now in human sexuality and gender. I was researching body politics and what it means to be a person and be represented through media or in other cultures. I started off in that community, and I took a metalsmithing course on a whim. There was a woman in one of my classes who was taking it as her art elective. I thought we were going to be making something completely different by forging silver. I was like, “Wait, what? You can do that?” I really fell into it.

I was a researcher for the APA doing government research—

Sharon: APA being the American Psychological—

matt: The American Psychological Association. After community college, I went on to Wayne State and studied under F.M. Larson for metalsmithing. At the very end, Lauren Kalman joined. She is tenured and was well-known at Wayne State University in Detroit. 

The work I was doing was very rigorous. I worked in a rape and trauma research lab with no windows in a basement, and I wasn’t finding a way to talk about people and bodies and those things in the ways I had hoped. It was fulfilling me, but not in every aspect of my life.  So, I kept pouring myself into this strange thing of contemporary jewelry. 

I never thought I would go to grad school. I wound up going to Cranbrook Academy of Art, which is just 40 minutes down the road from Wayne State. Even then, I thought I was going to go across the country for art school. I fell in love with the program at Cranbrook. Iris Eichenberg, who teaches there, told me, “You have to fail really bad in order to learn what’s good and what’s good for your practice.” It was so liberating that I could apply all the research I learned and used and still use it today, but to put it and manifest it in jewelry. That opened Pandora’s box. 

Sharon: How did you decide to go from studying psychology and being at Wayne State to go to such a renowned art school that you don’t know? It’s for art jewelers, basically.

matt: Yeah, it’s renowned. I think it shares the number one space for metalsmithing and jewelry, and it’s renowned also for hollowware and gate making. It has a long history of Americana metalsmithing. With Iris being there for contemporary jewelry, it sounds a little bit pretentious. 

The relationship I was in wanted me to stay local. It was like, “You should apply.” I really thought through everything weird and wonderful that I wanted to be doing, and I was like, “If I’m going to stay, then you have to take this all on.” Iris was like, “O.K., let’s do it.” Even if didn’t work out, it was like, “I can just go back to psychology if this doesn’t work.”

Cranbrook has an international reputation which also meant traveling a lot. In between semesters, I was the assistant for Christoph Zellweger, who’s based out of Zurich, Switzerland. I don’t know if they’re still there now, but at the time, I was their assistant in Switzerland during my years there. My partner was Monica Gaspar, so I got a theorist who I also got to work with. Then I kind of traveled everywhere. Before I started at Cranbrook, the first time I was in Europe, we had to go to KORU7, which is the jewelry triennial in Finland. They also do seminars. So, for me, it became a very global, European to North American perspective.

Sharon: I’m always amazed at your country hopping. Was this something you were considered a natural at? Were you finger painting at age five and your parents were saying, “Oh, they’re going to be an artist”?

matt: I do have a background in wildlife illustration. I was homeschooled until sixth grade, but I was put in a lot of enrichment programs, so I did have ceramics; I had languages; I had all sorts of courses and electives. Growing up I trained in something called monart, which is not taught in public school; it’s only for private training. It’s a way of drawing where you draw from negative space, which I think contributes to my work, as I think through negative space. I was doing a lot of wildlife illustrations. I have quite a few childhood publications, like realistic waterfowl and birds of prey. I dabbled a little bit with Sidney Shelby. The Shelby has an art program for auto illustration, too.

So, there is some of that. I thought I was going to go into drawing and painting before I went into psychology, but I had an evaluation at community college when I started and they kind of broke my dreams. They said I was terrible and said, “You shouldn’t be an artist.” I would always say, “If you’re told you shouldn’t be an artist, you probably should be.” So, I went into psychology as a shelter to do that. 

I’m a big advocate for trade schools and community colleges as places to find yourself. I fell in love with metalsmithing there, and I knew I would never leave it. My mother’s cousin was actually a former a Tiffany’s jeweler, so there is a little bit in the family. She was a cheerleader for me. She was like, “You’re doing what? Oh, have you found a hammer and silver? Great.” She trained under Phil Fike, who was at Wayne State University when she was there. It’s always interesting what she thinks I do because I’m not a very technical, proper silversmith like she was. When I finally went to school and said I was going to do this officially, she gave me her studio.

Sharon: Wow! You have two master’s degrees and now you’re working on a Ph.D. Can you tell us about that? One is critical art, or critical—

matt: Yeah, critical craft theory. I graduated Cranbrook in 2014 from metalsmithing and jewelry, and I had electives in sculpture and textile. At the same time, I should say, I had also apprenticed as a leatherworker doing car interiors, like 1920s period Rolls-Royces, so I had a leather background I was able to bring to Cranbrook. A lot of my work was varied, but there was a lot of leather involved. After that, I had a partial apprenticeship in semi-antique rug restoration. There’s a lot of training in leather-working material.

So, I graduated, and I met Sophia. We had met a few times, and then she ended up being the evaluator/respondent for our graduation show. So, she saw my work as I wished it to be, and she offered me a solo show. She said, “An agent is coming to see the gallery. Come help out. Come see this world,” which is how we met.

Sharon: And her gallery is in Sweden, right?

matt: Her gallery is in Stockholm, yes, in Sweden. I had a show, and that was amazing. There’s a government program called IASPIS, which is an invite-only program that the Swedish government runs. It’s the international arts organization. I was invited there because they were looking for—they added applied arts, and I was the first jeweler and metalsmith to be there. That’s a three-month program where you’re invited to live and work, and that gives you great networking opportunities not only with Sweden, but also with Scandinavia at large for museums and shows. I was the first foreigner at Tobias Alm, who was a Swedish jeweler and the first Swedish artist in jewelry to be there. That just upped and changed my life. I got into museum shows and met people and had a career for about four or five years and loved it; it was amazing and I wanted more. 

I love theory. I am a theory addict, so I was like, “A Ph.D. is the next logical thing.” I was applying and making finals, but jewelry is a hard sell, if you will, in academia. Warren Wilson College is in North Carolina in the States. There is a think tank out of the Center for Craft, which is located in Asheville, North Carolina, and they deal with all kinds of craft. They’re a great epicenter and source of knowledge for American craft discourses. Out of this came this development of this program. They partnered with Warren Wilson College to create a master’s, which is a two-year program at Warren Wilson College, which is just 20 minutes away from Ashville. 

It’s low residency, so there’s two weeks per term you’d be in person and the rest you could live anywhere, which was perfect for me because I was traveling so much. So, you do two weeks on campus in the summer and live in the dorm, and then you do two weeks—when I did it, at least, it was with the Center for Craft. We had a classroom there. Namita Wiggers is the founding director, and we got to work with amazing theorists: Linda Sandino, Ben Lignel, who’s a former editor for Art Jewelry Forum, Glenn Adamson, the craft theorist, Jenni Sorkin, who lives in California teaching, Judith Lieman—this is an amazing powerhouse. There’s Kevin Murray from Australia, who runs the World Crafts Organization. I was a bit part in it. He also edits Garland, which is an Australia-based publication for craft. It was an amazing pulling together of craft theory. At this time, I also thought I was dyslexic, so I was trying to find a new way to write being neurodivergent. Writing has now become—

Sharon: You do a lot of it. When I was looking last night, I could see you’ve done a lot of writing. My question is, why did you not stop and say, “O.K., I’m going to make things I like”? What was it that attracted you to theory? Maybe it’s too deep for me. 

matt: I think we’ve positioned the Ph.D. to be the next step always, but I don’t think academia is for everybody. A master’s even, I always questioned, do we as makers always need to be in academia? For me, though, my drive is that I think jewelry is in one of the best theoretical positions to talk about a lot of very difficult contemporary issues. Craft in general, but I think jewelry because it’s so tied to the body. It’s so blurry because it’s design; it’s fashion; it’s craft; it’s art; it’s a consumable good; it can be worn. It challenges how we exhibit it. If you need to wear it to experience it, how does a museum show it? 

For me, it’s this little terror or antagonizer that I think theoretically, from my background, is a great place to stay with, and I think that it’s been neglected in certain spaces. It’s the only field to not be in the Whitney Biennial. It ties perfectly with certain forms of feminism and queerness, which is the theoretical basis I come to it from, to talk about these things. It can’t be always defined, and that’s what I love about jewelry. People find it surprising when I’m like, “I love talking about commercial jewelry or production jewelry,” because if that’s what turns your gears, what you love to wear or buy or make, I want to know why. I want to see jewelry expand and envelope all of this, so that we can be at the Whitney Biennial. We also could be everywhere else.

Sharon: Can’t you do that without the Ph.D.? I’m not trying to knock it. I’m just playing devil’s advocate.

matt: Yeah, I think someone else can do that as well. For me, though, I truly love theory. I love the academics. For me, that is an actual passion. It’s what drives me. It’s not necessarily the physical making; it’s the theory behind why. I’m actually questioning my practice. Should I be making physical objects now, or should I just be celebrating people that make physical objects? My making practice is almost entirely collaborative now, working with other jewelers or performers or choreographers or educators and using jewelry as a way of introducing or as producing an output. 

How does jewelry fit into research? I think research output is an interesting thing for me. I can go on about this all day. So, for me, I want to make an academic foothold for jewelry. I want to do that work. I see that as my facet. I don’t think everybody needs to go and do that. I want to see everybody find the thing they love as much as I love academia and theory. I want to push on so we can expand the field together.

Sharon: I think that’s great. It’s great to hear, because it’s a strong voice giving credibility to the field, as opposed to, “Oh, you must be interested in big diamonds if you’re talking about jewelry.” You’re talking about it on a much deeper level. It’s hard to explain to people why you like jewelry or jewelry history, so it’s good to hear. 

Last night—I say last night because I was refreshing my memory—I was looking at one of your articles about the “we” in jewelry. Can you tell us about that?

matt: Absolutely. I write for multiple publications: Metalsmith Magazine, which is in the U.S. and is part of SNAG, the Society for North American Goldsmiths; Norwegian Craft; Art Jewelry Forum. I run a column called Settings and Findings out of Lost in Jewelry Magazine, which is based in Rome. I also write for Athens Jewelry Week catalogues, which has gotten me into writing a series for Klimt, which is a platform for makers, collectors, wearers, and appreciators based out of Barcelona. They invited me to write a five-part series after they had republished an essay I wrote for Athens Jewelry Week. Those people gave me an amazing platform to write, and then Klimt was like, “What do you want to do?” and I was like, “Five essays about what we do with jewelry.” 

One of them is the “we” article. That came from being in lockdown and the theorist Jean-Luc Nancy, who wrote about something called “singular plural.” It’s just saying that we don’t ever do anything alone, and I think jewelry is a beautiful illustration of that. I moved during the pandemic to do the Ph.D., and I found myself wearing jewelry to do my laundry because I got to do it with a friend. It’s so sappy in way, but it’s true. It’s a way to carry someone else with you, and jewelry is not an act done alone. I mean, we’re trained as jewelers. We’re trained by someone, so we carry that knowledge with us. We are transmitters as makers, but then we have collectors and wearers and museums and other things, and they need to be worn. It needs to be seen in some fashion or valued or held. 

My personal stance is that jewelry, once it leaves my hands as a maker, isn’t done. I’m interested as a researcher, as a Ph.D., in how we talk about that space in between. If you wear one of my pieces, and someone listening wears one of my pieces, and that same piece is in a museum, how we understand that is completely different. Jewelry creates this amazing space to complexify, and that’s when you talk about bodies and equity and race, sex, gender, size, age. All the important things that are in the political ethos can be discussed through jewelry, and that’s the “we” of jewelry. 

We have this controversy about the death of the author and authorship doesn’t matter, but speaking through craft, we are never alone. To me, it’s like I make through the people I’ve learned through. I am a transmitter to the people that I teach and to me, that’s what craft is. Also, craft is a way of looking at the world, at systems, and who we learn from and how we learn. I think jewelry is one of the most obvious “we’s.”

Sharon: This is a question that maybe there’s no answer to, but is jewelry separate from craft? There’s always the question of what craft is. Is craft art? Is it jewelry? 

matt: That depends on whom you ask. I personally do not believe in the art versus craft debate. I am not in that pool. I believe craft is a way of looking at anything in the world. I think craft is learned through material specificity. I usually enjoy metalsmithing. It’s through copper or silver, but it’s really spending time with something singular to explore its possibility. It’s a way of learning how things start, how things are produced, how labor works, where there are bodies and processes, so you can pick up anything in the world and look at anything and see people and humanity. Even through digital technology, someone has to write a program. It gives you a skillset to look at the world, and that’s how I approach craft. 

You’re going to find so many different definitions, but coming from that perspective, that is what I believe, and that’s why I think craft is so valuable. To answer if jewelry is craft, yes and no. You can talk about jewelry through craft, but you could talk about jewelry through fashion. You can talk about jewelry through product design. Again, I think that’s why jewelry is beautiful and problematic, because it can be so many things at the same time. 

Sharon: I’m intrigued by the fact that you’re interested in all kinds of jewelry, whether it’s art jewelry or contemporary jewelry. When you’re in the mall and you see Zales and look in the window, would you say it all falls under that, with everything you’re talking about? Does it transmit the same thing?

matt: Through a craft lens, you can look at any of that. You can go to Zales and the labor is wiped out. You’re no longer going to your local jewelry shop. The person is making your custom ring, but when you look at that ring, you have an ability to go, “Someone had to facet the stone and cut it, a lapidary. Someone had to make the bands. Someone had to mine the stone. Someone had to find this material.” It allows you to unpack where objects are coming from and potentially where they’re going. 

You can understand studio practices because you’re relating more directly to a maker, who has more knowledge of where their materials come from, rather than the sales associate at the Zales counter. It’s a simpler model, but it is the same thing to me. The way I look at it, that is craft’s value to my practice. I’m very careful to say it’s my practice because there are so many definitions, but that’s what I think is sustainable in this training. You can be trained as a jeweler and not make jewelry, but it’s still valuable in your life because you can apply it to anything.

Sharon: I was also intrigued by the title of an article you wrote, “Who Needs Jewelry, Anyway?” So, who does need jewelry?

matt: Yeah, that’s one that kicked it up to the next level. There are moments in my career where I can feel the level upward, like I enter a space that’s different. That was an essay that was written for Athens Jewelry Week. That was the first essay I wrote before I had the feature at the Benaki Museum. At Athens Jewelry Week, those women worked their tails off to make that event happen. 

I wrote that when I was at the tail end of my second master’s, and I was frustrated. I think we see that students are frustrated and people are questioning, especially during Covid, especially during Black Lives Matter, especially during the fight for indigenous rights, do we need jewelry? What does this mean? It’s a commodity. It can be frivolous. It’s a bauble. It can be decorative. Like, what are we doing? I think that is something we should always question, and the answer for that can be expressed in many ways. It can be expressed from what you make, but also what you do with what you make. How do you live the rest of your life? 

There isn’t a one-lane answer for that, but that’s what that essay was about. We don’t need jewelry, but we really do. The first half of the essay is saying what the problem is, but the problem is also where the solutions sit. It’s all about how you want to approach it. That is what that essay was saying. You can consume this and wear it; it is what it is, and that’s fine. You can participate in systems and learn and discover and know who you are wearing and support them. Wearing jewelry is a political act no matter what jewelry you’re wearing. Where you consume is a political act. Political neutrality is still a political statement. That article specifically was for art jewelry, and it was saying, hey, when you participate, when you buy, when you wear, when you make, it means something. You’re bringing people with you; what people are you choosing to bring? It was stirring the pot, and it was very intentional to do that.

Sharon: I couldn’t answer the question about who needs jewelry. You’re asking me, but certainly I can think of people who say, “I don’t need it,” who have no interest or wouldn’t see the continuum behind a ring or a piece of jewelry. 

This is a two-part Jewelry Journey Podcast. Please make sure you subscribe so you can hear part two as soon as it comes out later this week. 

Sharon Berman