“It’s like Japanese calligraphy, each piece is formed out of a single strip of metal in one continuous movement. After making a lot of prototypes, I try to use my hands without my brain taking over, I know it’s finished when I get a visceral full stop.” Ute Decker is explaining how she works and as she twists and turns to illustrate how she bends and shapes strips of silver and gold into sculpture for the body, I’m struck by how physical the process is. Although we’re talking on Zoom, I can imagine her creating the jewelry equivalent of a stream of consciousness in her London workshop.
Her gallerist Elisabetta Cipriani also noticed the movement to her pieces when she first saw Ute demonstrate her Articulation necklace at Art Basel in 2013. “It’s moveable, wearable art, very different to what I was used to,” says Elisabetta, who at that point specialized in fine art, “the wearability, femininity and technique behind her work spoke to me.” The pair has been working together since 2014 and were already planning a solo show before the Covid pandemic intervened, an enforced hiatus that allowed Ute to continue to hone the concept for the exhibition using her freeform technique.
The work she developed falls into two streams. Waves is an exploration of curves and undulations, created as sculptures in their own right which find flow on the body with unexpected ease. Improvisations is a second strand of Ute’s research; playful, transformable jewelry made up of independent loops and structures which evolve as they are worn, illustrating individuality and interconnectedness.
It’s thoughtful, visually arresting jewelry that will please her female, mid-40s-and-up collector: “Ute’s jewelry appeals because it stands out and is also easy – her pieces can be worn just as well with jeans as an Issey Miyake dress,” says Elisabetta, who encourages visitors to try the jewelry on, rather than admire it under glass. “If you don’t try them on, they won’t wake up,” she laughs, carefully handling the Ocean neckpiece (above), a curl of gold that flows down the body. “This is brand new, I wasn’t expecting to see it in the edit for the show. It’s a continuation of her approach, without being too experimental.”
“Jewelry is the most intimate of art forms, says Ute, “I like the idea that the wearer can project their own emotional reaction onto it.” Which is, in a way, what she does herself: “I don’t come to the studio with a concept, I explore different shapes directly in metal without really knowing where I’m going with it until it happens.” The Wild Waters arm piece (top), a spectacular twist of sandy-textured silver with a bright burnished edge infused with the energy of movement, initially brought to mind roiling waters, “but now it looks more architectural to me, it reminds me of Frank Gehry or Richard Serra. There’s joy in sitting and observing different perspectives.”
It’s only once the pieces are finished that she realizes where they have come from; the way the metal rises and falls in the Islands Surrounded by Waves neckpiece (below) might have been born of “a desire to sit on a beach and feel free. When you’re on the beach, you can imagine someone on another continent looking at the same waves. We’re all connected by our common experience on the earth,” she says; and that interconnectedness has been important over the past two years.
Ditto also, for a feeling of being connected to Nature. Ute may not set out to work around particular themes – her main concern is form, born of Japanese minimalism and “the power of a simple line” – but some of her recent work taps into a theme that gained creative traction during the pandemic. Last November, she showed in Cipriani’s Force of Nature show, curated by Melanie Grant, perhaps it’s our emotional and bodily reactions to both jewelry and Nature that have brought these themes to the top of her subconscious.
Ute came to jewelry after a career as a political and economic journalist and translator and had been making for 20 years, before taking the plunge and changing career. She believes her past life has helped her think bigger, and consider the social impact of her choices: “Journalism taught me to dig deeper and ask uncomfortable questions, ethical jewelry is not just about the environment, there is huge social impact to take into account when buying precious metals,” she says, “it absolutely underpins everything I do.”
As a sustainable jewelry pioneer, she was one of the first in the world to use fairly traded gold when it launched onto the UK market in 2011, and now works exclusively in Fairtrade gold and recycled silver. Every gramme of metal she uses can be traced back to a single Peruvian mine and she works with a refiner who mostly sells directly to keep the supply chain short. Along with everyone else on the chain, Ute has a Fairtrade license allowing for complete traceability and transparency, and consumers can ask to see certification and proof of traceability.
I suggest that taking such a rigorously ethical approach to her bold, empowering jewelry also empowers the workers along the supply chain, and she agree that in the 13 years she has been in business the jewelry industry has come a long way. “When I started out, nobody wanted to talk about provenance or ethical practices, now everyone has to be seen to be sustainable, it’s almost a given.” But that opens the way for the biggest challenge for the future: greenwashing, which “could keep us at the status quo unless everyone can back up their claims with full traceability. Consumers need to keep asking questions.” Unless of course they’re buying Ute Decker, in which case they are already on very solid ground.
Ute Decker – Creating Waves, is at Elisabetta Cipriani Gallery, 23, Heddon Street, London W1B 4BQ May 20 -31.