Kilkenny jeweller’s work rings true for National Museum

WHEN a customer buys a piece of jewellery, it can serve as a reminder of a time or a place or a particular person. When the National Museum buys a piece of contemporary jewellery, it’s a way for the nation to take stock of Irish tastes of the modern era and those who spend their lives creating the works.

WHEN a customer buys a piece of jewellery, it can serve as a reminder of a time or a place or a particular person. When the National Museum buys a piece of contemporary jewellery, it’s a way for the nation to take stock of Irish tastes of the modern era and those who spend their lives creating the works.

Such is the case for James Mary Kelly, a gold- and silversmith whose studio is in the Kilkenny Design Centre, and who was paid a visit last week by a representative of the National Museum to acquire a piece of his signature jewellery.

Alex Ward, costume and textile curator and curator of the museum’s jewellery collection, visited Mr Kelly’s studio to collect the piece which he had made specially for the museum.

At the centre of the geometrically designed piece is an oval labradorite stone originally mined from Labrador, Canada, set in sterling silver and with 18-carat yellow gold. It’s a one-off piece but “is one of many that we make brothers and sisters and first cousins of”, the jeweller explained.

Ms Ward said she first became interested in his work several years ago when it was worn by a colleague at the time. “I saw it on someone who worked in the museum who was from Kilkenny; she always had lovely jewellery. So I had been aware of James before I came down to see his work here. He has been on my list of jewellers to acquire,” the curator said.

She came to his studio last November and saw the style of piece that would be suitable for the museum’s collection. Mr Kelly said his initial idea was to create something different from his typical style, but Ms Ward asked him instead to make a piece in his signature style.

“What I am after is basically pieces that represent what people actually buy,” she explained. So this work will reflect not only the craftsmanship for which Mr Kelly is known, but also a type of jewellery that appeals to people in this era. “In 50 years’ time, somebody will be able to see that this is what people were wearing,” Ms Ward said.

The piece will be displayed in the National Museum’s ‘What’s In Store’ open gallery of pieces in the museum’s collection but not yet in the permanent display, and it is planned to showcase it eventually in the museum’s jewellery collection, ‘The Way We Wore’, which spans 250 years of work.

It was purchased for the collection under a joint-purchase scheme between the museum and the Crafts Council of Ireland. Eight to 12 pieces per year are acquired for the museum under this scheme. When the jewellery exhibition was originally curated in 2000, the museum had quite a good collection of 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century pieces, but very little contemporary work, Ms Ward said. “The joint-purchase scheme with the Crafts Council has enabled us to fill that gap.”