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The crowning glory of modern jewellery

Doubting the Great Thomas, but believing in tooth fairies

A crowd gathers around the Pont Neuf in Paris. It's a Friday afternoon in late summer -- 15th August, 1729 to be exact. The person who has grabbed the crowd's attention is known as The Great Thomas, a toothbreaker extraordinaire. The Great Thomas has parked his mobile shop (squeals on wheels) at this popular bridge over the River Seine so that he might demonstrate his subtle techniques to passing crowds. A terrified Parisian sits inside the shop -- one hand grips the wooden bench while the other cradles a throbbing jaw. With a flourish, The Great Thomas selects the tooth keys that will unlock his customer's misery. But the crowd can see something which the master cannot. Unbeknownst to The Great Thomas, a group of troublesome students is at this very moment placing four rockets near the wheels of his shop. Just when The Great Thomas is about to extract the tooth with a final yank, the rockets explode and the shop jumps forward spilling the patient and The Great Thomas to the ground. The crowd falls over itself in laughter.

Dentistry has stabilised since the days of The Great Thomas. Practitioners today operate in private rooms -- their concern is to care for the client's health rather than to display their handiwork in front of a crowd. If we want to see such performances today, we go instead to craft workshops at places like the Meat Market Crafts Centre in North Melbourne or the Jam Factory in Adelaide.

But there's a space left vacant by this arrangement. One expects that, as the world gets busier and more people compete for its attention, all obvious avenues for creative activity have been exhausted. But what about the mouth? Since Western dentists stopped treating the mouth as a stage for display, a generation of jewellers has emerged to claim it for themselves. Jewellers practicing dentistry? It's not as bizarre as it might seem.

Decoration was among the earliest functions of dentistry. The pre-Columbian Mayans ornamented their teeth in a number of ways: teeth could be filed to sharp points, inlayed with gold or stained black with herbs. For Mayans, the idea was to enhance nature. But for the modern West, pace Mick Jagger's star-studded incisors, dental work is primarily concerned with restoring nature. For modern people who are sceptical of appearance, dentistry is officially a matter of protecting a person's health -- not highlighting facial beauty. Dentistry thus stands opposed to jewellery: the dentist fills in the gaps left by nature whereas the jeweller adds what nature never intended. But that's the public image of dentistry.

A dentist's work is more artistic than it seems. It requires an ability to judge whether the work `looks right' in the mouth. Indeed, dentists and jewellers share many of the same tools, methods and materials: they use the same drills, precious metals, and methods such as wax casting. Before the professionalisation of dentistry there was always the possibility of crossover; the famous American patriot Paul Revere was a silversmith before practicing dentistry. But can you imagine today going into a jeweller's shop for a glamorous filling?

Or a dentist casting you a wedding ring? Why not? Given their access to the appropriate equipment and materials, some dentists today make jewellery of their own. The Royal Melbourne Dental Hospital even has an annual exhibition of jewellery by dentists. This subtle understanding of dental aesthetics is neglected in the common picture of dentist as a `tooth doctor'.

Of the dentists, the crown and bridge specialists are held in particular regard: they are considered the jewellers of the dental profession. Dr Ian Steel, dentist at the Royal Melbourne Dental Hospital, says that `any dentist ought to be an artist of sorts.' His years of experience in re-constructing mouths gives him an insider's view on what it takes to achieve the perfect smile. He points to the shadow on either side of the teeth, which he calls the `buckle corridor'. He explains that a person who is without teeth for a long period will need wider dentures as their tongue gradually spreads. Wider dentures decrease the shadow on the sides of the teeth and this cancels the buckle corridor -- an effect that turns a friendly smile into a shark-like grin. Seeing the face from a dentist's point of view, one begins to appreciate the intricate anatomy of a smile: the tiny pair of muscles (levator labii superioris alaeque nasi) that act as drawstrings to pull the corners of the mouth up to form a welcoming curve: the `notch of the labial contour' that accentuates the shape known as `cupid's bow' seen as essential for the perfect smile; and the problem of `headlights' experienced when hypercalcified spots on the teeth light up garishly.

This rich terrain of professional experience gives a special insight into the complex anatomy of a smile. At a closer look, it seems that the aims and techniques of contemporary dentistry have not lost the ornamental function that was part of their ancient history. Still, dentistry remains bound to its identity as a `health profession' and we are unlikely to see it acting on the more expressive possibilities of the craft. For this we must look to those who operate with similar tools and materials, yet whose work has nothing to do with health. Jewellery today is one of the more adventurous crafts and Susan Cohn and Anne Brennan are two of the most innovative jewellers.

Susan Cohn's reputation as an intelligent and stylish jeweller is well-established both in Australia and overseas. In the past she has experimented with artful versions of contemporary accoutrements: her broaches and clips were modelled on security tags and walkmans, though she made them serve as sleek adornments rather than functional devices. In her recent exhibition at Melbourne's City Gallery she presented a series of facial clips rendered in fine gold. Jewellery has traditionally clung to the edges of the face (neck, ear lobes, and forehead), but Cohn explores what kind of work evolves when jewellery is given a more central location. The ostensible purpose of these facial clips is to cancel the effects of aging known as `smile lines' and `crows feet' which develop as the skin loses its elasticity. On a more conceptual level, Cohn says that she aims to `pin-prick vanity' -- creating work that removes the effects of aging while not hiding itself. Cohn describes the reaction to her work as ranging `from laughter to repulsion', though no one has been brave enough wear her devices.

Anne Brennan is a Canberra-based jeweller who has also plunged into new territory. She has constructed a series of objects for the mouth using materials such as steel, brass and piano wire. One piece is called the liar learns more than she tells and is described as `an object for the mouth with tongue depressor'. The object is an elaborate construction of brass, bamboo and plaster. When placed in the mouth it deprives the wearer of speech: an obtruding device emerges in the place of words. What might be the meaning of such a piece?

Here a jeweller goes beyond the notion of adornment as a bright piece of metal attached to the body: Anne Brennan's pieces insert themselves into the body itself. They are heralded as a feminist `investigation' of the body.

With Cohn's facial clips we might ask: why is it so inconceivable that a person wear such beautifully constructed and useful devices? While today they might be seen as an ironic commentary on vanity, perhaps in the future, when the hippies of the 1960s have become the oldies of the 2000s, a new kind of `senior' style might emerge and accoutrements like facial clips become standard wear.

For Brennan, however, the social context is a little more elusive. Her use of Adrienne Rich's poetry as the emotional soundtrack to her pieces evokes the ambiguities of a female persona which is subject to a loquacious silence. But perhaps there is another more social context which makes such baroque work seem appropriate to today's world.

`Innovations in communication technology are changing our lives.' This seems hardly a novel statement -- it requires something more specific to make us think further. So consider this more contemporary urban scene. On a street corner a man stands alone with his head crooked to one side; he is waving his hands, smiling and laughing, engaged in some invisible conversation. Just a couple of years ago, people passing by would have thought this man insane -- today he is simply a man with a mobile telephone. What this scene tells us is that communication technology takes conversation away from the face-to-face meeting of individuals towards a more abstract ether in which voices float around networks. It is no longer possible to identify to whom a person talks by knowing where he or she is located. According to the 86 year old Lithuanian-born philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, modern communication technology has created a society where contact is made `side-by-side', rather than `face to face'.

Queues still form in front of the Louvre's Mona Lisa to witness the `poem of her smile'. But it is not just the da Vincis who have the capacity to craft this mysterious gesture. For centuries dentists have been tinkering with smiles and now jewellers are getting in on the act. Since the face has declined as a site of presence, metalsmiths are beginning to move in from their conventional locations on the perimeter. Perhaps they are scouts for a convention of ornament that will arise in the future.

Brief Bibliography
Benninon, Elisabeth Antique Dental Instruments New York: Sotheby's, 1986.

Frush, John P. & Fisher, Roland D. `How dentogenics interprets the personality factor' Journal of Prosthetic Dentistry 1956, (July) pp. 441449.

Goldstein, Ronald E. Change Your Smile Chicago: Quintessence Pub., 1984.

Murray, Kevin D.S. `Till death us do part: A structurationist approach to jewellery', In Noris Ioannou (ed.) Craft in Society: An Anthology of Perspectives Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1992

Samson, Edward Art and the Full Prosthesis London: William Heineman, 1974

Originally published in Island magazine (Autumn, 1994). This article has been written as part of a project grant for the Visual Arts/Craft Board of the Australia Council.

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Copyright 1995 Kevin Murray

Last modified 4 May 1995