Let's Go Dutch

As the world lusts for 20-carat rocks, Amsterdam's avant-garde designs a different sort of bling. Escargot ear clips, anyone?

It doesn't take long for a necklace of live Indonesian snails to slide awkwardly out of position on your neck. But jewelry, according to Dutch designer Marijke Schurink, "should be wearable, even if only for five minutes." In addition to terrestrial mollusks, Schurink uses grass, soap bubbles, and blocks of ice to create her unusual pieces. She is among a number of young Dutch jewelry designers making news with boundary-defying work that has garnered increasing worldwide attention. Rob Koudijs, director of Amsterdam's Louise Smit Gallery, which has exhibited works by international designers since 1996, explains that the national philosophy toward jewelry is that "it's first and foremost seen as objects—beautiful art objects but in wearable form." In other words, forget colored sapphires, white-diamond tennis bracelets, and ten-carat emeralds. Think brown paper, plastic tires, and occasionally, strands of human hair—transformed by the artist's imagination with no constraints whatsoever. The creations are so unique that jewelers, reports Koudijs, jam the Smit gallery booth at London's Collect design fair to see what the Dutch have come up with now. "They are always shocked at what we get away with," he says.

While Holland's architects such as Rietveld and Koolhaas and art movements like De Stijl have attracted plenty of attention over the years, global interest in Dutch jewelry is relatively new. According to Charon Kransen, a private New York dealer who specializes in contemporary jewelry and features the work of many top Dutch designers, this is due in part to the fact that in the Netherlands "there is hardly a thought given to the demands of the commercial market." Which may explain why, at the start of the millennium, an exhibition titled "Jewels of the Mind and Mentality: Fifty Years of Avant Garde Dutch Jewelry" toured the world for three years and finally spawned a serious following.

Holland is, after all, the land of wooden shoes, and a country where the prime minister rides his bicycle to appointments with the queen. The culture is one that celebrates innovative design but frowns on overt displays of wealth. Reflecting this attitude, Dutch jewelers in the sixties largely abandoned the use of traditional materials. "The idea," says Gijs Bakker, founder of the acclaimed Droog Design, "is to challenge the notion of what makes jewelry precious or beautiful." Bakker's provocation arrived when he formed a circle out of stovepipe and soldered it together to create a necklace. His current work is equally industrial: car-shaped brooches and rings made from photographs of a red Ferrari Dino studded with precious stones and Plexiglas; he calls the series "I Don't Wear Jewels, I Drive Them."

Bakker is not the only Dutch designer doing double-duty as a jeweler. Frank Tjepkema, an interior architect known for his Nest couch built of 50 intertwined rubber branches, received the 2004 Dutch Design award for his Bling Bling medallion, a massive cross pendant formed of intricately interlaced and superimposed corporate logos laser-cut from steel then gold plated. In its heap of gilded letters you can make out the words Kleenex, Gucci, Ray-Ban, and Coca-Cola.

For other designers, necessity, as the adage goes, is the mother of invention. When she had nothing with which to accessorize the simple black dress she was wearing one fall evening some 15 years ago, Thea Tolsma snipped a bicycle inner tube into 20 strands, draping them around her body. Her friends' enthusiastic response prompted her to create an entire collection of inner-tube necklaces, using everything from a fire-engine red prewar bike tire to tires found on tractors and automobiles at a used-parts garage near her studio. Tolsma embellishes the plain rubber by cutting out delicate figure eights and highlighting them with gold leaf or gemstones to create a lacy filigree effect. The result is necklaces that look like a cross between something out of Blade Runner and the elaborate collars worn during the Dutch golden age.

This whimsical approach also underlies Petra Hartman's romantic necklaces from molded canvas, reminiscent of Art Nouveau and Lalique enamels. Like Schurink, whose ephemeral necklaces include rings that burn incense and bands of cultivated grass for which she offers a "grow-your-own" kit, Hartman has recently started exploring temporary materials. She's crafted a necklace of beads that, while they look to be quartz, are in fact chunks of white soap.

From Schurink's necklace made of eggs to artist Nel Linssen's paper pieces, a gallery showcasing Dutch jewelry can have all the atmosphere of a circus—a colorful pandemonium combining the seemingly impossible with a unique brand of glitz. And though you most likely will not spot Schurink's strips of bacon adorning necks on the streets of Paris, what's important, according to the designer, "is that people open their eyes and see that jewelry doesn't have to be silver or gold. It can be as simple as a bracelet made from the fruit of a cactus tree."