Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
What is jewelry? We know what it is, of course. Jewelry is the pretty extras with which we adorn ourselves. But what is it really? There is no specific use to jewelry. Yet, humans in every culture on the planet wear jewelry of some kind. It is ubiquitous and pointless at the same time.
Here's something Art Smith said about jewelry:
A piece of jewelry is in a sense an object that is not complete in itself. Jewelry is a 'what is it?' until you relate it to the body. The body is a component in design just as air and space are. Like line, form, and color, the body is a material to work with. It is one of the basic inspirations in creating form.
Art Smith was a Brooklyn man. He died in 1982 after a lifetime spent making jewelry. He had a shop on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village back in the 1940s. He was influenced quite clearly by the broader trends in Modernism that characterized the era. One of his necklaces was, famously, inspired by the mobiles of Alexander Calder. You can see that piece and others, along with some of Art's tools and drawings, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art right now.
I like Art's statement about jewelry because it offers an interesting “third way” out of the art-versus-craft dilemma. In the last century or so, a dividing line between art and craft was drawn according to whether or not the object in question was “useful.” Crafts — such as weaving or carpentry or glass making — could be artful, but the fact that they were still geared toward the production of useful and usable objects meant that they were not art as such. Fine art distinguished itself by having no other purpose except to be art. A painting, for instance, cannot be used for anything else. Taken out of its context, a painting ceases to function.