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Dead-gorgeous jewellery

Dead-gorgeous jewellery
by Jingjing Zhang

It is out of imagination that these unique works are handcrafted by a 26-year-old young lady, whose work is currently on show in Melbourne from 30th October to 29th November.

Reading Julia DeVille's artist statement might have you thinking she's a little focused on the macabre. Apparently, her fascination about life and death emerged from a very early age. As her father is a diver, she watched a fish being gutted when she was five years old. Then, this New Zealand-born artist was interested in dressing up in her grandmother’s fox fur stoles, opening its mouth and biting the tail, all the while looking warm and fashionable.

Jewellery design is not the original course which DeVille took; she started in shoe design but switched to jewellery design for her career. “I didn't enjoy fashion school or show school. They just weren't for me. The first day I did jewellery, I instantly loved it and knew I would do it for the rest of my life. I think this is because it is so specific and detailed. I can create tiny delicate worlds that are valuable because of both the materials and the sentiment. It does not come in and out of fashion like garments and shoes.”

Julia DeVille first discovered memento mori while studying jewellery, which resonated with taxidermy she had already learned. From the beginning of her unique design, she started using more of the symbols of death from the era in her work.

Drawing on the influence of mourning jewellery in 15th to 18th centuries, she uses materials such as jet, gold, silver and taxidermy animals to create her fascinating part-jewellery.

Not a big deal

This is not DeVille’s first solo exhibition of her well-known accessories – she has been exhibiting her well-known accessories as far back as 2003. However, DeVille’s career has not always been smooth sailing.

When the drop-dead gorgeous jewellery was first released to the public, not everyone appreciated its macabre theme. It was so different from the general idea of jewellery; shiny, beautiful and glorious. Some people thought her pieces of work were a little morbid and creepy. They doubted that people would dare wear this kind of jewellery to show their beauty and elegance. Was it awful for people to wear a dead mouse brooch or a skeleton bracelet?

The most negative responses were from her use of a kitten, which was laid out like a traditional hunting-trophy floor rug, but with diamond teeth. “That is because kittens are domesticated animals and people hold attachments. But it died of natural causes," Julia DeVille explained.

Another difficulty in her career is the shortage of corpses, particularly in her early period designs. Julia DeVille insists in using animals that have died of natural causes, which makes her work much harder. Sometimes, people suspect her purpose of using dead animals, which also takes a lot of convincing on her part.

But now, five years after her first solo show, finding corpses has become less of a problem. "I used to just find them all myself, but now I have a lot of people calling up and donating, and if any of my friends find anything they'll either put it in their freezer or, if they're not up to that, they'll call me and tell me where it is. "

Thinking about death, appreciating life

There is a lot that seems incongruous about DeVille’s work at first glance. People think her work challenges our notions of what is beautiful and valuable. DeVille thinks this is because of our culture's predominant attitudes towards death. She defines her works from a new angle: “Jewellery is timeless. It is handed down from generation to generation. It is made from materials that will out last the human race.”

As it was five years ago, DeVille’s new work in Melbourne is still relevant to macabre; all the exhibits are about ossuarium. DeVille uses her skills of combining traditional gold and silversmith techniques with materials which were once living to examine both the structural and cultural meanings carried within the skeleton, the most tangible marker of a life lived.

“I don't want to shock people or upset people. I don't want to make things that are revolting. The reason I'm doing this is to make sensitive pieces that make people stop. I guess it grabs their attention because it is out of the ordinary, but my goal is probably to make people think about the importance of life and the fact that you are going to die one day, and how delicate we all are, and how important it is to live every moment and make the most of it."

DeVille believes that, by avoiding thinking about death, people are losing the ability to appreciate life.

"Death is such a taboo subject now. It used to be such a big part of life. In medieval times and post-plague, the memento mori era, people were so used to death that they would wear the skull and crossbones with little inscriptions that said 'Remember you must die' and 'Learn how to die', because death was everywhere and it became quite fashionable. Then the Victorians wore mourning jewellery. They had a better quality of life so it became more about the mourning of a passed one as opposed to being aware of your own mortality."

Persist and enjoy

Fashion is unpredictable and nobody knows what will become the next trend. Julia DeVille’s insists that her macabre works are reasonable and understandable. “There are always some who asked me if people can accept my design, surprisingly, yes. Once I explained to people that I am a vegetarian and all animals I use have died of natural causes, they are very accepting... they may not want to wear the pieces themselves, but they can appreciate and understand why I work in this manner.”

Moreover, there is another interesting reason for her persistence in the future. "I try to express the fragile nature of life through these animals. They are so delicate and precious. You can take a common house mouse that most people would kill, and put diamond eyes in it and give it a silver tail and most people will all of a sudden think it is beautiful. You can turn around the way people think about things quite easily, just by placing it with different materials."


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Well I'll be stuffed - not bloody likely

"...because death was everywhere and it became quite fashionable."

Claude, that dedicated follower of  feline fashion, would make a great piece of drop dead jewellery. I can hardy wait to see what Ms DeVille can whip up.

I wonder if Ms DeVille has ever thought of making dead human beings into mementos for lions and tigers; but I suppose lions and tigers would prefer their humans un-stuffed and without the glassy garnishing.

You know, this has got me thinking now: instead of getting cremated when I die maybe I'll just get meself cut up and fed to the lions and tigers. At least by that time I should be over my fear of cats. Yep, that's what I'll do, make meself useful - finally.

Now, when making the necessary arrangements; should I request the services of a vet or a butcher (and will their services be GSTable)?

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