All that glitters isn't gold

Promises. By Cinnamon Lee
Bilk Gallery, Palmerston Lane, Manuka
Until September 21

Is there any jewel more potent than a conjugal ring?

Whether it's mass-produced or custom-made, a 100-year--old antique or an ultra-modern slash of metal, hugely expensive or relatively cheap, it's sure to come freighted with more meaning than any other item a person will wear.

Often it's the only item a person will never remove from their body, a prospect that invests it with even more personal significance.

Artist Cinnamon Lee has spent many, many hours of her professional life contemplating the meaning of ''forever''. As a gold and silversmith who makes jewellery on commission, she has frequently found herself crafting wedding and engagement rings, and says it's impossible, as she works, not to imagine its future owner.

Promises, her exhibition currently showing at Bilk Gallery, is the first display of her artwork that has come out of her commission work, rather than the other way round.


''The commission work is what has prompted me to think about these ideas relating to betrothal and weddings, because you're making all these rings and they're going off to all these different people's worlds, and you sort of go, well, actually I'm part of this whether I like it or not,'' she says.

''It's really meant to be exploring some of the ideas I found have come up for myself, making other people's wedding rings. And they're not necessarily answers. There's stuff that's referencing tradition, but they're also pieces that challenge traditional notions of what value and trust and faith and honour and all of those sorts of things are, or represent.''

Having worked with jewellery for the past 16 years, she has developed a particular style and practice. Her rings are made to last, and while she is trained in traditional gold and silversmithing, 3D modelling and rapid prototyping have been part of her practice for some time.

She won't create a copy of that diamond you've been eyeing off at Tiffany's, but nor does she welcome an indecisive client who comes to her with a blank slate. And, in keeping with her modern ethos, she will be scrupulous about how she sources her materials.

And in this day and age, if an ethical diamond is what your heart truly desires, then, says Lee, avoid rocks altogether and go for a good fake instead. Or think outside the box and try a new material altogether, like the stunning gems fashioned from black spinel, which Lee sources from Queensland.

It is, she says, a cleaner stone to work with than black diamond, and much cheaper, even though it's almost as sturdy as diamond. But more than that, she knows exactly where the stone has come from and who cut it out of the ground. The same, she says, can never be said about a diamond, no matter how hard you try.

''I don't have a problem with the ethics, but the ethical argument surrounding diamonds and people thinking that they can get ethical diamonds, which I don't believe you can,'' she says.

''As far as I'm concerned, as soon as a diamond gets cut, you can't tell where it came from, it doesn't matter how many certificates you've got. They all go through the same channels. You can believe whatever you'd like to believe, that's fine, but as far as I'm concerned, a diamond's a diamond, and if you want a diamond, you have to buy whatever comes along with it.''

Promises is the first show in which she's included spinel in the works, and even here, it's just one way of looking differently at the meaning of jewellery.

''I've made engagement rings for clients with diamonds because they have been requested … I've done it because it's a demand thing, but it's always sat uncomfortably with me, only because there's a huge controversy surrounding this industry,'' she says.

''I'm not even 100 per cent decided on what I think is the right thing, I just know that I'm mixed up in it and I've got mixed feelings about the whole thing, so some of these pieces are my way of questioning, I guess, these conventions.''

So, has spending so many hours working on other people's weddings and engagements made her more or less of a romantic?

''I have to say more, only because it just forces you to think about relationships,'' she says.

''Often I'll be spending hours working on someone's piece, and for me, when I'm sitting at the bench, it's quite meditative, you think about a whole bunch of stuff. I don't just think about the clients, but it does flow in and out of my thoughts, and then you think about this is an object [that] is going to have a life - I wonder what will happen to it.''

She herself is not married, and finds it interesting to witness people - including her clients - putting so much pressure on the institution, and this contradiction between her own attitude and the role her work plays in other people's relationship is another thread of the show.

''I think with jewellery, it's such a personal thing, and people are so diverse in how they value things, and I think it comes from being exposed to jewellery for so long as well, that I don't worry,'' she says.

''If that's what's valuable to them, to go and get a really expensive, highly valued diamond ring made of gold or platinum, that's up to them, and if they want to go and buy a silver band that might break in four years, then it's just as OK.''

That said, she is still amazed when she hears about people prepared to spend literally tens of thousands on such a small object.

''Of course I can see the beauty and the wonder that has been caught up with these materials, and they are seductive, but at the same time, at the end of the day it's still just a piece of a rock, and sure it's beautiful, but can you really tell the difference as just a layperson between the $100,000 diamond and the one that's worth half that, or even the cubic zirconia?''

Here, too, is another line of questioning that's difficult to navigate. Should the stone in an engagement ring be as pure and natural as the love it's supposed to represent, or is it that love that should be strong enough to invest any material with meaning?

Ethically, there's nothing more pure than a synthetic jewel.

''If you want an ethical diamond, synthetic ones haven't had anyone breaking their backs or eyes or hands, or children cutting the stones, nobody's been in the mines, nobody's trafficked it across borders, no one's had it inside of their body for any period of time, and they're just as beautiful,'' she says.

But for some people, love conquers all, and nothing says love like an honest-to-goodness diamond.

''Like I said, this show has made me just think about all of these things, and I haven't come up with an all-encompassing conclusion at all,'' she says.

And maybe that's what real love is all about, anyway - curiosity, rather than concrete answers.