The art of jewellery

IDEAS OF IDENTITY: Octavia Cook wears her creation Ococ Breastplate.
IDEAS OF IDENTITY: Octavia Cook wears her creation Ococ Breastplate.

Octavia Cook explores the idea of identity in her jewellery, and our lust for power and possessions.

The Dunedin-based jeweller makes handmade rings, brooches and pendants which cost upwards of $600 a piece, and are coveted collectables.

Not for her jewellery shops - you're most likely to find her pieces, along with a simpler and cheaper range of of cameo rings and brooches, on sale at galleries.

Her jewels are scattered with images of herself and references to her name. She also considers the idea that we're obsessed with possessions by modelling her jewellery on things she wishes she could own. This is part of her idea that our lust for power drives a desire to have beautiful things.

"Jewellery can often achieve the purpose of owning and showing off something you lusted after for a long time," says Leanne Wickham who has curated a show of Octavia's works at The Dowse.

Cook's first collection in 2003 was named Cook & Co, which refers to her own last name, to Captain Cook's, and to global jewellery companies Tiffany & Co and Bulgari. "Cook & Co became a way for me to play on all those things people automatically connect with those big jewellery brands," says the jeweller.

The letters of Cook's most recent series, Cocoa Vitako, can be rearranged to form her first and last names. "Cocoa' also refers to Coco Chanel and the fashion world, while "tako" is the Japanese word for Octopus, referring to her Latin name Octavia, which means "eighth".

Her jewellery is not only about defining who we are, it's about defining specific historical figures as well, and getting us to think about them, says Wickham.

In one series, she creates cameos in which she merges her own facial profile with the hairstyles of royal and historical figures, such as the late Princess of Wales, Queen Elizabeth II, and Captain Cook.

"The cameos focus on immortalising people, and draw on how jewellery is often sentimental," says Wickham.

A self-employed jeweller for 13 years, Cook's work is at the high end of contemporary art. She makes all her jewellery herself, and it can take her up to four weeks to produce a single piece. The attraction to her work as a collectible is that it is more affordable and transportable than, say, a Colin McCahon painting.

While she is stocked in galleries around the country, including Wellington's Peter McLeavy, Cook has her eye on overseas markets too. Earlier this year, the 34-year-old travelled to Munich, after she was chosen among 65 others to showcase her work at the annual international jewellery exhibition, Schmuck. After spending four months in Japan, Cook launched the Japanese branch of Cook & Co - Kokku Kaisha - a rough translation of "cook company" in Japanese. "It was [created as] part of my plot for world domination," she says, laughing.

Cook's jewellery is also stored in public art collections at Wellington's Te Papa, and The Dowse. Due to have a baby in seven months, she is looking forward to a pause in jewellery-making for a few months.

Her exhibition, Dynasty: Works by Octavia Cook, runs at The Dowse until October 22, and entry is free.

The Dominion Post