CONTEMPORARY DISTENSION: EMERGENCE & PLATEAU
This article traces Jim Ward's contributions to the field of body jewelry, looks at the Mass Manufactured crap that has limited the ability for expression, and ends with a glance at the promising future of Custom Craft from companies like OneTribe.
PREFACE: I'm in graduate school for Metals & Jewelry. You'd think that, in an environment devoted to exploring the art of adornment and craft, people would be interested in the body as an infinite canvas. But something as simple as Stretching (or Distension) is written off so thoroughly that it almost seems to offend in an unconscious manner.
I've had to push consistently to even bring up the topic, and part of that involved writing a short history of the Objects that have been used in the practice of Modern Distension.
Please comment if any of this is interesting or inaccurate. I highly recommend clicking the link to see images and text in a clear format, but have included the text below for convenience.
CONTEMPORARY DISTENSION: EMERGENCE AND PLATEAU
Objects of Contemporary Distension
A powerful form of body adornment appeared in the modern western world (fig. 1) once craftspeople from within its culture began to create and distribute the objects which are central to the practice. Distension is a deliberate and progressive elongation of pierced holes in the earlobe, nostril, septum, lip, or other suitable flesh. The jewelry worn inside stretched holes is often of considerably larger diameter than conventional earrings. While those who are involved in piercing and stretching may be well informed and comfortable with this aesthetic, personal experience with bewildered and appalled strangers suggests that this mode of adornment is not yet understood or integrated into the mainstream. It is certainly rare that we see the introduction of an entirely new format for addressing the human form and amplifying a culture’s means of expression. It is my hope that by briefly tracing the legacy of these objects through their emergence in a contemporary context we can explore the relationship between makers, ritual, community and identity.
This article will focus on the contemporary history of jewelry designed for distension, but it is important to note that distension has an illustrious history in many cultures across the globe. At times, this jewelry was reserved exclusively for elite members of society, and could demonstrate the most sophisticated level of craftsmanship attained by a given culture. Amongst the rulers of the Moche who preceded the Incan empire, for instance, gold work in the 7th century C.E. involved hollow sheet forming, chasing techniques, fusing and stone inlay of such detail to portray figurative imagery at a scale of less than six centimeters (fig. 2).
By the late 20th century, however, North America was populated largely by the descendants of European societies whose traditions of adornment did not embrace the technique. The only reference to the practice was to be found in the pages of National Geographic magazine (Ward, Legend 1), where images from Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere inspired a growing community of widely scattered individuals with a shared interest in the potential of the body as a canvas for experience and expression.
Jim Ward is a prominent figure in the rise of the modern piercing profession, and is regarded as the father of the body jewelry industry. His pioneering work in techniques of piercing converged with his experience as a maker and amateur goldsmith. The business he launched in 1975, Gauntlet Enterprises, provided an eight page hand-drawn “Jewelry Folio” (fig. 3). It was the first catalogue of jewelry specifically designed with the needs of body piercings in mind, and focused especially on nipple and genital jewelry. While this first issue did not carry designs for stretched piercings (these came later), the thickness, or gauge, of the wire used was a critical aspect in the revolution (Ward, Folio).
Until this point, piercing enthusiasts had to appropriate standard earrings with 18-20 gauge wire. These earrings were never intended to be used on broad surface body forms or in areas of impact from motion, clothing, or in this case “play”. Reflecting on his early designs, Ward remembers that “earrings were universally too thin.” Such thin wire carried a high risk of tearing through the pierced hole. Ward recalled early experiments which used existing loop styles with thin wire for inserting through the ear attached to a thicker gauge wire that served as the decorative portion of the design. “Some hardy individuals managed to work the thicker loop through their piercings, a process that would have been uncomfortable to say the least. There still remained sharp edges which, if the ring rotated, could irritate and cut the tissue.” (Ward, In the beginning 4)
Fig 2. Top: Moche (Loma Negra) 2nd-3rd century Silver, gold, gilded copper, shell Diam. 3 in Center: Wari-Tiwanaku 7th-10th century Silver, cotton Diam. 3 3/16 in Bottom: Moche 3rd-7th century Hammered gold, turquoise, sodalite, shell Diam. 3 1/4 in
Ward’s catalogue offered a small variety of ring styles in a range of increasing thickness from 18 ga. up to 12 ga. In many ways his were simple innovations - pairing proper gauge size with the location and function of a piercing, understanding the role of the body’s allergic reaction to nickel alloys, incorporating internal threading to avoid irritating the flesh, and adapting mechanisms (like beads and locks) to function without becoming compromised in such intimate contact with the body. Yet the impact of these steps were profound. It all stems from the fact that a practitioner chose to engage as a maker in this emerging field of adornment. The interplay between his knowledge of crafting objects and the needs of the body in action positioned him to understand the nuance and subtleties that were at the heart of the artform. With a firm grounding in the minimum requirements for successful design, his catalogue grew year by year, moving away from gold and silver toward stainless steel.
Ward’s studio, Gauntlet, is credited as the first studio devoted entirely to piercing. Prior to this, piercing had only been performed as a sort of side-job by tattooists. Though the appearance of a dedicated piercing studio should not be underestimated, I suspect that it was largely the manufacturing mindset that Ward brought to the industry which was fundamental in his ability to cultivate the field. The ubiquity of body jewelry in the early twenty-first century makes it easy to overlook the influence that the appearance of these objects had on the direction of contemporary piercing.
Fig 3: Excerpts from “A Jewelry Folio”, Gauntlet Enterprises’s first catalogue Jim Ward c. 1978
Without a physical object to retain the opening over a period of time, a piercing would quite simply heal shut. By delivering objects which could be worn and maintained in piercings, the field was drawn out of the exclusively esoteric realm and into one of fashion and identity. To understand this, we must consider that much of the power of piercing has to do with the act itself, so imbued with risk and vulnerability. It is executed by skilled professionals who maintain a privileged body of knowledge which activates not only the potential of the physical body but of the psyche as well. In some ways, piercing might be seen as a modern day shamanistic practice. There is nothing to demand that the practice would be devoted to aesthetics through the application of semi-permanent jewelry. In fact, piercing traditions have often developed in directions that emphasize the ephemeral, temporary or transitional nature of piercing, without bonding it to a more permanent alteration of visual identity. A modern culture of body suspension has capitalized on just this function (fig. 4). Conventions and small groups gather regularly to utilize piercing as a tool to attach hooks directly through the flesh. Participants are raised into the air in an activity with the potential to invoke powerful experiences of mind, body and transcendence. The Chinese Vegetarian Festival in Phuket is another well-known example of piercing utilized as a tool to achieve immediate spiritual purposes other than adornment. While it is not my intent to fully explore the ephemeral nature of piercing, I highlight these alternative functions to make it clear that contemporary piercing has formed largely around the intent to adorn, and objects designed to endure are critical to achieving this function.
Fig. 4: Temporal Functions of Piercing
Eventually, an industrial paradigm arose which was primarily interested in capitalizing on a niche market, rather than cultivating an art form. The resulting merchandise perpetuated the stigmatization of a subculture through low-grade material manufactured in mass quantities. Jewelry made from acrylic and steel were marketed as though they were the best choice against the specter of “rejection”. The reality, of course, was more a matter of the low-cost of material input. In acrylic there appeared a range of interchangeable costume-grade synthetic stones, or plugs printed with the crass iconography of nautical stars, marijuana leaves, and skull and crossbones (fig. 5). There was also a proliferation of merely functional inserts, that served only to hold the flesh of the ear open. While they serve a purpose, and are attractive enough unembellished, these hollow eyelets or solid plugs, with no attempt at innovation in design unintentionally turned the jewelry into a statement of distension itself. A lack of critical attention by jewelers resulted in an aesthetic which drew attention to a stretched lobe as a prized achievement(fig. 6). Even where quality craftsmanship is involved, as with the jewelry producer, Industrial Strength, there seemed to be little pressure to generate truly innovative designs. Even while machined titanium tends to be considered relatively up-market within the realm of body jewelry, their line stops at rather simple, plain geometries and relies on the novelty of bright anodized colors to set the pieces apart (fig. 7). What passes for “pushing the envelope” in body jewelry would hardly warrant attention in any other subsection of the jewelry trade.
Fig. 5: Mass Manufacturing at Low Price Point Acrylic Plugs by “Painful Pleasures”
Fig. 6: (Top) Common Eyelets or Tunnels (Bottom) Emphasizing Distension as an end in itself.
Fig. 7: Machined Titanium, an example of “advanced” form in body jewelry
Perhaps more important than the lack of design innovation are the production processes of the industry itself. These came to define crucial elements of the ritual of distension. The Brown and Sharpe Gauge system utilized in the Gauntlet catalogues was adopted early on as the standard system of measure for body jewelry. This was perhaps natural, since metals suppliers provide raw material according to gauge. The largest measure is “double zero”, after which point the unit system switches to inches. For most sizes on the small end of the scale, there is little reason to complain. What becomes apparent, however, as distension increases, is that the jump between each unit expands in circumference quite dramatically. This means that for each available piece of jewelry, the amount of growth needed in the flesh is considerably more than the preceding stretch (fig. 8). It is important to remember that growth, in this sense, is the controlled and managed imposition of minor trauma to encourage the development of new cells around the jewelry (Musafar, 24). In other words, to comply with a standardized system of measurement, the user must push the limits of the body beyond what is healthy, past what can be swiftly regenerated. Were jewelry to be measured in millimeters, it would result in a more easily subdivided progression, responding more closely to the body’s capacity to create tissue.
When properly practiced, distension is a painless process. Yet the perception of distension as a brutal manipulation of the flesh served well in its early years of affiliation with counter-cultural youth movements. I would argue that it was in certain measure the widespread availability of jewelry manufactured to B&S/English specifications, along with the absence of a “culture of distension”, that lead many to a painful reckoning with the body. There are rumblings from the forward looking areas of the jewelry industry who see the benefit of shifting to millimeter units, but it seems that no individual company is prepared to take on the challenge (Interviews, Karnes & Planet 3).
Fig. 8: Visual comparison between Rate of Expansion between B&S/Inch (left) and millimeters (right)
Steadying the pace of growth might reduce the risk of blowouts and trauma that generate scar tissue and premature thinning of the lobe. The overhaul would also be an important opportunity to directly connect the object with the process, to educate and cultivate a sense of commitment, patience, wisdom and devotion that could create a measured and healthy lifelong practice. It would surely spread consistency amongst various producers in the hand-made sector, since the gauge system results in fractions that are inevitably rounded sloppily in one direction or the other.
In recent years, as in the early days of piercing, makers have entered the market who are sensitive to the needs of those engaged in distension and are passionately seeking the full potential of the art. Perhaps the highest level of craftsmanship in wood, bone, and stone comes out of Richmond, Virginia. Onetribe is a small-scale artisan studio which produces high-quality, limited-run work. Their commitment to the processes of hand-craft is a central factor in what sets them apart. It allows their staff to focus on the material at hand and to make intellectual and artistic decisions for the best use of a given mineral. Since the skill of each artisan increases over time, they have honed tolerances which are unmatched in the industry. Significantly, they set the bar higher for the rest of the field by releasing sophisticated custom pieces. They actively pursue design collaboration with other like-minded artists working in different media and processes, as with a set of plugs in ivoryite, red amber, and gold filigree (fig. 9). Quetzalli Jewelry brought their expertise in gold to handcraft a piece that would set into the stone carved by Onetribe, yielding an exceptionally delicate aesthetic statement which begins to connect a still marginalized practice to conventional notions of beauty and composition. Certainly this work is high end and one of a kind, and its superb execution begins to lift the expectations for the art.
Clearly, there is no way to predict the direction that the field will take in coming years. It is encouraging, however, to see that a small and growing group of artists are pushing the medium beyond its industrial-period plateau. These makers tend to use traditional or slow craft, to be conscious of the significance of material choice, deliberately limit production to maintain quality, and aspire to develop a sense of beauty legible in a broader social context. At the present moment, material is primary. If consumer demand is impacted by the availability of high-quality custom work, it may require the re-introduction of broader skills, including traditional silver and goldsmithing. The permanent nature of large distension would seem to ensure a maturing group of collectors who will need to maintain and expand their personal inventory over the years. The introduction of a new form of adornment into the repertoire of jewelry is relatively rare, and it seems a new horizon has finally appeared.
Fig. 9: (Top) Custom Work by Onetribe (src: company website) (Bottom) Onetribe / Quetzalli collaboration: Ivoryite, Red amber, Gold Filligree - 19mm
Cited Ward, Jim. “Legend & Legacy of Doug Malloy” The Point June 2003, #25 Musafar, Fakir. “Piercing Enlargement” PFIQ no.18 Mass, Megan. “Questioning Our Identity: An Open Letter to National Geographic” The Point #34, 16-19. Burton, John W. “Culture and the Human Body” Waverland Press, IL 2001. Vale, V. “Modern Primitives” Re/Search Publ. 1989. Ward, Jim. “The History of The Gauntlet” Presentation, APP Conference 2010 http://tv.bodymod.org/2010/5/17/The-History-of-The-Gauntlet-with-Jim-Ward-Episode-58/76/1 Weber, James. “On Writing” The Point Issue #41 Karnes, Jared. Informal Interview, January 2011, Richmond VA. Planet 3 Staff, Informal Interview, February 2011, Savannah GA.
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Klein, Daniel et al. “Ecuador: The Secret art of Precolumbian Ecuador” Milan 2007
Li, Victor. “The Neo-Primitivist Turn: critical reflections on alterity, culture, and modernity” Toronto 2006
Polhemus, Ted. “Hot Bodies Cool Styles: New Techniques in Self-Adornment” Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Scarry, Elaine. “The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World” New York, Oxford Univ. Press, 1987.
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Wojcik, Daniel. “Punk and Neo Tribal body art” Jackson, Univ. Mississippi 1995.
Contact the author with comments or questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contemporary images of piercing, suspension, and individuals with distended earlobes have been taken from BMEzine.com for educational, non-commercial purposes, and will be removed upon request if this constitutes a violation of terms-of-use.
submitted by: Meriken_Metals-1
on: 31 March 2011
in BME Culture