Marjan Unger Tribute 2019

3 February 2020

Last year jewellery expert Marjan Unger passed away. Where there was jewellery, there was Marjan and she also left many a footprint on the floor of SIERAAD Art Fair. This year, in the central exhibition, in the heart of the fair, several well-known jewellery designers will pay a special tribute to this grande dame of jewellery.

No jewellery was beneath her.
If ever there was a person who loved jewellery, it surely was art historian Marjan Unger. She was a teacher, gave lectures, wrote many books and articles, and knew everthing there was to know about Dutch jewellery in the 20th century. Her personal motto was: no polish without friction. The nice thing about Marjan Unger was that in spite of her tremendous knowledge, she always remained genuinely enthusiastic and curious. With a twinkle in her eyes and her sharp but affectionate opinion, she inspired all those who heard her talk. Travel souvenirs, old family pomp, common-or-garden jewellery, fashion houses blingbling: nothing was beneath her. She was always looking for links with other disciplines, from fashion to sociology. To her the value of the material was inconsequential, it was the meaning the piece had for the wearer that mattered. Her broad outlook opened the windows wide and forever influenced the way we think about jewellery.

Memorial in material
How do you reflect on the loss of someone like Marjan Unger? Good friend and fashion journalist John de Greef, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam together with the organisation of SIERAAD Art Fair found a very appropriate way of doing just that. Thirteen jewellery desginers were asked to show a piece of jewellery that connects them with Marjan Unger. They include makers with all kinds of backgrounds, from contemporaries to former students. On one occasion Chequita Nahar made the pendant ‘Cocon tapu’ for her, with small elements each of which meant something to Marjan. In Suriname a ‘tapu’ is a small holder for items that may give the wearer strength. Marleen Ramaeckers, a fellow townswoman from Bussum, shows striking strings of gems that Marjan often radiantly wore. Jewellery designer and gallerist Paul Derrez explains his contribution: “I made the pendant ‘Face’ in 1994 and during the creational process I thought it would especially appeal to gays because of its erotic ambiguity; Marjan wore it when she travelled by train, fully aware of and enjoying the confusing attention she generated. The other day I made the necklace ‘The Tongue’, with the same tongue-in-cheek humor that Marjan appreciated so much in my work. I can see her wearing it, which makes me happy and sad at the same time”. Memories and emotions like melancholy, pride and cheerfulness are captured in material. As Marjan herself knew, jewellery can help you commemorate and can give you comfort and courage.

“Speaking with beads” is about the love of beads Marjan Unger and Chequita Nahar shared, and ethnic beads in particular. “We regularly discussed the meaning and value of beads and the misconceptions about them. Often they are not considered as jewellery, but as elements of mere decoration. To me beads are fascinating because of their symbolic value and the role they played in the past in the monetary system, as language and on account of their function in society or rituals. Our conversations about the meaning and added value of beads, and of jewellery in general, have enhanced my love, curiosity and the need to pass this on. “Speaking with beads” is the start of a collection in which I want to translate the instrinsic values of the medium bead. A tribute, together with pieces that refer to precious or important moments in which Marjan played a role.”

BEPPE KESSLER  ‘Material is the vehicle of my thoughts’, was what Marjan wrote about Beppe Kessler’s work in 1992. It also became the title of an exhibition in Galerie Ra where the ‘pin cushion’ (exhibited here) was on display. ‘Marjan was the first to buy one of my drawings – for Gerard. It was a combination of embroidery and drawing, with dancing lines looking like letters’. Marjan had a personal relationship with Beppe and her work. In 1986, when Marjan was the curator of an opening exhibition in the renovated Tilburg Textielmuseum, she also used work of Beppe Kessler. ‘With my work I could not be pigeonholed, just as Marjan looked beyond the horizons of a certain discipline. The “Plastictasjesarmband” dates from that same year. To me intangible things are inspiring phenomena somewhere between knowing and seeing. “2019 Fata Morgana” also belongs in this category’.

Evert Nijland got to know Marjan Unger when in the 1990s he was a student at the goldsmithing department of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, where she was a teacher of art history. Her classes ranged across far wider fields than just jewellery; she also discussed textiles, glass, ceramics and fashion with passion, humor and expertise’. ‘In my final year she supported my work, even though she was the only one to do so. Typical of Marjan: always on the barricades for students who might drop out or had principles that were controversial, but whose individuality and originality she sensed, even long before that vision was expressed in the finished work’. “She showed the confidence she had in me once again when she asked me in 1995 to enroll for a master’s degree at the department of ‘Creative Design’, which she had just set up at the Sandberg Instituut of the Rietveld Academy. The pendant from the series Pendants from 1997 is an example of my final exam series of the Sandberg Instituut. I will always remain grateful to Marjan for the confidence she had in my work and me’. ‘As an art historian and jewellery expert Marjan had a great love of ancient art and antique jewels, a love I shared with her. My necklace Rococo from 2009 is based on 18th century Meissen porcelain from Germany’. ‘In 2014, as a jury member of the Stokroos stipend for contemporary silver, she asked me to experiment with the combination silver and glass. I had been working with these materials for years, but her request increased my awareness of this combination. I had the two materials enter into a direct confrontation, thanks to Marjan’s vision’.

Felieke van der Leest knows that Marjan Unger greatly appreciated the playfulness, light irony and humor in her work and she, in turn, appreciates Marjan’s enthusiasm and broad views. ‘Her art history classes also dealt with subjects other than you would normally expect. For example, one day we were asked to buy some chocolates at a traditional chocolatier and she gave us clear instructions what type of chocolates to buy. During her class we tasted (those nutmegchocolates proved to be unexpectedly delicious!) and discussed: did the form fit the taste? And the smell, and the color? The design of the exhibitions at the Sex Museum, the Torture Museum and the Hashish Museum in Amsterdam was also a topic of discussion. ‘How were the objects displayed? Was there a match between contents and design? Could it have been done better?’

Gijs Bakker wants to pay tribute to Marjan Unger with just one object, ‘Dew Drop’. Our first meeting came about through my necklace ‘Dew Drop’ from 1982. The start of a relationship he describes as ‘Challenging and confronting each other, but always respecting each other’s points of view’. Marjan could understand the ‘Dew Drop’ necklace because, according to her, it had to do with fashion, which ultimately was her real background’. The mutual character of their relationship also clearly comes to the fore in the dedication Marjan Unger wrote in September 2004 on the blue cover page of her hefty book ‘Dutch Jewellery in the 20th century”: To Gijs, who through his own work ensured that it took me 10 years to write this book’.


Marjan Unger’s attention was pretty quickly drawn to the design of Maria Hees. ‘Marjan had become acquainted with my work before she met me. In 1978 she was one of the first people to buy and wear my gardenhose bracelets’, followed not long afterwards by the purchase by her husband and type designer Gerard Unger of Maria’s wire briefcase. ‘I remember he was pleasantly surprised when he received my bill, which was set in his typeface: the Swift. Since that time I met Marjan and Gerard many times, a privilege. Marjan’s contribution to the promotion and appreciation of Dutch Jewellery and Dutch Design, and thus of my work, has been invaluable. Marjan’s doctoral degree ceremony, which I attended, was an unforgettable event, all the more remarkable because she was the first PhD student in the field of jewellery’


Marleen Rameckers says her work is a quest for balance in form, color and texture, but that with her jewellery she especially wants to compliment the wearer. Marjan Unger recognized this and repaid the compliment. ‘She found it refreshing to meet a designer who makes jewellery that is “simply beautiful”. When I met Marjan, it turned out I had met not only a prominent and walking reference manual, but also a sweet neighbour. In the following years we developed a friendship that was very dear to me and which, as things go with neighbours, often had nothing to do with “work”. We spent long evenings around the table with her and Gerard, endlessly chatting and listening to their stories about times past and sometimes about times to come. Apart from all this, consciously and unconsciously, Marjan was always very supportive and encouraged me to keep following the path I had chosen’.


Melvin Anderson got to know Marjan Unger through his husband, well-known fashion illustrator Arie Vervelde, when early in the 1980s she was involved in setting up a fashion exhibition in the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum. ‘Marjan asked me what I was working on. Which was creating designs. She found them so beautiful, different and impressive that she selected not only Arie’s illustrations, but my work as well’. At a later date Melvin switched to glass. “Marjan was also very interested in Arie’s curatorship of my glass objects in the Leerdam Glasmuseum. That’s why I asked her to open the exhibition together with the authorized Minister of the Antilles. On that occasion she wore my green tube necklace, one of my first excursions into the realm of glass jewellery. During a Christmas dinner I gave her a green marblechain necklace, which was included in her donation to the Rijksmuseum. During our conversations she often held my hand or gave me a hug. Marjan was sweet and warm ánd a severe judge of my work and that of others. She knew exactly what she liked and didn’t like.


Mieke Groot can look back on a friendship of almost 40 years with Marjan Unger. ‘Apart from our contacts at the Rietveld Academy, there were conferences, sitting on juries together and curiosity that took us to various locations in the world, from Holland to Senegal and many places in between. Intense, happy and informative times seasoned with hilarious moments. The jewellery collection of Marjan and Gerard has found a home in the Rijksmuseum. However, Marjan’s passionate collecting did not stop at Dutch jewellery. With her wide-ranging interests plus her unerring feeling for quality she collected objects from different cultures and brought these together in her various collections, whereby I shared her passion for and love of ethnic jewellery. Marjan had acquired the art of enjoyment – whether it concerned her cherished collections, a good espresso, an inspiring exhibition, an unusual string of beads or a delicious chocolate. Her broad smile underlined the pleasure she derived from things large and small. Master of the art of living, who shared her beads with me from time to time, but always that infectious joy.


Designer and gallerist Paul Derrez calls Marjan Unger ‘A fan of my work. She bought it and wore it with verve. For instance, she would wear my ‘Face’ pendant from 1994, which I thought would appeal to gays in particular because of its erotic ambiguity, when she travelled by train, fully aware of and enjoying the confusing ideas she generated in others in doing so. The same goes for the ‘Pill-roulette-brooch’ from 2003, which refers to the use of pills as a cure for disease, but also as a party drug, with the risk of passing out. In the booklet about my work from the period 1975-2015 Marjan wrote highly favourably about the DOT-brooch from 2014 for which I received the Herbert-Hofman-Prize in 2015. I am very proud that Marjan donated these pieces to the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum. I recently made the necklace The Tongue with the same tongue-in-cheek humor that Marjan appreciated so much in my work. I can just picture her wearing it, which makes me happy and sad at the same time’

RAVAGE @ravageart

Clemens Rameckers and Arnold van Geuns, the two gentlemen behind Ravage who work and live in France, like to illustrate the mutual love between Marjan Unger and Ravage by means of the following dialogue: Marjan: “What did you think of my thesis on Dutch Jewellery?” Ravage: “Wonderful, of course!…very impressive! However, there seems to be a definite lack of tiaras and parures in Dutch Jewellery”. Marjan: “Well, you are the ones to make up for this!” Marjan sent them the book with the following dedication: “This book may contain the reason why you live in France, but it also contains the reason why we are friends’

Ruudt Peters remembers Marjan Unger as a critic and expert whose comments could at times be biting. ‘She would be on her feet, wobbling a bit, her head held down and then make some astute observation.’ Marjan Unger wrote about the various references in the PASSIO collection of Ruudt Peters from 1992: ‘Just consider the names of the pendants: Helegabalus, Artemis, Melchior, Balthasar, Caspar, Isis….and Machiavelli. All of them names of historical figures…and biblical figures. Fragments of their histories spring to mind.…It is the maker who gives meaning to the form and the total of the series’. And then Marjan quotes the maker, Ruudt Peters: “The title says everything about what occupies my mind. In PASSIO there is the passion for life, eroticism and the theatre, but also death, drama and silence. The essence of life is its completion, death which gives value to life….It is jewellery, meant to be worn, but with names like Antinoüs and Ludwig I refer to the pain that accompanies beauty. It is erotic, but not unequivocal. It is androgynous, meant to hang between a woman’s breasts, but is not out of place on a man’s body and the tapering vase shape is pointing down’.

Willem Noyons is the maker of the unique gold M-shaped piece of jewellery, which Marjan frequentely wore and talked about with great pleasure and dedication. Willem Noyons created it in consultation with her husband Gerard Unger. ‘It is based on Gerard’s last digital font (letter), the Alverata, and he, in turn, based his design for the font on medieval inscriptions, letters carved in stone. His font is flat, my design, based on his letter M is three-dimensional. Not only does it have a certain thickness, but also a v-shaped cross-section. The upward v in my design is the inward v of the groove of a letter carved in stone. The M has been modelled in 3d, printed and cast in gold. There is also a grey version, printed in metal. Gerard and I found each other in the scrupulousness, which we apply to our craft. Ours has a long tradition and and we are innovating. With a sense of humor and never-wavering curiosity’.

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