Postgraduate Lives: Cordelia Rogerson, PhD student at the Royal College of Art, London

'Plastic jewellery has value'
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The Independent Online

Cordelia Rogerson, 33, is doing a PhD on preserving jewellery made from plastics and rubber, at the Royal College of Art /Victoria & Albert Museum.

The thing about jewellery unlike, say, a painting, is that you can have a very personal, intimate relationship with it. I've always been interested in art, I'll never forget going to the V&A as a child and standing in their jewellery gallery. Jewellery is related to you, it is tactile; you wear it on your body. It's more integrated into your soul than a painting, which you can just observe.

Right now I'm wearing a pair of Perspex and metal foil earrings and a ring by the artist Wendy Sarah Pacey. You don't need to be wealthy to have plastic jewellery, but it is more expensive than the high street. The earrings cost £60 and the ring £120. But you can pay thousands of pounds for the magnificent jewellery made by Peter Chang, pieces that are very labour intensive.

Many people see plastic as a cheap, throwaway material. This was one reason for my PhD. People don't necessarily see this work as something to keep, they don't recognise its importance. But it is being collected by both museums and private collectors and we do need to preserve it.

The V&A has a growing modern jewellery collection by significant artists, while Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art has the most important non-precious jewellery collection in the country. I'm looking at artists' jewellery, which is unique and handcrafted, not status trinkets like engagement rings or mass-produced costume jewellery. Artist jewellery is art and it communicates a message. Wendy Pacey, for example, aims to make plastic precious.

My purpose is to determine how and to what extent rubber and plastics (such as acrylic, polyester resin and nylon) pose deterioration and conservation problems when they are used to create jewellery, and how to address these problems. Some of the jewellery in museums is now exhibiting dramatic deterioration. Despite what people think, plastic doesn't last forever and nylon, for example, can become yellow and brittle. There has been a lot of research into the deterioration of plastics, for example in furniture, but I'm applying this to jewellery, that's how my research is original.

The jewellery is usually displayed in museum cases, but this doesn't prevent damage caused by light or oxidation. The artist Christoph Zellweger has made two significant pieces from rubber and iron. Now, eight years after the pieces went on show, the rubber is stiff, they can't be handled and they can't be displayed.

There are also legal considerations, for example under the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works you can't destroy or alter a piece of art without the artist's consent.

I've now interviewed around 25 artists both established and new. I ask why they chose plastics, what is their message, do they want it to last and if it changed in appearance would this distort the message? My aim is to raise awareness. We should collect such pieces but we need to understand the limitations of what is in our hands.