A description of the origins of steampunk and its current popularity in today's jewelry designs.
Let’s start at the beginning. What is steampunk? According to a brief description I found at Beading Daily: "The steampunk culture takes its cues from the Victorian era, and speculates on how our world would be different if steam power had become the driving force behind our culture. Gears and watch hands are used to decorate larger pieces. Old-fashioned keys are also very popular, as are bits of antique cast-offs, such as pill cases, thread cutters and tiny knives."
The movement not only encompasses jewelry, but also clothing, goggles, and other fashion accessories such as boots and hats. This, I found out by conducting a search for "steampunk" on Google.
The earliest images of the steampunk culture can be traced back as early as 1962, according to a chronology that used to be listed at Steampunkopedia, a Polish website. One item on the list surprised me, but the more I thought about it, the more it made perfect sense to be included: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1968. It certainly was a depiction of blending of Victorian-era and modern technology for the time, wasn’t it?
Although its roots are much older, the actual term "steampunk" wasn't created until the late 1980s. As cited on Wikipedia, according to Jesse Sheidlower's Science Fiction Citations,
“Although many works now considered seminal to the genre were published in the 1960s and 1970s, the term steampunk originated in the late 1980s as a tongue in cheek variant of cyberpunk. It seems to have been coined by the science fiction author K. W. Jeter, who was trying to find a general term for works by Tim Powers (author of The Anubis Gates, 1983), James Blaylock (Homunculus, 1986) and himself (Morlock Night, 1979 and Infernal Devices, 1987) which took place in a 19th-century (usually Victorian) setting and imitated conventions of actual Victorian speculative fiction such as H. G. Wells's The Time Machine. In a letter to the science fiction magazine Locus, printed in the April 1987 issue, Jeter wrote:
Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I'd appreciate your being so good as to route it [to] Faren Miller, as it's a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in ‘the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate’ was writing in the ‘gonzo-historical manner’ first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like "steampunks", perhaps...
— K.W. Jeter
Steampunk jewelry is coming back into fashion, as demonstrated by mentions in recent issues of the email newsletters for magazines such as Beading Daily (3/3/10), which featured a how-to article for a steampunk faux rivet charm bracelet; Bead & Button Show News (2/19/10), which featured a number of steampunk piece classes offered at the Bead & Button Show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin June 6-13, 2010; and Art Jewelry (2/11/10), which featured a steampunk-themed ad for Whole Lotta Whimsey, a website that sells materials for craftspeople. The ad promoted a how-to blog entry for making a steampunk clasp.
I first learned about steampunk through an Advanced Wire Jewelry class I took at The Adult School of Madison, Chatham and Florham Park in New Jersey last fall. One of the kits the teacher offered was a necklace featuring the inside mechanism of a vintage watch in a claw setting as the focal piece. She referred to the look as “steampunk” in passing. There was also another necklace kit that incorporated a small cog in it and we wired a pearl into the center of the cog as part of the bail for the pendant. That was also an example of steampunk jewelry. Both concepts were created by sb designs.
In mid-February, I was shopping at A.C. Moore and I saw a lyre pendant with gears as part of the design. It’s not a true steampunk piece because the gears are not real ones affixed to the larger piece, but it is inspired by the steampunk movement. However, the item was indicated on the receipt to be a steampunk piece, listed as AN PNDT METAL STMPUNK LYRE OXB. Assuming I am correctly interpreting the abbreviations, it is called Angel Pendant Metal Steampunk Lyre Oxidized Brass; it was manufactured by Creativity Inc.’s Blue Moon Beads division.
I also bought some gears and cogs on eBay this past spring for use in my Metalwork & Jewelry class projects at Montclair State University, Montclair, New Jersey. When I conducted a search for “steampunk supplies,” 488 listings came up. The trinket box pictured was my final project for the semester.
What I like best about this concept is that family heirlooms that may have lost their usefulness in their original form can now find new life being revisited or reincarnated into new pieces. As the saying goes, "what is old is new again." Even if your grandfather's watch is broken and doesn't fit on your wrist, you can still carry part of it with you in another fashion...accessory!