The medically prescribed jewellery of Olga Noronha

Health problems that require surgical intervention can be traumatizing in more than one way, even when they are not life-threatening. In addition to physical pain, patients also have to deal with the psychological discomfort of knowing their bodies invaded by foreign objects and subjected to procedures over which they have no control. The work of Portuguese jewellery designer Olga Noronha (who is currently a PhD student at Goldsmiths Design) aims to put a positive spin on these experiences by allowing patients to get involved and to make themselves more beautiful on the inside in the process- literally.

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Turning repulsion into attraction

Olga is the daughter of medical professionals –an orthopedic surgeon and a GP- so talk of medical procedures has always been around her. It was, however, her lifelong phobia of needles that first made her think of using medical devices in her work: “My biggest wish was to overcome it. I couldn’t control myself once I knew someone was going to give me an injection”. Olga decided to test whether rejection can turn into attraction if you expose yourself more to the object of your rejection, as some psychiatric theories claim. During the development of her BA graduation project, while collecting needles and other tools with the help of her parents, she became aware of the similarities between medical tools and techniques and those used by jewelers, and started thinking more and more about ways in which she could connect two practices that are such different in spirit.

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Olga’s father was initially very skeptical of her ideas, but gradually warmed up to them as Olga gathered support from other medical practitioners- bioengineers and doctors. As a result, their relationship has improved: “Somehow, people from pragmatic fields who don’t really believe in art were believing in the project, and that made him believe as well. Now he’s my right arm, and everything that I need, he does it for me”. As part of her research, Olga started watching her father in the operating theater. „I didn’t think that I would stand that, but it was very interesting, a mixture of very weird smells and noises, and the person with an epidural anaesthesia asking “Are you operating me to the right knee?…” When it’s all over, Olga collects some of the unused materials for her work.

Beautiful on the inside

Olga’s first medically-themed collection, Conflict: Rejection/Attraction, includes earrings made from syringe or suture needles, bone staple rings and orthopedic supports and braces with a more aesthetically pleasing design and colours that blend with the skin. Conflict: Rejection/Attraction II takes the concept further by re-designing surgical implants. „The idea is: even though you’re sick and you need to have your body repaired, you have the chance to have your say in how you want your body to be repaired”, Olga says. That doesn’t currently happen with medical procedures- hip prosthetics, for instance, are standardised: everyone gets the same one; even though to a designer like Olga, they’re a wonder of engineering, patients may find them frightening, which is why, in order to avoid rejection, the implant is usually not shown to them before surgery. „It’s very invasive, it gives you a different quality of life, of course, but there’s still that stigma, and preconception that the body should stay the way it is, it shouldn’t be messed up with engineered materials and things that aren’t supposed to be inside it”. Most patients who require hip replacements are older than 50, and tend to be more traditional and skeptical of scientific advances. Besides, metal is a material which feels foreign and cold, and people start to wonder about their own bodily identity: does having a metal implant bring you closer to being a robot somehow?

Olga’s idea is to twist this rejection around: instead of hiding the implant from the eyes of the patients, doctors and designers can work together to offer them the option of having their implants „beautified”: made of gold or silver, set with diamonds, encrusted with a poem that the patient can see on X-rays. Olga believes that allowing patients to make decisions and take back some control can help them recover better and cope with the physical pain, as well as make themselves unique in the process. Other innovations proposed in the collection are clavicle plates that fix your bone and simultaneously decorate your skin with a „necklace” of diamonds sticking out from the plate like piercings; and stitches that make the skin heal around a golden chain, leaving an embedded embroidery. Body art and medicine are thus joined together-health problems are unpleasant experiences (and make us „realize we’re not superhuman”, Olga says), but we can claim own them and personalise them. Olga mentions being inspired by singer and model Viktoria Modesta, known for her intricately designed prosthetic legs. „Prostethics are tailored for each person- measurements have to be taken, and that’s what interests me, I don’t want to do things that fit everyone. I only work for commissions, I make all the pieces myself, and I like that close relationship with a person, where I understand all the measurements, and the sizes, and the scales, and the personalities that would be behind the pieces.”

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Functional and beautiful

One of Olga’s guiding principles in this project is making sure that the objects are not dissociated from their medical purpose- she has developed them with advice from her father and other medical practitioners to ensure that, at least in theory, they would remain functional. Some of the devices will need to be tested, first in laboratories, then in clinical tests- Olga wants to be able to assess their functionality with certainty, and to answer any question that can be thrown at her. Another important aspect for her is sticking with the concept of „medically prescribed jewellery”- the devices would only be available to people who truly need the medical interventions associated with them, unlike regular body art. However, she admits that if the project becomes more popular and takes a life of its own, she will not be able to control it anymore: „By the end, I don’t know what will happen, people might decide to stitch themselves with a chain just because they like it.”

Olga is not afraid of the reactions that a topic like this could stir- in fact, she welcomes them. She prefers causing strong, visceral responses and introspection, rather than bland admiration, and she likes her work to stand out. „Everything I do has to have a meaning. If you give me a concept and you show me a bit of your personality and give me freedom to design, I’ll be happy. I usually tend to go to big scales. I don’t like to be unseen, to just go past someone, I like people to look at the pieces and wonder why they are the way they are, and the point that some other people have may be different from mine, but that’s what makes the work alive.” In the following months, Olga’s creations will be featured in various exhibitions: in July, she will take part in Paris Fashion Week with a different project, unrelated to medicine; then, in September, she will exhibit in Portugal and at Portuguese Fashion Week; at the beginning of next year, some of her pieces will represent Portugal alongside pre-Roman artefacts in Brazil. And she keeps working and continuously trying to improve: „I like to set myself challenges. You might say that something is beautiful, but if I don’t like it, I’m not going to sleep until I have it done my way.” Olga doesn’t enjoy reading stories too much- once the story is over, it’s over for good, whereas non-fiction books can always give you a lead to more reading, she says. We only have to wait and see where Olga will find inspiration next.

Check out Olga’s website– decked in surgical green- to see more of her work.

Nadia Barbu

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