AS a child growing up in Bothwell, Dauvit Alexander would spend his days playing on a large rubbish dump near his home.
There, among the industrial and medicinal waste, he would unearth all sorts of amazing finds, including gas masks and old aerosol cans he once used to make an ersatz bomb. Another occasion, when he accidentally pricked himself with a syringe, resulted in a trip to A&E, drowsy and with dilated pupils. “So,” he says, “the interest in other people’s rubbish was in me from a very young age.”
Alexander, 48, is a jeweller who often uses old, discarded bits of metal and other industrial jetsam as the raw material of his work. He is a very striking figure – tall, solid, his head shaved, his dark beard long and full and beginning to turn wintry. He has the face of a medieval painter of icons or, perhaps, a member of the Bad Seeds. You don’t forget him. His first name, pronounced Dav-it, is Middle Scots. “The first king of Scotland was Dauvit, not David,” he explains, “and history books later anglicised it.”
He’s wearing a black T-shirt with Ag, the chemical symbol for silver, written across the front in white. On enormous hands, he wears examples of his own work: one ring is made from a large industrial nut and set with a garnet. Around his left bicep is a tattooed band of alchemical figures, all to do with the transformation of base metal.
The Justified Sinner is the name Alexander uses as a sort of “anti-brand” for the creation, sale and promotion of his work. He took it from James Hogg’s 1824 novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, of which he is an obsessive admirer. The most ambiguous character in the book, Gil-Martin, may or may not be a shape-shifting demon. For Alexander, there is in Gil-Martin a direct connection to his work – the way he takes found objects and changes their appearance and use.
We meet in Alexander’s workshop at North Glasgow College, where he works as a lecturer in jewellery; he lives in the east of the city. He is an enthusiastic guide to his own work, gleefully opening storage boxes to show me some of the raw material that may eventually become rings, brooches and pendants. “What have we got in here?” he says. “Vintage medical syringes; carved ivory acorns; a circuit board. Oh, look, this is great – ceramic false teeth, which I got at the Barras, six sets for a pound. Anything I find can end up in the work.” He has a whole jar full of rusty keys.
Travelling around Glasgow and the wider post-industrial landscape on his bike, he loves to visit derelict buildings and gap sites, often finding in these places the sort of objects he needs. He takes pleasure in the texture and dark grey colour of corroded iron, enjoying the way it looks when juxtaposed with gemstones and white silver. He also likes the fact that using found materials gives his pieces an instant sense of age and history. “I want my pieces to look like they’ve been dug up, like someone found them somewhere, cleaned them off and decided to wear them.”
His inspiration in all this is a huge Pictish silver chain, brutally heavy, discovered in Lanarkshire in 1869 and now on display at the National Museum of Scotland.
Washers, augers, taxidermic eyes. Kevlar from a bulletproof vest. Nails from an abandoned village. The lost limbs of Victorian dolls. All these and more go into the exuberant, excessive jewellery of the Justified Sinner; jewellery that often references religion, history and literature. So who exactly wears this stuff? “It won’t surprise you to hear I have quite a large biker clientele,” Alexander says. “Bikers, tattoo artists. I’ve had a lot of commissions for people looking for rings for same-sex partnerships.
“I did get a commission for a large cocktail ring from a woman who works for the United Nations. She’s a very small woman and said she was sick of going into meetings and having all these generals and chiefs-of-staff ignoring her. So she got this huge ring made with a massive amethyst on top of it, and at her next meeting these men sat for half an hour just amazed by this piece of jewellery.”
It takes a bold person to wear his work, he says. In fact, his jewellery is often so large and obtrusive that anyone wearing it must carry themselves more erect and confidently in order to accommodate the piece. Alexander himself has been refused entry to a club because he was wearing a pendant shaped like a medieval mace with golden spikes.
Although he is happy to sell to either gender, Alexander considers himself to be making work for men. But he finds it frustrating that most men will not wear elaborate, flashy jewellery for fear of being decried as effeminate or just plain weird. He notes dispiritedly that, last year, the biggest-selling piece of men’s jewellery was a tiny stainless steel pendant engraved with the Armani logo. “That’s the kind of thing I’m up against. You could have one of my pieces for the same price as you would pay for that piece of mass-production.
“I don’t see the point of walking into a high-street jewellers and just saying, ‘I’ll have that.’ Ultimately, it’s a cynical piece that is designed and created to make you spend money on it. I find that really upsetting because a piece of jewellery is really intimate. If you put a ring on, you are wearing something that is in such intimate contact with your body it should really mean something.”
If there is hope for a change in that conservative mindset, he believes it lies perhaps in the continuing cultural influence of hip hop and the way its bling aesthetic harks back to the religious jewellery of Renaissance Europe. “I think it’s Pharrell who wears a huge Jesus head covered in black and brown diamonds. To almost anybody it would be considered vulgar and tasteless, but I believe it is truly fantastic,” says Alexander. “If you go back to 1650, a piece like that would have been worn by a man. But somewhere down the line we’ve lost the ability for most men to express themselves through exciting jewellery that says something about them.”
This month, he will travel to Chicago to show four rings in a prestigious jewellery exhibition titled Gothic: Sinister Pleasures. The exhibition will also include work by Shaun Leane, known for collaborations with Alexander McQueen. Exhibitors were chosen by esteemed fashion historian and curator Valerie Steele. Alexander plans to attend in a kilt and is making, for the occasion, a brooch including a line from Macbeth– “Blood will have blood”. The piece is based around an old container cap he found years ago in a derelict garage in Dennistoun.
It is this fateful, almost redemptive aspect of his work Alexander seems to find most rewarding. As he says, “I could literally walk out of here and find something lying in the gutter that I can use to create something precious.”