"So on the charm bracelet you've got a bottle of Femfresh, a tampon in a wrapper, a tampon, a sanitary towel, and that's a box of Tampax right there."
London-based artist Lili Murphy-Johnson is showing me her collection of period-inspired jewelry. At just 22 years old, she's already making a name for herself in the jewelry world, and is currently working under renowned luxury jeweler Shaune Leane, despite only graduating from University of the Arts London this summer.
Murphy-Johnson's collection uses the imagery of periods to explore the idea of female bodily shame and debunk the taboo around menstruation. What this means is literal terms is spotless white panties hand-beaded with glistening red crystals and sanitary towel silver rings overlaid with ruby-red studs.
I caught up with Murphy-Johnson at the Broadly offices in London to check out some key pieces from her final collection and find out why menstruation has become her artistic inspiration.
Broadly: Hi Lili. What inspired your period-themed jewelry?
Lili Murphy-Johnson: So, I get quite bad PMS, and that was the main start to the project. I wanted to create jewelry that imitated the way I felt when I was like that. It was the emotional side of periods that got me into creating period-inspired jewelry. My work explores how periods affect our bodies.
We don't tend to associate periods with jewelry in popular culture.
I wanted to create beautiful jewelry out of something that is conventionally seen by society to be shameful. Periods should be a normal thing to talk about, but so often we feel embarrassed. I wanted my collection to take on the quality of jewelry that I like, but using the qualities of that jewelry to show people that periods can be beautiful. People don't usually think they can be.
I hear that Etsy took your earlier period-inspired collection off the website for breaching their terms and conditions.
Yeah, some of the photography on the earlier collection was deemed to be inappropriate. But I sold pieces to Sweden and the USA as well as in Britain before they took the listing down. Some of them were bulk orders, so I like to think that groups of girls bought matching period necklaces.
Where do you draw your inspiration? Do you spend all your time hanging out in the sanitary aisle at Boots drugstores?
I'm there quite a lot actually! I'm always going and buying new stuff.
Do you get annoyed by how the feminine hygiene industry markets towards women?
I wanted to make fun of the feminine hygiene industry with my work. You know—the woman in white pants and the 'you feel fantastic' messaging. All of that stuff just exists to sell products, but it makes women feel shameful. It tells you that your body shouldn't be okay as it is. It should be different.
What sort of reaction do you get when you wear your pieces out?
I've worn the red blob piece on a simple dress, and people are always kind of shocked when they see it and when they realise what it is they ask me about it. The reaction's usually positive, though.
Your new collection is really wearable. Would you like to see period-inspired jewelry being sold more widely?
I'd definitely like to see period-inspired jewelry being sold in Topshop! Anything to make periods more normal. My earlier collection was more experimental, though. It looked at the emotional side of how periods affect our bodies.
Like the bouncing ball necklaces?
They represented the irritability of periods—that sense of swelling and frustration you often get. I was trying to find a parallel to what people find irritating in jewelry and when I did research online people kept complaining about how they hate it when necklaces bounce on their chests. It's all about that idea of being swollen and irritable and having things on your chest.
What about your plans for the future—are you going to stick with the period theme?
So at the moment I'm working under [renowned luxury jeweler] Shaun Leane, and I want to revisit my earlier work using the technical skills I've learnt with him to create more wearable pieces. The ultimate intention is to eventually create something that's more mainstream and commercially friendly.
Aside from Shaun Leane, who are your inspirations?
For this collection I was really inspired by a lot of female artists. So Sarah Lucas—she describes women's bodies in a really interesting, material based way. Or Oriana Fox—she makes these Disney Princess cakes that you slice open and they're full of menstrual blood.
What do you think about the jewelry industry more generally?
The jewelry industry is female-focused, but not in a way I like. It's all centered on the idea that a man gives a woman a piece of jewelry. And it's beautiful, and it's expensive, and it confers worth [on that woman]. And the woman's always photographed wearing the jewelry in a very passive way.
I'd like to see this change, so that we are moving towards a jewelry look that isn't just about expense and beauty, but about an object in relation to your body. I want jewelry to be about more than just the idea of beauty. Jewelry needs to be seen as something that women buy for themselves.
Read More: When Your Period Tries to Kill You
Periods have been in the news a lot lately—I don't know if you saw the debate around the tampon tax in Parliament, for example. Is it important to you that your jewelry can help make a broader point about periods in our society?
Art should allow people to talk about things openly, without shame. So many of the problems in our society and other societies come when people aren't able to talk about periods openly—for example in those countries where people don't have access to sanitary products.
We need to be able to talk about periods more openly so that we don't have these problems. That's what I want to do with my jewelry. I want to create something that can be worn without shame or disgust.