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HELSINKI, Finland — Inni Parnanen experienced a turning point in her jewelry design work when she set aside metals to experiment with unconventional materials like birch bark, paper towels and the translucent sheaths of keratin found inside a cow’s horn.

Now, she regards such highly fragile substances as her trusted collaborators, letting them guide her as she fashions brooches, necklaces and rings in the hope she will stumble upon something unexpected — a question, an idea, a feeling — to take up in her next piece.

“These materials have a will of their own,” Ms. Parnanen said, holding up a necklace that in the soft autumn light streaming through her studio window resembled a string of luminous pasta shells but actually was intricately rolled and stitched pieces of animal parchment — the processed calfskin, sheepskin or goatskin traditionally used as paper. “You can’t just do what you want with them. You must learn from them what is possible. You have to listen to them.”

To watch the afternoon sun filter through one of Ms. Parnanen’s translucent and almost weightless creations is to wonder how such jewelry can be anything but vulnerable in the hands of its maker. But Ms. Parnanen and others who work with fragile materials say the substances provide an outlet for artistic expression not found in conventional metals and gemstones. And the pieces are wearable.

Her Mon Bijoux necklace, for example, has opaque orbs of animal parchment strung on gilded wire, each bearing an image stitched in catgut thread of an embryo in one of nine stages of development. (She made the necklace while pregnant with her first child.) The fibers are eerily visible in the sheer parchment, which she stretched to paper-thinness over a spherical mold to create the orbs. Similarly, a brooch created in 2002 features keratin that Ms. Parnanen scraped from a cow horn obtained from a slaughterhouse. She then scored and rolled the semitransparent material to create a piece that evokes the mysterious trinity of fragility, functionality and durability found in nature — the kind of combination seen in shells, honeycombs and the skeletons of birds and small animals.

“Nature’s structures are fragile but have this amazing durability built into them to protect them wherever they are,” Ms. Parnanen said. “I wanted to understand how these materials work, and how I can bend them and shape them; how I can use them in my work.” She has exhibited throughout Europe and the United States, including, in recent years, at the “LOOT: MAD about Jewelry” exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, where she is set to exhibit again in 2017.

While contemporary art jewelry is thriving internationally, its popularity continues to be confined to a niche community of collectors and enthusiasts, said Elena Rosenberg, an award-winning artist and jewelry designer in Scarsdale, N.Y., who has written extensively about wearable fiber art and contemporary art jewelry.

“Like other art collectors, this is a passionate, adventurous and devoted group,” she said. “Unfortunately, on the radar of popular culture, innovative jewelry still makes only an occasional bleep.”

Contemporary art jewelers primarily cultivate a following through gallery representation, Ms. Rosenberg said. They also attract customers by winning awards and participating in international design, art and craft shows that generate press coverage. And then there are electronic avenues. “Social media has opened up new routes for artists, including jewelry artists,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “But the challenge of finding an audience is a perpetual one for artists.”

The designers typically aren’t producing or selling in particularly high volume, she added, and in some cases purely on a commissioned basis, she said. Prices for such jewelry can start at less than $500 and easily reach into the several thousands, especially when pricey materials or stones are involved.

“I would argue that there has never been a more exciting time to explore this realm than now,” Ms. Rosenberg said. Among artists like Ms. Parnanen who have established firm followings, she added, are Yong Joo Kim, Mariko Kusumoto and Myung Urso.

A brooch made of paper by Michihiro Sato of Japan.

“With such an abundance of work being created, work that defies convention on multiple levels, it’s an exhilarating and abundant time to delve into the world of studio art jewelry,” she said

Growing up in Helsinki, Ms. Parnanen enjoyed sewing as a child and later became fascinated with bones, skin and organs through her mother, a veterinarian pathologist. Her first hands-on experience with animal parchment came during a bookbinding apprenticeship she completed before earning a goldsmith degree at Lahti Design Institute, in Lahti, Finland. Then came a master’s in craft design from the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, formerly the University of Art and Design Helsinki.

“I had this small piece of parchment, and I saved it,” said Ms. Parnanen, who often collects and sets aside materials, only to take them up again much later when inspiration suddenly hits. “Like six or seven years later, I noticed that it stretches like skin and that I can make things from it.”

Skin is another recurring theme in her work. During an artist’s residency in Italy in 2009, Ms. Parnanen discovered she could create an ethereal yet durable material by dipping pieces of paper towel in wax and then singeing the edges. The result was Ordinary Beauty, a ring bearing a voluminous paper flower whose crinkly petals she likens to her grandmother’s delicately wrinkled skin.

Ms. Parnanen said her clients both collect and wear her work. While undeniably fragile, it is no less so than a delicate silk scarf or a pricey pair of shoes that could be harmed by extreme weather, she said.

To protect his delicate paper brooches and pendants, Michihiro Sato, a Japanese jewelry designer based in Osaka, uses a special paint made from cashew-shell oil. He also will add layers of paper in certain parts of a piece to create stability and durability.

A ring from the Dust collection, by Agusta Sveinsdottir.

“I’m working with the concept related to fragility in my jewelry work,” he wrote in an email. “But when I see the aspect of commercial product in jewelry, it is necessary for me to take measures to cope with the situation.”

Mr. Sato first discovered paper as a medium in the 1990s while living in Germany, where he made paper construction models for exhibition booths. Once he found a block of shaved paper in the trash at an event, and its beauty captivated him.

Now, decades later, his sensuously rounded pieces explore the notion of fragility in connection with birth, life and death, and how it can evoke simultaneous feelings of confusion and sadness but also peace and beauty, themes often explored in Buddhist writings. “A state of an object causing such feeling seems to me to reflect the essence of fragility,” said Mr. Sato, who teaches at the Itami College of Jewelry and Osaka University of Arts.

Similarly, Agusta Sveinsdottir’s work explores the human aversion to death and decay that has resulted in the creation of durable yet environmentally hazardous substances such as nonbiodegradable plastic.

Her Dust collection of bracelets and rings features stone-settings made from dust particles she collects from abandoned farms throughout her native Iceland. After being mixed with a starch-based solution, the dust hardens into what she calls a “jewel.”

The stones in her pieces, however, are designed to disintegrate over time to reveal a metal skeleton-like structure beneath, said Ms. Sveinsdottir, who designed the collection as her final project while a student at the Iceland Academy of the Arts.

Through the fragile material Ms. Sveinsdottir shares a strong message.

“In this world, everything existing is linked to the process of birth, decay and disappearance,” she said. “I believe this law of nature should also apply to the objects man makes.”

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