Sculptors, Painters, and Jewelry Makers

When most people think of 20th-century art, they envision Picasso’s jangled portraits, Alexander Calder’s playful mobiles, or perhaps Salvador Dalí’s surrealist dreamscapes. Few think of jewelry. But in fact, all three of these famous artists designed jewelry—as did several others who were well-known by the 1950s. Much of it was innovative, some quite beautiful. Yet, of the millions who line up in museums every year to admire 20th-century artists, few ever see their wearable art.

The fact that Picasso made jewelry came to light only a couple of years ago, when surrealist Dora Maar died. Her estate contained a stash of jewelry made for her by Picasso, her former lover, in the late 1930s. It was crude but intimate—miniature framed portraits worn as brooches and rings as well as carved stone amulets (see “Picasso’s Unknown Jewelry,” JCK, October 1998, p. 84). And it proved very popular at auction, selling for $50,000 to more than $100,000 a piece.

In the 1960s, three decades after his secret gifts to Dora Maar, Picasso designed a limited production line of new jewelry in collaboration with François Hugo, a French goldsmith who was the grandson of author Victor Hugo. By then, the boundaries between fine art and craft were blurring, and artists of all kinds were experimenting with various media. Just as Picasso turned his playful and curious attention to ceramics for a while, jewelry also eventually struck his fancy.

Picasso’s 30 coveted pieces. The jewelry Picasso and Max Ernst produced with Hugo is of 23k gold, consisting of plaques engraved or sometimes (in Ernst’s case) molded with images from their drawings and paintings. One can’t help wishing Picasso had tried to translate his sculpture into wearable form. Nevertheless, there are pieces that are recognizably Picasso, and because he made only a limited amount—about 30-odd pieces, one dealer estimates—and signed each piece, they are highly collectible today.

The jewelry made by Picasso and Ernst was numbered, signed, and packed in fitted wooden boxes, with the images lithographed on the lid. One of the first to find and market these boxed treasures in the United States was Joan Sonnabend, who ran a Manhattan gallery of artist-made jewelry from 1972 to 1975. Sculpture to Wear was tucked into the famous Plaza hotel, which Sonnabend’s husband owned at the time. During its brief existence, the gallery helped launch a new appreciation and demand for jewelry made by artists of the day, both established and unknown. Some of the artists, like the young and then-unknown Robert Lee Morris, went on to become famous for jewelry rather than fine art.

When Sculpture to Wear opened, the artists whose jewelry was shown there were still alive and productive, including Picasso, Calder, Ernst, and Man Ray. Though legendary even then, they did not produce the overwhelming demand (and astronomical prices) that every napkin scribble by Picasso inspires today.

Sonnabend, who also sold modern paintings and sculpture—and still does in her Odelisk Gallery in Boston’s fashionable Beacon Hill—soon found that art jewelry, even jewelry made by famous artists like Picasso, was a hard sell. “Now people are beginning to understand this jewelry more,” she says. “But it was a tough battle for years. There was no market for it. I had to create a market.”

Given the limited amount of name-artist jewelry, she had to search aggressively. “Picasso made jewelry mostly for friends; it’s not like he was pumping it out,” she explains. “Max Ernst produced somewhat more, but only in editions of six. These were not jewelry designers, after all. They were painters who also made jewelry—with the exception of a few young people like Morris, who was very inventive in those days.”

What she couldn’t find, she solicited. “I was already selling painting, sculpture, and drawings. So, as I was traveling around seeing art, I’d say to the artist, ‘Why don’t you make a piece of jewelry for me?’ I figured, why shouldn’t we have art we can wear? It wasn’t about diamonds, you understand, it was about aesthetics.”

Indeed, while artists who handed over their designs to professional goldsmiths were producing jewelry in traditional precious metals, others whose work Sonnabend carried were experimenting in rubber and plastic. Roy Lichtenstein designed a series of pin/pendants that he had professionally enameled.

The wide influence of Calder. Alexander Calder worked mostly in brass and silver—materials similar to those used in his sculpture, which he could work himself. As a result, his jewelry has a rustic look. Most modern jewelry specialists agree, however, that it was not only among the most innovative of the name-artist jewelry but also a strong influence on Modernist studio jewelers of the day.

It makes sense that the man who invented the mobile would make interesting jewelry, since both involve movement and three dimensions. “Although an artist of remarkable achievements in sculpture, Calder placed equal importance upon his smaller works: toys, household gadgets, and jewelry,” writes Toni Greenbaum in Messengers of Modernism: American Studio Jewelry: 1940-1960 (Abbeville Press, 1996).

“Like many artists, especially sculptors, jewelry served as a model, almost, for larger pieces,” Greenbaum says. “That was certainly true of Calder. He just loved working with wire. It intrigued him.” As the artist himself once said: “I think best in wire.”

Calder began sculpting in wire in the mid-1920s, and by 1929 galleries in New York and all over Europe were exhibiting his jewelry along with his sculpture. Most of his jewelry was produced between 1933 and 1952, primarily for friends but also for sale, including private commissions he particularly enjoyed. Calder’s jewelry has a strong following among collectors, largely because he made each piece by hand. One way to identify a Calder fake, Sonnabend advises, is to look for evidence of solder. He always connected his elements with wire or rivets, never solder.

Collectors’ treasures. A pair of silver wire earrings by Calder (see photo on p. 320) sold at a Skinner auction several years ago for $17,250, well above the presale estimate of $8,000 to $12,000. In the same sale, two 23k gold Picasso pendants (see photos on p. 322 and p. 328) went for $12,650 and $8,625. These prices matched the $8,000-to-$12,000 presale estimate for both pendants.

Gloria Leiberman, who organized the sale as director of Skinner’s jewelry department, says that jewelry by Picasso and Ernst, as well as pieces by French painter André Derian, “were all very similar: plaques and faces. They were all trying their hands, but they were not jewelers. They were painters and sculptors. I think that their jewelry is very interesting to the collector of works by those artists but not as beautiful pieces of jewelry.”

Greenbaum is quick to point out, however, that the studio-made work still bears the mark of the artists who designed it. Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Georges Braque “really worked on their jewelry,” she says. “They worked symbiotically with the artisans who made it. So the hand of the artisan was an extension of the artist. It was only done that way because you need skills to work specific materials. Picasso, Braque, and Dalí were not skilled metalsmiths, whereas Calder was.”

As a jewelry designer, Dalí was probably as prolific as Calder, albeit in a less hands-on way. That much is obvious from the book he wrote in the 1970s: Dalí, a Study of his Art in Jewels: The Collection of the Owen Cheatham Foundation. Dalí is probably best known in the jewelry world as the artist who influenced the costume jewelry of Elsa Schiaperelli in the 1930s and ’40s. It was Schiaperelli who commissioned Dalí earliest surrealist jewelry like his telephone ear “rings.” (She also commissioned another Parisian surrealist, Jean Cocteau, who came up with a lacquered eye-shaped brooch with pearl teardrop.) During this period, Dalí designed a heart brooch dripping ruby blood and a melting-eye watch.

Dalí also produced, years later, a series of commemorative medallions for operas like Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, jewelry Leiberman describes as “horrible.” Many copies were produced years later. Dalí is one artist Sonnabend never carried in her gallery. “Dalí jewelry is a mixed bag,” she says. “There were so many ‘Dalí things that Dalí ever had anything to do with. Those extraordinary early pieces are rare and hard to find. So much was iffy. The world was flooded with phony Dalí and I was not interested in getting involved with stuff like that.”

The best of the artist jewelry. Man Ray was a different story. A surrealism exhibit in March at Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art featured Man Ray’s twisted gold “lampshade” earrings, which he made in two sizes: 2 in. and 5 in. “The lampshade earrings were famous, photographed once on Catherine Deneuve,” says Leiberman, who has sold a few pairs.

Of all the famous artists, Man Ray, who was also a skilled fashion photographer, produced the choicest jewelry. His designs not only reflected his “serious” art but also drew dramatic attention to the woman who wore it. He designed most of it in the early 1970s, scouring his entire retrospective for inspiration. Hints of drawings and sculptures dating to 1930 appear in his jewelry. Produced by Milan’s Gem Montibello in editions of 12, wearable Man Rays include “La Jolie,” a huge pendant of a female profile in 24k gold with lapis eyes, based on a 1961 drawing, and “The Occulist,” an eye-shaped brooch of 18k green and red gold and malachite based on a object he made in 1944.

Gem Montebello, which produced designs by Man Ray, had a reputation for turning out some of the most fascinating and imaginative artist-made jewelry in this period. Gian Carlo Montebello founded this workshop in 1967 with the purpose of collaborating with artists of international reputation. Many of the world’s top artists took him up on his offer to produce their designs using some of Europe’s most highly skilled goldsmiths. Sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, who designed the fountain in front of the Pompadou Center in Paris, was one. Like Man Ray, she produced red and green gold pieces through Gem Montebello, but hers were flamboyantly shaped and enameled. Belgian sculptor Pol Bury created amazing kinetic jewelry in collaboration with Gem Montebello, earrings and pendants with tiny moving filaments that look like something viewed through a microscope in a biology lab.

Jewelry as an art form. These artists by no means invented art jewelry. The turn-of-the-century decorative artists of the Arts and Crafts and art nouveau movements—particularly René Lalique —can be credited with that. But the paintings and sculpture of Picasso, Dalí, and Braque certainly influenced Modernist studio jewelry in mid-century, as did all of Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, and Surrealism. “What Picasso and Man Ray were doing in the middle of the century was entirely separate from Modernist jewelry being made by studio jewelry artists,” says Philadelphia gallery owner Helen Drutt English, who has done much since then to promote contemporary studio art jewelry.

Picasso and Man Ray undoubtedly helped draw attention to jewelry as an art form. “They lent it relevance,” says Leiberman. “This was a body of work by well-established artists, not jewelers.” Some would also say they paved the way for celebrity jewelry designers, Picasso’s granddaughter Paloma being one example. “Paloma is still mainstream jewelry,” Leiberman says. “If her name wasn’t Picasso and she wasn’t working for Tiffany, I don’t know. It makes people think, ‘Oh, we have artist-designed jewelry.’ ”

Meanwhile, the fine art world and the art-jewelry world have slipped back into separate categories. “I have not seen many contemporary artists making jewelry in recent years,” says Susan Cummins, who sells contemporary painting and sculpture as well as art jewelry through her gallery in Mill Valley, Calif. “Maybe artists are just all-consumed by what they’re doing at the moment and have no time to play. A lot of people who were successful painters and sculptors in the ’60s and ’70s were making jewelry for their friends or for their own amusement. I don’t think they were worried about making a commercial product, just creating and having a good time.”

One thing is certain: Artist-designed jewelry found a ready audience in the ’60s and ’70s. Though most of the artists who created it are either dead or no longer making jewelry, as Leiberman observes, “The artist-designed jewelry trend uncovered a niche in the market.” To some degree, that niche turned into a demand for both big-name designers and unique, self-expressive jewelry—and it’s been growing ever since.

Cathleen McCarthy, a Philadelphia freelance writer, specializes in articles about jewelry design, collectibles, retailing, and travel.