American Jewelry Design: The Wild Child Grows Up

Diverse. Eclectic. Innovative. Free.

Even designers can’t agree on one word to describe American jewelry design. It has no specific look, no one trait that shouts “American.” From Henry Dunay’s dazzling diamond creations to Michael Good’s graceful curls to Richard Kimball’s elemental textures and colors to David Yurman’s fashionable sterling cable bracelets,American jewelry design remains as startling and unique as the individuals who create it.

If you had to pick one word to describe American jewelry design, what would it be?

“Eclectic” – Whitney Boin

“Free” – Jose Hess

“Diverse” – Michael Bondanza

“Innovative” – Sandy Baker

“Bold” – Henry Dunay

“Refreshing” – Jeffrey Kaphan

“Change” – John Atencio

“Fragmented” – Richard Kimball

“Self-expression” – Scott Keating

“Fresh” – David Yurman

“Versatile” – Barbara Westwood

“Individualistic” – Ronna Lugosch

“Dynamic” – Brian Charles

“Searching” – Michael Good

“Experimental” – Martin Gruber

“Personality” – Paul Klecka

“Contemporary” – Jay Lavin

“Adventuresome” – Esti/Frederica

European jewelry design is easy to identify by nation. The Italians are flowing; the Germans are angular and spare; the English are traditional; Greek gold is deeper, richer and often ancient-inspired. But American design can’t be classified. U.S.designers explain:

“In Europe and South America, you begin your formal jewelry training as an apprentice to a benchperson. This creates a structure of right and wrong, and everyone’s very reluctant to bend the rules. You have to use a certain kind of wire for a certain kind of thing and holes have to be a certain distance apart, and so forth. But Americans don’t go by the rules. Everyone goes by his own rules.” – Jose Hess

“Nobody is leaning over you with 100 years of tradition telling you this is the way things are done. You’re free to experiment.” – Whitney Boin

“It takes elements of all cultures and reinterprets them. Sort of like Americans themselves.” – Scott Keating

“The only common denominator is the passion of the mind that creates it.” – Barbara Westwood

“We’re a blended culture, a melting pot, and I think that’s reflected in American design. European design is safe. Certain things are acceptable, certain things are not. Safety is nice to feel, but I like the lack of restriction in American design.” – Susan Helmich

American taste is more like a seven-course meal than a true melting pot, as consumer preferences in fashion vary sharply from region to region. But is that true of jewelry design? Is there a New York look, or a Colorado look, or a Maine look? No, say New Yorkers. Yes, say many others.

Jeffrey Kaphan (Boulder, Colo.), Alan Revere (San Francisco, Cal.) and William Schraft (Millburn, N.J.) observe: designers in cities that are major diamond centers seem to make more gold-and-diamond-intensive pieces than inland designers, who tend to use more color, more texture and more organic forms. Meanwhile, flowing, hand-fabricated gold forms are a hallmark of Maine designers.

In jewelry design, there’s an inherent conflict between creativity and commercialism. Does this mean good art jewelry must be unwearable? Or that artistic merit must be sacrificed to make a sale?

Michael Good:

“Design takes into consideration commercial value and the need to relate to the public. Art comes from a personal, passionate, soul-deep need to create, regardless of whether it will sell. It’s hard to articulate, but these two sides need each other. For any growth or movement to occur, a certain tension must exist.”

Some other views:

Richard Kimball: “For 10 years, we’ve led the world in jewelry design. Now I think American design is on the wane as a leader. Everything from politics to economics is affecting creativity, turning design senses from what’s wildly interesting to what sells.”

Whitney Boin: “I divide people into designers and stylists. Designers are innovators; they take new initiatives. Stylists take existing ideas and alter them. There are lots of stylists – good stylists, but stylists. However, it’s hard to take a basic engagement ring and make it interesting while still keeping it in the parameters of what people expect an engagement ring to look like.”

Steven Lagos: “I’m interested in being an artist, in being creative, and I would love to be able to make one-of-a-kind pieces. Some designers can spend weeks working on one single piece, but I have a very big payroll to meet.”

How has American jewelry design progressed in the past decade?

“I think quality in general has gone up. Designer jewelry speaks of quality. You’re not anonymous anymore. Your name is on it, and you have to live up to what you say. It makes good economic sense.” – Michael Bondanza

“Fantastically. There’s been a revolution of quality. It can always improve, but it’s far superior to 10 years ago. It has to be. We’re competing on a world level. You can’t go to Basel with poor quality. People there aren’t looking for price points.” – Henry Dunay

“The most pertinent change I’ve seen is that traditional stores – AGS included – are recognizing designer jewelry. When I began, many traditional jewelers wouldn’t talk to me. Now they realize that people want more than an oval diamond with two trillion sapphires.” – Jeffrey Kaphan

“I’ve seen the self-purchase market grow and grow. Women try on designer jewelry, they see it looks great, and they want fashion.” – Jane Bohan

“I think a lot more American designers have a lot more international recognition than 10 years ago. They’re respected in Europe and Japan.” – Cornelis Hollander

“You saw so little designer jewelry in 1980. People were creating it, but they didn’t have a way to show it off. Now we’re at the peak of moving into what people accept as jewelry.” – Michael Sugarman

“From nowhere to somewhere? From unknown to known? Europeans and Japanese are slower to accept a design until it’s proven, but Americans are more nouveau riche, more into what’s new today. It’s good that people are willing to change, but it puts a lot of pressure on the back of my duff.” – Martin Gruber

“I designed an 18k gold collection in 1976. Nobody understood it. Now it’s one of my best-sellers.” – Patricia Daunis-Dunning

“There’s a trend toward designer jewelry and branding and name association, period.” – John Atencio

Where is American jewelry design going?

“I think things will be a little less serious, a little less formal. More casualwear for business is part of it, but in the past five or six years, there’s been a real shift away from showing wealth the way it was done in the ’80s. Even if people buy expensive things, they don’t want to look like they do.” – Jose Hess

“I’m really concerned about the young clients. Their tastes are being formed in an era when costume jewelry is very popular and very accepted. When I grew up, jewelry was jewelry and costume was costume. Those in their late teens have a very minimalist approach to jewelry, and that worries me.” – Sandy Baker

“I think silver as a fine jewelry category is growing. Lots of jewelers want to add it as a self-purchase or impulse item.” – Jane Bohan

“I see lower price points. Quality is still important, maybe more so, and I also see more consistent branding of items. Designwise, by 2001 it will be either very modern or very classic, symmetrical and basic.” – Martin Gruber

“I think it’s going to keep going in different directions. No one look is going to dominate, same as women’s fashion today. No one skirt length is right anymore.” – William Schraft

“I think it will become more homogeneous. As one look becomes successful, others do it. Designers are focused on what other people are doing – other jewelry designers and in other fields. There’s more information available.” – Michael Bondanza

“A lot of large manufacturing jewelers are picking up on the designer look. Designers will have to change their look more frequently to stay ahead.” – Cornelis Hollander

“I see the designer collections becoming even more important, accentuating the individuality of the designer, the store and the consumer.” – Esti/Frederica

“We’re coming into the millennium. It’s so exciting. I think we’re going to see some jewelry about the millennium. Right now everyone’s a little afraid. At a time when we should be ready to take the bull by the horns, things can turn conservative.” – Susan Helmich

“I think jewelry design will be affected by computer-aided manufacturing, but computers will never replace the imagination. I think jewelry designers are in a lull right now, about ready to explode into new ideas. Their present pieces will be known as their ‘early works’ or ‘classics.’ And there will be quantum leaps forward by individuals who are as yet unknown.” – Steven Kretchmer

American designers have taken a variety of routes to success since Jose Hess and Henry Dunay helped to launch the modern American design movement. Designers such as David Yurman, Charles Krypell and Lagos have used consumer media to become nationally recognized brand names. Others – such as Alan Revere, Sandy Baker and Joan Michlin – bring good jewelry design to an affordable level.

Some follow fashion trends and the fashion world closely, including Stephen Dweck, Jane Bohan and Lisa Jenks. Others – including Richard Kimball, Susan Helmich and Whitney Boin – pursue the pure art form even if it means a little less marketing. And many, many American designers have created looks that spawned a whole genre of style, including Michael Good’s anticlastic raising techniques and Cornelis Hollander’s use of colored gems and angular shapes. Martin Gruber’s designs for Nova Stylings have set trends in diamond-intensive jewelry, while Patrick Murphy’s eye for vivid color and gem tongues has inspired many others to work with similar materials.

Finally, some just got it in their blood and that was that. “I took a jewelry class my third year at college to get three credits closer to graduation,” says Paul Klecka. “The decision was made!”

What do you, as a designer, think of when you’re creating each piece?

“Will my wife wear it?” – David Yurman

“Lately, what sells. It’s a real challenge. It’s one thing to create what you like, to be on the leading edge, but to create what will appeal to people and still have your own individual look is a real challenge.” – William Schraft

“To create something pleasing to the eye and that works as a piece of jewelry. Comfort is key. For example, many women wore uncomfortable earrings for years and stretched their earlobes. Now I offer them earrings they can wear.” – Sandy Baker

*”I’m turned on by math and the mathematical progression in the beauty of nature. My jewelry is influenced by nature, even though it doesn’t look it. All of nature follows certain geometric patterns: branches on a tree are on a 1:1.6 ratio. DaVinci’s Circle Man shows a 1:1.6 ratio in the bones. If I use those same properties in jewelry, my jewelry will have a natural beat and allure to it.” – Scott Keating

“Forms, shapes, interaction, sex, sculpture, modulation, beauty and its effect on the wearer.” – Alan Revere

“If I’m creating a piece of jewelry, I’m thinking about creating a piece of jewelry. I put on some good music and begin designing.” – Cornelis Hollander

“I see no purpose in creating art that has already been made. I have been exploring art, design and the nature of precious metals and have begun to discover unknown territories, finding the colors, effects and materials to realize my images.” – Steven Kretchmer

“I’m always thinking of new ways to hold a diamond. It’s a technological thing. Then I come up with a design to use the technology.” – Martin Gruber

What would you design if you couldn’t design jewelry?

“I’d be an architect. I enjoy construction, the way things are put together. I enjoy building things.” – Jose Hess

“Architecture. I’ve already designed lighting, furniture and graphics, and won awards for it.” – Whitney Boin

“I think I’d design for the film industry, like stage sets. I’d build things. I would like to redesign bicycles or motorcycles. Something based on geometry and certain physical principles.” – Michael Bondanza

“Probably home fashions: furniture, linen, lamps, dishes, all that stuff. I’m very aware of my environment, and I think everyone should have art in their lives.”- Sandy Baker

“I started drawing cars as soon as I was old enough to hold a pencil. If my father hadn’t been in the jewelry business, that’s probably what I’d be doing. But I’m turned on by good design in everything – even blenders.” – William Schraft

“Probably automobiles. A Ferrari is an amazing piece of art that happens to be an automobile.” – Scott Keating

“Furniture, lighting and clothes.” – David Yurman

“I’d design environments, like gardens or interior space. Not decorating, but designing the space itself.” – Susan Helmich

“I’d be a baker or a florist. Something to stay in touch with the celebrations of life.” – Barbara Westwood

“I’d be a commercial chef, bringing the same attention to detail, quality and presentation to food that I do in jewelry. Precious and delicious creations.” – Paul Klecka

“I wouldn’t. I’d go into sales.” – Ronna Lugosch

Many designers say Mort Abelson gave one of the biggest original boosts to designer jewelry as a movement. For years, he has scoured craft shows in search of promising new talent for his New Designer Gallery at the JA International Jewelry Show. The gallery has been the starting point for many of the industry’s biggest names.

Designers also applaud the Design Center at The JCK International Show; the Aspects center at the World Watch, Clock and Jewellery Show in Basel, Switzerland; and designer sections in some of the larger regional shows. And they note these other positive influences on the movement:

“Retailers who are willing to take a chance and who promote it properly.”- Michael Bondanza

“The trade press fashion editors constantly pushing designer jewelry has had a real impact on jewelers reading the magazines.” – Jane Bohan

“Creativity. We’ve got quite a few very creative younger designers in this country. I hate it when storekeepers say they don’t see anything different. They’re not looking past their noses.” – Henry Dunay

“Brand-name awareness in other products has spun off into jewelry.”- William Schraft

“The trade magazines exposing us, endorsing us, applauding us. And all the industry professional organizations such as De Beers, the World Gold Council, MJSA and any organization that’s ever sponsored a design competition.” – Susan Helmich

“Wal-Mart. The smaller stores have been forced to consider alternatives because they couldn’t compete pricewise with the jewelry giants.” – Ronna Lugosch

“There’s a general demand for more stylish, more satisfying jewelry.” – Patrick Murphy

“The biggest boost to the American jewelry design movement has been David Yurman legitimizing silver as a designer material and his genius for marketing.”- Esti/Frederica

Retailer resistance probably is the biggest stumbling block to the success of designer jewelry. Designers say it’s not the customer who objects to designer jewelry, it’s the retailer who’s afraid to try something new. Still, they admit it can be a tough sale: designer jewelry is a whole different animal to customers used to seeing constant price wars over jewelry.

“You see QVC breaking down an amethyst ring by price. That makes it tough for someone who makes a totally different level of amethyst ring,” says Susan Helmich.

Says Michael Bondanza, “The majority of people are very traditional when it comes to buying jewelry – that’s where the money is. There’s room at the top to be more creative and room at the bottom for mass merchandising.”

Jay Lavin says jewelry is the only fashion-related industry that held out for so long against designer names. Richard Kimball says it’s easier to sell expensive generic jewelry than expensive designer jewelry.

Designers on pitfalls and problems:

“There’s a lack of self-editing, of a willingness to pull a piece because it doesn’t work from a design sense, not because it doesn’t work from a marketing sense.” – Richard Kimball

“The copycats are a most irritating thing. There’s not much you can do. Even suing the hell out of them doesn’t work.” – Cornelis Hollander

“I think the market has changed so much. Today, you’re seeing so much more ‘designer’ jewelry, but on different levels. There are designers, and there are the major companies that are more manufacturer than designer, or manufacturers that are suddenly going by the owner’s name because it sounds more like a designer. I worry that the public will be told this is designer jewelry and it will dilute things. It will be like Christian Dior shirts that Christian Dior himself never saw.” – Eve Alfille

To look at American jewelry design, you might think the development and acceptance of fancy gem cuts was crucial to the movement’s growth. But it’s not a chicken-or-egg question of which came first, the gem or the jewelry. Even designers who use a lot of fancy or unusual gems say the design is still paramount.

To be sure, the availability and acceptance of unusual materials and cuts have been important in the development of some designers’ work. Not all American designers work with such stones, but they do draw a distinct line between creating a piece of interesting jewelry incorporating the stones versus merely creating a frame for a fancy-cut gem.

The importance of knowing one’s craft cannot be emphasized enough. Some designers work at the bench every day, as that’s an integral part of the creative process.

“All the designers that I consider true designers work at the bench, or at least they know how to, even if they don’t sit at it every day,” says Whitney Boin. “I think it would be the most frustrating thing in the world to try to communicate what you want to do without being able to do it.”

Barbara Westwood says, “It’s important to know the craft. But design starts in the mind. All the steps afterward are technical. The integrity of the product can be maintained by self-production or by quality-assisted craftsmanship. It becomes an economic support network of the industry.”

Richard Kimball adds, “I’m very prejudiced. Pieces change in the process. A lot of jewelers who are admired are paper designers, but they’re not American. To me, learning to work with the materials is very important, but not everyone agrees.”


American jewelry designers know what it takes to make jewelry come alive at the counter as well as at the bench. Here are their tips on how to use designer jewelry to set your store apart from competitors’ and to build profits:

1. Advertise and promote the fact that designer jewelry makes your store unique.

2. Choose three or four designers and commit to them. Carry a significant representation of their work, not just a piece or two. “When I’ve gotten a few pieces from a designer and slipped them in the showcase, I haven’t done very well,” says John Atencio of Denver, who was a retailer long before he became a wholesale designer. “But when I’ve gotten behind them and trained the staff to sell them, I’ve done very well with designer pieces.” Atencio now sells only designer jewelry in his six Colorado stores. (For a story on designers, including Atencio, who also operate retail stores, see next month’s issue of JCK.)

3. Merchandise your designer jewelry by collection. Put all the pieces by a particular designer together and use signs to indicate this is a special collection by so-and-so. Most designers offer in-case signs for this purpose.

4. Replace what sells. Don’t let your display – or your stock – dwindle.

5. Put the collection in the front window to entice people into the store.

6. Invite the designer to conduct a trunk show so your customers get to know the artist behind the collection. Also make sure your staff gets a chance to meet and talk to the artist.

7. Don’t discount.

8. Try to get an exclusive on the collection for your area. However, realize that what constitutes an exclusive area may vary by where you live.

9. Use the artists’ transparencies, postcards or other advertising material. Often they’re free; if not, they’re probably less expensive than creating your own, so you can put your ad dollars toward frequency of exposure instead of production costs.

10. Especially if you’re new to designer jewelry, pick a designer with name recognition and a sense of marketing. For example, pick one who offers ads, brochures, postcards and other ways to communicate with the customer.

11. Make sure the designer has the ability to produce. “If I order a piece and the designer takes six or eight weeks to deliver, I’m going to fall flat on my face,” says Atencio. “It’s a package deal – service, marketing, the whole thing.”

12. Choose lines with distinct looks. Also choose different price points – not everyone is a carriage-trade customer yet. If you have middle-market customers, don’t choose a high-end designer.

13. Don’t mention price unless you absolutely have to. Sell the uniqueness of the artist and the beauty of the jewelry, not the cost.

14. Be patient. Designer jewelry won’t be an instantaneous sellout. It takes time to build interest in the collection and to turn your customers into collectors.

15. If a designer doesn’t hit it off with your clients, don’t be afraid to get another designer.

16. Think of designer jewelry as works of art and your store as an art gallery.

17. Take the time to understand the product and train your staff. Selling designer jewelry requires a different mentality than selling regular manufactured jewelry.


As the American jewelry design movement has grown, so has the need for marketing and support networks. Here’s a look at some of the available resources.

The American Jewelry Design Council was founded in 1990 as a not-for-profit arts organization dedicated to promoting the concept of designer jewelry as an art form. AJDC has 27 members and supports several projects. Chief among them is sponsoring one new designer to exhibit at the JA International Jewelry Show each July.

AJDC also created the Benny Award to honor people for their work in furthering the designer jewelry movement. The first honoree was Mort Abelson, originator of the JA New Designer Gallery. In February, AJDC launched a Mona Lisa project, in which members were encouraged to design a piece of jewelry reflecting their vision of the masterpiece. The results were auctioned at the JCK International Jewelry Show in Las Vegas last month. AJDC will receive some of the proceeds to further the design education of promising students.

The Contemporary Design Group is a cooperative of designers who pool their marketing resources. The organization grew out of a loosely connected group of designers exhibiting at the Pacific Jewelry Shows; bylaws were still being created at press time.

As a group, CDG has secured space in various trade shows and placed advertisements in various publications, both of which would have been financially infeasible for any of its members to do individually, says President Michael Sugarman.

The Jewelers’ Resource Bureau has established the Designers’ Marketing Network, a series of services to help retailers and designers. For designers, the services include marketing and promotion planning assistance. For retailers, the JRB offers the following services:

  • The Folio, a binder of postcards showing designers’ work (27 currently) for use at the sales counter. “It allows the retailer to put 27 designers on the showcase before they can afford to put them in the showcase,” says President Cindy Edelstein. At press time, 750 stores were receiving The Folio, which is exclusive to an area.

  • The DesigneRegistry, a database of designers categorized by product, show exhibit schedule and media they work in. Retailers may contact the DesigneRegistry to find a designer that offers the kind of line they need.

  • Marketing by Design, a newsletter for retailers about designer jewelry, was scheduled to be launched by early July.

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