Studio Jewelry Time

Marian Willard wrote those words in a 1941 press release for Calder Jewelry, an exhibit in her midtown gallery. Long before Robert Lee Morris’s dramatic, hammered jewelry made its first appearance in the Manhattan jewelry and fashion world, Alexander Calder made a splash there with his own hammered ornaments. Shown at the Willard Gallery beside his soon-to-be-famous mobiles, Calder’s jewelry was positively raw compared with the jewelry Morris and other designers would later produce. But through sheer creativity and daring, Calder and his contemporaries redefined jewelry and set the stage for much of today’s designer and art jewelry.

When Morris’s jewelry hit the market three decades later, it was being displayed beside Calder’s. Morris credits Joan Sonnabend with launching his career in 1972 when she began carrying his work in her midtown gallery, Sculpture to Wear, along with jewelry designed by Picasso, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, and Calder—heady company for an obscure, young designer from New Hampshire. By the end of that decade, Morris was a household name himself, at least in New York City.

Morris quickly moved into mass production, but legions of other studio jewelers followed in Calder’s wake, inspired to explore handcrafted jewelry in new ways. Thousands of Americans today earn a living as designer-goldsmiths, thanks largely to Calder and his contemporaries in the studio jewelry movement, both in the United States and Europe. Many ultimately moved on to production lines. In fact, any designer who learned his or her trade in a university metalsmithing and jewelry-making department is a descendant of the studio jewelry movement, because the early studio jewelers established those departments in the first place.

Sixty years later, we’re finally getting a chance to see what the original fuss was all about. The first museum exhibit devoted entirely to Calder’s jewelry opened in February at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., showcasing 100 of the necklaces, bracelets, brooches, earrings, and tiaras made by the famous sculptor. Calder Jewelry will travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in July and then, in December, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Art museums are all over studio jewelry these days. Three major exhibitions of 20th-century art jewelry opened in the past year. Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry From the Helen Williams Drutt Collection, with more than 300 pieces of avant-garde jewelry made after 1962, was at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston through January. It traced the trajectory of contemporary art jewelry not only in the United States but also throughout Europe, Japan, and Australia. Jewelry by Artists: The Daphne Farago Collection at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts covered similar territory but also examined the roots of the movement, particularly in the United States, beginning around 1940.

Both museums made major investments in those collections. The Boston MFA took it a step further by building a wing devoted to jewelry (scheduled to open in 2010) and hiring the first curator at a major art museum to focus exclusively on jewelry. When you first lay eyes on the massive 23-inch spike neckpiece made by sculptor Albert Paley in 1974, now in the Drutt collection, or the torso-draping jewelry in Farago’s, once modeled by nudes, your first reaction might be: “OK, that’s impressive, but what woman could wear this without slipping a disk or getting arrested?” Today’s more adventurous designers insist, however, that experiments like those opened doors and helped create a whole new customer base.

British designer Stephen Webster is thrilled to see museums focusing on avant-garde jewelry. “It’s great that art, or just plain creative jewelry is once again given some credibility. It’s been far too long,” says Webster, who credits British art jeweler Andrew Grima for originally inspiring him to become a designer rather than just a goldsmith. “Through his work I was exposed to the possibility that jewelry could be less structured, expressive in ways that were unconventional in the somewhat rigid world of jewelry design.” Grima’s use of rough, uncut gems and raw crystals during the 1960s and ’70s had a major impact on Webster and the jewelry for which he became famous.

Webster also loves the work of fellow Brit Andrew Logan, whose oversize brooches and dramatic neck pieces frequently appear on Sex and the City‘s Kim Cattrall as well as the pages of Vogue. “Logan, like Calder, is a crossover sculptor/jeweler/fashion designer,” Webster points out. “His pieces are fun to look at, wear, and just have on show.”

Webster is equally inspired by the art deco–era designs of René Boivin and early Cartier—“long before brand and margins became the main force behind their creativity”—and names René Lalique as his all-time favorite art jeweler. “It’s an obvious choice, I know, but there is a reason for that,” Webster says. “All these artists have shown that jewelry can be creative first rather than about the intrinsic value and wealth that is too often the sole purpose of wearing jewels. Fortunately, consumers have demanded more individual and creative pieces over the past few years.”

If jewelry is finally getting the respect it deserves as a creative art form, Patricia Faber believes it’s because jewelry connoisseurs have reached critical mass. “I’ve heard people in the jewelry world, especially collectors, say that it was ceramic time, then glass time, and now it really is jewelry time,” says Faber, who has run the Aaron Faber Gallery in New York City with her husband since 1974. Unlike more avant-garde jewelry galleries such as Mobilia in Boston, the Fabers’ shop on Fifth Avenue has always focused solely on fine, handcrafted jewelry in precious metals. But even Mobilia lists “master goldsmiths” among its jewelry artists, including Wendy Ramshaw and Mary Lee Hu, both of whom were featured in the recent museum shows.

Now nearly every city has at least one store that features handcrafted jewelry of precious materials—Quadrum in Boston, Linde Meyer in Philadelphia, and Katy Beh in New Orleans, to name three—from the studios of innovative goldsmiths such as Michael Good, Barbara Heinrich, Georg Jensen, Henrich+Dezel, Pat Flynn, Saundra Messinger, Stephanie Albertson, and Gabriella Kiss. Some goldsmith-designers, including Alex Sepkus and Gurhan, sell through larger chains as well as individual galleries, and their operations have expanded to meet the demand. Even a few of Faber’s designers have begun to appear at upscale department stores such as Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. “Some of our studio jewelers kind of ride that fine line and do both,” says Faber. “They’re creative, curious people and like exploring different possibilities within the industry.”

Most goldsmiths in this country came out of the studio jewelry tradition launched by the artists featured in the Drutt and Farago collections, and all will benefit by the attention the museums are focusing on their craft. Along with educating the general public to appreciate the art and science of goldsmithing, the exhibits reveal how many already do.

A lot of people in this country studied jewelry making in college, whether they made careers of it or not, Faber points out. “Studio goldsmithing really started in 1939 with Margaret de Patta and took off around mid-century,” she says, referring to one of the first trained goldsmiths to explore avant-garde design in this country. De Patta taught her techniques to the first generation of goldsmiths who flooded art and trade schools on the G.I. Bill after World War II. “Many of those artists went on to start their own programs at universities and art schools. So what’s happened is that from 1950 to now, we’ve had two generations of an ever-expanding number of students getting their BFAs in metalsmithing or minoring in jewelry making.”

Art jewelry was invented long before that. Most would say the first came out of the arts and crafts movement in England in the late 19th century. Soon after, René Lalique and other art-nouveau designers were outfitting stage celebrities like Sarah Bernhardt with elaborate mermaid tiaras and gem-studded breastplates. “What’s different is that in the past, art jewelry like that was patronized by the upper class or the monarchy, an extremely elite group of people,” Faber says. “Now, through the educational process, so many more people have hands-on exposure to the field. You now have thousands of connoisseurs. A museum exhibit is partly the result of time. It’s been six decades since this began, long enough to be able to look back and sift through the information. But also long enough to have a huge audience for it. That’s what’s so exciting.”

The current spotlight is on Calder, who was far more famous in his day for fine art and sculpture than jewelry. His fame helps legitimize jewelry as an art form. “Calder’s jewelry was a significant part of his work, not something he did on the side, and he made quite a lot of it,” says Kelly L’Ecuyer, the curator who organized the Farago jewelry exhibit in Boston, which featured four pieces by Calder. Beyond a few others designed by famous artists such as Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Picasso, Max Ernst, and Roy Lichtenstein, most of the jewelry in Farago’s collection was produced by mid-century studio jewelers whose names most visitors won’t recognize but who inspired a generation of studio jewelers.

Calder is an exception. Most people have heard of him but few have seen his jewelry. Certain pieces are recognizable as smaller versions of his mobiles, with hanging bars that pivot and spin when worn. Given how much jewelry he produced—some 1,800 pieces in his lifetime, mainly for friends and family—his jewelry appears regularly at auction and in galleries. Salon 94 Freemans in New York City recently had three Calder bracelets priced from $150,000 and a silver necklace that looked a lot like his mobiles for $500,000.

Some jewelry buffs will find Calder’s work rough compared with the work of the typical studio jeweler today who is trained in sophisticated goldsmithing techniques. Even contemporary jewelers inspired by primitive art, as Calder was, end up with something far more refined.

Many of today’s designers owe their inspiration more to early Cartier or Van Cleef & Arpels than the “savage and deliberate” creativity of the studio movement. Carnet designer Avi Nagar is one. “Although I like to design my jewelry as works of art, so-called art jewelry with a crafts aesthetic has not been a major influence,” Nagar says. “I think of myself as being more influenced by the great individual designers such as Jeanne Toussaint and Suzanne Belperron.”

However, if this really is “jewelry time,” as Faber puts it, we may start to see more of the style and technique of the best-known studio goldsmiths appear in mainstream jewelry. Just as a dozen young painters show up at every art fair with some version of Picasso-like cubism, and the aisles of every craft show are lined with wavy glass bowls à la Dale Chihuly, certain studio jewelers may start to see their signature styles popping up in unlikely places.

Who is most likely to be copied among the studio goldsmiths? Faber votes for Michael Zobel and Michael Good, who both happen to be featured at the Faber gallery. “I know I’m biased, but Michael Zobel I think is a Dale Chihuly. He definitely has a signature style, very unrestrained for a goldsmith. Given the preciousness of the material, gold work can often be constrained, but his work is very free, both in silver and in gold. So for me he’s an icon. Also Michael Good, certainly. He’s been around 30 years, and his jewelry is very distinctive, especially his three-dimensional mobilelike pieces. He has always alternated between sculpture and jewelry, which I think keeps his designs fresh.”

It’s worth noting that the customers who keep galleries like Faber, Quadrum, and Linde Meyer thriving also may be shopping at yours. Asked whether her customers buy conventional jewelry as well as one-of-a-kind, Faber responds without hesitation: “Yes, absolutely. Most of our jewelry is sold to and worn by women. Our customer is usually a woman who is very confident in her personal style and comfortable expressing that with jewelry. But she certainly is not going to wear only studio or art jewelry. She is definitely open to all kinds of jewelry, a knowledgeable buyer who is aware of a lot of artistic, fashion, and visual things. That kind of interest or background is important, because when those customers come through the door, they immediately appreciate what they’re seeing: that it’s expressive, beautifully made, and personal. That it’s different.”