Piece by Piece

In the mid-1980s, the New York–based collector Donna Schneier visited a London craft gallery and discovered jewelry unlike anything she had ever seen. “I thought it was extraordinary and very inexpensive,” says Schneier, who scooped up Caroline Broadheads sleevelike bracelets made from nylon thread and David Watkinss delicate paper collars. “I’d seen some ‘art to wear’ in the U.S. but nothing like this. I came back with 11 pieces.”

Schneier had stumbled on the world of art jewelry, variously called studio jewelry, wearable art and contemporary jewelry. She began searching for and buying these unusual and sometimes unwearable objects, paying between $500 and $1,000 for what seemed like virtuoso miniature sculptures made out of resin, silver, rubber, gold, leather and every other imaginable material.

Schneier, who is also a private dealer of contemporary glass and ceramics, continued buying for the next 20 years, focusing on dozens of American and European jewelers whom she considered artistically significant. Her collection came to include such 20th-century European innovators as German goldsmith Hermann Jünger and Swiss designer Otto Künzli, who famously encased a gold ball in a rubber bangle. Schneier also bought in depth works by a group of American jewelry artists who emerged in the late 1960s and rose to prominence in the following decades.“I don’t differentiate between artists who make art to wear and artists who make art to hang,” she says.

The history of art jewelry in the U.S. can be traced back to sculptor Alexander Calder. The handcrafted pieces he made for friends and family, beginning in the 1930s, inspired a generation of studio jewelers who worked in metal. Calder’s whimsical, primitive-looking wire brooches and combs are center stage at a retrospective at the Norton Museum of Art, in West Palm Beach, Florida, through June 15; the show opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this December.

From the 1940s to 1960s in New York’s Greenwich Village, a coterie of jewelers, including Sam Kramer and Art Smith, experimented with organic lines and abstract or Surrealist forms inspired by biomorphic art and midcentury design. Twenty of Smith’s pieces were recently given to the Brooklyn Museum, which will show them in “From the Villageto Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith,” opening this month.

The category’s obscurity is partly due to the difficulty of defining it. The pieces are figurative or abstract, wearable or not, and draw inspiration from art, design and the maker’s imagination. These days, curators, dealers and collectors generally agree that to qualify as art, jewelry works must be one of a kind and produced in studios by makers trained in university or apprenticeship programs in art, metalworking or goldsmithing.

Since the ’60s, the American movement has expanded dramatically, forming associations with important graduate schools, such as the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Rhode Island School of Design and the State University of New York at New Paltz. Jewelry artists have tested different mediums, developed storytelling techniques and drawn inspiration from their lives, politics and cultural modes. In the ’60s, several stars emerged, including Robert Ebendorf, who melds poker chips, crab claws and pearls in his experimentation with materials, and Bruce Metcalf, who embeds emotional narratives in his pieces, as in a brooch from 1976 featuring a painted portrait of Metcalf in a straitjacket. Among notable younger practitioners working now are the Portland, Maine–based artist Lauren Fensterstock, who pairs diamonds and rotting potatoes in drawings and sculptures that tug at the boundaries between art, jewelry and ornament, and Jan Yager, of Philadelphia, whose political commentary involves necklaces and brooches constructed from crack vials and auto glass plucked from urban streets.

European art jewelers have also experimented with materials, and while their work is more conceptual, it is also more formal and refined than that of their American counterparts.

The past year has been a remarkable one for studio jewelry. Schneier recently gave her 117-piece collection to the Metropolitan in New York, the first such collection to be accessioned by the museum. She felt the gift was a vindication of creators overlooked by the art and design worlds and criticized as being too “crafty.” For the Met, Schneier’s gift was a revelation. “What makes these pieces museumworthy is that they represent another art form,” says associate curator Jane Adlin, who specializes in modern and contemporary design at the Met. “You don’t find them in the jewelry store.”

Also in 2007 the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exhibited 150 highlights from the 600-piece Daphne Farago collection, which it had recently acquired. And last September, the museum appointed Yvonne Markowitz as the first jewelry curator in the U.S.

This fall, contemporary jewelry will get a foothold in New York with a permanent exhibition space in the Museum of Arts & Designs new home on Columbus Circle. The gallery, the first in the nation, is funded by a $2 million grant from the Tiffany & Co. Foundation. MAD’s collection contains more than 500 important examples of art jewelry from the 1940s to today. In December, just a few months after Markowitz joined the MFA, Ursula Ilse-Neuman was appointed the jewelry curator at MAD. “We’ll be showing cutting-edge jewelry, including ephemeral pieces, the barely wearable and jewelry about jewelry,” says Ilse-Neuman.

“There is a spiking interest by American museums,” says Cindi Strauss, the curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts and design at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Strauss organized “Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection,” the pioneering Philadelphia contemporary jewelry dealer’s assemblage of 800 pieces representing the “greatest hits” from the past four decades of European and American jewelry making. A touring show of highlights is on view through July 6 at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Before the Drutt acquisition (a partial gift and purchase), the MFA Houston owned just one piece of studio jewelry. Now examples by such leading figures as Stanley Lechtzin (a silver-and-resin neckpiece) and Wendy Ramshaw (sculptural pillar rings) have transformed the museum into a contemporary-jewelry destination.

“There seems to be something in the air,” says Strauss. “There has been an incredible shift, not overnight, but a culmination of people working in this field for a very long time.” Many artists, dealers and curators hope the museum shows will help broaden appreciation of the works as well as expand the market for them. Only about 10 to 15 major U.S. galleries are devoted to the category, including Jewelers’ Werk Galerie, in Washington, D.C.; Velvet da Vinci, in San Francisco; Sienna Gallery, in Lenox, Massachusetts; and Ornamentum, in Hudson, New York. Some dealers believe that being associated with the misunderstood craft tradition has marginalized the creators of these pieces and kept down their prices.

“The community is very small, and unfortunately we don’t have the large number of buyers that the fine-art market does,” says Stefan Friedmann, of Ornamentum, who adds that the craft context turns people off, particularly those from the fine-art world. “I’m having a conversation with a gallerist in New York about presenting our work there, but he has expressed fear about going into the craft niche.” Although some galleries exhibiting at design fairs have shown a few pieces of jewelry alongside postwar and contemporary furniture, such events have yet to welcome as exhibitors dealers who specialize in contemporary jewelry. “I’m mystified as to why art jewelry hasn’t become as coveted as chairs and tables,” says Susan Grant Lewin, a jewelry writer and collector whose New York PR firm works for the Design Miami fair.

SOFA, the cutting-edge craft fair that takes place in Chicago and New York, is one of the best venues in which to see a wide range of contemporary jewelry. The next New York show, which runs May 29 through June 1 at the Park Avenue Armory, will have 13 such exhibitors, including Sienna Gallery, Ornamentum, the private New York dealer Charon Kransen Arts and Mobilia Gallery, from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Jewelry dealers, however, are eager to attract new buyers and consider art collectors a natural audience. Sienna Patti, who runs Sienna Gallery, recently made progress in this regard, winning a spot for her gallery at March’s Bridge Art Fair in New York, where she presented conceptual jewelry, such as Lauren Kalmans Tongue Gilding adornments, among the contemporary painting and sculpture brought by international dealers.

The budding art-world crossover is also evidenced by the launch of Crown Jewels, a joint venture among Salon 94s founder Jeannie Greenberg Rohatyn, the arts publicist Andrea Schwan and the mid-century furniture gallery R 20th Century, whose purpose is to exhibit and sell handcrafted jewelry and other objects. The partnership’s first show, held at Salon 94’s Lower East Side outpost last December, targeted art collectors, featuring objects by makers known for their fine art, such as Kiki Smith, and by artist-jewelers such as Karl Fritsch, who nestles uncut diamonds in lavalike mounds of metal.

While reluctant to fully embrace contemporary studio jewelry, art collectors and the design community are more receptive to pieces made by well-known fine artists. Last December during Art Basel Miami Beach, the auction house Phillips de Pury & Company held a reception during which jewelry designed—but not handmade—by artists Anish Kapoor and Tim Noble & Sue Webster was sold.

Along similar lines, New York private dealer Sara Bendas year-old venture Afsoun focuses on editioned production pieces by hot designers like Ron Arad and Michele Oka Doner. Arad’s earrings, for instance, from an edition of 100, are priced at $5,000. Benda’s background in Christie’s contemporary-art department and her marriage to the design dealer Marc Benda have helped her gain traction in the noncraft realm. She exhibited in the International Art + Design Fair in New York last October and has had talks with Art Miamis fair organizers about participating there in the future. “It is easier to talk to art collectors about a piece by someone like Ron Arad,” Benda says, but she still fights the stigma that studio jewelry is too arty, splashy or strange. “I get the feeling that a lot of people think artist-designed jewelry is for eccentric old ladies, but that’s a thing of the past.”

The fact that this market is small might discourage dealers, but it helps connoisseurs. “You get to know things before you buy them,” says Susan Cummins, a Tiburon, California, collector, former dealer and now the chairwoman of the Art Jewelry Forum, a nonprofit group that supports the field. “You have time to study and dealers who will put things on hold. Compared with contemporary art, it’s much more humane.” Lower prices don’t hurt either. Her spending topped out at $40,000 for one piece, and $4,000 to $6,000 will still buy an important brooch or necklace. 

For the jewelry makers, their field’s obscurity allows them to focus on their work. Thomas Gentille, a 71-year-old New Yorker, is one of the most significant living art jewelers, according to the curators Adlin and Strauss. His dazzling eggshell-inlay bracelets and painterly brooches are found in the Drutt and Farago collections. Through its Schneier acquisition, the Met now owns six of his pieces, a fact that thrills Gentille, who nonetheless expresses frustration at American provincialism. “It’s a small group who buy, but most people here don’t have a clue,” he says.

For those already enamored of this jewelry, it’s baffling that art collectors haven’t embraced it. “It seems crazy that people who love aesthetic things wear boring jewelry,” says Cummins. “Traditional jewelry with big stones is mainstream stuff. It doesn’t say anything about your unusual viewpoint.”

"Piece by Piece" originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's May 2008 Table of Contents.