Emily Waterfall, the head of Bonhams’s jewelry department in Los Angeles, knew she was dealing with something special in November 2020, when she found herself inside a private storage facility surrounded by thousands of pieces of jewelry owned by Byron and Jill Crawford, a local couple who had devoted 40 years to collecting.
“The first piece I opened was the Picasso Grand Faune,” Ms. Waterfall said.
Like his fellow artists Alexander Calder, Salvador Dalí and Man Ray, Pablo Picasso dabbled in jewelry. To make the Grand Faune pendant, Picasso worked with the goldsmith François Hugo, who immortalized the impish-looking face of the half human, half goat creature in 23-karat gold. The men made 20 pieces, one of which (No. 7) belonged to the Crawfords.
In mid-October, that pendant sold for $62,813 in “Wearable Art: Jewels From the Crawford Collection,” a noteworthy Bonhams sale that featured 314 lots of jewelry by some of the 20th century’s most important makers — including the modernists Art Smith and Margaret De Patta, the Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma and the American-born, Mexico-based silver jeweler William Spratling. Totaling $1.7 million, the sale was the first single-owner collection of artist jewelry ever presented at auction. Bonhams already is planning a second art jewelry sale for next fall.
“I was beyond flabbergasted by the response,” Ms. Waterfall said. “But we’re just at the beginning.”
Ms. Waterfall was referring to a growing segment of the jewelry market — sometimes called “art jewelry” — focused on one-of-a-kind pieces that often, but not always, employ non-precious materials to convey meaning.
The category dates from at least the turn of the 20th century, when the Art Nouveau master René Lalique challenged traditional notions of preciousness by incorporating glass and horn into his creations. In recent years, a wave of interest among museum curators, collectors and gallerists, not to mention a growing secondary market, has cast a spotlight on this esoteric niche.
Sienna Patti, the founder of a namesake contemporary jewelry gallery in Lenox, Mass., explained the momentum behind art jewelry partly as a collective search for authenticity. “Younger generations want something that feels real,” she said. “Buying something mass produced feels less appealing.”
Lately, that interest has been stoked by arbiters of culture, such as the producers of “Craft in America,” a PBS series whose new episode on jewelry began streaming on Nov. 4, and institutions such as the Cincinnati Art Museum, where an exhibition titled “Simply Brilliant: Artist-Jewelers of the 1960s and 1970s” is on view through Feb. 6.
Artists Who Make Jewelry
The easiest way for art lovers to understand the category may be through pieces like the Grand Faune, a classic example of how fine artists “use different media to express themselves,” said Louisa Guinness, whose gallery in London represents, as she described it, “painters and sculptors who made forays into jewelry,” including 20th-century artists such as Picasso, Calder and Max Ernst and contemporary makers such as Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and Ed Ruscha.
“Calder is the ‘get’ in this world,” Ms. Guinness said. She singled out the American sculptor as the rare artist who made his own jewels, rather than outsourcing the manufacturing to a workshop.
“He constantly had a pair of pliers in his pocket,” she said. “You’d go to stay in his house and he’d attack the silverware drawer and would have a beautiful brooch waiting for you with his initials. He made 1,800 pieces out of mostly silver or brass, all very well archived by his foundation.”
Ms. Guinness said when she opened her gallery in 2003, she made a conscious decision to focus on fine artists who had crossed over, however briefly, into jewelry. “I wanted to be known for one thing,” she said.
“Having said that, I am now, nearly 20 years on, moving over a little bit,” she added. “I do a show at Christmas every year where I do select jewelers who are artists, not artists who are jewelers. But I will only buy or represent people who make one-off or limited editions.”
Jewelers Who Make Art
Ms. Guinness is not the only one with a newfound openness to the notion of jewelers as artists.
“Museums are just waking up to the artistry involved in jewelry making,” said Cynthia Amnéus, chief curator and the curator of fashion, arts and textiles at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Take the 120 or so pieces on display in the museum’s “Simply Brilliant” exhibition, which is based on a collection of 1960s and 1970s jewelry owned by Kimberly Klosterman, a Cincinnati native who said she discovered her love for the era’s independent jewelers — including Andrew Grima, Gilbert Albert, Arthur King, Jean Vendome and Barbara Anton — when she took a Sotheby’s jewelry course in London in the mid-1990s.
“Looking for jewelry by artist-jewelers, at that time, was not so easy,” Ms. Klosterman recalled. “Art fairs were not showing it at all. I would find the odd pieces and buy them out of what some dealers called their ‘big and ugly boxes.’ I tried to rescue pieces before they were scrapped.”
Even though the jewelers Ms. Klosterman gravitated toward did enjoy commercial and critical success in their day (Grima, for one, was a favorite of Princess Margaret’s), their use of traditional materials such as gold was secondary to their artistic visions. They often sought to evoke nature by texturing their metal and eschewing diamonds in favor of unusual, occasionally raw gem materials.
“When you read interviews with these artists, they talk about themselves first as artists, second as jewelers,” Ms. Amnéus said.
To hear Melanie C. Grant, the London-based editor, stylist and author of “Coveted: Art and Innovation in High Jewelry,” tell it, the gulf that has historically separated the two worlds is narrowing.
“In the 2020s, you have a combination of exceptional jewelry artists working in interesting materials,” Ms. Grant said. “That has culminated in a moment where galleries and collectors, the life force of fine art, are actually entertaining this as fine art.”
She referred to some of the market’s most desired and collectible jewelers, including Joel Arthur Rosenthal, a.k.a. JAR, an American based in Paris who initially “did stuff with color and scale and texture that changed what was possible for many designers,” she said.
The New York jeweler James Taffin de Givenchy; the Hong Kong-based lapidary and jeweler Wallace Chan; the family-owned brand Hemmerle in Munich; and Jacqueline Rabun, “a modern minimalist based in L.A.,” also topped Ms. Grant’s list.
Contemporary Studio Jewelers
At the opposite end of the spectrum are contemporary studio jewelers who, unlike the high jewelers cited above, use found objects and banal materials to tell stories about themselves and the world around them.
“They’ll use wood or shells or lots of things that have no intrinsic value,” said Susan Cummins, founder and board chair of the nonprofit Art Jewelry Forum and co-author of the 2020 book “In Flux: American Jewelry and the Counterculture.” “The value of the piece comes from their ideas or their skills in making it.”
She named a handful of critically acclaimed artists whose work she admires, including Gijs Bakker from the Netherlands; Joyce Scott, a 2016 MacArthur Fellow based in Baltimore; and Dorothea Prühl, a talented wood carver from Germany, known for her dramatic, nature-inspired necklaces.
Many experts in the category also cited Lola Brooks of Atlanta, whose work occupies both the precious and conceptual worlds. “She’s playing on the saccharine quality of jewelry, nostalgia and sentimentality,” Ms. Patti said. “Her work can be very oversized or really small, and often has humor in it, but she’s using traditional skills.”
The unifying thread among all of these disparate studio jewelers is their desire to imbue their work with meaning, often resulting in bold statement jewels that disregard traditional aesthetic ideals and, sometimes, even the basics of wearability.
Their jewels have “political and sociological content — they deal with issues of gender, race and sex,” said Toni Greenbaum, a New York-based art historian and author of “Messengers of Modernism: American Studio Jewelry 1940-1960.” “Their jewelry has meaning beyond its use as an accessory.”
It should come as no surprise that the customers for such pieces are not typical jewelry buyers.
“My clients are not interested in fashion or trends,” said Lisa M. Berman, a contemporary art jewelry advocate and gallerist based in Laguna Beach, Calif., whose Sculpture to Wear by-appointment showroom stages pop-ups and events around Southern California. “They are well heeled, well traveled, and they are interested in conveying a nonverbal message with a piece of jewelry.”
Discovering Art Jewelry
Compared with traditional fine jewelry, art jewels are considerably less expensive. “You could buy a really good piece of art jewelry for under $5,000,” Ms. Cummins said. “And you can buy a lot of the greatest jewelers in this field for $20,000 to $25,000.”
To gain familiarity with the category, experts advise newcomers to read books, visit the Art Jewelry Forum website and follow artists on Instagram. They also advise attending art and design fairs such as Salon Art + Design in New York; the European Fine Art Fair, better known as TEFAF, in Maastricht, the Netherlands, and New York; and Design Miami.
For a hands-on education, however, nothing rivals seeing the work in person. In the United States, Ornamentum in Hudson, N.Y., and Ms. Patti’s Massachusetts gallery are highly regarded. So are Atta Gallery in Bangkok and, in New Zealand, Fingers and The National.
In Europe, Galerie Marzee in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, about a 90-minute drive southeast of Amsterdam, is widely considered to be the finest showcase of contemporary art jewelry in the world. Founded in 1979 by Marie-José van den Hout, the gallery is spread across four floors, including one dedicated to Ms. van den Hout’s personal collection of about 2,000 pieces.
“It’s not commercial and you can hardly make a living with this sort of jewelry,” Ms. van den Hout said. “Sometimes people say, ‘Why don’t you sell easier jewelry?’ But for me, this is not so interesting.”