Fine Jewelry as Wearable Art
New York Times, May 14, 2014
NEW YORK — Thousands of years ago, alpha male cavemen strung together strands of colorful beads to impress the cave-ladies.
Today, their most privileged descendants may try to do the trick with multimillion-dollar diamond rings.
Much has changed in how jewels are crafted and perceived, yet a fundamental idea connects them: Throughout history, jewelry has been defined as personal adornment, which is a fancy way of saying it’s wearable.
That may seem obvious, but on a rainy afternoon last month, visitors to the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue weren’t entirely sure what to make of the gem-encrusted snakes and quivering flowers protected by glass vitrines stationed around the room like silos. The displays, each bathed in a halo of LED light, called to mind vivariums lovingly tended by a mad jewelry scientist.
“Is it supposed to be worn?” asked one woman, peering at a serpent bracelet coiled around a craggy silver pedestal. The piece was one of 20 jewels in Gagosian’s “Precious Objects” exhibition, a showing of independent work by the Paris-based jeweler Victoire de Castellane. The exhibition concluded a six-week run at the gallery in late April.
Anyone familiar with Ms. de Castellane’s deep devotion to the female form knows that the answer to that question is a resounding yes. “I think jewelry is really something with sensuality,” she said during a recent Skype interview. “I love the idea that it’s a part of yourself, like it’s a continuity of your skin.”
By day, Ms. de Castellane designs fine jewelry for Dior, one of Europe’s top luxury brands. In her off hours, she cooks up outrageous, highly valuable odes to femininity. “Precious Objects,” which featured pieces priced from $150,000 to $600,000, was Ms. de Castellane’s second show at Gagosian. Her first, the 2011 Baudelairian extravaganza “Fleurs d’Excès,” featured 10 floral jewels, each representing a woman in the ecstatic embrace of a different drug. She portrayed cocaine, for example, as a diamond-sequined flower with blue lacquer petals, perched atop a disco ball of silvery rutilated quartz.
While the pieces in “Fleurs d’Excès” are exuberant, voluminous, psychedelic, the jewels in Ms. de Castellane’s 2014 series, “animalvegetablemineral,” are, at first glance, more restrained. (“Precious Objects” contains work from both series, with an emphasis on the more recent.) Instead of employing myriad gems and minerals, she has confined her palette to the classic precious stones: diamond, ruby, sapphire and emerald — with the exception of one spectacular 28-carat opal and liberal applications of lacquer in multicolored hues.
One of the most striking aspects of “animalvegetablemineral” is the attention that Ms. de Castellane has paid to each jewel’s unique silver pedestal. The stands take one of three forms: the animal pieces — all snakes — curl around rugged sand-cast shapes inspired by the artificial rocks of the monkey enclosure at the Bois de Vincennes zoo in Paris, where the artist spent time as a child; the vegetable jewels are propped up on mirror-polished silver droplets; and faceted blocks, made using rapid prototyping technology, display the mineral pieces.
“The idea was always, ‘What’s happening to the jewels when you’re not wearing them?”’ Ms. de Castellane said. “For me, it’s very strange to see a jewel that is not worn. So I made a little house for them.”
Her idiosyncratic approach to jewelry — treating it as both personal adornment and public sculpture — was part of the allure for Gagosian, said Louise Neri, a director at the gallery. Ms. de Castellane is the first and only fine jeweler whom Gagosian has represented.
“There’s no mistaking her work — which is something we always look for in artists, no matter what medium they’re working in,” Ms. Neri said. “She works in this rarefied environment of fine jewelry, and yet she is seeking to break with certain traditions — and her language is clear.”
If only the jewelry industry’s lexicon had such clarity. In recent years, the term “wearable art” has gained currency, usually in describing a jewel with sculptural qualities or elaborate construction. But when, or whether, fine jewelry qualifies as art remains a topic of passionate debate.
“My honest feeling — most jewelry is not art,” said Tim McClelland, a jeweler in Great Barrington, Mass., who trained at Boston University’s Program in Artisanry in the late 1970s. “Everybody that makes something nowadays wants to feel that they’re an artist,” said Mr. McClelland, who now forms one half of the duo behind the jewelry brand McTeigue & McClelland, “but not many things warrant the moniker.”
The 20th century was rife with artists, often sculptors, who carved lasting niches in the jewelry space. Alexander Calder’s handcrafted, one-of-a-kind ornaments set the stage for the post-World War II art jewelry movement; Art Smith, a fixture on New York’s West Village scene, was celebrated for his Modernist aesthetic. Plenty of others — Salvador Dalí and Georges Braque, for example — alighted in jewelry for a shorter stay. Even Pablo Picasso dabbled in the medium; in March, two silver pendants and a silver brooch he created early in his career sold at Skinner Auctioneers in Boston to a collector for nearly $400,000.
Jewelers who have worked their way backward into the art world, however, are noticeably fewer. While no one would begrudge René Lalique or Peter Carl Fabergé their places on the list of history’s artists, it takes a very special jeweler to be endorsed by the art crowd. This may reflect the ingrained notion of the artist as garret-dweller, someone who has struggled to acquire even inexpensive materials such as canvas or clay.
“Unfortunately, as a jeweler, you start with this intrinsic value, and historically, that’s what these things have always been judged by,” said the British jeweler Stephen Webster. “It’s really difficult to get away from it.”
Beginning in the 1940s, the rise of the studio jewelry movement in the United States helped to fix those distinctions in place. Indifferent to commercial enterprise, art jewelers, such as the critically acclaimed constructivist Margaret de Patta, gravitated to jewelry as a means to express complicated ideas about structure and space.
The legacy of that era continues to influence contemporary art jewelers even as the taboos around using expensive materials have begun to fade, said Ursula Ilse-Neuman, curator of jewelry at the Museum of Arts and Design, MAD, in New York.
“If you buy a Tiffany or Harry Winston piece, it still is about investment,” Ms. Ilse-Neuman said. “In art jewelry, these pieces are not only decorative but they also convey a message or meaning, even if it’s just about wearing rusted iron.”
The tension between material value and conceptual rigor is best expressed in the genre-bending work of Daniel Brush, a New York artist known for making finely wrought aluminum, steel and gold objects, as well as for his ambivalence toward commercial appeal and his disregard for wearability.
“Can it be worn?” a reporter who visited Mr. Brush’s loft last month asked him as he held an aluminum object shaped like a bangle and set with Mughal diamonds to the light. “That’s a utilitarian, functional concept,” he said. “You could put a dinner plate on your head.”
Mr. Brush’s sui generis take on the subject notwithstanding, momentum seems to be building behind precious jewelry that can be both worn and appreciated for its artistic merit.
“That barrier — people are breaking it down as we speak,” said the jewelry historian and author Marion Fasel, citing, among other examples, Ms. de Castellane’s Gagosian show.
Over the past year, the de Young Museum in San Francisco has staged “The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950–1990”; the Grand Palais in Paris welcomed “Cartier: Style and History”; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted “Jewels by JAR” — the American-born, Paris-based Joel Arthur Rosenthal.
The JAR exhibition, which ran from Nov. 20 to March 9, was the Met’s first show devoted to a contemporary jeweler. It received harsh critical reviews but attracted more than 257,000 people, making it clear that fabulously expensive baubles are, indeed, a crowd favorite.
Currently testing that notion is “India: Jewels that Enchanted the World,” which opened at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 12 and runs through July 27. Featuring more than 300 jewels and jeweled objects spanning five centuries of Indian heritage, the exhibition focuses on “the mutual influences of East and West,” said its organizer, Alex Popov.
The Kremlin show is divided into two halls. One hall covers South Indian and early Mughal styles, culminating with the work of the late Munnu Kasliwal, whose mastery of traditional Indian craftsmanship helped make his family’s retail store, the Gem Palace in Jaipur, a bona fide tourist destination. The second hall pays homage to late Mughal and Nizam jewelry, as well as the rich tradition of Indo-Western designs perfected by Cartier, Chaumet and other French houses.
In assessing the artistic value of the pieces on view at the Kremlin, Mr. Popov drew a comparison: “You are in a huge hotel in Las Vegas and in every corridor, you have works of art, paintings. You move along, you never see them. Then you see a beautiful painting and you stop. Why do you stop? Because it moves something in you. With jewelry, it’s exactly the same thing.”
So, do jewelers belong to the world of art or craft? Glenn Adamson, the newly appointed director of MAD, argues that it shouldn’t matter. “The 21st century being what it is, categories are points of reference, but not very useful as containers of people,” he said.
Useful or not, the imprimatur of an artist — not to mention access to his or her wealthy admirers — still carries a potent allure for jewelry houses, which may explain why so many are now recruiting artists to work on joint projects. In March, for example, Hemmerle, a fourth-generation, family-run jeweler in Munich, published a book of poems, “Nature’s Jewels,” curated by the writer Greta Bellamacina and timed with the unveiling of a hyperrealistic nature-inspired jewelry collection. Later that month, the Swiss jeweler Chopard joined forces with the artist Harumi Klossowsky de Rola, who designed a luxe bestiary of rings, bracelets and earrings that made its formal debut at the Baselworld luxury fair.
Mr. Webster, a frequent collaborator with some of the art world’s boldfaced names, recently disclosed that he is creating a jewelry collection in early 2015 that will be his interpretation of the work of the British artist Tracey Emin, a close personal friend.
Reflecting on the chasm that has long separated jewelers such as Mr. Webster from artistic celebrities such as Ms. Emin, Mr. Adamson rejected the idea that there are gatekeepers in the art world denying jewelers their due. “It’s not so much that it’s hard for jewelry to be taken seriously as art as much as it’s difficult to make good art,” he concluded.