Betty Cooke: Modern Jewelry Pioneer

Cooke’s jewelry has been described as “precision work done in freehand.” In this photograph taken some years ago, she works directly on a jewelry project, typical of her hands-on approach to creating Modern pieces.

BALTIMORE, MD. — Tucked away in a well-appointed mall on the outskirts of Baltimore is the studio and gallery of an icon of American Modernist studio jewelry, Betty Cooke. Still going strong at a lively and engaged 89 years of age, she continues to design unique pieces characterized by simplicity and understated good design.

Over the course of career spanning nearly 70 years, Cooke has created an astonishing number of pieces of handmade jewelry that retain their contemporary feel and infectious appeal. As Fred Lazarus IV, president of her alma mater, the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), has observed, “There is an enduring timelessness about her work, and today, as she did 50 years ago, she continues to create work that is extraordinary in its clean, spare architectural line and stunning simplicity.”

Adhering to the principle that “the simpler and clearer the better,” Cooke’s objects tend to exude a quiet, demure elegance that belies the spontaneity and occasional quirkiness of her intuitive genius. “Hers is an art that is never bombastic or puffed-up declaration,” says Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rather, he continues, “This is jewelry that speaks quietly and poignantly and that encourages wearer and spectator to interact.”

A born collector, Cooke grew up acquiring pebbles, shells, seedpods and the like, and also drew a lot. She studied at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University and MICA, aiming to be a teacher, which she was for a number of years at the institute. She taught the flood of returning World War II veterans a course called “Design and Materials,” which involved working with materials such as leather, wood, gold, steel and what she called the “basic elements of design that were necessary.” For a time she considered becoming a sculptor, but found opportunities in that medium limited.

Cooke apprenticed with a local jewelry maker, who taught her how to solder and helped confirm her commitment to simplified jewelry design. Cooke struck out on her own, purchasing a tiny house/studio/shop on Tyson Street, what was then a rundown section of Baltimore, where she made leather goods and designed popular jewelry pieces. She was one of several craft-oriented property owners who combined to eventually transform the neighborhood into an arts destination.

It was the late 1940s when Cooke took her show on the road, camping out across the country with a friend, and trying to sell her jewelry from a stack of wooden trays that when bound together with a leather strap formed a portable jewelry box. At the time, few jewelry stores sold avant-garde pieces. Often times, she was able to place pieces of her jewelry in furniture stores that featured “modern” furnishings.

She happened to stop at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis just as its owners were organizing a Modernist jewelry exhibition, often cited as the official birthplace of the Midcentury Modernist studio jewelry movement. “They included about six or eight pieces of mine” in the 1948 exhibition “Good Design,” she recalls, in effect launching her career.

In the years since then she has also collaborated with her husband, William Steinmetz, an architect and also a graduate of MICA, on his architectural design projects.

From the start, Cooke emphasized design as the element that made her jewelry making an art form. “I like very architectural, clean-cut, simple things that look as if they were easy to make,” she says. “Everything has to be logical and clear… and decorative,” she emphasizes, and, “they have to be perfect in the design itself.”

Cooke’s work has been described as “precision work done in freehand,” which she says means that “some of the things are so simple and they have to be finished right and they have to be the right proportions… they’re usually a little off… I’m not symmetrical. I’m usually offbeat,” she declares with a sparkle in her eye and a charming smile.

Jewelry expert Toni Greenbaum, a Cooke admirer, points out, “She has never compromised her integrity as a designer to the necessity of production techniques, and each design, except for the occasional die-stamping of repetitive shapes, is made completely by hand.”

During a recent visit to The Store Ltd, Cooke’s showroom for nearly a half-century, she wore her highly popular gold disc ring comprising four small discs set on two U-shaped shanks, with one disc perpendicular to the others. It presents different looks depending on how it is turned on the wearer’s finger. It is at once simple and eye-catching.

A number of exceptional Cooke pieces are in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Her 1953 brooch, created with pivoting, diamond-shaped elements of Plexiglas and silver, shows that Cooke “was truly on the cutting edge of innovation jewelry design in mid-Twentieth Century America,” says the museum’s curator of jewelry Yvonne Markowitz.

A striking 1959 silver necklace, featuring moveable, abstract shapes that appear to float in space, was influenced by the wire sculptures and mobiles of Alexander Calder, who Cooke admires. A third museum object, another silver necklace, circa 1965, consists of flat, circular pendants that radiate around the neck, suggesting atoms, constellations or orbiting planets. It was “inspired by space-age design,” Markowitz observes.

One of the most enthusiastic dealers in Cooke jewelry is Marbeth Schon, owner of M. Schon Gallery in Natchez, Miss. An authority on American studio jewelry, editor of the online periodical Modern Silver Magazine and author of books on Modernist jewelry, Schon focuses on “the artist as a jeweler and the jeweler as an artist.” Schon particularly admires talents, like Calder, Margaret de Patta and Cooke, who have created one-of-a-kind, handmade objects in studios.

Schon calls Cooke “a perfectionist and an intrinsic Modernist. Her designs, created from a synthesis of mathematics, architecture and sculpture, combined with the catalysts of her own unique wit and spontaneity, have forever secured her place as an icon within the tradition of Modernist jewelry.”

A Schon favorite is a sterling necklace with a large quartz crystal that, like many of Cooke’s works, can be adjusted by the wearer for different looks, in this case if worn open or closed. She calls an exquisite, 14K hand-hammered gold neck ring with a black South Sea pearl “a true work of art,” a piece designed to “form an elegantly shaped ring and drop and pearl … placed perfectly, creating a completely satisfying piece.” Beautiful, twisted sterling wire earrings, each about 2 inches long, “are so well designed that any woman could wear them,” says Schon. “They curve elegantly from the ear to the neck.”

A standout among early Cooke works is a sterling and ebony necklace. Roughly 15½ inches around, with each link measuring around 3/16-inch wide, it is an “important piece” that “has the look and feel of American studio jewelry of the 1950s,” observes Schon. Similarly appealing is an early sterling and ebony pin.

Other favorites include earrings and pins featuring circles, a favorite Cooke shape, a boomerang-shaped pin and a three-dimensional pin that “if ‘blown up’ could stand in front of a museum as a Modernist work of art,” says Schon.

Another Cooke fan is Mark McDonald, whose shop bearing his name in Hudson, N.Y., reflects his three-decade interest in Midcentury Modernist studio jewelry. He says he is drawn to Cooke’s work because of the “simplicity and lightness” of her jewelry. “She uses simple common shapes — circles, lines, squares — that appeal to the minimalist in me,” he continues.

“The cleanliness of her designs is reinforced by the extraordinary quality of workmanship,” says McDonald. He points out that “to do minimal geometric jewelry, the details must be perfect. Her earrings and neckpieces especially are comfortable to wear because she uses a very light gauge of silver. Many pieces are mobilelike, having a kinetic component that responds to the movement of the body.”

A McDonald favorite is an early square ebony pin with five silver parallel bars that “move in unison; a simple idea with a strong visual impact.” Cooke’s predilection for circles is exemplified by two other McDonald favorites, a silver necklace comprising semicircles and a graceful, silver triple-loop necklace.

Cooke says it is primarily her customers who motivate her work. She establishes strong personal bonds and gets special inspiration from the challenge of creating works for repeat customers. “Her work for her clientele becomes a collaboration of heart, soul, imagination and vision,” observes Lazarus.

Over the course of a four-decade association with visionary town planner and developer James Rouse (Columbia, Md., Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace) and his wife Patty, Cooke created a different custom-designed piece each year for Patty Rouse’s birthday. Toward the end, she admits, it became increasingly difficult to come up with distinctive ideas for the objects. Cooke included Patty’s age for each year’s piece; the 65th birthday design included a stylized “6” shaped by six wires and a “5” in five wires. The design for “68” consisted of a loose “6” depicted on the left-side loop of a gold necklace wire, with two opal disks stacked above each other along the right side of the neck wire, forming the number “8.” Other long-term friends, admirers and clients have included Howard and Martha Head; he is remembered for introducing Head tennis racquets and skis.

When she is not interacting with customers in The Store, Cooke works on sketches for new jewelry. Her hand is unerringly precise and assured, whether she is just doodling with ideas or working directly with a customer with definite ideas about the design she or he wants. Greenbaum notes that “Cooke’s style is spontaneous — reminiscent of her doodles and watercolors with their large, gestural brushstrokes. She likes to think of her jewelry as metal ‘action pieces,’ which are based on the curve. Occasionally her line is straight, but it is always straining to bend.”

It is a measure of Cooke’s genius, Lazarus observes, “that the pieces she designed at the beginning of her career [more than six decades ago] are as contemporary now as they were then.” At the outset of her career, Cooke used silver exclusively, sometimes adding pebbles, ebony or bits of grained wood, or small areas of enamel. As her success increased, she added gold and semiprecious and precious stones to her repertory.

Over the years Cooke’s work has been included in State Department tours overseas, and acquired for collections of prestigious museums. Most notable among her numerous prizes and awards are the 1979 and 1981 De Beers Diamond Today Awards, the largest competition for diamond jewelry in this country, with international implications. “She is now recognized as one of the finest designers of contemporary jewelry in the world,” says Lazarus.

Cooke nowadays still works closely with her husband/partner on design projects — and minding The Store Ltd. Their shop continues as a mecca for those in search of not only world-class jewelry, but well-designed household items and clothing, much of it discovered during travels around the world.

Betty Cooke’s place in the history of American jewelry design is secure, and because of the enduring appeal of her work and her continuing creation of new pieces, her reputation is likely to continue to grow.

As Martin of the Met puts it, “Betty Cooke creates her art as the poet builds a poem, in the stillness, in the studied intelligence of mind and heart, and in the vital certainty that we wish to share what she says of the human soul evident on the human body. Betty Cooke is such a poet in design. She makes us see the secrets.”

The Store Ltd is in The Village of Cross Keys in Baltimore, 5100 Falls Road (24 Village Square), off Route 83. For information, 410-323-2350 or thestoreltd@Verizon.net.

More stories like this: jewelry, Antiques Arts Weekly, Betty Cooke, Modernism

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