Published: March 8, 2011
The gifted eye and unerring taste of one woman alone is responsible for an unsurpassed collection of Twentieth Century studio jewelry. That woman, Daphne Farago, set out in the late 1980s to gather a museum-quality collection and she more than exceeded her goal. Farago’s once-private collection of studio jewelry has gone public, first with the donation of the entire collection to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) in 2006, and most recently with the newly released book Jewelry By Artists in the Studio 1940′000, a compelling reference dedicated to the collection and published by the museum.
Farago gathered more than 700 superb examples of studio jewelry, the best of the best by American and European artists, selecting works of art that were at the same time wearable. Coincident with the Farago donation, the MFA was the first museum in the United States to establish a jewelry curatorship, naming Yvonne J. Markowitz as the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan curator of jewelry.
In the book, curator and principal author Kelly H. L’Ecuyer, the Ellyn McColgan curator of decorative arts and sculpture at the museum, provides a definitive explication of studio jewelry. Presenting a brief history of modern jewelry †or art jewelry, as it is sometimes called †through the evolution that led to studio jewelry to a discussion of what studio jewelry is †and is not.
Studio jewelry is defined here as that made by independent artists who identify themselves as jewelers and who work in private studios as opposed to factories. These artists make unique or limited production pieces, designing and fabricating or supervising the fabrication of their own work. The studio jeweler is, by necessity, an artist and a technician, schooled in metalsmithing, as well as art and aesthetics. The author engaged in extensive research and explores the large questions facing the studio jeweler: the ways in which the jeweler draws from other areas of the arts; whether jewelry is adornment or sculpture; the economic and moral matters of producing a unique piece or multiple pieces; and the use of precious or nontraditional materials.
No easy answers here; each artist finds his or her own resolution. The book explores in depth the influences on studio jewelry, its evolution and the artists who were its practitioners.
Studio jewelry by major artists of the Twentieth Century is represented in the Daphne Farago Collection. Much of it reflects the collector’s taste and eye. The African art that surrounded Farago in her native South Africa may have forged her affinity for the sculptural and textural, the colorful and experimental elements of the jewelry she gathered.
Exquisite collections were hardly a new venture for Farago; she had previously gathered collections of fiber art and folk art, the latter of which she sold in 1991 to benefit the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD.) The Daphne Farago Wing at RISD houses the institution’s contemporary art collections.
Some of the earliest pieces in the studio jewelry collection were made by Alexander Calder, who felt deeply the influences of African cultures, the exotic and the avant-garde when he lived in Paris in the 1920s; his work is reflective of those inspirations. Calder’s greatest contribution, however, was his kinesthetic work, described by some as “mobiles turned earrings.” The first artist to make jewelry a successful form of modern sculpture, he came to design pieces set in motion by the wearer’s body. Over the course of his career he created some 1,800 pieces of jewelry, which are highly prized by their owners, and all of which were either gifts from the artist or sold in galleries.
One particular silver necklace that Calder made for his sister in 1941 was fabricated by hand and with dangling silver lobes attached by wire can be described as “tribal,” “naïve,” “folk” or “primitive.” It is all of the above. It was apparently a favorite of Farago, as she is pictured wearing it in the catalog. Calder’s use of wire was adopted by other artists of the period who appreciated it for the fluidity it gave their creations.
At Cranbrook Academy, Harry Bertoia modernized the metals department and while much of his work is recognized for its clean, spare geometric forms, he experimented with scrap pieces of wire he found to make unique biomorphic pieces that he sold to students and artists. Like that of Calder, Bertoia’s work emphasized the connection between sculpture and jewelry. A silver brooch from 1941 was made by soldering clusters of wires to create a frondlike effect suggestive of seaweed in a gentle current.
Textile artist Anni Albers led the way in working with found materials, producing pieces in direct contrast to the opulence and ostentation of traditional jewelry. The Bauhaus-trained Albers made a 1941 brooch from an aluminum sink strainer from which paper clips were suspended. She later sold do-it-yourself kits at the Museum of Modern Art shop for making such objects.
Margaret DePatta, who studied under Laszlo Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus in Chicago, practiced constructivism. She worked on the West Coast, for the most part, experimenting with and manipulating the transparent quality of the materials she used in her geometric constructions. She avoided traditional bezels and prongs to achieve her startling effects. In one ring, she cut the top off a half sphere of polished crystal that was backed with silver mesh, creating a lens that magnified and distorted the mesh backing and a pearl inserted into an indentation. In another ring, made between 1947 and 1948, DePatta used what is described as her favorite stone, tourmalinated quartz, a clear stone with dramatic, spiky black crystals within. She set the stone in an asymmetric white gold arrangement that allows the full display of the crystal spikes as they appear to be propelled through the air.
DePatta also experimented with various surface treatments: each of the three planes of a circa 1948 silver and pearl brooch has a different texture.
Another stalwart of the Daphne Farago Collection is Sam Kramer, whose work is classified here as Surrealist. Kramer, who was a standout among the eccentric characters of Greenwich Village in the 1940s, was a clever businessman. He marketed himself carefully, handing out a business card that read, “We have things to titillate the damnedest ego †utter weirdities conceived in moments of semi-madness.” His shop on West Fourth Street neighbored those of his contemporary studio jewelers: Art Smith, Frank Rebajes (until he moved uptown), Ed Weiner, Paul Lobel, Bill Tendler and Eve Paige.
Kramer inherited tens of thousands of glass taxidermy eyes and used them in his work. An ovoid silver and copper brooch made in 1943 features a disk etched with a grotesque embryo with several projecting elements. A layered biomorphic silver and copper cuff bracelet in the collection was made around 1950 and features a large taxidermy eye and a smaller semiprecious stone. Kramer and his wife, Carol, made the erotic “Lover’s Brooch” in 1949 of silver, turquoise and garnet. When it is worn, a male figure and a female figure move back and forth in explicit sexual postures.
New Yorker Art Smith, like Kramer, was one of the most successful studio jewelers in Greenwich Village. Trained in sculpture at Cooper Union, he worked under the sway of Surrealism, biomorphism and Primitivism. Smith designed large dramatic pieces meant to complement the body. His 1946 “Lava” bracelet undulated and overlapped along the entire forearm, making the skin a component of the design. He worked primarily in copper and brass, reserving silver for commissioned pieces. Smith was a jazz expert; his friends included Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Billy Strayhorn, James Baldwin and Brock Peters. The circa 1948 “Modern Cuff” embodies elements of a musical score.
Ed Weiner differed from his contemporaries in that he designed jewelry as adornments rather than as sculpture. He maintained shops in Greenwich Village and Provincetown, adjusting his work to meet market demands. He produced a number of designs in quantity and others in small limited editions. He eventually abandoned studio jewelry and moved to Midtown Manhattan to be nearer the diamond district and his new clientele.
Daphne Farago continues to collect. Works from the 1990s include a necklace by Nancy Worden made of IBM Selectric typewriter parts, a pair of spiky silver earrings by Irmgard Zeitler and Jan Yager’s “American Collar II,” a 1996 construction of rubber, stainless steel, silver, crack vials and caps and syringes.
Curator Markowitz has written a thoughtful essay on the meanings and messages of art and adornment through history. Gerald W.R. Ward discusses the materials and techniques, traditional and innovative, employed by studio jewelers. Michele Tolini Finamore writes on the wearability of studio jewelry.
Many of the pieces illustrated in the book are currently on display at the MFA. Additional gallery space at the MFA will be devoted to jewelry when the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation Gallery opens there in July. The jewelry can be viewed in several ways, says curator L’Ecuyer, as jewelry and as international contemporary art.
Jewelry By Artists in the Studio 1940′000 by curator L’Ecuyer, with contributions by Markowitz and Ward, was funded by Daphne and Peter Farago, the latter of whom did not live to see publication. The illustrated book is available for $55, hardcover, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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