There were two groups of artists who were creating this type of jewelry, located on the East and West coasts of the country, during the 1940s – 1960s. In New York, they opened their shops in the heart of two art centers: Greenwich Village and Midtown, near the Museum of Modern Art. One could find the artists at work on any given day designing and producing their spectacular jewelry. On the West Coast, specifically in Northern California, artists sold their jewelry mainly at outdoor art festivals and galleries specializing in crafts. While they lived and worked on separate coasts, all of the artists knew of one another and supported each other and were influenced by each other’s work. In some cases, because their influences all came from the same place, the jewelry looked similar yet it still remained unique. There jewelry was mostly made from copper, brass, silver, aluminum, ceramics, glass and hard stones such as quartz, opal and agate. Most of these artists were not professionally trained as there were not many places were one could get proper education in metal smithing or jewelry techniques and therefore many of the artisans were self-taught. Some of the artists also worked in more than one medium and did not consider themselves to be exclusively jewelers. (See. Greenbaum, “Messengers of Modernism American Studio Jewelry, 24).
Many of the studio jewelers that began to work in the 1940s and 1950s considered Alexander Calder to be the figure they most admired (an exhibition dedicated to Calder’s work is now traveling the country and was in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art during 2008-2009). One such artist jeweler was Art Smith. A talented artist born in Cuba but raised in Brooklyn, Smith attended the Cooper Union College for the Advancement of Science and Art. While training to be an architect, Smith changed courses and decided to concentrate on sculpture. Upon graduation from the Cooper Union, Smith also took a course in jewelry making at New York University. Smith became acquainted with Winifred Mason, a jewelry designer who had a small studio and shop in Greenwich Village, where Smith became her assistant. In 1946, Smith opened his own shop. His work was immediately recognized and his pieces sold throughout the country in boutiques large and small. Smith even famously made cufflinks for Duke Ellington that incorporated the first notes of his famous song “Mood Indigo” (1930). He also designed a brooch for Eleanor Roosevelt. Smith’s work was exhibited extensively in group exhibitions and in 1969 he was subject of a one man show at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York (now the Museum of Arts and Design). In addition to Smith’s work, the From the Village to Vogue exhibition also includes the work of his contemporaries such as Elsa Freund, Claire Falkenstein, Ed Weiner, and Frank Rebajes.
Smith’s work takes the female form into consideration. His necklaces hang effortless of the collar and his earrings and cuffs bracelets envelop the body. Most made of brass or silver, the pieces are brought to life with the use of colorful stones such as jade, turquoise, carnelian, tourmaline and mother of pearl. Like Calder, Smith’s work is biomorphic and inspired by African motifs. His pieces are large and ornate. Most are asymmetrical which is what makes them so interesting. According to Greenbaum, Smith paid homage to Calder’s mobile sculptures in his Patina necklace and pendular earrings. (See. Greenbaum, “Messengers of Modernism American Studio Jewelry, 32). Smith did not mass produce his jewelry, but he did create several examples of each piece. Sometimes he would make the same bracelet in brass and then in silver. The use of a different metal would completely change the look of the piece.
What permitted American studio jewelry to prosper is that it was the first movement of its kind in this country. Schon comments that “these artists were not tied to tradition and were free to explore.” When creativity is allowed to reign, great things happen.
For more information about American Studio Jewelry:
Greenbaum, Toni, Martin Eideberg, ed. “Messengers of Modernism American Studio Jewelry (1940-1960).” Paris: Flammarion, 1996.
Rower, Alexander S.C and Holton Rower, ed. With contributions from Jane Adlin and Mark Rosenthal. “Calder Jewelry” New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008.
Schon, Marbeth. “Modernist Jewelery 1930-1960: The Wearable Art Movement.” Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2004.
Note: The exhibition, From the Village to Vogue: The Jewelry of Art Smith, was due to close last year but the museum has decided to extend it indefinitely. I suggest calling ahead if you are making a special trip to see. It is located in the Dec Arts Galleries on the 4th Floor.
Images courtesy the Brooklyn Museum.