Contemporary Jewelry Takes a Stand
“One reason that we prize jewelry so highly…is the way that it concentrates an artist’s ideas in such a condensed form” —Glenn Adamson
Throughout history, jewelry has been social marker and amulet, used to enhance sexual allure, or for ceremony and ritual. Over time, jewelry-making evolved into a fine craft, largely created from precious metals and gemstones—which most still is. Nonetheless, a small but dedicated group of connoisseurs seeks a type of jewelry—termed “contemporary”—that, like painting and sculpture, is a vehicle for aesthetic expression. Its value can come from the exploration of ideas, new technology, and the incorporation of topical issues and even commentary. At times the work is conceptual, even provocative. Often it is very beautiful. Much of it stands out for the use of unexpected materials such as steel, wood, plastic, detritus, textiles, photographs, and even taxidermy.
Several museums specialize in jewelry from pre-history to the present day, but the inclusion of contemporary jewelry in jewelry museums only allows for limited comparison with other eras, locales, and/or formats. Placement at more broad-based institutions, within the context of painting, sculpture, and design, on the other hand, facilitates interdisciplinary analyses; and directors and curators of encyclopedic museums are thus becoming increasingly interested in contemporary jewelry. Maxwell L. Anderson, former Eugene McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, terms contemporary jewelry a “compelling genre within the broader contexts of painting and sculpture.”
The formidable, if small, group of collectors who has brought this field into the limelight has championed the makers, patronized galleries, funded ambitious exhibitions with erudite catalogues, and supported other publications. They have amassed sizable collections that, though each is different and highly personal (as jewelry would be), represent some of the most important achievements in the field. Now, a significant number of these collectors are helping some of the world’s major museums build their holdings.
This is, of course, a time-tested path for museums, to construct collections from major gifts. But contemporary jewelry is a comparatively new area of inquiry and acquisition for museums—and unique for the modern collecting world in that it is so very personal, art that is best displayed when worn. As such, jewelry is an intimate art, and so collectors often apply their own criteria when considering a piece. Thus, it’s worth understanding just who these collectors-turned-patrons are, since their private taste is shaping what the public will know about contemporary jewelry. Here is a look at ten such collections—and the people who created them.
The contributions of Helen Williams Drutt are inestimable. Her stated objective in pursuing the discipline is to “hold history,” not necessarily to build a collection. She has consistently sought superlative American and international work, not only for her own purposes but also to enlighten others, which she achieves through her lectures, writing, and more. In 1973 Drutt opened an eponymous gallery in her home city of Philadelphia, with contemporary jewelry a chief focus. Through the gallery’s outreach, her own scholarship, reverence for the artists, and curatorial acumen, Drutt spawned a following for contemporary jewelry that would otherwise be inconceivable.
In 2002 the Helen Drutt Gallery closed, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston subsequently accessioned through gift and purchase more than eight hundred of Drutt’s jewels and related drawings dating from 1960 to 2006. In 2007 the museum organized a traveling exhibition of approximately three hundred objects from the collection, 275 of them pieces of jewelry. The accompanying book, Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection, along with Drutt’s 1995 book, Jewelry of Our Time: Art, Ornament and Obsession (co-written with the late Peter Dormer), have become standard texts on the subject. The late Peter C. Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for twenty-eight years, wrote in a stirring foreword to Ornament as Art: “The Drutt Collection attacks traditional academic, art historical categories. This subversive challenge forces us to abandon certain conventional modes of thought and to redefine ideas of sculpture, painting, decorative arts, and so forth.” Wishing to foster international understanding through the sharing of handmade objects, last year Drutt was responsible for the exhibition Gifts from America: 1948–2013—comprising seventy-four works given to the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in celebration of the museum’s 250th anniversary. The works were donated by forty-three artists and patrons, including Drutt, and featured works by thirty international jewelers. A noteworthy sign that this is a watershed moment is the evident desire by the Hermitage, one of the world’s oldest and largest museums of historical art and culture, to expand its commitment to collecting and exhibiting later twentieth- and twenty-first-century applied art, including jewelry.
Southern Californian Lois Boardman says that her friendship with Drutt led her “down the ruinous path of collecting.” Indebted nonetheless to Drutt for exposing her to the “fun and wonder” of pursuing contemporary jewelry when they first met in the early 1980s, Boardman amassed her own impressive collection of more than three hundred pieces, much of which she and her husband Bob are donating to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. An exhibition of selections, Beyond Bling, is scheduled to open next fall and will be accompanied by a catalogue.
Contrary to what one might think, most jewelry collectors are not daunted by the provocative, humorous, or avant-garde—and Boardman is a prime example. In fact, she welcomes experimentation. Consider Washington state artist Nancy Worden’s gilded cast chicken-bone neckpiece Gilding the Past or Virginia-based Susie Ganch’s Static Orbital Model #3, a headpiece in the form of a menorah. Boardman says that she has even worn German jeweler Georg Dobler’s necklace with a huge faceted amethyst centered between two hefty cast silver beetles, to Costco. Her strategy is to chart the aesthetic and technical development of each artist she believes is fundamental to the field by purchasing several of their works—although she admits her personal preference is for works in gold.
Former New York resident Donna Schneier, who also began collecting contemporary jewelry in the 1980s, chooses pieces for their concepts and actually wears very few of them. Unlike Boardman, she claims to have no “personal taste in jewelry,” selecting each work with a curator’s savvy and aiming to document the most authoritative objects by the most influential artists of the period. Schneier was initially attracted to “body adornment” being made in England and the Netherlands in the 1980s from atypical materials such as paper, fiber, rubber, tin, and plastic. She purchased several examples, which she displayed in the office from which she ran a business that imported conventional gold jewelry. In 1997 she donated a selection of these non-precious works to the American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Arts and Design), which organized an exhibition and book around them titled Zero Karat. Then, in 2007 and 2013, Schneier donated some 132 examples of contemporary American and European jewelry to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In discussing the gift, Jane Adlin, former associate curator in the Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, commented: “I love jewelry…so…[I said] let’s see what we can do about strengthening that part of the [Met’s] collection.…I look at contemporary jewelry as part of contemporary design.” In the spring of 2014 the museum organized an exhibition and accompanying catalogue, Unique by Design, which spotlighted masterworks by Americans Thomas Gentille, Joyce J. Scott, and William Harper and Germans Hermann Jünger, Otto Künzli, and Dorothea Prühl, among a panoply of other major international jewelers.
Comfort was a requisite for Daphne Farago when she considered a piece of jewelry for her collection. Farago began collecting in the late 1980s and possesses many stellar contemporary European works that illustrate the cross-fertilization between American and European jewelers during the later twentieth century, as well as mid-twentieth-century examples designed by international painters and sculptors. But her emphasis was on relating the story of American studio jewelry from its inception around 1940—with Alexander Calder’s powerfully wrought jewels of brass and silver—to its maturity at the turn of the twenty-first century. Born in South Africa, Farago made her primary home in Rhode Island, where she founded the Daphne Farago Wing for Contemporary Art at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in 1993, a gallery that features exhibitions from the museum’s contemporary art collection. In addition, she has given more than 950 pieces of contemporary studio craft in a variety of mediums to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. These include more than 650 pieces of jewelry, many of which were featured in Jewelry by Artists: The Daphne Farago Collection, an exhibition that ran for nearly a year, from 2007 to 2008. A catalogue, Jewelry by Artists in the Studio, 1940–2000: Selections from the Daphne Farago Collection, was published by the museum in 2010. Permanent loans and promised gifts from Farago continue to enter the MFA.
Deedie Potter Rose and her husband Edward W. Rose collect contemporary painting and sculpture, particularly from Latin America. That collection is earmarked for the Dallas Museum of Art as part of an effort to build a strong contemporary presence there. Deedie Rose became aware of contemporary jewelry accidently in the early 1990s, when she happened upon images of two geometric stainless-steel brooches by Czech artist Eva Eisler in a magazine article. She pursued Eisler, and never looked back. Like contemporary art, contemporary jewelry, she feels, makes one “think in new ways.”
She has already given several works to the Dallas Museum, including a necklace of thin plastic tubing infused with jeweler’s steel sawblades and a brooch of densely layered watch hands and oxidized silver, both by American Sergey Jivetin. But Rose’s most generous contribution to date is the Rose-Asenbaum Collection, which came about through another chance encounter. In 2012, during a trip to Vienna, where she and her husband were seeking Wiener Werkstätte furniture, Rose was introduced to a spectacular collection of more than seven hundred pieces by international jewelry luminaries working from 1960 to the present—such as Slovak Anton Cepka, German Gerd Rothmann, Swiss Max Fröhlich, and Italian Francesco Pavan—that belonged to Austrian collector, consultant, and gallerist Inge Asenbaum. The following year Rose purchased Asenbaum’s collection for the Dallas Museum. As Kevin W. Tucker, former Margot B. Perot Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design there and now director of the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement in Saint Petersburg, Florida, says, “The Rose-Asenbaum Collection provides special resonance with the DMA’s collection of modern and contemporary art as, freed from the usual constraints of design for practical function, these artists could and did explore conceptual issues, questioning not just style and materials but the very role of the objects they were creating.” A selection from the Rose-Asenbaum Collection is on view until the end of 2016 in Form/Unformed: Design from 1960 to the Present, an ongoing installation of iconic furniture and objects from DMA’s holdings.
The rich jewelry history of the Netherlands is a subject that Dutch art historian Marjan Unger has written and lectured extensively about, including Het Nederlandse sieraad in de 20ste eeuw (Dutch Jewelry in the 20th Century) in 2004. In celebration of her PhD, granted by Leiden University in 2010 for a thesis that addresses theoretical issues involving jewelry, she and her husband, Gerard, donated their collection of almost five hundred pieces of Dutch twentieth- and twenty-first-century jewelry to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Although they concentrated on the period between 1930 and 1970, the Unger Collection extends the museum’s jewelry holdings to the present day, including outstanding examples by such contemporary masters as Paul Derrez, Robert Smit, and Beppe Kessler. Unger did not set out to amass such a group when she began purchasing modern Dutch jewelry in 1980. Rather she began acquiring through emotion and intellect, stating that her “professional relationship” with jewelry is characterized by “curiosity, complicity and the thrilling feeling of falling in love.”
The late Dutch art collector Ronald Kuipers was introduced to contemporary jewelry through fine art. After his death in 2014, his family donated his jewelry collection to CODA, a museum in Apeldoorn. Through this bequest, CODA added to its already exceptional collection of works by Dutch maker Evert Nijland and acquired significant pieces by Ruudt Peters, Felieke van der Leest, and Jantje Fleischhut, the Italian Marc Monzó, and Australian Helen Britton.
Since 2004 one of the world’s most impressive contemporary jewelry collections has been housed in the Danner Rotunda, a dedicated gallery supported by the Danner Foundation within the Neue Sammlung—The Design Museum in the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. The collection, consisting of a permanent loan from the Danner Foundation, as well as private donations, was inaugurated in 1995, when Serbian jeweler Peter Skubic gave sixty pieces—none made by him—to the museum in honor of his sixtieth birthday; the following year this core collection was buttressed by contributions from Austrian jeweler Sepp Schmölzer and German jewelers Marianne Schliwinski and her husband, Jürgen Eickhoff, owners of Munich’s Galerie Spektrum.
Peter Skubic also played a seminal role in thejewelry collection of Austrians Heidi and Karl Bollmann, a portion of which was exhibited at MAK, the Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst/Gegenwartskunst (Austrian Museum of Applied Art/Contemporary Art) in early 2015. The Bollmann Collection of more than a thousand objects began in 1972, when Karl Bollmann inherited some diamonds and commissioned Skubic to incorporate them into a jewel for Heidi. Bollmann believes that jewelry possesses “universal validity” in communicating thoughts and feelings. The Bollmanns regard the MAK exhibition and its splendid catalogue, Jewellery 1970–2015: Bollmann Collection as a “thank you” to the makers who have so enriched their lives.
Swiss nationals Sonja and Christian Graber recently donated an in-depth collection of jewelry and objects by countryman Bernhard Schobinger to the Kunsthaus Zug in Zug, Switzerland— along with photographs by Schobinger’s Zug-born wife, video artist and photographer Annelies Štrba, and paintings by Zurich’s Adrian Schiess. Known for his paradoxical jewelry made from precious materials and rubbish, Schobinger’s work is simultaneously confrontational and mystical. Many of the works were published for the first time in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition Adrian Schiess, Bernhard Schobinger, Annelies Štrba: The Gift of the Graber Collections, held at the museum in the fall of 2015.
Thanks to an enthusiastic welcome from museums and the gracious generosity of collectors, contemporary jewelry has a public platform.
Thanks to an enthusiastic welcome from numerous museums and the gracious generosity of its growing collectorship, contemporary jewelry has a public platform. When asked about the importance of contemporary jewelry collections and the collectors who facilitate them, Glenn Adamson, Nanette L. Laitman Director at the Museum of Arts and Design, said: “One reason that we prize jewelry so highly at MAD is the way that it concentrates an artist’s ideas in such a condensed form. The opportunity to build a definitive collection of these objects is still more powerful, because it demonstrates the enormous range of the medium’s possibilities. And at the end of the day, museums and collectors are working together toward this shared goal, to communicate and preserve the work of artists we respect so highly.”