A Conversation with Angela Cummings

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HomeLearning CenterJewelry DesignA Conversation with Angela Cummings
By Jabez L. Van CleefMore from this author

In October of 1983 Angela Cummings announced that she would end a 16-year association with Tiffany & Company in order to seek other opportunities, either as an independent jewelry designer or working under the auspices of another upscale retailer. Immediately, business analysts set about defining what this decision meant for the image and future image of her former employer, which has been, since 1979, a subsidiary of Avon Products, Inc.

The Wall Street Journal speculated that her departure might be symptomatic of a loss of the Tiffany "mystique" and mentioned rumors afoot that Elsa Peretti would also be leaving. Then The New York Times ran a profile of Mrs. Cummings which illuminated some of the circumstances leading up to the break. In these and other articles, she was subjected to a degree of public scrutiny that, she says, in retrospect, was unexpected but not altogether surprising. "I don't mind publicity," she says now. "But, I certainly wouldn't allow the possibility of public exposure or newspaper coverage to influence what I did or said. This is particularly true if the story is about my work."

Angel Cummings

Over the years, Angela Cummings's work has attracted the requisite array of adjectives trying to capture its essence: "nature-inspired," "lavish," "painstaking," "subtle," "spectacular." Perhaps more important than words from the professional's point of view, is her work's remarkable popularity with an affluent market: According to the Times article, in 1982 her designs accounted for a total of more than 45,000 sales, generating total revenues of about $10 million. In 1983 these figures were expected to increase by 20 per cent.

How does one person contrive to design, fabricate and market several million dollars worth of jewelry every year? Having reached what would seem to many to be the absolute pinnacle of her profession, why would she choose to leave it for an uncertain future? When playing for such high stakes, do the constraints of spreadsheets and market trends tend to influence artistic decisions? These were a few of the questions which came to mind as we followed Mrs. Cummings across the threshold into her new career.

Our meeting took place in the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel just before Christmas, 1983. Mrs. Cummings was immersed in preparations for introducing a completely new collection of work at Bergdorf Goodman, scheduled for opening on Valentine's Day two months later. We sat and talked for a couple of hours and made arrangements to come and see the new pieces sometime in the spring. The following is a freely edited report of our conversation, interspersed with photographs of some pieces from the new collection taken later at Bergdorf's. (All Angela Cummings jewelry designed since October of 1983 is available exclusively through Bergdorf Goodman as of June, 1984.)

METALSMITH: How would you define your relationship with Bergdorf Goodman?

A.C.: I call it a "buy-sell" arrangement. They buy the pieces directly from me and then decide how much they want to charge for them. With this type of arrangement I have complete freedom to design whatever I want for them. They may provide me with information about what they feel will be happening in the fashion world six months or a year from now, but I honestly don't pay too much attention to that when I'm designing a new piece.

On the other hand, they have been extremely cooperative in accepting my creative input. They are setting up a sales area devoted exclusively to my work. This involves extensive renovation which they have been only too willing to do, and they have been most amenable to any suggestions I might have relating to display and visual merchandising.

METALSMITH: Do you expect to do as much work with Bergdorf as you did with Tiffany?

A.C.: More. Much more, when I think about it. For one thing, I am committed to introducing two completely new collections during 1984: one in February and one sometime in the fall. Cumulatively, this means that I will be creating three complete collections of work, with over 100 pieces in each collection, within the span of a year. Right now I'm working 17 or 18 hours a day, but I don't seem to suffer much from fatigue.


A.C.: I think it's because the creative energy sort of fuels itself. For the first time, I can take an idea and follow it through as far as it will possibly go. This means that many more actual pieces will grow out of a single idea, but it also means that I can only do my best if I can retain my concentration from beginning to end.

A lot of people have told me that they thought I was compensating for the restrictions I supposedly felt during the time just before I left Tiffany, but I don't think that's the whole truth. I decided a long time ago that chronic negative feelings generated an energy that reflected badly on my work. Any feelings of frustration I may have had are better off left completely behind.

If you asked me to be perfectly objective, which I probably can't be anyway, I would say I'm able to do more work because I have so much more work to do.

METALSMITH: Do you have people to help you?

A.C.: Oh yes, I call them my support system.

METALSMITH: Is this for administration, marketing?

A.C.: Yes, and also for the fabrication of the pieces. I have a network of people with whom I have learned to work very closely. I would say they help me to realize the full potential of an idea. We discuss things in detail before they make a piece.

METALSMITH: Could you elaborate on that?

A.C.: Well, first there's the question of materials, and whether a given material is going to do what I think it will be able to do. We talk about that and try to envision what the results will be, and all of that has a bearing on the price of the piece, whether it's going to be cast or one-of-a-kind.

Then there's a much more elusive thing we discuss that has to do with the design itself. Essentially we decide how far it's going to be possible to take it, either in terms of a single object or a "cluster" of related objects. This is hard to describe because over the years we have built up what amounts to a verbal shorthand that relies very little on fully expressed thoughts.

In practice, I draw a very precise picture of the piece that I want to make, the idea. This includes separate views if I think they are necessary. During this process I may discuss the material for the piece with the goldsmith.

Then the goldsmith makes a replica of what I have drawn, out of wax. I consult with him as needed to make sure that it's exactly what I want. When it is, I approve the piece and we make a decision on whether it should be cast.

Finally, after the piece is fabricated, we discuss the finish of the metal and the goldsmith may present me with some options, but generally we have an object that is exactly what I envisioned it would be.

METALSMITH: Would you say that any characteristics grow out of the process of making the object itself?

A.C.: No, not really. I see each finished piece as one of my own ideas made into a three-dimensional object. It has the shape of my thought. In fact, the precision of bringing a shape into reality is for me much greater now than it was 18 years ago when I was getting started. I think I am better now than I was then.

METALSMITH: Where does the thought come from?

A.C.: Intuition. Something inside of me that I have learned to trust. Not knowing enough to know that I can't do something. Balancing things that don't match, like that business in E.M. Forster's Howard's End about "only connect."

I suppose that in all modesty I ought to add that I don't feel that any of my ideas is ever perfectly realized; but, I think I'm very good about knowing when to stop.

METALSMITH: Is that why you left Tiffany? Because it was time to stop?

A.C.: There are always questions. You may not believe it, but even I have questions. "Why did you leave Tiffany?" there are lots of answers and yet there isn't a single answer.

About two years ago I began to experience something about my work as pressure. Outwardly everything looked and felt the same. In the course of following a design through to completion, displaying it and ultimately selling it, I would expect to encounter conflicts—that's not the issue, I'm not a tyrant—but strangely, after all those years, I saw that in fighting to assert my point of view I was not being given an honest battle.

The pressure began to show in my work. Keep in mind that this is hindsight, that it's easy to say now something was a constant nagging thing, while then I may have consciously thought about it only one day in ten. Still, with this business of having the rules changed, the unfair battle, I felt perhaps certain restraints that were new or that I hadn't noticed before: what's the difference, I felt restrained. And by a mysterious process, my collections for those two years were expressions of a need to protect myself. To me they looked like fortresses, like armor.

Even when I noticed that, I still hadn't decided what to do, but I had decided that I was going to do something. Ultimately what made me leave was a realization of who and where I was. I had come a long way with a great company, but where was the future? The idea of simply piling up collection on collection over the years in my nice safe little nook filled me with loathing. I had to get out on my own.

Of course this level of explicit analysis for what motivates me is extremely unusual. I rarely express the ideas behind my actions or my work—is there a distinction?—except by a soft of verbal shorthand. I use what almost amounts to a private language when I'm working with the people who fabricate my designs, we've been working together for such a long time.

I might just as easily have answered the question "Why did you leave Tiffany?" by saying "My heart is more comfortable with asymmetry." And let you plumb the depths of that. Once the break was made, a flood of feelings just picked me up and carried me off. The excitement of being on my own is absolutely tremendous. I feel as if I have understood some timeless idea, that the artist in me works best when she is least secure. I know this will sound vain, but I think the emotional turmoil of severing with Tiffany has made my work much more interesting to look at. Of course it's too early to tell and who am I to say, but that's what I think.

Maybe the best thing is to try to answer the other question: "What would have happened if Angela Cummings had stayed at Tiffany?" I can close my eyes and imagine it and it's like a gray steel wall or something—no features, nothing. It's a meaningless question. I couldn't have stayed there."

Jabez L. Van Cleef writes about design, engineering and marketing for an industrial public relations firm in Manhattan.

By Jabez L. Van Cleef
Photographs by Andy Grundberg
Metalsmith Magazine – 1984 Fall
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Jabez L. Van Cleef

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