Earl Pardon’s work has an elusive quality that is difficult to describe, yet this quality has motivated him throughout years of prodigious jewelry making.

For four decades he has worked with an energy and curiosity that seems only to have intensified. His passion for the ongoing process of discovery is revealed in the very nature of his inquiry. His fascination with experimentation and his willingness to allow for an interplay with chance have combined to bring a singular vitality to his oeuvre. Since the early 1950s, Pardon’s jewelry has displayed a vibrancy that has kept pace with decades of change.

Our appreciation deepens as we examine his work against the development of jewelry/metalsmithing as a whole. Stylistically, he has moved with the interests and tastes of our culture, from primitivism through modernism into a highly individualized statement of the 80s. His current work is elegantly precious, yet it resounds with an almost cacophonous brilliance of color and light.

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Necklace, sterling silver, rosewood, 9½ x 4½”, 1955. Courtesy: Fifty/50 Gallery, New York City.

Pardon belongs to the first generation of jewelers and metalsmiths who spawned the studio jewelry movement in America. While trained as a painter at The Memphis Academy of Art, where his education and ambitions were caught up in the traditions of that discipline, even as a student, he was fascinated by jewelry making and its expressive potential.

Attendance at the 1950 silversmithing workshop sponsored by Handy and Harman catalyzed his interest into a serious pursuit. This session put him in touch with others who shared an enthusiasm for jewelrymaking, but, for the most part, these artists worked in relative isolation, in studios scattered across the country. Pardon, like many of his contemporaries, is primarily self-caught. There was, for him, no movement as we see it now, no notion of collective thinking, no sense of fraternity, no regular forum for dialogue.

Exhibitions and catalogs were rare and eagerly anticipated opportunities for exchange. Coming mostly from a 6ne arts training, Pardon was not steeped in the history or traditions of jewelry/metalsmithing. In many ways he made up his own rules. For him there was a very real excitement about the inventions and new approaches to form that were only possible in this newly rediscovered medium.

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If there was a community for these artists, it existed in New York, where a few – Ed Wiener, Sam Kramer and Art Smith among them – were designing and making their own jewelry and marketing it with great success. Pardon came to know them through studio visits and discussions. For a while, he and fellow Memphis jeweler/artist Dorothy Sturm contemplated joining forces to open a gallery there, but, ultimately,

Sculptural Screen, brass, copper, bronze, nickel, 10 x 17′, 1960
Collection: Corporate headquarters, Prudential Insurance Company of America, Newark, NJ

Pardon sought the relative seclusion of teaching over the pressures of a commercial venture. From 1951 until his retirement this past spring, Pardon has taught in the Art Department of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. There, his ideas about jewelry developed in a most private manner, fed by his interest in the visual arts and the frank joy he felt in the making.

In the early 1950s Pardon was deeply interested in primitive art. Like many other artists, he must have been influenced by major exhibitions bringing work from Africa and Oceania into public view. But Pardon was perhaps more intrigued by the spirit behind the work than by the artifacts themselves. His curiosity led him to collect works, especially from South and Central America, and he made subsequent trips to Mexico to experience the land and the people. It was the raw, unspoken power embodied in these works that he sought to understand. This led him to explore the figure in terms of its most elemental shapes.

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Simple forms, carefully arranged, represented complex organisms that the viewer imbued with emotion and character (see Figure 1). The work that resulted had an animation, as of stilt-legged creatures ambling across the space of the pectoral or around the wrist. Through combining many separate elements into a single piece, pardon created a kind of visual gestalt and, at the same time, brought a jazzlike rhythm and relative complexity to his work.

Necklace, silver, enamel, c. 1960
Courtesy: Fifty/50 Gallery, NYC

It is important to note that for the greater part of his creative life Pardon has been simultaneously a painter, sculptor and jeweler. But while his artistic pursuits have led him to investigate a range of an forms, it was jewelrymaking that provided him with an enduring format most sympathetic to his mode of inquiry. And it was the jewelry he made in this era that earned him early critical recognition.

In 1914, the Chiku-Rin Gallery in Detroit showed Pardon’s jewelry in a two-person exhibition with Joseph Albers’s paintings, and, six years later, Pardon exhibited his jewelry at The Witherspoon Art Gallery in Greensboro, North Carolina, with the work of such other artists as Milton Avery, Saul Baizerman, Charles Eames, Max Ernst and Leon Golub. The importance of studio jewelry as an emerging art form is underscored by the stature of artists shown in these exhibitions. Earl pardon was a leading studio jeweler of this decade. He looked to Harry Bertoia as a mentor and found contemporaries in Bob Winston, Merry Renk, John Paul Miller, Betty Cooke and Ed Levin.

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In the mid-50s Pardon took a year’s leave of absence from teaching to design for Towle Silversmiths, where he developed the enamel technology behind Towle’s popular Revere Bowl. Problems had arisen in enameling the interior of this semispherical form: as the bowl cooled, it warped. Pardon devised collar-type rings out of iron to hold the bowl as it went into the kiln and out again, stabilizing its shape throughout the process.

Reversible Bracelet, copper, brass, silver, ebony, rosewood, ivory, c. 1955. Collection: Eunice Pardon
Photo courtesy: Aaron Faber Gallery, NY

Not surprisingly, Pardon’s interest in enameling spilled over into his personal work, and at just about this same time we see the introduction of enamel into his jewelry. Initially this inclusion of brilliant color was restrained, its use more like that of a punctuation mark. But it heralded Pardon’s reputation as an enamelist and established the integration of this technology into his work. Enameling would provide a venue for unifying his activities as painter and jeweler.

Previously his paintings – chromatic, glowing, layered and glazed – had given pardon a singular arena for exploring color and luminosity. Now these concerns emerged in his jewelry as well. Similarly, the structures that had evolved at the bench began to feed an interest in sculpture. He started working on large metal pieces by brazing and welding but fabricated them according to his sensibilities as a jeweler. By 1960, pardon found himself working back and forth, in whatever material, technique or scale fascinated him, with an appetite for visual and tactile experience that kept him busy on several projects at a time.

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When modernism took hold of the art world, it simultaneously swept crafts from critical view. But by then pardon’s reputation had expanded to include painting and sculpture. In 1960, The Prudential Insurance Company of America commissioned pardon to make a large metal screen for their reception area (Figure 2). The methods he had developed earlier – building up a whole through combining many smaller parts – lent itself to the somewhat modular construction that characterizes this piece. The screen does not have the purely formal concerns of his later work, but rather forms a kind of bridge to the future. There lurk within traces of the artist’s past interest in the primitive. Placement of cuts and holes in relatively simple shapes evokes images of animals, the sun, the figure. But one cannot be sure – there is an ambiguity that makes this piece suggestive. The images are obscured as the rhythmic organization of form, pattern and surface takes precedence.

Flight of Time (also called Trapeze), watercolor, 17 x 22″, 1953

Looking back, one can trace the sensibility to materials and technology that has remained constant against Pardon’s evolving ideas about function and form. From his earliest jewelrymaking, he evidences a love for the natural and the organic. He uses the warm, earthy tones of ebony, ivory, teak and coral to color the work. In them he finds a richly subdued palette that contrasts effectively with the wide-ranging brilliance – even audacity – of enamels and colored gemstones. The shapes that he uses remain, from the beginning, quite modest. Complexity builds through repetition. It is a repetition of similar, not identical, elements, however. Pardon’s designs are never machinelike, but rather refer to a more organic generation of form.

In the 60s he picks up a rhythm and efficiency that is established through the use of modular-type elements. Coincidentally, he develops techniques that allow him to keep pace with his outpouring of ideas. Figurative elements recede. Color, construction, rhythm, repetition and change are concerns that surface throughout his many different studio activities.

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Pardon emerged in the 70s a mature artist. But these years were not easy. Between 1968 and 1977 Pardon taught painting, enameling, sculpture and jewelry while chairing the Art Department at Skidmore. And still he continued to produce. Teaching provided him one avenue of exploration – his classes were based on ideas or processes that intrigued him at the time. In his enameling courses he encouraged students to explore nontraditional methods, treating sheet copper as a pliable ground, distorting then coloring the form with enamel powder that could be made to act like paint. A course he offered in kinetic sculpture was directly connected co his admiration for Harry Bertoia and George Rickey. Through welding technologies he had students experience the silently elegant movement of large, heavy steel forms, appropriately weighted and levered. His excitement in a student’s progress instilled feelings of communal accomplishment, and the studio was alive with a shared enthusiasm for process, experiment and discovery.

Necklace, (reversible, back view), silver, 14k gold, cloisonné, enamel, ebony, tourmaline, 1980

As both teacher and artist, Pardon investigated various jewelry techniques but gravitated, always, toward fabrication and enameling. By the end of the 70s, his jewelry had become cooler in feeling and visually more complex, incorporating his own observations about physical movement relative to the human form. Balled wire and the drilled hole – a most basic ball-and-socket joint – form the backbone of pieces built of individual wires. The necklaces are composed of lines cut and gathered into configurations that have an airy strength. His pendants, like canvasses, are backdrops for a build-up of dot and line that is massively delicate. Spots of color dance throughout. Areas of relative simplicity – parallel wires or a single plane – are broken by perpendicular elements rhythmically separating and pacing the eye through each piece (Figure 3).

Though the 70s was a time when Pardon’s energies were dissipated by so many demands, these years seem, in retrospect, to have been fodder for the burst of creative output that accompanied his return to full-time teaching. Once freed of the obligations of administration, Pardon, for the first time in his life, focused exclusively on jewelrymaking.

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After years of developing in so many directions, why did Pardon suddenly devote his entire effort to a single artform? Was it simply that his jewelrymaking had evolved to incorporate and satisfy his many disparate interests? Enameling enabled him to explore the potential for graphic organization and color theory normally held to be within the purview of painting. His interest in making sculpture waned as his brooches became more dimensional. But perhaps most compelling was that Pardon found the materials and techniques of jewelrymaking to be, finally, most sympathetic to his needs as a maker.

Black Dorsal, sculpture, cedar, redwood, 4’6″ long, 1977

When Pardon first sat down to make jewelry, it was, for him, “an immediate love affair.” The resistant materials rendered endless possibilities for arrangement and manipulation. The scale was nonintimidating, both to artist and wearer. Jewelry offered an intimacy of exchange and a preciousness that had to do more with connotations of size than cost of material. Moreover, to an artist with little training in its traditions, this artform presented endless opportunity for experiment; it was a true venture into the unknown.

Ultimately, the skills Pardon developed as a jeweler enabled him to make with a speed consonant with his need to produce. No other artform allowed him to work dimensionally with a rigor that paced with his thinking. It became increasingly important to make with speed: he anticipated producing a piece in one day. Working in series, each piece begins with the one that came before; thus he works within a continuum that acts to feed his compulsion. And it is this unfolding delight in the making that continues to inspire him.

That he is inspired there can be no doubt. His last exhibition at the Aaron Faber Gallery in New York boasted more than 200 works created in a nine-month period. His output is extraordinary, if not confounding. He is a most disciplined artist, at the bench from nine to five almost daily. He works to satisfy himself and is sustained largely through an experiential mode of working. His bench is a chaos of tools and materials and bits of pieces in progress. Pardon works to see what can happen – what is possible – and  out of this emerges the piece.

Earrings, sterling silver, 14k gold, enamel, ivory, ebony, shell and gemstones
Courtesy: Aaron Faber Gallery, New York

In Pardon’s current jewelry he has developed methods of fabrication that allow him to build a visual complexity within his self-imposed, rather compressed time frame. Almost always, the work is constructed of similar elements that are soldered, hinged or linked together in a very straightforward way. This repetition of form and junction establishes a consistency that becomes a background for the unexpected. Pardon delights in surprise. Through precise placement of unexpected form or color, that which is anticipated is altered or abandoned. Change, the unpredictable, becomes a primary element in his designs.

Conceptually, Pardon’s concerns are purely formal. He works with lines and planes to create pieces jammed with color, sparkle and luminosity. Often he relies on the standard jewelry format of a hinged bracelet with clasp or flat brooch with pin-back, as a painter might depend upon the traditions of canvas. They provide an unquestioned vehicle for the thoughts and gestures applied to the surface. The result is jewelry that is strongly graphic, carefully composed for visual movement through exotic combinations of riotously colored materials. It is work that jumps with a vibrancy strongly related to his paintings (Figure 4 – see cover – and 5).

When Pardon makes jewelry that refers more to his sculpture (Figure 6) however, he stretches the tradition of the accepted format. In 1981 he visited Italy, where he was stirred by the idea of the fibula brooch. Soon after he began a series of tubular enameled fibula pins that were quite active dimensionally. In the late 70s, his brooches of carved ivory and ebony took their stance from his sculpture. Compared to the flat, paintinglike pieces, these works were far more robust, and had to be handled and turned, as an object, to be fully appreciated. Their slightly oversized scale and rigorous angular profiles sit in striking contrast to the human form. Interestingly, Pardon has most recently introduced colored panels of enamels and gemstones to the plane faces of these dimensional brooches, suggesting that his divergent interests in painting and sculpture might finally combine into a single, unified jewelry statement.

Brooches, sterling silver, 14k gold, enamel, ivory, ebony, shell and gemstones
Courtesy: Aaron Faber Gallery, New York

But it is difficult to imagine what will come. Where working in a series format might invite speculation, even predictability, Pardon remains open to a chance encounter. He welcomes the outside influence of external stimuli, playing around with any idea that interests him. His excitement about a historic piece, or his admiration for a fellow artist, may suddenly evidence itself in his work. Change and variation are not only elements in his designs but are integral to his growth. Each piece is an experiment; successes and failures are relative only to the ongoing search. For him, it is the next piece that is all important.

Those artists who move through the years in step with our culture have gained stature not only through their esthetic contributions, but also because of their abilities to define and interpret a continuum that to others seems disjointed, enigmatic or unsure. Earl Pardon’s 40-year commitment to jewelrymaking offers us a mirror through which we begin to understand some of the transitions that have characterized and altered the growth of modern jewelry. His oeuvre is all the more remarkable when considered for the simultaneous contribution he makes to our history and our ongoing development. As both artist and teacher, Earl Pardon has played a significant role in the development of 20th-century art jewelry.

Sharon Church is Chairperson of Crafts and Assistant Professor of Jewelry/Metalsmithing at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia College of Art and Design, Philadelphia, PA. She studied with Earl Pardon at Skidmore College in 1969-70.