The Jewelry of Thomas Mann

Not so many years ago Thomas Mann figured that 2002 would be his year to retire. But the projected date has come and gone, and Mann is busier than ever with reinvention instead of retirement. The publication in 2001 of the monograph Thomas Mann: Metal Artist may have summarized his career as a jeweler, but it didn’t bring down the curtain his performance. If anything, he’s busily proving F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion that American lives lack second acts.

Stone Fetish Brooch, 2001
Silver, brass, bronze, iron wire, stone
2 1/2 x 3 ”
Photo: George Post

Mann is so well known for his wildly successful production line of jewelry that Thomas Mann Design, his company, sometimes obscures Tom Mann, the crafts artist behind it. In 1980, he launched what he would come to call Techno-Romantic jewelry, now found in more than 150 shops. Mann’s workshop keeps up to 250 different items in production, but Maim believes that as Techno-Romantic approaches market saturation, he needs to alter his image. “I want to be able to separate the one-of-a-kind artist who changes quite frequently from the one known by the field for a particular type of jewelry,” he says.

It’s not hard to understand the popularity of the Techno-Romantic line. It is whimsical and irreverent, pairing sentimental shapes (hearts, hands) and images (mostly sepia photographs) with the harder, industrial look of machine parts, perforated metal panels, and electrical components. When the work debuted, the simple irony of juxtaposition gave it a fresh feel at a time when so much other jewelry drew either on the spare abstraction of mid-century modernism or the ethnic associations of African or Asian folk art. Mann and a handful of other jewelers were making a new tribal art of the American psyche–a form of pop collage, the instant artifact.

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There’s also a wit and quick charm to Techno-Romantic, with its simple messages (engraved on the surface, or sometimes handwritten on encapsulated pieces of paper) or its obvious references to the pop graphic world of comics, tattoos, and body piercing. In short, the style rides the zeitgeist.

“The funny thing about Techno-Romantic was that I never suspected that it would ever become as popular as it has,” Mann says, and that popularity has greatly influenced his career path. His decision to use found objects and nonprecious metals virtually dictated that he would have to produce work in great volume to turn a decent profit. Ultimately, ( economies of scale led him to the workshop, or atelier model, which he had experienced as a jeweler’s apprentice during his high school years. These days, Thomas Mann Designs employs three artisans, who make finished pieces, and four apprentices, who fabricate parts.

“I learned early on that the best skills and talents of the designer were always going to be spent at the conceptual level, at the prototyping level, at the customer relations level,” Mann says. “The head of the shop had to rely on a skilled staff to execute the designs effectively and efficiently. You just can’t do all the work yourself.”

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But he didn’t realize that the atelier approach would also thrust him squarely into the world of suits. “I had to go and learn other things that, quite frankly, I had become an artist to avoid,” Mann admits. “I had to become a human resource manager and learn how to read financial statements, learn what the business cycles were during the year, and know when it was appropriate to invest money and when it wasn’t.”

As it turned out, Mann had a knack for such things. He now spends roughly a third of his time on business management, a third on marketing (an area he feels many artists neglect), and a third on design and creation. But although most of his daylight hours are devoted to the nitty-gritty of commerce, the businessperson hasn’t eclipsed the artist.

“In the real world of business, I don’t make decisions that are focused on bottom-line results,” Mann says. “I make decisions that are based on making investments in risky artistic undertakings.”

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He may have registered the trademark, but Mann believes that Techno-Romantic has become a genre unto itself as other people assimilate the look and feel of the style. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Mann sees a cold economic reality. “For me to survive,” he says bluntly, “I have to move on.”

Mann finally goes into the studio at night, when he is least likely to be disturbed by business calls, and it’s clear that this is the third of his career that he enjoys most. While he couches the need for new work in the terms a market analyst might use, his true bottom line is aesthetic and artistic. “I’m like any artist,” he says. “You live for inventing the new.”

Mann has always made one-of-a-kind works, then mined them for elements that could serve as starting points for new variants within the production line. His popular “Design for Survival” course for crafts artists, in fact, begins with precisely such a process: challenging students to create a new work, decipher its inherent design vocabulary, and invent a production line based on abbreviated components.

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Heart Pond (Brooch), 2000
Silver, aluminum, micarta, laminated acrylic
3 x 4 ”
Photo: George Post

The professor is back in school himself. Instead of creating new work that can translate into Techno-Romantic, he is creating pieces that can serve as departure points for a new phase in his career. “I have three new, very well-developed systems operating at the moment,” Mann says. And to differentiate them from his best-known work, they are being marketed under the rubric of “Thomas Robert Mann.”

The biggest change in all three lines is their departure from representational imagery. After two decades of building a career as the quintessential postmodernist–pillaging the storehouse of memory, history, and desire for images and objects Mann is working in abstract forms.

Homage a Cornell, 1977
Box construction: wood, glass, acrylic, paper, found objects
16 x 14 x 4 ”
Photo: Bob Barrett

That’s not to say that he’s abandoned the spirit of his earlier work. The adrenaline-charged, quick wit of Techno-Romantic has tended to obscure the mystical and spiritual qualities of Mann’s imagery, but part of the line’s appeal has always been a sense of yearning. Many Techno-Romantic pieces resemble Latin American or Caribbean folk altars, with their accretion of found objects and the inclusion of photographic imagery that suggests an intensely personal, if inscrutable, significance. And that yearning persists in all three of Mann’s new systems. He’s simply stripped away some of the distractions.

Container Pin, 2002
Sterling silver, acrylic, lichen, glow acrylic, ceramic beads, found objects.
3/4 x 3 x 3 ”
Photo: Ralph Gabriner

The “Stone Fetish” group, which grew out of the summers he used to spend on Vinalhaven Island in Maine ‘s Penobscot Bay , represents the spiritual aspect of Mann’s aesthetic vision at its purest. “You can’t be on the island without being inspired in some way,” be says. While most artists try to capture the island light in painting, Mann took a different tack. One day a friend showed up with a stone he had found on Brimstone Island , a nearby basalt outcropping of black stones, and asked to have it made it into something to wear.

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Mann went into the studio that night and created a bezeling system to mount the irregular piece. “I added some little feathers and odds and ends of metal stuff, and put a hook on it with a little rawhide pull on it,” Mann recalls. When he gave the piece to his friend, the man exclaimed that he had dreamed that exact piece of jewelry. “Shivers went up my spine, and I said, 1 must be onto something,” Mann says. “So I went out hunting rocks that day, and by the end of that month I had made 20 or 30 pieces and I was off and running.”

While it could be tempting to sec the “Stone Fetish” works as a throwback to Mann’s immersion in the counterculture of the 1970s, they are a far cry from hippie “power amulet” jewelry. The stones remain the focal point of the composition, but the bezels and bindings are integral to the works.

The term “fetish” suggests the traditional object of a primitive culture believed to have a magical power to protect or aid its owner. But the term also has an association with sexual fixation, and the metal bars and cords with which Mann wraps his stones and even their bezels carry more than a hint of the restraints associated with bondage. The stone, by implication, becomes a passive object, soft and almost liquid, captured within restraints.

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A piece like Stone Fetish Brooch (2001) evokes a primitive tribal fetish with its dangling bronze feather, but the smooth stone is captured within a heavy metal bezel, pinned in place with a bar and what looks like an indicator for a dial, like the hand of a watch or some kind of measuring instrument. Small calibrations scratched across the top of the frame emphasize the mechanical, possibly industrial nature of the metalwork. It is almost as if technology has subjugated nature in a perversely erotic bondage. The more you contemplate the work, the more disturbing it becomes.

The stones however, have a deliciously limpid quality. Like Jean Arp’s amoeboid figures or Constantin Brancusi’s sculptures, their curses are anthropomorphic, feminine, even sexual. Bands of silver bar and iron wire confine the womanly lines of the black stone in Stone Fetish Necklace (1996), yet the decorations attached to the bonds suggest tenderness and losing attention rather than the imposition of brute force.

Self-Portrait (thumbs UP), 1995
Brass, bronze, micarta, photo, laminated acrylic
2 3/4 ” 41 /2′

In contrast to the bondage references in the “Stone Fetishes,” the components of Mann’s “Float” jewelry are impaled. The frames for these works function like drawings in metal. Inside the frame, the components “float” on metal pins. Mann makes no attempt to disguise the impalings–they are a key feature in each piece.

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Mann always invests his work with an energy that encourages the viewer to make instant associations. The impaled creatures of “Float” pins might as smell be specimen beetles in a scientific cabinet. The pins, often secured with small decorative balls, themselves resemble the simple barbell of ritual body piercing. The flat objects within a “Float” composition look like they will turn and flap, responding to force like a weathervane to the wind. This associational richness is part of their appeal. Most Mann jewelry seems tightly bound together, but the “Float” pieces are so potentially kinetic that they look as if they could suddenly fly, in all directions.

Clever connection is only the beginning. In Amoeboid #3 (2002), Mann has indulged his penchant for combining Yin and yang in a split composition. On the left, the carved phenolic plastic he identifies it as micarta has the texture and color of aged wood or perhaps ivory. It looks warm, organic. The contrasting pieces of metal, which carry a patina of partially abraded paint, share some of the curves but none of the organic qualities. They are cold and hard–the seeming detritus of a technological culture.

Have a Nice Ride, 1980
Bronze, silver, acrylic, NY subway token
3 x 21/2′

This creation of faux artifacts is characteristic of Mann, who has his workshop and sometimes outside contractors routinely fabricate “antique” or “discarded” objects to use in his production jewelry. Art is, after all, artifice. “Authenticity” is a red herring: Mann seeks to make these objects look as if they have back stories associated with them. Whether or not they have a real history is irrelevant. Their only role is to be evocative.

The juxtaposition of frame with framed allows Mann a great deal of variability in composition. The frames on many “Float” pieces are simply metal (usually silver) bars constructed in geometric forms: an oval, a circle, a leaf- like ellipse. Others closely outline the shapes of the objects they enclose. Knife Float (2000) is unusual because Mann has chosen to truncate the frame at the top, allowing one of the “knife” blades (itself essentially a rendering of a primitive stone knife in metal) to extend outside the frame. Given the subject matter–a weapon this escape from the frame suggests something ominous, as if the pierced object is breaking its restraints.

Some of Mann’s most intriguing new work continues a line of artistic investigation that he began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he made a number of collage boxes as an homage to the artist Joseph Cornell. The influence of Cornell speaks volumes, in fact, about the roots of Techno-Romantic, with its appropriation of emotional history. Mann’s collage boxes, like Cornell’s, featured irrational juxtapositions of found objects-usually objects once considered beautiful or precious and hence invested with a previous owner’s emotional attachment. Mann mounted them in glass-fronted specimen cases, as Cornell did.

About 1980, Mann found a way to make the collage container his own, as Have a Nice Ride illustrates. This container pin holds a New York subway token in a horseshoe-shaped vessel with pert little bronze wings and a pediment plaque urging the viewer to, in fact, “have a nice ride.” It represented a step away from Cornell because the objects no longer seemed formerly precious, or as if they had any emotional history at all. Instead of an exercise in nostalgia, the pin was a quick quip, a witty comment, a toss-off.

Other container pins over the years have found a middle ground between the flashing smile of the Techno-Romantic and the longing over loss characteristic of Cornell’s essentially nostalgic collage boxes. In Blue Girl (1990), an antique photograph of a woman forms the backdrop for a display of gemlike bits of glass or plastic, small brass gears, and tiny dice.

The newest group of containers, however, marks a movement away from the easy accessibility so characteristic of Mann’s earlier work. The objects within the containers are no longer someone’s possessions. In some of these more recent works, such as Container Pin (2002), Mann has freed himself (and the viewer) of the constraints of personality and hence the temptation to sentimentality. While the pin contains found objects (as well as objects “fabricated to appear found,” as Mann puts it), they are abstract and unfamiliar. What are the intensely orange little balls, other than little balls? The wire? The disks? The objects themselves give no hint–and they are all the more mysterious as a result. In the end, the piece is successful precisely because it is so abstract. It cannot be reduced to an assemblage of the familiar.

Blue Girl (collage box neclpiece), 1990
Silver, brass, bronze, copper, found objects, antique photograph
3 1/4 x 4 3/4″
Photo: Will Crocker

These mature abstract compositions share a sensuous physicality with Mann’s earlier work, but they exist in their own aesthetic space and time–outside reference. This amounts to artistic reinvention with a vengeance.

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon [Metalsmith Magazine - Spring 2003]
Critics Patricia Harris and David Lyon are based in Cambridge, Massachusetts
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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