The Search for Modernist Style Jewelry

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By Mark IsaacsonMore from this author

It was about seven years ago, I was living in Paris, spending a typical Sunday afternoon scouring the flea markets of Clingancourt for "hidden treasures." I had moved to Paris to paint, although at the time I found myself buying and selling Art Nouveau and Art Deco "objects" to support myself and to buy canvas and paints.

While digging through a box of old jewelry, my eye was attracted to a small silver pin. Protozoan in shape and set with a small cabochon garnet for an eye, this strange piece fascinated me. There was a vague resemblance to Klee or Miro, perhaps from the 1950s, I thought. I was becoming increasingly interested in the decorative arts and furniture of the 1940s and 50s and realized how closely related they were to the art and architecture of the time. I examined the little "creature" in my hand and found a signature. I still had no idea as to its origin. The pin appealed to my sense of the esoteric and the unusual, so I bargained a bit with the vendor and arrived at what I thought was a fair price. Having affixed the pin to my lapel, I wandered off, content with my new find.

Modernist Style Jewelry - Bob Winston, Coat Fastener
Bob Winston, Coat Fastener, sterling silver, 14k gold, green tourmaline, 1950

Several years passed, and my casual interest in the decorative arts of the 40s and 50s developed into a full-time career. My addiction to collecting had turned my small Parisian artist's garret into a warehouse for "atomic" style furniture, biomorphic pottery and glass, as well as stacks of reference books and periodicals.

In 1980 I decided it was time to return to New York, where it was my intention to open a gallery devoted to the design of the postwar era. Located in the SoHo district, Fifty-50 became the first shop of its kind, specializing in the decorative arts of the mid-20th century. It was only afterwards that I would discover the small amoeba pin that still adorned my lapel was the work of a man named Ed Wiener, who in the mid-40s was among the first craftsmen to open a shop carrying studio jewelry in the modernist style.

Merry Renk, Pin, sterling silver, c. 1951

Over the next few years I continued to find pieces by other East Coast artists such as Sam Kramer, Art Smith, Paul Lobel, Bill Tendler and Henry Steig. I learned through talking with craftsmen and reading old issues of Craft Horizons and the Walker Art Center's Design Quarterly that there were many names that belonged to what one might call the "American Modernist Movement." Artists working across the country had redefined the vocabulary of personal adornment. They set no boundaries for their means of expression, and their innovative use of materials—from silver and gold to pebbles and plastic—opened the doors for contemporary jewelry. I began actively collecting these very distinctive pieces and attempted to gather as much information as I could find on the subject.

Irena Brynner, Pin, 14k gold, moss agate, sand, gold filings, epoxy, c. 1950

In 1983, Fifty-50 and Mark McDonald Ltd., another New York City gallery merged and moved into a 5000 square foot space eminently suited for the kind of modern design exhibitions my new partners, Ralph Cutler and Mark McDonald, and I wanted to present. We planned shows featuring the work of Charles and Ray Eames, Flank Lloyd Wright and Italian glass artists working for Venini and other houses. One of the most exciting shows was our recent exhibition "Structure and Ornament: American Modernist Jewelry 1940-1960," held in December, 1984.

Having decided there was sufficient interest and hoping there was enough material available to do a show, we set out to put together a representative selection of work by artists whom we felt were important and had contributed to the field of modern jewelry. The exhibitions sponsored by the Walker Art Center in the 1950s served as a basis for the artists selected. Having spent weeks tracking down artists who were still living, we started phoning to find out whether 30 years later we would still be able to find pieces from this era. One of the first people we were able to locate was Earl Pardon.

Earl Pardon, Reversible Pin, sterling silver, ivory, rosewood, ebony, enamel, 1956

Still very active, Earl at first wondered why we would be interested in his early work. We explained the premise of our show and asked to visit him. Much to our surprise, Earl had kept a sizeable collection of his early pieces. Excited by the variety and quality of the work we saw, we arranged to take the entire group. Our warm reception by Earl and his cooperation helped fire our enthusiasm. Merry Renk, living and working in San Francisco, was the next artist we contacted. Merry was invaluable in helping to locate many of the artists working on the West Coast. I visited California to talk with these artists and to see the jewelry that was available.

For reasons of time and distance, a few craftsmen were interviewed over the phone. But in every instance, being able to talk with the artists and select the work for the show firsthand helped solidify the theme of the exhibition. The idea of the exhibition intrigued them, as most of them felt, as we did, that this period was very important in the history of modern jewelry making. They were among the avant-garde, and although many of them knew each other, there was a great sense of individuality and experimentation.

Peter Macchiarine, Pin/Pendant, sterling silver, iconel, brass, copper, ebony, ivory, c. 1950

Limitations of time, the availability of original pieces and the difficulty of locating many of the artists whom we wanted to include prevented us from making the show as comprehensive as it might have been. There were so many fine artists working, it would have been impossible to locate pieces by all of them. But, given those limitations, an excellent group of artists, many of whom are still creating, agreed to participate. In addition to the artists already mentioned, the exhibition included: Franz Bergman, Harry Bertoia, Irena Brynner, Betty Cooke, Margaret de Patta, Michael Jerry, Ed Levin, Esther Lewittes, Peter Macchiarini, Phil Morton, Ronald Hayes Pearson, Svetozar Radakovich, Florence Resnikoff and Bob Winston.

Ed Wiener, Pin, sterling silver and garnet, c. 1948

The response from collectors, students and craftsmen as well as the general public was so overwhelming that we extended the show an additional month. We hope over the next few years to continue to acquire fine examples of jewelry from this period. There remains much more to explore and the thought of another exhibition is already in our heads.

A catalog illustrating 93 of the 156 pieces of jewelry from the show, with essays by Robert Cardinale, Director, Program in Artisanry, and Mark Foley, author and jewelry collector is available for $12.50 from: Fifty-50, 793 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.

By Mark Isaacson
Metalsmith Magazine – 1985 Summer
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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Mark Isaacson

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