The State of Metalsmithing and Jewelry

This article is a continuing dialogue on the State of Metalsmithing and Jewelry by Donald Friedlich and Judith Mitchell with to two jewelers, a curator, a collector and a gallery owner.

“I am not an expert in jewelry…I feel uneasy about giving opinions,” warned Garth Clark in our interview with him, which Metalsmith published last summer (Volume 10, Number 3, Summer 1990). Despite his disclaimer and the brevity of his foray into jewelry, Clark’s frank assessment of the field – including his encounters with curatorial indifference, a fashion-oriented public, poorly crafted work and jewelers who wished they were sculptors – inspired much discussion and debate in the jewelry community.

In order to provide other perspectives, we asked members of that community’s various segments to offer their own assessment of the field. We spoke to two jewelers, a curator, a collector and a gallery owner, all of whom have demonstrated a serious, long-term commitment to jewelry. Each was interviewed separately. They are:

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Jeweler Jamie Bennett, a professor of art at SUNY New Paltz. Bennett was represented by Garth Clark’s CDK Gallery during its short life.

Susan Cummins, co-owner and director of the seven-year-old Susan Cummins Gallery in Mill Valley, California.

Jeweler Lisa Gralnick, who was also represented by CDK Gallery. Gralnick’s work has been shown widely in both Europe and the United States.

New Jersey collector Sandra Grotta. Grotta has been collecting American craft for 30 years along with her husband Louis, an American Craft Council trustee. Grotta is an associate of the American Craft Museum.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Kenneth Trapp, curator of decorative art at the Oakland Museum in California. Trapp is actively acquiring contemporary Californian jewelry for the museum’s permanent collection.

– Donald Friedlich and Judith Mitchell

Friedlich: CDK Gallery is history and Helen Drutt is no longer operating in New York. What do you think the future holds in terms of other jewelry galleries? Do we need them? What does it take for a jewelry gallery to succeed?

Grotta: I think the field definitely needs galleries. Galleries have played a significant role in nurturing my interest in jewelry. For example, the late Joke Van Ommen of the VO Gallery exposed me to the work of Babetto. Because of her, I purchased a gold ring of his which is now one of my favorite pieces. And my very first exposure to contemporary art jewelry was through a tiny gallery (Sculpture to Wear) located in the Plaza Hotel many years ago. It was the first place I saw interesting work, and it made an immediate, lasting impression on me.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Gralnick: The only jewelry galleries that have any chance of succeeding are those run by people who have been deeply involved in the field for a long time, way before they opened a gallery. Joke was able to do it and Ellen Rieben is now following in her Footsteps. Helen Drutt is able to do it. We need more people involved in the field to open galleries. I don’t know who the hell I think these people are. We may not know them yet.

Trapp: To succeed, jewelry needs at least one strong gallery to promote it. The problem is that when you have just one strong gallery, it will have a definite esthetic philosophy and good jewelers who don’t share it will find themselves excluded.

Bennett: Most jewelry galleries in the United States are not based on a specific esthetic. There are exceptions, but most tend to present either a big horizontal movement – they show 20 artists of quality who have 20 different esthetics – or a big vertical movement – they show great people and real junk at the same time on the same wall in the same case.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

It’s possible that craft galleries showing studio jewelry will become an anachronism. Jewelers will seek galleries that understand and advocate their work, and where the work fits the thinking of the gallery regardless of the medium. Galleries able to get past their clients’ initial resistance to jewelry won’t be the jewelry houses but those galleries that have a particular esthetic. The galleries that are concerned and can articulate the thinking in the work and its relationship to jewelry will succeed. It’s no different than explaining a port relationship to pots or a painting’s relationship to painting. They get behind the work because they’re advocates of its idea and do not have a pure art agenda. When they reject jewelry, it’s not because it’s jewelry, but because it doesn’t fit their esthetic.

Grotta: There’s some value to a gallery’s exhibiting a range of jewelry. I’ve gotten several people to start collecting by introducing them to less challenging jewelry first. You don’t start them off with a slate brooch. You get them to try on an unusual gold pin and then gradually they find themselves drawn to the more challenging pieces. People are very insecure about wearing art jewelry and they sometimes find the gallery atmosphere intimidating.

Friedlich: What can galleries do to promote the field and generate enthusiasm among collectors and curators?

Trapp: The better galleries serve almost as adjunct curators for me. Most of the gallery directors I’ve encountered have a background in art similar to my own. Although they are operating in a profit-orientated situation, they run their galleries in the time honored Eurocentric manner of adhering to an artistic standard. As a result, they bring objects to my attention that I may otherwise not see. After all, I’m only one person and there are thousands of artists.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

And, let’s face it, the galleries also play a part in validating works of art. There’s a hierarchy of galleries, from the ones that everyone respects down to the antiquey, flea market, tourist types. Curators pay attention to the work shown at the most prestigious galleries.

Bennett: I think it’s important for gallery owners to help clients discern and communicate the difference between vanity jewelry and studio jewelry. Vanity jewelry is a commercially motivated phenomenon that the maker feels free to alter to assure financial success. The work is conceived as appealing to the client on a purely emotional basis. This tradition is very different from studio jewelry, which is based on esthetic and ideological inquiries, and is a cognitive activity not solely emotive. Unfortunately, many jewelry clients still tend to attribute the values of vanity jewelry to studio jewelry. They may say they judge the work on its esthetic merit, but, by and large, they still look for satisfaction from it the same way they do from the pearls around their necks or the high-karat rings on their fingers. The field needs gallery directors who are able to say to clients, “Hey, you’re looking for something in this work that isn’t there. You have to differentiate it from your diamond ring just as you differentiate your Limoges china from your Jun Kaneko plate.”

Cummins: Gallery owners need to be comfortable with the process of selling art that is to be displayed on the body. It’s a much more intimate process that selling art that is to be hung on walls. I sell both, so I’m able to make a direct comparison. With jewelry, you spend a lot more time with the client. You engage in conversations about how the color and texture of the materials relate to them, to their sense of their own coloring and textures. You can’t stand back from the piece and intellectually argue its merits. You have to get in there and put the thing on. The gallery owner has to enjoy interacting with collectors.

Friedlich: Why do collectors collect? To what are they responding?

Cummins: At this point, people collect jewelry for their own personal reasons rather than for the status it brings. There’s much more of an emotional and intuitive response to jewelry on the part of most collectors, a subliminal reaction to the work rather than an intellectual, rational approach. Perhaps it’s more of a feminine kind of occupation. Women are my main clientele. I like to work with them.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Bennett: I’ve had nearly as many men buy my jewelry as women, some of whom are simply interested in the format of jewelry, or who collect other things that relate to my work. I’m not aware of one situation where a person bought my work because it went with an outfit. People collect jewelry for the same reason they collect anything else – because they’re passionate about it and the work has made an impact on them – and for no other reason.

Grotta: We collect all kinds of craft. We collect ceramics. We collect baskets. Our furniture is all by craftspeople. We set our table with work by Jim Makins and Karen Karnes. Craft is an everyday thing for us. So, in one sense, collecting jewelry is just another component of our collecting. But, I also have a passion for jewelry. I like the old jewelry displayed in the Metropolitan Museum. I like folk jewelry and I like architectural jewelry. I can’t articulate why. I don’t take an intellectual approach to it. I’m not concerned with process. It’s fun – wearing jewelry is fun.

Friedlich: What is the role of wearability in what Jamie refers to as “studio” jewelry? To what extent should the jeweler consider wearability and to what extent does the collector consider it?

Cummins: The collectors I represent want to make sure they can wear the work, but they’re not asking, “Does it go with my red dress?” The people I consider collectors respond esthetically. I don’t engage in conversations relating to fashion.

Ganoksin is sponsored by

Grotta: I wear all my jewelry. I love to go to a parry where everyone is wearing pearls and show up in a wild necklace. I’m not sure that’s helping the field. People tend to look at me and say, “That’s ridiculous.” But I wear all the wild things. I wear my David Watkins pieces. I love Gijs Bakker. I have a house brooch by Künzli – a big red house that you wear on your shoulder. I can go to a parry in a wild paper necklace and feel as good about it as someone else does in diamonds.

Gralnick: I’ve always believed that the work should be wearable or should have something to do with being worn. The act of wearing jewelry is an integral part of the work’s statement. I have nothing against anti-jewelry. I think that’s as valid a way to go as any other and to some extent my own work has gone that way. But, totally disregarding the issue of wearability – making an object and slapping on a pin back or a chain – is silly. For jewelry to be complete it requires a wearer. Or it can be complete without a wearer, but the idea of the wearer has to be part of what’s happening in the piece.

Bennett: We need to be careful when we use the term “wearability.” If you consider a piece unwearable because it takes 35 minutes every time you go to put it on, or it weighs a pound, then, yes, there’s a problem with the pieces wearability. But if what you’re objecting to is the fact that people keep looking at your chest every five minutes when you wear it, then you have an ideological problem, not a physical one. Wearing significant jewelry changes one’s persona. If you’re interested in the work, you have to be willing to make that change. If you buy an important painting or sculpture, you’ll prepare a site for it in your home. Preparing the body or clothing for the wearing of exceptional jewelry means you’re paying attention to it. We should also realize that there is a lot of work that extends the thinking about jewelry – that it is not about physicality or being visually pleasing. We should not apply the same truths of wearability to this work.

Cummins: There is definitely room for artists to decide that they need to stretch the parameters to the point where work becomes unwearable, or so difficult to wear that it can be worn only on very special occasions. This type of work should be viewed as an extension of the jewelry world, just as conceptual art is an extension of the painting or sculptural worlds. I think this kind of work is very significant. It inspires artists intellectually and gives them a deeper understanding of the field. Much of this work is done in the university setting, and perhaps university museums are the appropriate venue for showing it. In galleries, I think the emphasis should be on the wearable.

Friedlich: How does the jeweler’s feelings about his or her own work affect the work itself and the field in general?

Trapp: Sometimes I sense confusion in the work that I think may stem from the artist’s confusion about what the work is supposed to be. When jewelry that is meant to be worn is displayed in a museum setting, it can become static. Just by the nature of its being exhibited, it’s reduced to miniature sculpture. This is one of the things about jewelry that frustrates a curator, and I think it’s confusing to some artists. Are they making jewelry to be worn as jewelry, or are they making jewelry to be displayed as sculpture? I think some artists need to go back and ask themselves the most fundamental questions. What am I doing? Why am I doing it?

Gralnick: I feel comfortable being a jeweler, but many people in the field seem to be fighting that label. There are also many people in the field who paint or sculpt in addition to making jewelry and who see their own jewelry as inferior to their other work just because it’s jewelry. Just by virtue of the fact that painting and sculpture are what they are, people see them as inherently superior. That really bothers me. For the most part, if you ask Europeans what they do, they say, “I’m a jeweler” or “I’m a goldsmith,” but if you ask Americans what they do, they say, “I’m an artist.” The next question is always going to be, “Well, what do you make? Do you paint? Do you sculpt?” So, you’re going to have to tell eventually. My feeling is this field will go nowhere until the people in it can say they’re jewelers and feel good about it.

Bennett: My work is about jewelry. I really take offense when someone calls my jewelry small sculpture of little paintings. My work is full size, full scale. I may be interested in its painterly aspects due to my questioning color and form, but that’s not new to jewelry. I think the people who are seriously involved in their work are serious about being jewelers. If you are going to make jewelry, then you should be committed to jewelry and place a value on jewelry. If you don’t, how can you ever expect anyone else to? I should point out that I work in a number of mediums and I place no creative hierarchy among them.

Friedlich: You may be committed to jewelry and place value on it. But the larger art world seems to place very little value on it. Why is this? And how do we gain credibility?

Cummins: The first step is to define and understand the limitations of jewelry, because every art form derives its strength from its limitations. Maybe the limitations are that it has to be a certain size, it has to be placed on a specific site, it has to be made of certain materials. Whatever the limitations are, they must be defined. Then you can ask, “Now, who can work within them the most brilliantly?” Like every other craft medium that has made inroads into the art world, jewelry needs to develop its own idiosyncratic vocabulary and perspectives before it can adequately deal with that question. For example, one limitation of jewelry is its relation to the human body. The implications of this are not easily addressed by existing critical vocabularies. We need a concerted effort on the part of writers to develop an appropriate vocabulary. Of course, we also need artists to approach their work thoughtfully, to consider carefully what they’re going to put into a piece and what they’re going to allow the wearer to bring to it.

Much contemporary jewelry is beautiful, but that’s not enough. When the esthetic thrill is combined with serious critical appraisal and historical perspective – that’s what will engage curators and collectors.

Grotta: As a collector, I find publications very important. I subscribe to all the magazines, both American and international. They are not only educational, but they let you know where you can go to see the work. If you want to attract more collectors, it’s crucial that the work be seen by the public. I also buy every book on the field that I can find.

Bennett: We need critical and sensible evaluation that asks jewelers, and, more particularly, has jewelers asking themselves, what does your work have to do with jewelry and what are the consequences of your inquiry?” Thoughtful jewelers will respond to these questions in work that challenges and clarifies what the nature of studio jewelry is. Some artists have already begun to do that, but there’s very little critical documentation or alternate exposure. The level of writing has not been very stringent or demanding – or even there. And when it is, we must ask, who does it reach? I would say the majority of museum directors and gallery owners still consider jewelry a vain activity.

Trapp: When “Jewelry USA” toured, back in 1985, there was no substantial publication accompanying it. Here was a major exhibition of jewelry, yet we had no written interpretation of the material, no rigorous analysis. There was no discussion of the work’s content. But maybe the questions is, why should there be? Quite frankly, maybe the question is, how can we talk about something that’s not there? It’s a young field – maybe there’s no content to talk about. Now, if the artists disagree, I say they need to step forward and explain their work. I know that many artists hear that and think, “Oh, God, it’s all I can do to make my work, let alone promote it.” But you can’t just rely on the critics. Most people don’t read, anyway. You can’t just rely on the museums and the galleries. Everyone in the field has to work in tandem. You need galleries, you need museums, you need publishers, you need collectors, but you also need artists who actively participate.

Friedlich: What else can the field do to engage the interest of curators and the so-called fine arts community?

Cummins: Perhaps it has something to do with the West Coast’s tendency to accept unusual ideas, but I don’t think anyone coming into my gallery finds it difficult to accept jewelry as an art form. I haven’t very much experience dealing with East Coast museums, but I believe they are collecting jewelry in the decorative art departments. They may not be collecting contemporary jewelry, but I don’t think museums are expected to be the forerunners of popular opinion. Jewelry collections will begin with older work and holloware. Eventually, curators will realize that the work of contemporary jewelers is very much related to the work of jewelry’s great masters. The continuum is clear to me and curators will come to see it, too.

Trapp: One thing I’ve discovered is that there’s a greater chance that I’ll go to see an artist’s studio if the artist contacts me. It’s so much easier for me if I don’t have to find out an artist name, where the artist lives, the telephone number. You’ve got to remember that curators are inundated, and, like our public education systems, our funds are being cut back.

Friedlich: Ken, could you give us the curatorial perspective on all this?

Trapp: Your question assumes that there is one curatorial sensibility out there, but in fact it’s a very diverse field. There are many kinds of curators of decorative art. Some deal with only ceramics and others with only glass. Some deal with American work, others with European. And then, you have no idea of what we’re talking about. They probably have no idea there’s a contemporary jewelry movement. And among those who are working with contemporary craft, their interest is generally in furniture, glass, ceramics…the biggies. Unfortunately, in the hierarchy of craft, jewelry seems to fall low.

In my case, I work with both historical and contemporary decorative art. About three years ago, I decided to choose a medium and collect it as actively as I could and I chose metal. We’ve been able to acquire wonderful work by Californian jewelers such as D. X. Ross, Sandra Enterline, Christina Smith, Susan Kingsley and Joyce Clements. We already have the Margaret DePatta collection here. So one way I can justify collecting jewelry is to say, “We have superb collection that was given as a core collection. Let’s not build upon it.”

But I have to fight the same attitudes as you. Right now, I want to make three jewelry purchases amounting to maybe $8,000. You wouldn’t believe what I have to go through…or maybe you would. I have to keep justifying why I want the work, and the answer I keep getting is not yes or no, but maybe. I can deal with yes or no. I can’t deal with maybe. It makes me feel very inadequate and frustrated. And the people in the field look at me and wonder why I can’t be more effectual. Well, it’s because I’m dealing with the same stereotypical precepts as everyone else. If I could have just $5,000 a year – that’s not much is it? – I could develop a substantial collection. Fortunately for the museum – and unfortunately for the artist – the cost of excellent jewelry is very reasonable.

Friedlich: What steps should the field take to engage the interest of existing and potential collectors?

Cummins: There has been far too little attention paid to collectors. Last year, in connection with a group show of prominent American jewelers, my gallery arranged for speakers to address local collectors. Events like this allow people to see themselves as members of a social group that discusses and looks at jewelry. Part of the appeal of collecting is the social aspect, the exchange of information, the sharing of enthusiasms. Without that structure, many people don’t even perceive themselves as collectors.

Grotta: I enjoy the experience of visiting galleries and museum with groups of collectors. There seems to be a collective energy that sustains everyone, gets us all through a long day packed on a bus. And I’ve been exposed to wonderful work through my trips with the Collectors Circle of the American Craft Museum In particular, I think of Helen Drutt’s show at the Philadelphia Museum and the phenomenal jewelry collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Bennett: Our first obligation is to our investigation, our inquiry. We should avoid rushing to the marketplace; we have a lot to deal with among ourselves first – some maturing would not hurt. By outside, I mean understanding what model we want to use as a guide, in what context we want our work seen. How do all the components – the gallery director, curator, publisher, critic, collector and ourselves – everyone who affects our work, communicate, and what is the quality of that communication?

Trapp: There comes a time when you have to stand up and say, “I don’t care what you think of me, this is right, this is how I want to see it. If you’re not going to be with me, that’s fine but I have to move.”

Gralnick: People should be focusing more on their work and less on gaining acceptance for the field. But, of course, that goes against what we’ve all been taught because it means we’re rejecting the status and money that can accompany acceptance. We’ve been raised in a society that says there’s something wrong with you if you’re not rich and famous by the time you’re 35. Americans don’t see the positive side of struggling and being on the outside. That’s unfortunate because being an outsider is what keeps you pushing and stretching and saying, “What the hell am I going to come up with next?”

Certainly, from a gallery’s point of view, the art world’s hostility to the field is a negative factor. It’s certainly not going to have a favorable impact on sales. But it’s not a negative to me. I’m not so sure I’m ready to see the art world absorb jewelry at this point. I think jewelry has some places to go first. In fact, I take some pleasure in the art world’s refusal to accept jewelry. There’s a freedom in it.

You know what I think this field really needs? More people willing to stick their necks out. People like Thomas Gentille. He’s a real inspiration to me. Here’s this person who’s been out there for God knows – 25 years – doing what he’s doing with no compromise for the sake of having that VCR and microwave and fancy car.

People are constantly saying to me, “Lisa – why don’t you give up on jewelry and just make sculpture? Then you could make the forms you want to make and sell them for a lot of money and no one will question the price.” As soon as someone says that to me, it’s just more fuel for my fire.

Probably the major reason I continue to make jewelry is because it’s still an out there kind of field. It’s so fucking hard. And I like that.

Donald Friedlich is an artist who makes jewelry. Judith Mitchell is a writer who wears it. They live together in Providence, Rhode Island.

By Donald Friedlich and Judith Mitchell
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.
Category: , , , , , , ,