The Work of Three Contemporary Wire Artists

Working on the most meticulous and precise scale, three contemporary wire artists, Barbara SilverStein, Nikki Feldbaum and Biba Schutz create jewelry that is broad in appeal and expansive in effect.

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HomeLearning CenterJewelry DesignBehind the DesignThe Work of Three Contemporary Wire Artists

Working on the most meticulous and precise scale, three contemporary wire artists create jewelry that is broad in appeal and expansive in effect.

Barbara SilverStein wrangles stainless steel braiding into comfortable, wearable art.
Photo: Todd Murray.

Barbara SilverStein

Throughout an impressive career as educator, artist, textile designer, and jeweler, Barbara SilverStein has shared many significant moments with stainless steel. In the '50s, she married Bob, an industrial designer, and it seemed natural that their wedding rings should be sliced from the stainless steel tubing they both admired for the simplicity and purity of its clean lines. Marriage to an industrial designer meant that many of their adventures took place in hardware stores, where they hunted for the treasures that best exemplified minimal design and maximum functionality. Bob passed away in 1989; but his memory helped SilverStein make a career-altering decision.

SilverStein's Below is her 2″ Angle Cuff.
Photo: Todd Murray.

While shopping for hinges in 1991, she spotted the braided stainless steel that is wrapped around pipes to keep them from bursting. Looking upward she asked: "Hey, Bob, how's this for design perfection?" Feeling his enthusiastic approval, she bought the braiding, convinced she could transform it into art.

"Back home in Monson, Massachusetts, I ordered braiding in every size and metal. Then I asked the braiding whether it wanted to be a trivet, a mirror, a frame, a bowl, or jewelry? Sensing the answer was jewelry, I went to work with no idea of how to bring about this metamorphosis. For three years I ate, drank, and slept braiding."

SilverStein had no idea that the setbacks she was to encounter could have made a seasoned jeweler hang up her torch. The unruly braiding was not easily cajoled into jewelry, and SilverStein - who worked in isolation with few tools and no frame of reference - soon hit a snag. She sought help in neighborhood machine shops, where she learned how vises, grinding and deburring wheels, and solder could tame braiding into jewelry. But it wasn't going to be easy; SilverStein was forcing braiding to do something it had not been designed to do. The ensuing battle of wills turned a former teacher into a groundbreaking jeweler, and an industrial material into wearable, comfortable art. Although her first neckpiece was the size of a warrior's chestplate, she soon tweaked the design into a line of jewelry that was market-ready by 1994.

"My dear friend Carmen, visiting from Chicago, insisted on showing my designs to galleries back home. When Marshall Fields placed orders for four of their stores, fear set in! I hired a friend and somehow together we filled the order."

SilverStein's signature collar, in a gold finish.
Photo: Todd Murray

By 1996, SilverStein's classic stainless steel jewelry line was available in five electroplated finishes - 14- and 24-karat gold, bronze, antique, gunmetal, and her own creation, champagne. Stainless steel braiding was more labor-intensive than sterling, but it remained her favorite . . . that is, until she fell in love with the metal lint catcher in her dryer. The knitted wires inspired her to use metal wire in a different way, trading braiding for knitting and creating a series of ruffled collars and tube-knitted pieces whose sterling and stainless wires trapped a cache of faux and freshwater pearls.

SilverStein's new designs needed a strong, simple closure whose two ends would simply meet and hold. When she realized that what she needed hadn't been invented, she returned to the hardware store, bought magnets for every application, and headed to the machine shop. With help, SilverStein created a plastic casing for the magnets, which were then inserted inside stainless tubing. However, it was a design "that worked on Tuesdays but not on Saturdays." When SilverStein tried on a necklace she was about to ship out, the closure didn't work. Undaunted, she refined the design again and again, creating what was possibly jewelry's first magnetic closure.

"Of course there were problems in the beginning because I had to learn so much. How to make jewelry, run a business, apply to craft shows, make professional slides . . . the list was endless. My first year in business, in 1996, I was accepted to the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington. I carried 16 shopping bags, two at a time, into that revered hall. I couldn't even work a [credit card] machine, but the good news was my designs were selling!"

SilverStein now designs her own braiding with as many as 11 wires on each bobbin with a total of 48 carriers. Although she loves the single-wire design, which uses only 32 carriers, her knitting designs are generally a single or double wire on a single carrier with wires ranging in gauges from .005 to .018.

By following Bob's advice to create designs that are "pure, simple, and clean," SilverStein has set standards for wire jewelry that keeps museums like London's Victoria and Albert Museum and the Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, in Los Angeles, ordering her work.

"I feel blessed and enjoy working seven days and nights a week," she says. "Starting a new career at the age when most people think about retiring has brought me a joy beyond my wildest expectations."

Inspired by the lint trap in her dryer, SilverStein's newest pieces feature pearls caught and held within tube-knit wire.

Nikki Feldbaum

Nikki Feldbaum was destined to be a jeweler. As a child, Feldbaum loved to play with her grandmother's collection of Mariam Haskell jewelry. This flamboyant costume jewelry, notable for its parures, clustered pearls, and detachable sets, captivated Feldbaum and fired her imagination. One day, spotting a telephone repairman on her street, she asked for some spare wire and began braiding.

Nikki Feldbaum's work is a blend of sculpture and jewelry, combining wire with pearls and stones for an opulent effect.

When she wasn't creating jewelry, Feldbaum accompanied her mother, a fashion model, to shows where young Nikki adjusted accessories and taped the models' shoes to keep them looking new. Constant exposure to the fashion world's extravagant and exquisite designs took root and blossomed decades later in a line of hand-painted clothing. Although the line was successful, Feldbaum yearned to make jewelry, and with a little encouragement, she was ready to swap cloth for metal.

Encouragement came in 1992 during a trip to London where she spotted a necklace made of twisted wires that stopped her in her tracks. Feldbaum was fascinated by the necklace's endless variations of wire and gems and its textural possibilities. Back in Sarasota, she took classes with a goldsmith and then sat down to weave.

Her first piece, a web of gold wires and glistening stones, may have been crude but it sold, and when she created and sold another, she knew she was making something special.

Twelve years and 800 pieces later, Feldbaum has woven miles of gold wire into gem-studded jewelry opulent and sophisticated enough for a Tsarina. The two-sided Russian Collar is a tightly woven tour de force in which 18-karat gold wire captures pearls on one side and peridot, tanzanite, and pink tourmaline on the reverse. This lucky accident came about when, well into the piece, Feldbaum discovered that the back was more interesting than the front. She continued the two-sided design and, by weaving the multi-gauged wires differently, produced a piece that was both lightweight and comfortable.

"One of the beauties of wire is its ability to be molded and reworked into any shape," Feldbaum says. "I love its ethereal feel and the immediate gratification it gives. It's unpredictable; you start out creating one design, then it ends up going somewhere else."

Spirals and Stones necklace, of gold wire, pink African rhodolite, tourmalines, quartz, white sapphires, freshwater and cultured pearls with a South Sea pearl and white sapphire drop, with matching earrings.
Photo: Giovanni Lunaridi.

Indeed, Feldbaum's jewelry goes in distinctive, unexpected directions. By combining expensive material with a labor-intensive yet low-tech technique, she has produced a signature look that is a blend of sculpture and jewelry. Surrounded by an extensive art collection, pre-Columbian pieces, and her own wall-mounted jewelry, Feldbaum always has half a dozen works in progress in the organized clutter of her studio. Hundreds of colored stones, pearls, and gold wire constantly nudge her to start new work, but on the days when Feldbaum makes a mistake, she always stays with the piece to resolve the problem, confident that the results will be better than anticipated. Except, that is, for the two pieces that had to be melted down.

"Every time you're at a point where you can't get the wire to do what you want, if you keep working at it, it always seems to turn out better than you ever imagined. For the past seven months, I've been working on a wide bracelet but can't get it to open and close properly. I'm almost to the point of saying 'It's impossible! I can't do it.' But I won't let it get me. Working with wire means there are obstacles all day long . . . too hot and it explodes, too much bending and it breaks, or you drop it. Then there's the client that wants you to remove the stone that inspired the piece."

In 2003, Feldbaum was invited to create a collection using authentic Egyptian scarabs, Roman intaglios, and Mesopotamian seals, to which she added her fearless color combinations and signature pearl clusters.

"I like odd color combinations of garnets with blue topaz or aquamarine. On a trip to Hawaii I was inspired by the color combinations of the foliage and the flowers and I've already created new work combining rubies and blue topaz with amethyst and citrine."

Antique cameos and old painted Russian pieces are on her workbench these days, waiting to be given a contemporary twist with gold wire. All of Feldbaum's work is hand fabricated and labor intensive right down to the clasp, which means a ring can take up to eight hours to build and a cuff can stretch from two days to a month or longer if Feldbaum takes it apart five times, as she's been known to do.

Feldbaum considers herself lucky in her clients. Many are art collectors who appreciate the boldness of an art form that is both comfortable to wear and easy to display. They barely raise an eyebrow at pieces ranging in price from $300 to $40,000.

"My jewelry isn't really for the masses, it's for the person who wants to make a statement. When the client looks in the mirror I want her to say: 'I look really wonderful today. This piece empowers me. This piece gives me the attitude I want to feel.' Creating jewelry is my passion, wirework consumes me and it's wonderful to be consumed by it."

Feldbaum models two of her pieces, a Butterfly Brooch of freshwater and cultured pearls worked with gold wire on a gold nugget base, and her Ocean Breeze necklace, of Tahitian pearls, 18K gold wire, and amethyst.
Photo: Mary McCulley.

Biba Schutz

Biba Schutz was a graphic designer when her career suddenly swerved off course. While attending a textile exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1969, she felt such an overwhelming desire to become a maker that two years later she moved to Mexico to study fiber arts at the Instituto de Allende. Schutz felt a deep connection to textiles, but the excitement of travel and the lure of other media, such as anodized aluminum, pulled her into a decade of soulful and technical exploration. By 1985, her repouséed, chased, and formed anodized aluminum jewelry had become her new canvas for exploring color.

For the next five years, Schutz colored aluminum with a full palette of bright and muted tones, and in 1999, she created a collection of colorful, pigmented concrete jewelry. But between spurts of color, Schutz explored the dark side of metal.

In 1990, Schutz began to wrap dark, forged wire around an armature to create jewelry with a tribal provenance. The Primary Cuff, made that year and still in production, marked the beginning of jewelry whose see-through skeletal form exposed an inside that was as interesting as the outside. Schutz formed the piece and gave it volume using a linking technique similar to sewing - a talent that happened to run in the family (her grandfather was a tailor). Inquisitiveness also ran in the family as Schutz's father taught her to turn objects upside down and investigate the details of their construction.

Blooming I pendant of oxidized sterling silver, fine silver, and copper.
Photo: Ron Boszko.

Before she transforms wire into jewelry, Schutz always investigates each piece's functionality and wearability in drawings inspired by botanicals, tribal artifacts, and architecture.

"I use threads of wire to create an illusionary place that a person can either hide in or grow and develop from. I don't have to speak using threads of wire; in fact, some of my work is only partially wrapped or not wrapped at all. I don't let the process lead me: my vocabulary lies in ideas, drawings, and a theme. Then I choose the technique to express it."

Schutz's awareness of the evocative power of patinated metal evolved slowly. Her first eight production pieces were bright, natural silver, but four months later she discovered liver of sulfur, and her jewelry was never the same. The timeworn look of deeply patinated metal was a rich canvas waiting to be imprinted with Schutz's personal history.

For over 20 years, Schutz lived near Central Park, following the seasonal changes of its flowers and trees. Then in 1997, nature's twists and turns appeared in her work. Schutz attached wire-wrapped pods to long tendrils and fabricated silver twigs, then watched them grow into the Seeds and Vines series, which resonated with both collectors and critics. Schutz's nocturnal blossoms, devoid of color, focused attention on nature's graceful lines and the innumerable tiny elements that together made up a single bloom. This was urban jewelry for the times: carefully thought out, filtered through Schutz's personal history, and presented in a deceptively minimalist form that hid its meticulous execution.

Griffon brooch of bronze and sterling
Photo: Ron Boszko.

"My work has a complexity that can be seen and felt, almost on an emotional and sensual level. A customer once said the work reminded her of the future and the past but not anything that actually exists. I deliberately give my pieces vague names like Bloom so the people who own them or experience them can add their personal connection to them. An interaction will happen, then hopefully once they have the piece it builds with their own memories and their own experience."

Magnolia trees have always been a part of Schutz's experience. As a child, the scent of the magnolia tree in front of her home wafted into rooms wallpapered with images of magnolia trees. As an adult, she always sought out magnolia trees wherever she strolled. Although the blooms were seductive, what fascinated Schutz most were the pods whose follicles split open to reveal hundreds of seeds dangling from slender threads. This seldom-seen beauty of ripening nature inspired the Magnolia series in 2002.

"I was drawn to the pod's strong sculptural and organic form. It lends itself very well to my work and has been a very fertile source of ideas and forging techniques. For the Magnolia series, I created forms, which I built up using tiny elements, beaded wires, and swimmers, which also gave movement to the forms. Each piece consisted of little components that were like a life story. These little experiences combined together make up the larger picture of everything."

Cushion brooch of oxidized sterling and fine
silver, copper, and bronze.
Photo: Ron Boszko.

For the most part, Schutz is self-taught but credits Charles Lewton-Brain's fold-forming workshop with teaching her to move metal. She continually challenges herself and takes risks, often using the brooch format to work out her ideas. This strong, large canvas gives her room to explore recurring themes using surface, dimension, texture, and form. In 2001, she created 12 round brooches using different techniques and mixed metals in new ways. Though very different, they documented Schutz's thorough exploration of a single floral theme. In 2003, she created triptychs, in which three brooches nestled together to create a specific visual display that could be rearranged by the wearer.

Schutz does not look to other jewelry for mechanisms; instead she investigates a toy's hinge, a piece of machinery, the connections of a building, or how a sculpture is hung. Over the years, she has used wire to form decorative tabletop works, sculptural forms, wearable perfume containers, and finally, jewelry. She, together with SilverStein and Feldbaum, have helped wire achieve its full potential as important and collectable jewelry, one strand at a time.

By Nina Graci – © Lapidary Journal
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