The Dynamic Jewelry of Albert Paley
5 January 2018
by Art Historian, Toni Greenbaum
Albert Paley made jewelry for only fifteen years, at the start of his brilliant career in metalworking that today spans a half century. Nonetheless, jewelry is seminal to Paley’s oeuvre, which embraces history, virtuosity, and ornament. Rejecting the sterile objectivity of Modernism, Paley revels in Expressionism through process. He draws stylistically from the romanticism of the past, as seen in Rococo, Baroque, and particularly Art Nouveau designs, of which his sizable pin of oxidized silver, gold, coral, geode, and pearls, from 1971 [lot 912], is a prime example.
Paley makes allusions to nature through the use of energetic lines, surface textures, and inventive materials. Movement—both explicit and implied—plays a significant role in the impact his jewelry generates when worn. Conceived as powerful regalia, Paley’s jewelry is intended for the formidable woman, dramatically demonstrated by a lengthy gold-inlayed silver and quartz crystal neckpiece from 1971 [lot 911].
Paley began making jewelry during the formative years of feminism, at a time when women were gaining a liberating awareness of their bodies. In his perceptive introduction to Albert Paley: Sculptural Adornment, the catalogue accompanying Paley’s 1992 solo exhibition at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., British art critic Edward Lucie-Smith wrote:
Like his later architectural sculpture…Albert Paley’s jewelry [celebrates a new-found American self-confidence]. [It] was made for women with a well-developed sense of their own worth, of the value of their presence in the world, and of the shape and nature of their own bodies…Paley’s jewelry was for feminists—individuals who were giving women new roles in American life.
As a sculpture student at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, in the mid-1960s, Paley found jewelry to be more compatible with his organically-oriented aesthetic and methodology. Rejecting the gold circle pin as an outdated badge of conformity, Paley harnessed his skills in casting, chasing, fabricating, and forging, as well as a confidence in alternative materials such as Delrin® (a carve-able white plastic) that works amiably with silver, gold, copper, and both precious and semi-precious stones. Since Paley believed jewelry should exist in concert with the human body, he sought ergonomically engineered forms. In describing Paley’s jewelry, art historian Robert A. Sobieszek stated, “Linear elements of the brooch move in interlacing rhythms to the motion of the body, rings act as external metaphors of knuckles and joints when fingers flex and pendants counterpoint the organic swelling and deflation of the wearer’s breathing.”
Paley was equally passionate about merging closures with the jewels to produce integrated designs. To that end he studied the fibula, an ancient form of brooch that harmoniously unites attachment mechanisms with ornamental elements. Paley’s 1970 silver and gold brooch [lot 915] provides an epic example of such a union.
Although jewelry ultimately became a distant part of Paley’s total output, its influence on his monumental ironwork cannot be overstated. As independent curator Matthew Drutt wrote, “[Paley’s] years as a goldsmith…provide valuable insights into his development as an ironworker: a close investigation of his jewelry reveals the basic forms and ideas he would exploit in his larger commissions… In addition, the gradually increasing scale of the jewelry suggests that the transition to iron was inevitable if Paley intended to explore fully the forms he was trying to express in body ornament.” While, nevertheless, acknowledging a basic difference between the technical demands of architectural commissions, such as forged steel and iron gates, and wearable objects of precious gold and silver, it is undeniable that both possess a vital interface between form, structure, and agency in the hands of Albert Paley.