Modern Handmade Jewelry

Toni Greenbaum

Jewelry is one of the most graphic indicators of personal identity. In sync with the body, it helps to define the individuals who wear it. Jewelry is also among the most revealing examples of material culture. The necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, and brooches worn by people throughout the ages contain powerful clues about the eras, traditions, habitations, and societies in which they lived.

To this day, jewelry continues to act as an important signifier. The twentieth century, along with the first two decades of the twenty-first, is particularly rich in what we refer to as “studio jewelry.” Studio jewelry, which is invariably handmade, can simply celebrate process and provide an alternative to fine or costume jewelry, but it can also harbor deeper meanings—concepts far beyond jewelry’s usual function as decoration, commemoration, or talisman. Studio jewelry exists at the nexus of art, craft, and design, often reflecting aesthetic concerns, theoretical doctrines, political agendas, or popular trends. Most studio jewelry is either unique or produced in limited edition. It can be fabricated from precious metals and gemstones, or created from materials outside the norm, or both. Studio jewelry may be easy to wear, or present tactical challenges. All in all, it is a most compelling adornment—whether we regard it technically, stylistically, artistically, or even existentially.

Work by Otto Künzli (left). His iconic Gold Makes You Blind bracelet, is featured in this sale. ES1 Ring by Ettore Sottsass (right).

Claire Falkenstein

As an artist of singular innovation and energy, Claire Falkenstein explored a range of mediums but became known for her expansive wire structures that often included found glass and wood. Born in 1908 in Coos Bay, Oregon, Falkenstein grew up in Berkeley, California and attended the University of California in 1930, studying sculpture, philosophy and anthropology. She continued her studies in sculpture at Mills College in Oakland and while there, studied under the avant-garde artist Alexander Archipenko.

Falkenstein's first major body of work emerged in the early 1940s, with her Set Structures, which her made of wooden elements that could be disassembled. In 1947, she began teaching at the California School of Fine Arts and in 1950 she re-located to Paris; this move would prove pivotal to Falkenstein's work, as she encountered influential artists of the European avant-garde, as well as Peggy Guggenheim, who would become a major supporter of Falkenstein's work. During this time, jewelry became a main focus for Falkenstein; Working out of a tiny studio and with not much money, Falkenstein created works inspired by the free-form abstraction popular among Paris’ vanguard with castoff and nontraditional materials. A significant breakthrough for Falkenstein came in 1961, when Guggenheim commissioned her to design the gates at the Palazzo Venier de Leoni in Venice—a work regarded as one of the finest of her prodigious career and one that illustrates Falkenstein’s inimitable ability to create forms that exist beyond the physical space they inhabit.

Falkenstein eventually returned to the United States in 1963, settling in Venice, California, where she lived until her death in 1997. She created enduring large-scale public works during this time, most notably, the doors, gates and windows at the St. Basil Catholic Church in Los Angeles. At the later end of her life, she had turned her focus to painting. Her works are held in such prestigious collections as the Pompidou Centre, Paris, the Tate, London and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Auction Results Claire Falkenstein