One month after Claire’s death in 1997, her studio assistant and personal confidant, Stefan, invited me to her home and studio in Venice, California to look in “Claire’s Box”. This amazing trove, her personal collection, formed the foundation of the brilliant exhibition The Modernist Jewelry of Claire Falkenstein at the Long Beach Museum in 2004. When the exhibit closed, I was chosen by the estate to find collectors and institutions to acquire these rare masterworks. This belt buckle was included in this exhibition.
Modern Handmade Jewelry
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.
Structure and Ornament: Studio Jewelry from 1900 to the Present offers outstanding work by artists whose primary focus is the body, along with those seeking to expand their practices beyond painting and sculpture. It is a truly dazzling array, illustrating the continuum of studio jewelry from the turn of the twentieth century to the turn of the twenty-first, and beyond. This is also a landmark event, as it is the first exhibition and sale organized by an American auction house to be dedicated solely to studio jewelry on an international scale. Mark McDonald, a noted authority on twentieth and twenty-first century applied art, has meticulously curated the collection, which contains some of the field’s most iconic examples.
One of the highlights is a magnificent silver and mother of pearl comb—reconfigured as a choker, but with the original tortoise shell fitting intact—by Wiener Werkstätte master Josef Hoffmann. Another is Goldfinger(1969), a seminal work by Italian sculptor and jeweler Bruno Martinazzi. Goldfinger is a dramatic 20k yellow and 18k white gold cuff bracelet, forged in the guise of a human hand, which holds the wearer’s wrist in a vice-like grip. It symbolizes Martinazzi’s stated view of the hand as “an instrument of knowledge and invention, meant to establish a relationship with others.” Also on view are two rare pendants, from 1954 and 1976, by Rolph Scarlett, a Canadian-born painter and jeweler as well as industrial and stage designer, who is represented by numerous paintings in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Scarlett spent much of his life in Woodstock, New York, where, in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, he made enormous rings and pendants of silver and brightly colored semi-precious stones, reminiscent of the geometric abstraction displayed in his paintings.
Important examples of mid-twentieth century modernist jewelry by Art Smith—in particular, a unique hammered copper wire collar—biomorphic brooches by Sam Kramer, Constructivist pins by Margaret De Patta, and a kinetic silver neckpiece, along with several forged wire fibulae, by Claire Falkenstein are for sale. A reversible silver and enamel bracelet by Earl Pardon; a gold, moss agate, sand, and epoxy brooch by Irena Brynner; and the Martha Graham brooch—based upon Barbara Morgan’s famous photograph of the dancer—by Ed Wiener are especially noteworthy, as they were in the groundbreaking exhibition Structure and Ornament: American Modernist Jewelry 1940-1960 at Fifty/50 Gallery in 1984. Scarcely seen late modernist works by John Paul Miller, Ruth Roach, Christian Schmidt, John Prip, Albert Paley, and Phillip Fike are featured as well.
The sale presents a treasury of “classics” by contemporary masters, such as Otto Künzli, Hermann Jünger, Karl Fritsch, Robert Baines, Giampaolo Babetto, Gerd Rothmann, William Harper, and Lisa Gralnick, whose oeuvre is represented by both a black acrylic cube cuff bracelet, from 1988, and subsequent “deconstructed” brooches of 18k gold. Conceived as an edition, Künzli’s pioneering bangle bracelet, Gold Makes You Blind (designed in 1980), questions long-held notions about preciousness and wear. It is fabricated from a black rubber tube within which a gold ball is concealed, its presence indicated only by a spherical bulge in the rubber. The gold ball is revealed if the encasement erodes through use; originally, Künzli had agreed to replace the rubber tube as needed.
This auction additionally includes a refreshing mix of works by some of contemporary jewelry’s rising stars, such as the Night is Quiet Sea brooch that centers on an antique ferrotype mounted in oxidized silver, with two applied Baroque pearls and a hidden garnet, by German jeweler Bettina Speckner, and a brooch assembled from silver, enameled silver, rock, and glass by Australian Helen Britton. Dutch jeweler and product/lighting designer Herman Hermsen is represented by a massive collar of black PVC, mounted with large green and blue glass stones, which references both historical idioms and up-to-the-minute design. A sizable ring and exceptional double dragonfly bracelet—made from plastic and repurposed faux gemstones—by Austrian artist Petra Zimmermann also addresses the history of jewelry, and its aesthetic value regardless of the materials used, as well as the transitory nature of beauty.
Due to the compatibility of method and material, sculptors, from time to time, have embraced jewelry’s small format. Arnaldo Pomodoro habitually incorporated jewelry into his practice, echoing the complex textures of his monumental bronze sculptures in the rough surfaces of elegant gold bracelets. A prime example of such a bracelet, from 1965, is in the sale, along with a sleek stainless steel brooch (1960) by José de Rivera, and pendants from the same period by Ibram Lassaw, who regarded jewelry as maquettes for his larger works. The auction also boasts a rare ceramic brooch by Beatrice Wood, featuring two figures reminiscent of those seen on her clay vessels.
For those who admire modern and contemporary art, decorative art, or design, Structure and Ornament: Studio Jewelry from 1900 to the Present provides an unparalleled opportunity to observe and acquire some of the best work available.