I met Irena Brynner in our original search for material for the first Fifty/50 exhibition in 1984 and acquired a number of excellent pieces from her personal collection including this brooch. She was a fascinating and rather glamorous character in the process of re-inventing herself as a cabaret singer, performing traditional Eastern European folksongs in a Greenwich Village piano café.

Mark McDonald

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).

Irena Brynner

Irena Brynner was born in Russia in 1917 and grew up on a Russian naval base in Manchuria. She studied sculpture for a short time in Switzerland and returned to China in 1939 to study painting; her family was forced to leave China in 1946 and she re-located to San Francisco, where she continued her studies in sculpture and pottery. After seeing jewelry by Claire Falkenstein, she was inspired to start creating contemporary jewelry and she apprenticed with local jewelers in the Bay Area. In 1950, she sold her first jewelry works to the upscale shop Casper's and she began showing works at art and craft fairs, where she met other contemporary jewelrers such as Margaret De Patta and Peter Maccarini; she later joined the Metal Arts Guild. Throughout the 1950s, while prodigiously creating jewelry, she also regularly taught adult education classes in the evening.

Brynner visited New York for the first time in 1956 to meet with Georg Jensen, who was selling her works, and was inspired by an exhibition at MoMA of Antoni Gaudí's work, as well as the energy and architecture of the city. She relocated to New York soon after, and lived there until the 1970s, when she moved to Switzerland and, along with jewelery, created and exhibited ikebana designs (Japanese flower arranging). She again settled in New York City in the 1980s, making jewelry and performing in cabaret clubs (she was an accomplished mezzo-soprano) until her death in 2003.

Auction Results Irena Brynner