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).

Beatrice Wood 1893–1998

Born in 1893 to a wealthy and well-educated family and reared in New York, Beatrice Wood was an artistic free spirit from a young age. She spent her adolescence studying art and theater in Paris at the Académie Julian and La Comédie-Française. At the insistence of her family, she returned to New York in 1912, where she joined the French National Repertory Theatre.

Back in New York, Wood met artist Marcel Duchamp who introduced her to his social circle, exposed her to modern art and encouraged her artistic ambition. She became part of the New York Dada Movement along with fellow artists Man Ray, Francis Picabia and Joseph Stella. New York Dada's irreverence was less aggressive and more playful than its European counterparts, but nonetheless influenced by the carnage of WWI. The antics and excesses of the New York Dadaists—a number of whom were European artists escaping the war—was their form of protest.

Wood relocated to southern California in 1928. There, she became acquainted with the Indian sage Krishnamurti of the Theosophical Society and began to follow him on his international lectures. While on one of these trips in Holland, she purchased a set of baroque dessert plates with a striking luster glaze. Unable to find a matching tea pot, she decided to make one herself, and enrolled in a ceramic course at Hollywood High School in 1933. It was here that she first studied glaze chemistry and learned the intricacies of ceramic design. Her studies continued under noted ceramicist and teacher, Glen Lukens, whose tutelage prepared her for her next and most important mentors, ceramicists Gertrud and Otto Natzler. The Natzlers shared their methods and glaze secrets with her. She later said that learning the Natzler’s approach to ceramics was ‘invaluable’ to her development as a ceramic artist.

By 1947, Beatrice Wood’s career had hit its full stride. She had exhibited in both the Metropolitan and Los Angeles County Museums of Art and was accepting orders from important department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Gumps. She settled in Ojai, across the street from Krishnamurti, established her own studio and showroom, and began teaching ceramics at the Happy Valley School (now Besant Hill School). She became friends with the ceramicists Vivika & Otto Heino, whose influence further developed her throwing skills. She perfected her own style of glazing, with metallic irradiance embedded in the glaze itself rather than painted on it. She also began experimenting with satirical figurative sculptures, intentionally naive in execution.

Wood remained in the Ojai Valley until her death in the home and studio she built on the grounds of the Happy Valley Foundation. Upon her death in 1998, she gifted her home, her artwork, her library and her collection of folk art to the Happy Valley Foundation, which maintains her studio as The Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, open to the public.

In addition to the countless students and artists touched by her work, Ms. Wood is said to have inspired the character “Rose DeWitt” in James Cameron’s Hollywood blockbuster Titanic. Additionally, she is said to have inspired the character of “Catherine” in the book Jules and Jim (1953), written by her old friend and lover Henri-Pierre Roché, and adapted into one of the seminal films of the Nouvelle Vague in 1962 by director Francois Truffaut. Her life spanned an incredible 105 years, of which the final three decades were her most artistically productive.

Works by Beatrice Wood are held in the collections of museums and institutions across the globe including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art in California, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The secondary market for works by Beatrice Wood is quite strong, buoyed by a robust market of modern ceramics collectors eager to own designs by this icon of the craft.

Auction Results Beatrice Wood