Women's Jewellery

Stealing the show

Celebrated artists and architects are taking fine jewellery in exciting new directions, says Vivienne Becker.

February 19 2010
Vivienne Becker

Serious art collectors searching for serious jewellery that reflects their aesthetics and values are gravitating towards a new generation of esoteric, powerfully intriguing jewels by artists and architects. This is not about the jewel as a precious work of art, nor about the artist-jeweller; this is a separate genre that has appeared out of smoke from the explosion of both art and jewels into our cultural consciousness over the past decade or so. But as it carves out a place for itself, it also taps into a rich, and relatively little-known, legacy of 20th-century artists and architects, from the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones to the great pioneers of modern art – Picasso, Braque, Dalí, Ernst.

Alexander Calder was perhaps the most important and influential artist to focus his sights and insights on jewellery. With a personal passion, he hand-made more than 1,800 distinctive one-of-a-kind pieces that were worn by “everyone” in Bohemian Paris of the 1930s and 1940s, and are much sought after today (from $47,000 to $176,250 at Louisa Guinness Gallery).

In fact, the market in jewels by 20th-century masters is opening up, overlapping with a blossoming in contemporary artists’ jewels. And here there is a sense of continuity. Picasso, for example, worked with goldsmith François Hugo on medallion-type jewels, and today Hugo’s son Pierre continues in his father’s atelier near Aix-en-Provence, hand-hammering gold pieces from limited editions by Picasso and Ernst (from €11,163).

Specialist London dealer Louisa Guinness sells vintage gold pieces by Picasso (from €16,450 to €23,500), vibrant enamels on gold by Niki de Saint-Phalle (€21,150) and mechanistic jewels bobbling with gold spheres by Belgian Pol Bury (from €4,700 to €25,850), but her main energy goes into developing collaborations with contemporary British artists.

“I started collecting pieces by the great masters,” she says. “When I looked for more contemporary jewellery I found a hole in the market. I started talking to friends who are artists [her husband is the art dealer Ben Brown] and they were interested. They see jewellery as an extension of their work. So I started an exhibition project with a group of artists including Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley, among others. I try to take the pain out of it for them and manage the fabrication in most cases. Each one is different; Gormley, for example, works from the same blocks of steel he uses in his sculptures.”

The so-called YBAs (Young British Artists) seem particularly keen on turning their talents to jewellery. Sculptor Marc Quinn translates his recurring themes of time and decay, as seen in the ephemeral nature of flowers and fruit, into gold pieces: surprisingly, softly romantic but with the same presence and power as his sculptures. A perfect, succulent strawberry cast in gold, with diamonds replacing the pips, becomes a pendant in an edition of 10 (£28,200). The strawberry is as if frozen, he explains, and dusted with diamonds it becomes erotic and emotionally charged. “All jewellery is about time,” he says. “Jewellery travels through time, giving it a poignancy. It’s about the tension between perfection and imperfection.”

He has just finished a series of rings based on orchids. Each unique piece (£9,400) was cast in his own foundry from a real orchid which has, says Quinn, symbolically sacrificed its life for immortality. He likes the paradox of the ephemeral and the eternal. “I do feel that I’m making art works; through jewels I can talk about profound things in a beautiful way. I see the jewel as a three-dimensional dream or wish.”

Anish Kapoor, on the other hand, is firm in his belief that the jewel is not art. “Jewellery is jewellery,” he states, “there’s no confusing it. It occupies a different space. Jewellery has a great and wonderful history and I wanted to enter it in some small way.” Having already made jewellery for many years, he created a collection of Water Jewels for Louisa Guinness, relating to his famous mirrored sculptures. There are massive rings, pendants and cuff links in potent, precise yet fluid forms: concave circles and tear-drops are polished in the centre to a mirror-like finish or house gleaming enamel (from £4,113 for cuff links to £32,900 for large pendants in an edition of five). The central shining pool draws the eye inwards, contrasting with and reflecting the matt texture of the curved rims.

“The concave mirror acts almost like a gem,” explains Kapoor. “And the rich colour of the gold reflects back on itself with a dark mysteriousness. The preciousness of the jewel is to do with scale and the way things are made, the polish and form.” Guinness says that Kapoor was very particular about the making of his jewellery, insisting on the very sharp edge to the curled metal surrounds. For Kapoor, this craftsmanship is where the preciousness lies.

Equally precious, Pop artist Peter Blake has created a series of cuff links containing small original signed watercolours (£4,113), each with its own story. They were inspired by a cheap pair of Elvis cuff links often worn by Blake himself. He was, says Guinness, going to make compilations of found objects but decided to glamorise the cuff links instead, encasing the watercolours in 18ct gold and making the bar at the back in the shape of a spoon as a concession to the objet trouvé idea. Guinness impresses on me that this project has taken three years to develop and each of the 50 pairs being made will be unique.

One of the most appealing elements of the artist’s jewel is the resolutely non-formulaic variety and originality of visual language. At the Guinness gallery you can find a gold Louise Bourgeois spider brooch (€99,875) after her giant spider at Tate Modern next to Sam Taylor-Wood’s white gold and diamond Tear-Catcher ring (about £10,575) – made by Shaun Leane, it has a compartment to catch your tears and comes with a series of phials for storing them.

Then there’s a graphic gold necklace (£9,400) and earrings (£3,525) outlining a light bulb by Michael Craig-Martin (celebrated teacher of the YBAs, notably Damien Hirst), and from Tim Noble and Sue Webster come jewels of gold looping script spelling out “f***ing beautiful” (from £1,410) or skull-motif cuff links (from £1,410). In a very different romantic mood are the poetic and sculptural copper jewels, adrift with flowers, butterfly wings and sycamore seeds, by French architect and decorative artist Claude Lalanne (from £1,410).

Architect Frank Gehry turned his huge-scale talent to jewellery when he joined Tiffany as a named designer. Launching his first collection in 2006, he transferred his affinity with material and form to small-scale structures: lithe, linear, kinetic and, of course, architectural. The challenge has been to translate his signature sweeping deconstructed curves and planes into the body-conscious intimacy of the jewel. His aim, he says, was to discover new forms that have a natural flow and a relevance to contemporary life.

The Torque collection (from £105), softly twisting and curving around finger or wrist, has been the most iconic, and perhaps the most successful in achieving these aims. Uninhibited by convention, Gehry chose often unexpected materials – black gold, wood, cachalong stone, agate – as well as Tiffany’s classic silver and diamonds. Newest from the prolific architect is the Hearts collection (from £100), a fresh, graphic, 3-D take on the most heavily allusive symbol in jewellery iconography. A plump, shiny heart is deconstructed into two sensual halves, then rejoined with mismatched twists and angles showing typical Gehry asymmetric spontaneity and vitality.

Another architect who has dipped into the world of jewels is Zaha Hadid. As part of her prodigious output she has collaborated with Atelier Swarovski on a debut cluster of jewels for spring: necklace (£610), rings (£160) and cuffs (£225). Like Gehry, Hadid applied her signature style. Soaring and sinuous gravity-defying organic forms are translated into glossy resin embedded with crystal stones.

Finally, perhaps the purest example of artist-turned-jeweller is the reclusive, exclusive and intriguing Daniel Brush, a painter, sculptor, goldsmith and jeweller. He lives and works in his New York loft, isolating himself as much as possible from outside stimuli in order to search for the instinctive, primal, brutally honest and untrammelled artistic expression of a thought, or, as he explains, of his philosophical confusion and unease. As we speak Brush is working on a massive steel sculpture, Black Writing, which is so overwhelming physically that he will occasionally take a break to make some aluminium and diamond-set jewels. He never knows what’s going to come up: “There is no plan, it’s total freefall.”

He makes the jewels himself, superlatively, but feels that the craftsmanship should always “disappear”. Fascinated by the ancient art of gold granulation, its “ethereal transparency” often creeps into his mesmerising jewels. Most recently he made a compelling collection of plastic animal brooches, La Menagerie Magnetique (magnetised so as not to ruin a couture gown, price on request). There are parrots, pigs, cats, toucans, dalmatians, Madison Avenue poodles, all exquisitely carved and coloured, mixed with white and coloured diamonds. The first, he explains, was a joke for his friend, the late Eric Nussbaum of Cartier; a plastic panther draped over a tree branch. The rest followed, equally light-hearted. “I wanted to laugh,” Brush says. “The animals were like amuse-bouches to put you in a good mood.”

For Brush, there is no doubt that the jewel is an art form. “Scale is important to me,” he says. “However small, a jewel can occupy a big place, it can occupy the room with its light.”

See also

Claude Lalanne