More than 300 pieces of artistic jewelry by master makers and artists including Art Smith, Pablo Picasso, Charles Loloma and Betty Cooke are about to go on sale at Bonham’s, Los Angeles. Wearable Art: Jewels from the Crawford Collection includes some of the largest private collections of the work of several artists, including Native American jeweler Charles Loloma, American Modernist Betty Cooke and Art Smith, the gay Cuban-Jamaican jeweler and activist, whose striking Midcentury pieces are currently enjoying a moment in the spotlight.
Amassed by Jill and Byron Crawford over a lifetime, the collection tells a story of twentieth-century jewelry design and its relationship with art. The couple set out to find artists who spoke to them, meticulously researching each one to understand the body of work as a whole before buying up examples of their work. “When I am wearing a great piece of jewelry, I feel connected to the artist, and I become part of the story a piece is telling,” says Jill Crawford. “Jewelry is meant to be worn, and in the hands of a passionate collector it becomes transcendent.”
And the passion of these collectors has produced a curation of startling depth and beauty. Many of the pieces on sale – Art Smith’s Lava cuff, Picasso’s Grande Faune pendant – are more commonly seen in books, held up as iconic examples of the work of the period. Seeing them in the flesh, is according to Emily Waterfall, Bonhams Director of jewelry, “astonishing”: “these are some of the finest individual examples of jewelry work by Loloma, Spratling, Picasso, Betty Cooke, and others to ever come to auction. Taken individually they are exquisite and viewing the collection as a whole is a stunning look at one of the best private collections of artist jewelry in the world.”
The diverse sale spans several categories, from jewelry by fine artists (Picasso, Max Ernst, Jean Arp) and American Modernists (Art Smith, Betty Cooke), to Scandinavian jewelry (Georg Jensen, Björn Weckstrôm) and Taxco Mexican silver (William Spratling, Antonio Pineda), as well as contemporary Native American jewelry (Charles Loloma, Jesse Monongya). Artist jewelry in general has experienced a resurgence of interest in recent years, with retrospectives and acquisitions of major collections by museums around the United States, adding monetary value and cultural significance to the jewels.
The jewelry by Surrealist artists Picasso and Max Ernst are sale highlights for their scarcity – only a few hundred of each piece were ever made, by Atelier Hugo – and for Picasso, as rare examples of his work in the decorative arts rather than painting. Unlike the studio jewelers in the sale, these artists did not make the jewelry themselves, but according to jewelry editor and author Melanie Grant, this has little impact on its value: “the celebrity status of these artists was so powerful, that their peripheral involvement in making the jewelry itself hardly undermines its significance. ‘Artist jewelry’ offered a slightly more affordable way into their creative universe,” she writes, as she makes a compelling case for jewelry to be considered fine art in the latest issue of Bonhams Magazine.
The American studio artist movement, which began after World War II, leveraged more modest materials and abstract designs in a bid to bring jewelry to a wider audience, heralding a shift in the culture around jewelry design that has paved the wave for further democratization in recent years. As pioneers of handcrafted, less expensive artistic jewelry, the Midcentury Modernist studio jewelers are represented by several names including Sam Kramer and Betty Cooke, currently the subject of a retrospective at The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Cooke is best known for her cleanly styled jewelry based on quietly powerful circles and lines, that cut through the fuss of the more traditional jewels of the time.
The sale includes over 20 pieces by Art Smith, whose work has gained value in recent years and is currently on show as part of the Sotheby’s Brilliant & Black selling exhibition, curated by Grant. A gay, Cuban-Jamaican immigrant, Smith was inspired by jazz to create the abstract cuffs, necklaces and rings that made him a leading light of American contemporary jewelry in the 1950s. Today, those same forms, handcrafted in warm brass and weighty silver, sometimes with the addition of gemstones but more often designed to showcase the beauty of the metals themselves, take their rightful place on sale alongside work by establishment figures like Elsa Perreti for Tiffany and Georg Jensen.
Some of the most striking work in the sale is by Native American jewelers, who reinterpreted their traditional themes with a contemporary aesthetic in bright lapis lazuli, dazzling turquoise, polished wood and fossilized ivory. Over 30 pieces are available for sale by Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma, with prices expected to rise up to $60,000 for a multi-stone and gold cuff (top), the peaks and ridges of which call to mind the landscapes of his native Arizona. As the US sees its first Native American Cabinet Secretary and the previously closed world of fine jewelry opens up for BIPOC jewelers, in a sale full of big names and bold pieces it is the work of Charles Loloma and Art Smith that stands out the most for me. Thanks to their work half a century ago, wearable sculpture has now never been so diverse.
Wearable Art: Jewelry from the Crawford Collection will go on sale online October 12. For more details, visit Bonhams.com.
Sotheby’s Brilliant & Black selling exhibition is open in New York until Sunday. For more details, visit Sothebys.com
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