T he sculptor Alberto Giacometti was perhaps the first modern artist to experiment with making jewelry. Struggling to make a living as an artist, in 1929 he took on the job of decorating the Paris boutique of the couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, and also made brooches, bracelets and buttons for her to sell. Giacometti later recounted that “at that time, a dim view was taken of it”. Soon, however, other artists followed his lead. The Surrealist Meret Oppenheim made fur-covered bracelets, also for Schiaparelli, and Salvador Dalí’s first designs appeared in Vogue in 1937.
This autumn Sotheby’s will hold its first online sale dedicated to jewelry made by artists – Art as Jewelry as Art (24 September–4 October). Tiffany Dubin, Sotheby’s artist jewelry specialist and head of sale, explains: “I have been watching this area since 2011. The appeal of these pieces lies in a combination of the workmanship, the creativity, the technique, the inspiration and the reflection of the time in which they were created.”
A button by Giacometti, as well as works by Oppenheim and Dalí will all feature in the auction. So will pieces by Alexander Calder, who had made jewelry for his sister’s dolls out of copper wire as a child, and later produced works for sale. His distinctive hand-beaten pieces are made mostly of brass or silver wire, and occasionally from gold. Man Ray, the Surrealist painter and photographer, also produced jewelry: the lips that appear in his famous print A l’heure de l’observatoire, les amoreux (1932–34) reappear in his Les Amoureux necklace, which is included in the sale.
Fashion’s love affair with jewelry made by artists persisted into the 1970s, when Yves Saint Laurent embarked on a series of collaborations with the French sculptor and designer Claude Lalanne to design jewelry for his haute couture shows. These included body casts Lalanne made of the German model Veruschka’s body in 1969, which were cast in galvanised copper, and, as seen in the auction, a series of gold torcs adorned with a cast of Saint Laurent’s lips.
For Diane Venet, who was inspired to start collecting artists’ jewelry in the 1970s by a gift from her husband, the French sculptor Bernar Venet, Giacometti’s pieces marked the beginning of a golden age. As she says of her personal collection, gathered over almost 40 years and frequently exhibited: “Here is a whole history of art, from 1930 to 2003.”
“Artist jewelry is very intimate – when do you ever get to touch an artwork?”
But the story has certainly not stopped there. Dubin has sought out contemporary artists to create new pieces for the Sotheby’s sale. A particular favourite is an architectural ring made by the artist-jeweller Jean Boggio. “Since 2010 I have been obsessed with them,” says Dubin. “I am thrilled.” The American sculptor Tom Otterness says his jewelry should be considered as small-scale counterparts of his large public sculptures. He recently made an edition of small Guardian Angel pendants for the Rema Hort Mann Foundation as gifts for cancer patients in recovery. The gold Kissing Angels necklace in the auction will be sold to benefit the charity.
Michele Oka Doner, an artist who straddles many genres and media, reports that making jewelry not only takes her back to her early training at college but also to the source of all art. In 1980 she visited an archaeological dig near Jaffa in Israel, and in one grave, dating back thousands of years, there was a female skeleton still wearing a necklace of found objects, along with flower seeds. “What inspires me is to put my finger on that moment, when a found object is transformed into a talisman, an amulet,” she says.
“In my jewelry I rediscover the ancestral roots of art.” Doner is in a section of the auction titled “Visionaries”, devoted to artists working in a diverse range of materials who offer radically new visions of what artist-jewelry could be. Also in this section is work by the French sculptor Hubert le Gall, who is animated above all by the desire to tell stories, whether he is creating sculpture or jewelry. His Alaskan Fisherman necklace, made from silvered bronze, obsidian beads and black cord, conjures an entire world on a string.
As we look into the future of jewelry made by artists, Dubin points to the work of Katia Luna Benaï, of Berber heritage, who has created a hand-carved jewelry box for the sale, and Metagolden, a company that has made an 18-carat gold and emerald ring that will be sold alongside a linked NFT.
Beyond the sheer beauty of jewelry made by artists, collectors are drawn to their intimacy. Sharon Coplan Hurowitz is a collector, independent curator and art advisor who specialises in prints and other multiples. “When you wear an artist’s jewelry it is very intimate against your body – when do you ever get to touch an artwork?” she says. “Of all the things I collect, jewelry is the most personal and creative.”
Cover image: Model Brooke Deighton wearing Hubert Le Gall’s Alaskan Fisherman necklace, 2018, Estimate: $5,000–7,000, and holding Obsidian Swallow pendant and jewelry stand with mirror, 2018, Estimate: $6,000–8,000. All photos: Jordan Doner