Daniel Brush has long been a favourite of knowledgeable collectors, but a show of his fantastical haute joaillerie in Paris last year captivated a whole new audience.
D aniel Brush is an American goldsmith, painter, sculptor and polymath whose reputation as a reclusive genius with otherworldly skills and a philosophical approach has made him a cult figure. His work, from early gold-granulation pieces and whimsical Bakelite- and diamond-studded animals to silkily carved and engraved steel flowers, rarely appears on the market. Instead, it passes directly from Brush to the hands of private collectors, some of whom are royalty, and almost all of whom Brush knows personally. To him, these clients are suitable caretakers of his work. The few jewels that have come up for auction at Sotheby’s have easily exceeded their estimates.
Brush was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1947. He won a scholarship to study fine art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, then earned a master’s degree at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. A professor of art at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, he moved to New York in 1978 with his wife, Olivia, to focus on painting. He began to translate his ideas into metalwork, turning to jewels, he says, as a respite from the intensity of painting.
Now, after 45 years of “grappling with cosmic questions,” Brush has emerged from the labyrinth of antique lathes that fills his Manhattan loft. Last autumn, Van Cleef & Arpels’s École des Arts Joailliers (School of Jewellery Arts) in Paris hosted a landmark exhibition of his work.
It featured two of his collections, showcased alongside a sampling of his earlier creations, which had never been seen in public before: Necks is a series of chokers that takes cues from a group of colliers de chiens (dog collars), and Cuffs is a set of bangles inspired by the Nizam of Hyderabad’s jewels and by the bracelet’s cultural role in India. Each piece is different in design, technique and ornamentation. Chokers are hung with gem-set or aluminium pendants, bangles with antique Indian diamonds, or they may be engraved with swans, penguins and geometric patterns. Conjured from steel and aluminium, Necks and Cuffs show Brush’s ability to take intransigent industrial materials and transform them into lustrous works.
“Aluminium has an extraordinary light-emitting quality,” he says. “It engages you, pulls you in, smiles back at you. It brings light to a woman’s face.”
The exhibition introduced Brush to a new audience of enthralled collectors, who got a rare glimpse into his meditative universe. The artist handcrafts each jewel himself, working straight into the metal with no preliminary design, so each piece is unique. He hopes that by sharing his work, he is encouraging the public to look deeper into the meaning and purpose of jewellery, while revitalising its talismanic role. Brush takes collectors beyond their comfort zone, as he stretches himself to challenge conventions, both honouring and subverting traditions. “I have to keep pushing the boundaries of jewellery,” he says, “to tickle history.” And, in the process, to make his own mark on the history of jewellery.
Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian and a contributing editor of the Financial Times’s How to Spend It.