Jewelry-making and art share a long and interwoven history, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that artists discovered the true potential of jewelry as another form of expression. These miniature works of art, often conceived for loved ones and intended for a very select market of connoisseurs, also gave many artists the opportunity to test their practical ability and to confront unprecedented constraints.
In recent years, these pieces have become a popular mainstay of the art market with prominent sales taking place at many prominent auction houses around the world. Here, we celebrate these playful experimentation with scale, medium and motif, that have brought us unique and unconventional, wearable works of art.
1. Alexander Calder
The work of legendary American artist and sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976) has long been synonymous with mobiles, sculptures, as well as his early wire works. Never satisfied with superfluous decoration, however, Calder used jewelry-making as an alternative way of communicating his artistic ideals. Calder was merely eight years old when he first transformed copper scraps found in the street into miniature necklaces. From that moment through the course of his lifetime, he created approximately 1,800 jewelry pieces.
Jewelry for Calder was extremely personal and produced on impulse, with each piece existing as a unique work. This piece, gifted to Finnish architect Aino Aalto, is typical of Calder’s workmanship with brass and silver in abstract motifs, inspired by ancient cultures.
Calder also had a desire to make pieces that were affordable, choosing to hammer and bend non-precious metals such as brass into wearable sculptures. His jewelry reflects the era’s Surrealist and Modernist aesthetic, and the pieces he developed became a status symbol for the bohemian elite of the time.
2. Man Ray
Man Ray (1890-1976) was a pioneer in 20th-century avant-garde art and photography and a leading member of Dadaism and Surrealism. Inspired by the female form, it was a natural move for Ray to collaborate with Italian jeweler Gem Montebello, renowned for some of the most creative jewelry of the era.
From 1970 until Ray’s death in 1976, the duo created eight jewelry designs, all in editions of twelve. Each piece echoes the artist’s surrealist portfolio like the piece Les Amoureux (The Lovers), which was inspired by an eponymous painting created in the 1930s.
The artist leveraged the medium to further explore the artistic preoccupations of his career. For instance, the idea for long gold spiral earrings Pendentif- Pendant (pictured below), stemmed originally from a project for a lampshade in 1919. The results were then featured in one of his photography shoots with Catherine Deneuve in 1968.
The iconic Optic-Topic gold mask, of which 100 copies were made, plays with Man Ray’s ongoing exploration of voyeurism and fetishism. Ray explored this concept by hindering the wearer’s vision, letting one see out only by means of two spirals of tiny holes.
3. Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) had a prolific career that spanned nearly 80 years, becoming considered one of the most successful artists in history. For the artist, however, jewelry-making was kept a tightly guarded practice, as each of the pieces were closely associated to the personal relationships he had throughout his life.
The Owl Necklace, pictured here, was created in the 1940s in collaboration with his lover of ten years, Françoise Gilot. Gilot, herself a painter and art critic, features the piece in her autobiography, Life With Picasso.
Both pieces exemplify the artist’s exploration of other mediums and to what extent he incorporated his personal life into his work. It was only in the 1960s that Picasso decided to create a jewelry collection intended for sale. Working with jeweler François Hugo, Picasso created a series of 23 ct gold medallions, which closely mirrored the artist’s drawings and ceramic models.
4. Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was already a leading figure of the Surrealist movement when in 1941, he began applying his token idiosyncratic approach to blur the lines between jewelry and art. Dali paired his signature imaginative approach with the painstaking craftsmanship of Argentine-born silver and goldsmith Carlos Alemany in his New York workshop. The partnership, which continued until 1970, resulted in a total of 40 unique designs. No matter the medium, Dalí continued reinventing universally celebrated themes such as anthropomorphism, metamorphism and cosmology in both nature and religion.
The most lauded, and best performing example at auction is undoubtedly Dali’s The Eye of Time, which was originally conceived as a gift for his wife, Gala. Surrounded by rows of pavé-set diamonds and set in platinum with a cabochon ruby, the eye’s pupil is made of three shades of blue enamel and brilliantly doubles as the face of a working Movado movement.
Even with more playful pieces, such as these ‘Telephone’ Ear clips, Dali was still keen to show how jewelry could be allegories for profound thought, saying that “They represent the ear; symbol of harmony and unity. They connote the speed of modern means of communication; the hope and the danger of an instantaneous change of thought.”
5. Lucio Fontana
Italian artist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) was the founder of the Spatialism movement and leading figure in the Italian abstract movement. He spent his career stabbing and slashing canvases and other materials—each cut with a simple yet exacting expression.
Lesser known was his experimentation with jewelry, which recall his spatialist principles. They are for the most part, smaller versions of his artworks, which make them instantly recognizable as his work. From the 1950s onwards, he created a small collection of unique pieces in the studio of the Pomodoro brothers, cutting and piercing holes in the surface of the gold, and using the title Concetto Spaziale.
He also developed more experimental pieces such as his Gold Bracelet, designed to adorn the length of the wearer’s forearm, which marked a significant departure from his signature style.
In the 1960s, he went on to design a second series of jewels, this time in association with the renowned Gem Montebello. This collaboration produced five different sets of jewelry with his signature ‘slash’ motif, each with silver lacquered in various colors in an edition of 100, as per the example below.
6. Jeff Koons
Contemporary artist Jeff Koons (b. 1955) is best known for his controversial works of the late 20th and early 21st century. In particular, he developed his mercantile and pornographic installations, becoming the master of irony through the use of improper objects such as his famous ‘Rabbit’, a seemingly inflatable rabbit made of stainless steel with mirror surface.
In 2005, Koons appropriated this symbolic figure as pieces of wearable art, reproducing them in a series of 50 white gold pendants for fashion designer Stella McCartney. Measuring a mere 7.5 cm high (as opposed to his colossal, 12-meter sculpture titled “Bouquet of Tulips”), this piece of jewelry expresses the ultra-kitsch approach of the American artist.
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