It’s the Sixties and Seventies. The Space Race rages, Beatlemania invades American pop music, Vidal Sassoon creates the bob, Mary Quant launches the mini skirt, Bianca Jagger marries Mick in an Yves Saint Laurent suit, and women realize for the first time they don’t have to wear diamonds after five – they can wear gold.
It is a time in history, or memory if you lived through it, which cherishes the original artist jewelers and their heavy-on-the-hardware, one-off pieces meticulously crafted during a period of free love. It was a two-decade moment that heralded a new era in strong, sculptural jewelry, triumphantly transcending both geometric boundaries and half a century’s worth of frozen moments in time.
Now, be it coiffed ladies-who-lunch, nostalgic for their flower children years, or a new generation of Proenza Schouler-wearing party girls seeing it for the first time, each is likely to grapple with the same underlying dilemma that always clung to the purchasing of such unique pieces. Is it big and beastly (so do I walk away)? Or is it bold and beautiful (and regret it forever if I do)?
This is the question jewelry fanatic and 30-year-long collector and dealer, Kimberly Klosterman, asked as she led a talk on artist jewelers and their most influential, architecturally abstract pieces from the Sixties and Seventies, at the American Society of Jewelry Historians last week.
Klosterman herself, who has Elle MacPherson legs and a similarly supermodel-sized auburn mane, is wearing a one-of-a-kind square metal necklace that looks more like a gold bib of amour than a piece of jewelry; and I ponder this beastly versus bold dilemma. But compliments quickly bounce back and forth between her audience, who are all bedecked in their own heavy-metal versions of the question. Klosteman gushes to her admirers. ‘Why, thank you! It’s from the Seventies. It goes with everything.’
Far from being pragmatic, however, this was an over-the-top design revolution started by an innovative silversmith named Graham Hughes, who saw contemporary British jewelry, at the time, as weak. So he simply decided to commission pieces directly from painters and sculptors instead.
What followed was twenty years of ornate metal pieces accentuated with baroque pearls, and otherworldly gems like lapis lazuli and moldavite– a hypnotic green crystal that comes-to-be when a meteorite hits the earth. It was loud jewelry with a raw quality, and it liberated women from the old-fashioned, uptight formality of diamonds.
London-based names began to surface, like Andrew Grima, whom Klosterman calls ‘the godfather of contemporary jewelry’; David Thomas, who sprinkled diamonds into his art nouveau-inspired pieces simply for added light; John Donal, whose sculpturally rigid pieces looked like silk; Charles de Temple, a self-taught jeweler who worked gold out of a lump; and John Rovvig, jeweler to the crown. Refined and subtle were not in their vocabulary.
And so began a movement where painters, sculptors, graphic designers, architects and creatives put their love of design onto the wrists, necks and fingers of excited young women. Klosterman joked, “The pieces are really just small sculptures – it’s big, it’s heavy and it hurts. But it’s fabulous.” That explains the necklace.
Often inspired by nature – from the bottom of the ocean, to the fiords, into space and onto the moon, artists from Geneva to Switzerland, Italy and France, and finally the U.S., also began to produce one-off, organically decorative masterpieces. And the work of ‘the greats,’ as Klosterman likes to call them, were so well received that their designs influenced and shaped the artistic direction of major jewel houses like Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Tiffany & Co.
These cutting-edge artist jewelers were exposed to the (some would argue, out of touch) large French houses at trade shows; which would buy the previously unseen playful pieces, take them back to headquarters, add their own stamp next to the jewelers’, and re-sell them to a larger audience – turning them into instantaneous style icons.
The ‘greats’ included Aldo Cipullo, who had a more modernist and streamlined approach to the era, creating the iconic Love Bracelet for Cartier in 1969 – a solid gold symbol of enduring commitment, which was followed by his legendary nail motif and hamsa hand pendants. Then there is Elsa Peretti, a former model and current visionary, who was first made famous for her sumptuous bone cuffs bought by Tiffany & Co – where her organic jewelry has been sold exclusively since 1974. And of course, Jean Mahie, a sculptor first, goldsmith second, who was one of the first artists to have her pieces displayed with her own brand name at Van Cleef & Arpels. Cartier quickly followed.
Today, where the ethos has returned to more-is-more, a new generation of designers and jewelry enthusiasts is driving a resurgence in the big and beastly, or bold and beautiful, dilemma.
Lanvin, with former illustrator Eli Topp as the house jewelry designer, creates colorful metal blooms, armor-like necklaces and breathtaking take-no-prisoners chokers. Topp has an instinct for design that comes intuitively through an obsession with craftsmanship and raw perfection, much like the artist jewelers before him.
And Yves Saint Laurent’s jewelry line, which lay dormant after the 2000 arrival of Tom Ford and simultaneous departure of designer Loulou de la Falaise, began to reintroduce costume pieces under the recently abandoned creative director Stefano Pilati. Taking cues from New York’s king of the avant-garde, Arthur King, who in the Sixties used a wax casting technique to set stones in dripping naturalistic forms resembling molten gold, Yves Saint Laurent’s similarly twisted jewelry – namely its asymmetric, and some would say, beastly, gold-plated Arty ring – is now worshipped by cool kids around the world.
Klosterman smiled, acknowledging this sentiment. “As long as you have a sense of humor to pull off the beastly, whether from the Sixties, Seventies, or today,” she explained, “you’ll be surprised to find how much of your audience will see nothing but beautiful and bold.”