Tag Archives: Giampaolo Babetto

The Bright House

Saturday September 27, Camucia – Cortona, Italy / location: Tenimenti Luigi d’Alessandro Winery

The Bright House, a review

by Kellie Riggs

I used to talk frequently of the dream show; I never knew what it was exactly or what it looked like, but the idea was basically to imagine a space where jewelry could truly be itself, speaking for itself without too much help. The work would be together yet independent, emboldened by its company and especially by its surroundings, surroundings much different than your average jewelry exhibition, someplace more inviting. But what kind of new space would it have to be, to give each individual piece its own privacy so to speak, it’s own fortified spotlight beyond the pretense of what we are used to seeing in an installation?

The word dream implies beyond reality, the ideal, exaltation even, and that’s exactly what The Bright House was – a 48 hour ultimate jewelry fantasy if you will – if as though contemporary jewelry threw itself an exclusive, budget-less birthday party with the highest consideration of taste, beauty and even restraint. But what else would one expect when the background for the show is the grounds of a spacious and immaculate Tuscan Villa, with the colors and winds of nature sweeping through the air like magic? There were no white walls to be found here, just glass as though the surrounding structures to the jewelry were nothing more than an illusion, almost an invisible stage for the jewels on display. No cases, no security, an open invitation to touch, to try, and the opportunity for dialogue as many of the artists were also present. A feeling of safety and calmness was in circulation, a true haven of delicacies, many of which were gold.

The show was defined by two groupings of work in two locations of display, both a glass house separated by a beautiful foot path that seemed to encourage a reflectiveness of the experience. As the groomed nature infiltrated the exhibition space through the windows the textural components of each body of work was rightfully amplified; even Helen Britton’s industrial-esque work began to really belong to the environment, the movement of her cuffs became leaflike, the colors echoing the fallen foliage in the grass just yards away and the sounds they make during interaction would perhaps compliment walking in the grass through the signs of the approaching fall. Across the space was another compliment to the show’s surroundings, but this time more to the light through the trees and the changing hues of green, like in the work of Jamie Bennet, paired nicely with Peter Bauhius who presented three natural pebble-like necklaces.

Across the room was a Smörgåsbord of geometric golden treats all of which were characteristically Babetto, the most exciting piece being a quite impressively flexible and reversible square component necklace defying physical odds when handled. Anytime I see Babetto’s work I know i’m in the right place.. he brings a sense of ease to the room somehow, as by seeing him you know the rest of the work from other artists has got to be worth something. Giampaolo Babetto is my first jewelry hero and seeing new iterations of himself, which his work always seems to be, is exciting for me in all of its variations and subtleties; take for example the use of a rustic, rusty red pigment seen in his new work.

Up the footpath and into the next glass house of which the back wall features a bit of the outside world. Giant rocks climbing up the walls frame a mirrored fountain and in its vicinity more treasures are to be found. To the right Manfred Bischoff has a row of his sculptural and almost cryptically narrative gold work which are always an impressive sight, opposite that of Jacqueline Ryan whose more intimate and textural work dazzles. Ryan’s presence reintroduces the show’s connection with the surrounding nature through surface quality and moments of movement. She also forms a somewhat unexpected association to Patrick Davison’s non jewelry work (found in the same room) through shared pattern and geometry. Davison, whose pieces are the only of its kind in the exhibition, is also by far the youngest artist present, proving his work to be even more impressive than a first glance will lead on.

Something I found delightful about this exhibition is that many of the artists echo one another in sometimes indistinct yet fun ways. Rike Bartels (shown in the first glass house) to Bischoff though is perhaps too obvious an example, obvious to the the point that Bartels becomes a bit amiss once Bischoff is discovered. Alternatively, Ryan’s work is the glue of the whole exhibition noted in the way she positively brings the two spaces together, well balancing both Babetto and Britton’s work through kinetics and form, and recollecting Ferràn Iglesias’ extremely delicate, patient and passionate gold wire work from the previous room.

The Bright House is much much greater than the sum of its parts. There is no question here whether the work is good or of the highest quality, yet I will note that this particular group is surely not the most relevant or contemporary of groups in the scene at large today. In a field that seems to get fresher and fresher every year, choosing such traditionalists could have posed a problem. But on the contrary, some of the artists here are introspective legends and masters of material and they deserve the space for uninterrupted tactile and even spiritual reflection that this exhibition successfully provided… all very much dream-like to say the least.

The Bright House

The Bright House

The Bright House, location

Helen Britton

Jamie Bennet

 Peter Bauhuis

Peter Bauhius

Giampaolo Babetto Giampaolo Babetto Giampaolo Babetto Giampaolo Babetto Giampaolo Babetto

The Bright House

Manfred Bischoff

Jacqueline Ryan

Jacqueline Ryan Patrick Davison   Patrick Davison

Rike Bartels

Manfred Bischoff

Jacqueline Ryan

Ferràn Iglesias

Ferràn Iglesias

The Bright House, location

The Bright House , Lucia Massei foreground

Patrick Davison and work

Patrick Davison talking with Jacqueline Ryan about his work

Antonella Villanova (left), with Giampaolo Babetto necklace

Patrick Davison (left)  with Giampaolo Babetto necklace and artist (right)

The Bright House

The Bright House

Now the mandate is to “design something for when I feel lonely,” he added. “For when I feel empty. For when I’m turned down by my love. For when I’m scared because I’m going to die. For when I lose a kid. Design now is fulfilling important things that for a long time were more expected from art, but that art today is failing to deliver because it’s so immersed in itself.

I know this is a bit past due, but this NYTimes article —->  After the Boom, a Better Kind of Art, about “design art” or “art furniture” seen at Design Miami is really worth the read. Design can get away with anything. It’s more shameless than fashion, a lot of the time. And we should be jealous! Read the article, look at the numbers ( and when I say numbers I mean $$$), and you just TRY and tell me why a super-slickly designed “art” CHAIR made of PLASTIC or something, reels in the big bucks and no one fucking QUESTIONS if it’s worth the price tag or not, when objects made of similar cheap and immediate materials, even if it came from a similar conceptual departure and took a comparable amount of time to make yet is simply just smaller (yes of course a price gap is caused by size differences/material consumption, sure, but I mean my god, plastic is plastic, resin is resin, and that shit ain’t that expensive… and god knows that WE know that when material ain’t an arm and a leg, we make up for it with skill) would NEVER be “worth” that kind of money. WHY? Ok, in rare cases, sure but it isn’t the same, indicated by the fact that “art jewelry” is still pretty much off the highbrow art AND design radar, generally speaking.  To sell jewelry with those kind of price tags, the shit’s still gotta be made of gold, sadly, or have a bunch of fucking diamonds in it. ARE OUR IDEAS TOTALLY WORTHLESS??? But furniture gets an easier ride because of its approachability, its universality  its perception of being needed as it’s functional. It’s easier to justify perhaps, to wrap your head around. And please don’t think i’m speaking negatively; my we’re-fooling-everyone life partner, Misha sent me this article, and he is quite the art furniture or art design (whatever you want to call it <— that just happens to also be a direct quote from the article. Can we say, same problems??? God damn vocabulary always gotta mess everything up) extraordinaire . He just has a slightly easier struggle. And will probably make a hell of a lot more money than the rest of us lowly art jewelry people.

Here are some other quotes from the article, surely to make your brain say, BUT WAIT, HAVEN’T WE, THE CONTEMPORARY JEWELRY ARTISTS, BEEN DOING THIS ALREADY? WHERE IS OUR GREAT MARKET?? :

“…has long worked with designers to produce objects that have the conceptual depth and rarity of fine art”

“Design art has so much growth potential where I’m fortunate to be a spearhead of this new movement… Meanwhile, in the arts It’s so difficult to find something that stands out and proposes something new anymore.”

SO. Do you think we, contemporary jewelry, art jewelry, WHATEVER, is more closely aligned with art, or design? Are we actually a sub-category of design based on the definitions presented by this article? I mean we happen to have already been making art jewelry for awhile, maybe that’s why no one published an article about it in the NYTimes or anywhere in the public sphere, for that matter, because it started a long time ago. I happen to think we’ve already been filling the great divide between art and design, just a little more quietly I suppose. So i’ll ask again, where’s our great market? Hell, the economy stinks right? At least contemporary jewelry is cheaper to collect. And you get to fucking wear it. EYES OPEN, WORLD.

I will mention that Caroline van Hoek (described as a design gallery mind you) did attend at Design Miami with a list of amazing artists that went something like this: Giampaolo BabettoGijs BakkerRalph Bakker, Alexander BlankHelen BrittonBeatrice BroviaKlaus BurgelNicolas ChengWillemijn De GreefDavid HuyckeBeate KlockmannDaniel KrugerFritz MaierhoferBarbara PaganinSeth PapacRenzo PasqualeRuudt PetersRobert Smit, StudyOPortableLisa Walker and Annamaria Zanella. Thanks Caroline! 

I wonder how she did this year.

Now back to that first quote at the top of the post. Maybe that guy should start thinking about making jewelry. We already do all that too.


But then again, so does Misha.                                       Click on the image above for a link to his website.

design ≥ art ≥ jewelry ????


ellen maurer zilioli/manfred bischoff

I’ve finally started organizing all my photos from Schmuck 2013, so look out! I couldn’t quite decide how I wanted to break it all down this year, so to keep things simple, I will go chronologically based on the order of what I went to see. In comparison to last year, it’s probably much less; in 2012 I left Munich feeling esaurita, an Italian word that basically means, fucking depleted of any physical or emotional energy. A year ago I thought to myself, if I ever have to see another necklace hanging on the god damn wall, i’ll…. Needless to say I overdid it.

To avoid that feeling, I approached things differently and decided to just see what I’d see, meet who I’d meet and enjoy myself. So in that spirit, I’m happy to say that the delightful Ellen Maurer-Zilioli was the very first on my list to see.

The following is the blurb I wrote for Current Obsession Magazine’s Schmuck Guide (MORE ON THAT SOON!!):

From Brescia, Italy, Maurer Zilioli Contemporary Arts will be showcasing two artist/goldsmiths deemed legends of the field. The work of Bruno Martinazzi (IT) and Manfred Bischoff (DE) converge on grounds beyond that of noble material preference, but also through their shared geographical territory and subtle reference points. Turin-born Martinazzi inherited a devotion to Italy’s visual history, while Bischoff’s references are chosen and interpreted more freely. Dr. Ellen Maurer-Zilioli, gallerist and president of MZ Contemporary Arts, comments on the pair: “For all this complex artistic directionality, what ultimately emerges into the focus of perception are idiosyncratic pieces of jewellery, bearing witness to an irresistibly fragile yet stunningly evident beauty that is on occasion presented with an absurd or ironic twist.”

The exhibition will boast a perfectly digestible amount of work between the two artists. If you’re new to contemporary jewellery, be sure to stop here at the very least (!); it’s a prerequisite to what else is out there, a must see, contemporary jewellery 101, if you will. And the best part is that the exhibition is hosted by the contemporary art gallery, Kunstbüro Reillplast, representing a school of young, but very able artists. CO is excited to see what kind of fresh, new-art eyeballs will land on this work consequently. Maurer Zilioli always aims to bridge the gap between contemporary jewellery and contemporary art; after all, the gallery doubles as a Cultural Association aimed to do to just that.

ellen maurer zilioli/manfred bischoff

The lovely lady herself.

maurer zilioli/babetto

Ellen had some other goodies laying around that weren’t part of the exhibition, like this brooch by Giampaolo Babetto.

ellen maurer zilioli/babetto

This one too…
manfred bischoff

Manfred Bischoff’s golden masterpieces

Unfortunately I got a little sidetracked and forgot to take a photo of my faaaavorite piece of all time, The Madona del Parto, which was inspired by Piero della Francesca’s fresco of the pregnant Virgin in Monterchi, Italy, which I recently visited. Here’s a photo of the piece I stole from the website of the Isabella Stuart Gardner Musuem (Boston, MA), where in 2002, Bischoff had an exhibition.


piero della francesca

Saturday the 9th of June marked the inauguration of 4 Padovani e un Torinese, presented by Maurer Zilioli Contemporary Arts. A humble space in the center of the small and beautiful northern Italian town of Brescia, the gallery is a rare dose of contemporary culture, currently housing what I’ll call today’s traditional in Italian contemporary jewelry and sculpture.

The Padovan representatives were Giampaolo Babetto, Graziano Visintin, Renzo Pasquale and Annamaria Zanella, Bruno Martinazzi from Torino; the five artisti-orafi are legends in the field for those that don’t know. Some of the artists from Padova showcased new works with recognizable or iconic pieces also mixed throughout the gallery. Framed drawings from the research stages of their processes were also hung, acting as their own strong and singular works while simultaneously welcoming the viewer into each artistic process. For me this addition was quite the bonus and pulled the show together by adding substance to the singularity of each sculptural piece. Perhaps it could be even more substantial to outsider perspectives; the drawings act as indicators to thought, research and thorough investigation that suggest the practice of each maker to be similar (if not the same) to methodic visual artists outside of the jewelry sphere.

Pieces by Renzo Pasquale

Pieces of jewelry and drawings were not the only works presented. Works by Zanella and Pasquale took shape in much larger forms, a departure from the formal scale limitations of jewelry objects. Pasquale’s clear acrylic sculptures can be seen as a natural shift, having been known to integrate the material into his previous works in jewelry. Zanella implements a material shift as well as a scale shift in her larger work on display. This literal transition (past brooches take on the exact same formal qualities, Cuore Bionico, 1995) begs the question of whether there is a true difference between what is known as sculpture and certain works in contemporary jewelry like what is seen in this exhibition. The Italian goldsmith/artists are particularly known for their sculptural ties through their tendencies and devotion to geometric abstraction and minimal languages. And although this particular exhibition is at first glance heavily tied to the jewelry world, it doesn’t mean that it’s an entirely complete assessment. Maurer Zilioli after all, is a contemporary art gallery (and also a cultural organization), a bridge builder of sorts, promoting the work in the jewelry field in hopes to give it a higher consideration in the art world. Has it worked?

Sculptures by Pasquale

Sculpture by Zanella

Drawings by Babetto and sculpture by Zanella

While in Brescia I was warmly greeted by Ellen Maurer and Claudio Zilioli and was able to chat with them about the liminal role their gallery plays between the jewelry and fine art world. Although there are no hierarchical distinctions between form and medium in their minds, the majority of Zilioli’s exhibitions are not necessarily related to contemporary works in jewelry. In fact, few of their past exhibitions have actually combined jewelry to visual arts directly, noting Piccole Sculture (with Peter Skubic, Franz Hitzler, Valeriano Trubbiani, Therese Hilbert, Bruny Sartori, and Bruno Martinazzi), and Gente di Mare (David Bielander and Michelle Taylor) as two examples within the last year. A more impressive example of integration can be seen in one of their Schmuck exhibitions in Munich last March with artists Elisabeth Altenburg (Füll RAUM) and Wolfgang Rahs (Projektor Oben Often). When they do have shows exclusively devoted to jewelry, Maurer stated that there is wind of disinclination blowing from certain contemporary art audiences. In their minds, jewelry is separate and is not art, maybe even less than or on rare occasions equal to it.

Drawings by Babetto


Graziano Visintin




Babetto – oldies but goodies


Bruno Martinazzi





It’s easy to see that all the works (with the exception of the bigger sculpture pieces) were under glass. Although still well within the realm of “our kind of jewelry” (or contemporary art jewelry… you pick the name), the work coming from the Padovani (and from Martinazzi) is still largely and willingly bound to a material tradition so precious that the pieces really can’t be anywhere other then under the safey of a vitrine. Most the time the pieces are, indeed, made of gold.  Beyond this material fundamental there also lies the considerations for which the pieces are successful singular works, which at the end of the day is slightly more independent of a necessity for the piece to be seen on the body than other categories of contemporary jewelry. In this case, with this type of sculptural work, is the body factor just an encouraged bonus?

To better illustrate what I mean, here is a version of the Jewelry as Art Venn Diagram posted under the COSMOLOGY section at the very top of the page where I have isolated the Italian artists in order to see how they approach their work. Almost all of the artists are categorized in the Jewelry as Sculptural Object sphere (click on cosmology to see the full context).

The glass vitrine continues to be utilized as one of the only practical modes for display when focusing especially on this type of contemporary jewelry. The eye can still move around the object (although it’s a bit limited) and if in a gallery, there is indeed a gallerist available to show you the piece more intimately so that the light may move through it and the tactile physical experience appreciated. When asked, Ellen said ever so fittingly that the most important action to take in the promotion of contemporary jewelry was to simply wear the work. “I really insist on this fact. We need collectors. We need them to wear it. You have… well, you have one thing (addressing me). You don’t have anything (addressing Graziano Visintin). We need people to wear jewelry, because most people don’t wear jewelry. This is one of the most important media for propaganda. Absolutely.”

At the opening Ellen could be seen wearing a very large and very gold necklace by Bruno Martinazzi. At Maurer Zilioli, jewelry ≥ visual art.

Ellen Mauer Zilioli (in blue), Annamaria Zanella (to her right) and Renzo Pasquale

download the press release <——

Schmuck is a bit incestuous. Perhaps that can be said about the contemporary jewelry world at large. I tend to describe this world as a small, uncharted island. Indeed it is a very beautiful island where the weather can’t be beat, everybody is known and liked (nobody would dare say a bad thing about any one), and very few really want to leave. Whether that is because no one wants to build a bridge off of the island is a debate of its own. This all might be fine, after all, island life is quite delightful. But if no one crosses the surrounding waters, can new visitors from far away places ever really be expected, or welcome? Or can they even find it? This gets interesting when considering all the collective hype about the so-called ‘promotion of contemporary jewelry.’ But to whom are we promoting exactly, other than to fellow islanders?

Is anybody listening other than those who are doing the saying?

As I propose this question, I don’t even quite know to whom I am writing this blog post. Of course the islanders know what I’m talking about, as that’s how they all knew to attend/participate in Schmuck in the first place. But I hold my interest in the ways that the islanders are trying to engage a wider public or appeal to a larger audience, to those that have perhaps never heard of the island at all. What do –let’s say, foreigners—need to know? What do they know already? This to me seems impossible to gauge yet it is clear that it ain’t much. And what does the island have to offer to foreigners belonging to the fine art world?  At the risk of exhausting an already mediocre analogy, the island of contemporary jewelry needs to think more about the benefits of tourism.


I had the pleasure of running into Dr. Corinna Rösner, art historian and chief curator of the Die Neue Sammlung (International Design Museum) at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich while browsing the main Schmuck exhibition at the Handwerkmesse. She believes in the importance of the museum’s collection, a distinct entity from collections such as Pforzheim and specialized contemporary jewelry galleries. She has described work in the field as possessing “artistic will” deserving of a stronger relationship to fine art, and architecture. In the Jewellery Talks film (see in previous post —> here), Dr. Rösner expresses a need of looking to the future in the field despite the reputation the museum has to look back on history. How does the Pinakothek acknowledge this balance in a field relatively undervalued in the history of fine art (as opposed to applied arts)?

Here is the museum’s statement of concept:

With four major museums presenting art, works on paper, architecture and design under one roof, the pinakothek der moderne is one of the world’s greatest collections of 20th and 21st century art. The open and spacious building invites visitors to explore, to discover connections and gain new und surprising insights.

Perfect. No outward categorical discrepancies here.  Jewelry as a category is listed under their permanent exhibitions (which means it can be seen at all times), as the Danner Rotunda gallery space is home to works by more than one-hundred international jewelry artists, with Hermann Jünger, Otto Künzli as past curators (Karl Fritsch is the current). Although the Pinakothek has showcased solo shows for contemporary jewelry artists like Giampoalo Babetto, Peter Skubic, and Robert Smit (future) alongside the likes of Donald Judd, Barbara Kruger and Olaf Nicolai just to name a few, the Danner Rotunda collection acts more as a historical summary rather than an image of the future. Imagine putting 100-200 paintings from a fifty-year period into one room. It’s true that jewelry’s history of conceptuality is not lengthy which means the community is much smaller (as are the pieces themselves), but still we have no categorical or artistic distinction between the individual works beyond that of the j-word. Is this fair? Although it pains me to express negativity to this undeniably wonderful collection in a real art museum, we do need to take it a step further. It’s not enough just to have the jewelry in a museum, even if the pieces do receive new sets of eyes because of it; the work needs to be treated equally with the same sense of criticality, selection, explanation and artistic representation. I have already expressed my feelings toward the Ädellab – The State of Things exhibition, also at the Pinakothek; you can read more —-> here.

Dr. Rösner and I only spoke briefly about the Pinakothek’s four independent museums, hers being the Die Neue Sammlung which represents design, jewelry and applied arts. Her curatorial position remains distinct from the fine art department, architecture department and graphic arts department, each with their very own directors.  She spoke of the independence as a crucial element to the cooperation of each department, each with their own exhibition, collection and curating policies. I asked her if she valued then a distinction between the good work within the contemporary jewelry world being separate of what is considered to be contemporary art. “Yeah because it is not the same, although there are relations of course. So the big chance is to have it under one roof, but to have each piece from the museum to have its own power. Each director is fighting for his part.”

I then asked about potential overlap between departments, if there would ever be an exhibition that merged contemporary painting with contemporary jewelry for example, but Rösner could only speak to hope. She indicated a conservative nature of the fine arts department in regard to such collaboration, yet did say that a curator from the fine art department of the Neues Museum in Nuremberg (there are two departments, one for contemporary art and the other for modern design) is much more open as she is from a younger generation. Here’s a statement from the Neues:

Design and art are given an equal weighting and enter into a dialog – the idea of consistently adhering to such a policy represents a worldwide first and sets standards for the future.

Rösner told me that the museum has already hosted artists like Karl Fritsch, Lisa Walker and Annamaria Zanella. But more importantly, she mentioned that the contemporary art curator at the Neues, who I believe is Melitta Kliege, actually purchased a ring by Karl Fritsch for her own collection. This minimal transaction is a monumental sign that the overlap is in sight, at least here in Germany. “It’s like an invasion, working underground… it’s a process. One has to be patient and build the next step and then build the next step,” something Rösner says that can grow with the kind of energy felt at Schmuck.

Rösner reminded me that other big time museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York do, indeed, have contemporary jewelry collections, and the Met’s curator, Jane Adlin (associate curator for design and architecture in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art), did in fact make the trip to Munich (Rösner had actually shown her around that very day). The Met’s website boasts a searchable database for pieces in the collection, however currently it is an underdeveloped educational tool if one doesn’t know what one is looking for. The contemporary work is sadly lumped with the historical and precious pieces, even though there is a clear knowledge of separation from past to contemporary (for example, read this bit from AJF —-> here). When comparing the Met to the Pinakothek, surely Munich takes the cake for better framing and acknowledgement of the field’s innovative potential, speaking more to a conceptual history than merely that of jewelry’s reputation as supplemental or decorative. Let’s also not forget that Dr. Rösner had to remind me the Met even had the collection, as they usually only devote one or two pieces to floor space (correct me if I’m wrong). In the Met’s defense, there are about 16 other departments to fight with for the floor space unlike the Pinakothek’s four, not to mention that most of the Met’s collection was donated just a few years ago. Step by step.

Bettina Speckner showcased at Schmuck

Jamie Bennett, Bettina Speckner, Tracy Steepy

Peter Skubic at the beer hall, slinging some of his pieces over pretzels (out of a tupperware !)

getting friendly, Wolfgang Rahs in the background

everyone was glad to see the Scmuck Bar



Rita and Andrea Marcangelo are the owners and operators of Alternatives, a contemporary jewelry gallery in Rome, Italy. This conversation took place on the 18th of December, 2011. For more info about the gallery, click —–> here

Kellie: Let’s start with a bit about the gallery. You have been here for about 15 years now?

Rita: 15 years now, yes.

K: This is a unique space for Rome. Since its opening, how has the gallery changed? Is there a difference in the people you meet who are coming in?

R: Well yes, in the beginning they were quite shocked by what they could see because it was 15 years ago—things were quite different. What’s changed in the mean time I think is the general outlook on materials, because of the fact that a lot of industrial jewelers are now incorporating steel and things like that. People have got more used to seeing alternative materials in jewelry, and so this has kind of made them less hostile to it because of what we’re doing here. So it was quite difficult in the beginning. People were like, “Oh! Are these for sale?”

K: Sure, I imagine because this kind of gallery is so unique, when people walk in thinking it’s a shop, they must be sort of confused. Is your gallery now more of a destination?

R: Yes, definitely yes. We have a clientele of people who know they can find certain things here.

K: This is quite a gem, it really is.

R: Thank you.

K: I was surprised to find a relatively large contemporary art scene here in Rome that I don’t think many people come to the city for. How would you say the gallery is connected to the larger contemporary art sphere here, or what is your relationship to other mainstream contemporary art galleries in the city?

R: Oh, none whatsoever… in the sense that this field here is quite, not only in Italy but worldwide, is quite apart from what art galleries do in general. They’re sort of parallel; they don’t seem to ever meet, if you see what I mean.

 K: Are you interested in trying to converge, or getting those people in here to see the work in a similar way?

R: Yes, yes it would be interesting. It would be interesting to how the public would respond to—and in a way we have done that by taking part in Collect in London, which is at the Saatchi Gallery—it’s more for a public who is looking to collect this sort of jewelry, people with more of an open mind. It’s very difficult I would say, Andrea do you have anything to add to that?

Andrea: It’s for the public that is looking for art…

R: Art, let’s say, the world we are in, art jewelry, and, you know, real art as it were—they don’t seem to mix much.

A: Not very much. Not very much because the public, the customer, or the collector, is quite separate. It is quite difficult to mix—the people usually buy glass or ceramics in this way.

K: Do you think it is a reflection of people being unaware that this sort of art form exists?

R: Well, I think it’s both that, obviously. To a large extent, it’s the fact that they are unaware of it. But it’s not just that. I think it’s also the fact that the art world has its circuit of critics and there’s a market there, whereas this sort of art, let’s say, if we can call it that, doesn’t have a market for these sort of things. You could even be one of the best like Babetto or Skubic or any of those, but your pieces will have a market when you’re buying—I mean they have their price on them when you’re buying them, but if you were to resell them, unless you’re selling them to someone in this sort of field who knows about what the value is, then you’re not going to be able to remarket them at the same price.

A: It’s not an investment for them.

R: It’s not considered an investment from their point of view, because of the fact that there isn’t a market as such, an official market. Whereas in the art world, if you’re a top name then you’re going to be able to sell well, and the people buying, thinking of it in terms of also an investment… apart from the pleasure of actually having the work of art in your home or wherever…

K: So it’s almost like a separate but quasi-equal sort of thing.

R: Yes, exactly. It’s like a railroad track.

A: They’re parallel. In fact in the business sense, it’s very difficult for them to cross. In the other sense, the artist sense, it’s completely different kind of crossover. There’s a big difference [between the two]; the business sense is parallel, but there are two different markets.

R: But also I’ve seen a lot of resistance, if I can call it that, on behalf of art galleries, as it were, to let this sort of art into their galleries.

K: It’s incredibly apparent. I’m interested in finding people and galleries that will take this kind of work, or at least for them to start thinking about a crossover, and I think what has to happen first is people creating new spaces for that. A lot of my thinking is about how to do it. What you are saying about the different markets and investment aspect of it all is interesting when you think of it this way.

R: Yeah. I think that counts a lot.

A: Jewelry is also a used— they become used pieces.

R: You actually wear them and use them.

A: Yeah, it’s a consumer piece. You buy, you wear, you destroy… and there is not quite a long term that you really can use it necessarily.

R: It depends on the material also.

A: It is an art of time, it’s a short art.

R: A short-term art.

A: Exactly. A sculpture, you put it in the corner and it can stay there for a thousand years. But jewelry as a piece of art, you wear, you destroy.

R: I’ve many times bought things that have just broken or just disintegrated. I had a—I have a very beautiful bracelet in plastic and it’s coming apart, I’ve tried to fix it but…

A: If you take this bracelet, who knows in 33 years, the plastic maybe will…

R: Right, it won’t last.

A: This is another unique aspect of the jewelry art, the art jewelry.

K: This may be a loaded question. How do you, as a gallerist, see jewelry as an expressive form of art? I have this theory, greater than or equal to, and sometimes I see the potential of jewelry to be greater than because of some of the things we’ve been talking about—how you live with it and use it— and I would say, as a concept, that is far greater than just hanging something on the wall and having it there forever.

R: Well I wouldn’t say it’s greater than or less than; it’s one of the many forms of art to me anyway, so I value it equally. To me, it might be more valuable because I might get more enjoyment out of actually wearing a piece of jewelry, but not necessarily I think. I would like to consider it as I would a beautiful sculpture that I look at in my house, that I enjoy looking at. I might get less enjoyment, because I’m not actually physically touching it and wearing it, but I would put them on the same level, whereas I think a lot of people wouldn’t.

K. Absolutely. Do you think that in Italy, versus other countries in Europe and America certainly, there is a bigger community of people who understand that? How do you gauge the awareness of jewelry’s artistic value?

R: Compared to other countries?

K: Yes, sure.

R: Well I think compared to for example, Holland and Germany, there’s less awareness here. Because I think an important factor is that there aren’t any museums here in this country dedicated to this sort of jewelry, whereas in other countries like the States and Northern Europe, you get museums that are totally, or not totally but partially at least, dedicated to this sort of art. Whereas in Italy, there’s just a small section in Palazzo Pitti in Florence…and that’s about it. And so you don’t get much public awareness, because I think it’s important for the public to actually see this sort of jewelry in a museum to be able to associate the idea that it is a work of art. And if you don’t, then you just see it in a gallery, you know, as if it were a piece of clothing or any other object you see around in shops, and it’s not quite enough, especially because there aren’t that many galleries in Italy anyway. We are one of the very few. It’s very hard. And as a gallery, you don’t get any funding or help from the state anyway, so it’s all up to private individuals.

K: It seems almost strange because of the historical and cultural significance of jewelry in Italy’s past, like the Padova School [at the Instituto Pietro Selvatico, Padua] and the artists coming out of Italy. Maybe Italy doesn’t see it but there are artists in Italy that do see it. It’s interesting how culturally undervalued it is; it continues to exist under the radar. I know that in Padova, there are cultural events that do showcase these goldsmiths and artists, but it is of course, very regionalized.

R: Have you seen the exhibition on at the moment in Padova?

K: Not yet, no.

R: All right, I’ll give you an initiation afterwards. Remind me, it’s a very nice exhibition, in a nice place where they usually hold their exhibitions.

[The exhibition is called Pensieri Preziosi 7 at the Oratorio di San Rocco, and deals with languages and trends in contemporary Italian jewelry]

K: It’s so strange, that sort of divide though, because it is so prevalent to a degree there, and we all know it exists of course. What is it going to take for the work from Padova to receive some more historical recognition, in Italy and internationally?

R: Well, Padova?

K: Yes, and Italian contemporary jewelry in general.

R: Well unfortunately, the situation in Italy at the moment has changed for the worst. Because from last year was it, that the schooling laws have been changed?

A: Yes, the school system has been reformed. For example, the old school dedicated to jewelry, to traditional jewelry—

R: To jewelry making, they actually…

A: Yes, the actual Padova School… in fact they are finished. They’ve become only an artistic school, not professional. And so they lost all their workshops and—

R: Yes, they have a lot less training hours now, so that’s going to change some things. Historically, what has come from the school of Padova has been internationally recognized. You’ve probably seen the book on the school of Padova [The Padua School, Contemporary Jewelry, Graziella Folchini Grassetto], there are a couple of important publications. So it has internationally been recognized as the most important school in Italy for that sort of jewelry, and historically also. But I think the future will be quite bleak from that point of view.

K: Why do you think there is a lack of historical publications that document the evolution of the medium’s creative reality? If there’s no money going into this type of schooling in Italy anymore, then I suppose there certainly wouldn’t be any money for research either.

R: Yes, that’s right. You mean in Italy?

K: In Italy, or even as a reflection from other places internationally on what was happening in Italy. As I try and do research on the history of contemporary jewelry, there really is nothing.

R: There’s not much, no.

K: Like this book, it’s all sort of self-published writings, and very few articles. There’s no art history literature about what’s happened in the field over the last 40- 50 years, there’s just nothing.

R: There’s hardly anything.

A: There’s absolutely nothing because we don’t have contemporary jewelry culture.

R: Also, another problem is we don’t have a craft council here in Italy, whereas other countries do. And something like a craft council or an organization like that would in a way, invest in research on this sort of thing and also encourage publications to take notice. There’s nothing whatsoever unfortunately, and everything is as you said— this book has been published by one of the galleries in Padova, and I guess she got no funding for it.

A: In fact this is a big problem, because people recognize the beauty of this kind of jewelry, but they don’t understand the value. This is absolutely different from the other kinds of jewelry [conventional], but because there isn’t a culture around the value of the craft, they don’t understand the aspect of time as value. Work made of paper, for example; how long it takes to create a brooch out of paper or with other kinds of material.  And this is the biggest difficulty we have. If we put in the window, a piece made from plastic, what appears to be the difference between it as custom jewelry or ordinary jewelry?

R: I mean we have one of those, for example, very big pencil necklaces [Maria Cristina Bellucci] at the back, and it’s around something like 500 euro. And someone the other day said, “500 euro!?” But they don’t understand that making it, apart from the idea and what’s behind it, but actually making it probably took her about three or 4 days; you know, cutting up all the pencils, putting them together, drilling them…

K: For us when we look at anything, all we see is time. It’s hard to understand that people don’t see it.

R: Right. It’s not so much that they don’t see it, but they’re not prepared to pay that much for it. Probably because things have changed worldwide, I mean you know, clothing for very little because it’s made in China, and you can have the same sort of thing that once was— I mean if you think about it in a way, what we’re doing is a little, it’s going against, not against, but…I can’t find the words today. It’s contra corrente, come se dice in Inglese? It’s going a little away from what the rest of the world is doing. Everything is becoming manufactured, and we’re going the other way.

K: Well that’s the best part about it.

R: But it’s difficult in the world we live in today, to actually let people understand this.

A: The world has changed completely in the past 10 years… I mean people don’t want to pay for the idea, people only want to pay for the object. People think now to to pay less for everything. You can go around and buy anything you want for a very little bit of money, or in installments… so now why would someone also pay for an idea?

R: I mean we get this all the time. Somebody came in yesterday looking for a pair of earrings. She found just what she wanted and said, “Oh, they’re beautiful! How much are they… oh, but that’s too much! I mean there’s no gold, there’s no… why am I paying all this?” And it’s like trying to make people understand all the time, and it’s just so difficult!

K: I can’t even imagine!

A: Do you know Ikea? Their advertisement says, design furniture, without the price of design. So you have people thinking like this.

R: And that’s what people would like to have probably, from this sort of jewelry. Jewelry with this sort of appeal and design, but an Ikea sort of price.

K: I am sure it must be so frustrating.

R: It is, it is.

K: I would just love to witness a whole day of this, I would love it. So do you think that maybe if there were future crossover with this kind of work in a museum for example, people would start to understand that there’s more value than material?

R: I definitely think that helps, because when we get people in from Holland for example, they are a lot more willing to pay more money and they’re not even questioning the materials or you know, you can tell they have a completely different attitude from people here. It’s been a very big struggle for us since the beginning. It’s obviously better than it was, but we’re having to explain all the time and having to—whereas when we go to London for Collect, it’s a lot different there as well. You just get another sort of response from the public, and I think it’s due to the fact that they see a lot more of it around and so it’s accepted.

K: Are there people that may not know anything when first coming into the gallery that, let’s say, open their eyes after you explain a little about the work? Is there education going on?

R: Oh yes, yes. That happens a lot. We try our best to educate people.

K: We’ve been talking a little bit about the “Italian awareness.” You were involved in starting the ACG (Associazione Gioiello Contemporaneo), correct?

R: Yes, that’s right.

K: There are a few more too—the Fondazione Cominelli in Cisano di San Felice, a more widely spread cultural and artistic foundation. There is also Preziosa in Florence, presented annually by Le Arti Orafe, and a relatively new collective also in Florence, the 1×1 Collective, formed my a handful of young artists aimed in promoting contemporary work. On the AGC’s website it’s written that it was created “due to problems specific to the world of contemporary jewelry.” What are the problems?

R: Well the main problems in Italy were that the actual jewelers working in this field were very isolated; people from the north weren’t connecting to people from the south, and so I think the whole idea of the association, obviously apart from one day being able to reach a more general public and wider public which is what is happening with Cominelli actually, but I think the main idea [with the AGC] initially was to get these people together so that being together, means being able to do more. Forming a platform, forming a community I think is important. Because if you’re on your own, you’re not going to get anywhere, do anything, so that has helped a lot. I think it’s helped a lot of people in actually developing their actual work. And connecting to other people means being able to do exhibitions together and things like that. Yeah, that’s helped. Also the association is now forming a permanent collection.

K: Really! That is so exciting.

R: Yes, and it’s on show on the moment actually, in Salò [in Brescia at the Palazzo Municipale]. Did you go and see the Cominelli Awards?

K: No, unfortunately. When was it?

R: Beginning of September.

K: Yes, I arrived in Italy that week so it would have been impossible.

R: So yes, that’s now started, and there are already 38 pieces in the collection but it’s going to grow year by year.

K: Where will it be kept?

R: At the moment it’s near Salò, in this Fondazione Cominelli, in Lake Garda. That’s the actual place it’s kept at the moment, and then we’ll see in the future.

K: That is very exciting. You spoke about Italy’s own problems concerning contemporary jewelry, and I have a more general theory as to the bigger issue of overall acceptance of the field. I really think much of it has to do with language and semantics. I always talk about jewelry in the way that the word jewelry itself, is it’s own problem.

R: Right, it is.

K: People tend think of it as so many other things before they think of it is art or artistic. And so even talking about it with someone like you, someone that knows about it, just how we choose or what do we choose to call ourselves is complicated and convoluted. What am I, am I an artist jeweler? Am I a studio jeweler, a contemporary jeweler? Do I make art jewelry? Am I making wearable sculpture? It’s a really confusing classification, marginalized in the sense that it is also “craft-based.” But even if we claim or accept that we are partially craftspeople, the good work is far too unique and deep-rooted to be limited as such. None of these titles seem to communicate what exactly we are doing.

R: It can’t be seen just as craft. I personally hate these terms and it’s just so—if you choose one, you’re sort of stuck in that. Design jewelry, art jewelry, why give it a label? But I think it’s probably necessary because these words exist.

A: Or maybe not. Maybe it’s not necessary to classify.

R: It’s the same in Italian, it’s exactly the same in Italian. In England, they call themselves designer-makers.

K: Oh wow, singer-songwriters.

R: Jewellery designer-makers.

A: Because now, for artists in the fine art world now, they don’t too much actually make their very own art pieces anymore. Like they’re designers and somebody else makes the work for them.

R: So it’s more of an idea, really, and actually made by a craftsman.

A: In the Renaissance, the difference between the arts and craft didn’t exist. It was exactly the same.

R: Yes, after the Renaissance it separated.

A: The artists continued to make their work in the Renaissance. But now, artists just think about the work, and they don’t make it.

K: I’ve been having conversations with my advisor here– she is an art critic, curator, historian…among other things, about the potential of jewelry artists penetrating the contemporary art world, or making work that in one way or another fulfills those requirements. In so many words, she expressed a widespread view that unfortunately, in their world, makers cannot be thinkers. She suggested teaming up with a contemporary visual artist and making their work for them, because like you both said, that is what is happening now, artists outsourcing their work.

By this logic, artists can make jewelry—or artists can have jewelry made and have it be art, but for we who make jewelry, it doesn’t get to be art because we are the makers.

R: That’s right.

To them, the paths we chose are about making, not about thinking, but I don’t think is necessarily so agreed with anymore… well at least I hope.

R: No, I don’t think so either. It is discouraging.

K: Some days I think that I would really love this conceptual jewelry or research-based jewelry to be considered as contemporary art, without having to ask questions about what it’s called or what we should call it. But other days I just want to just love jewelry for what it is and appreciate it for being its own entity, so as far as that goes, I’m trying to understand what matters. Would you like your gallery to be more widely considered to be a place for contemporary art? Or do you value that it is jewelry in any sense of the word?

R: It’s a difficult question. It’s a difficult question in the sense that obviously, I’d love this sort of jewelry to have a wider public in a way. In that sense, I would like it to become something on a wiser scale. But other than that, it’s fine by me. In fact, I’m quite disturbed about this art world rating us as a B-class. It’s quite disturbing, and I don’t find any less pleasure in looking at these things than I would in looking at something they consider art. In a way I’m quite proud of what I do.

 I think that’s basically all that worries me, trying to get more people to actually understand this type of jewelry. But other than that, I’m really quite pleased with the fact that it even, you know– of what it is, of what it represents in its own rite. I’m quite happy with that. It’s just being able to get more people to appreciate it and understand it without it having to be such an effort.

K: Exactly. I have his sort of spiel now. When people realize that I make jewelry they usually ask me, “Oh, so do you want to work for Tiffany’s?” or something, and then I have a 20-minute explanation of how jewelry can be this and can be that… and after I go through it all, a lot of people had never heard of it before and think what we are doing is just so amazing and new.

A good friend of mine is a recent graduate at Brown in contemporary art history and she really wants to be professor. I’ve given her the spiel, and fascinated, she began trying to look into it herself from a historical perpective. Of course she can’t find anything like we talked about earlier, but her fabulous idea is now to work some of this jewelry history into future curriculum, so people can actually learn about it. If you’re in an art history class, chances are you won’t argue with your professor that this stuff isn’t “real art…” it’s very idealisitic but an avenue we can begin to think about.

R: Andrea went to the same sort of school as the School of Padova here in Rome, and he knew nothing of that.

A: Even the university in Padova, for example, the art university, they don’t know anything about the Padova School.

R: It’s incredible.

A: It’s in the same very small place, but they don’t know anything. They think, “contemporary jewelry? What’s this?” They live here! And they don’t even know they have the biggest contemporary jewelry school around.

K: For my grant I had to write a very specific project outline and I titled it, Past and Present: Italian Contemporary Jewelry as Art; I had this idea that everyone here knew about this world, so this is a bit of a surprise! I guess they don’t. I feel lucky to know about it. Even at RISD, where the Jewelry + Metalsmithing program is adopted from a European art academy, I had to come to Italy and meet an American art critic outside the program to learn about it. And so even going to a specialized school that values conceptual development and research-oriented work, if they don’t tell you, who will? I’m starting to realize that perhaps there are not as many people interested in this, really.

R: Not many people interested… I don’t know. I guess you’re right in a way, but why? The question is why. Is it just a money-based factor, or is it… I don’t know.

A: For what?

R: The fact that there isn’t a lot of people interested in this type of jewelry, this world, that there isn’t much interest about all this. Is it an economic factor or… I don’t know.

A: Because it is very difficult; you take a sculpture, you put it in the corner, it’s responsible for itself. If you buy jewelry and wear it, you are responsible. But it’s very different from dress or clothing, or anything else you put on. Because with jewelry, you bring a very strong message. Some people dress horribly! But the jewelry is absolutely stronger than the dress.

R: What he’s trying to say is that jewelry makes a statement, in a way. This sort of jewelry would make a statement on who you are or on what sort of person you are.

K: When we start talking about the fundamentals of what a jewelry object is, it’s surprising to me that it is not valued conceptually. You start to think about the sociologic aspects. For example, you’re wearing a brooch. Who gave it to you? When do you wear it? Where do you put it at night? How do you live with it? I see it on you and now we’re talking about it and having a personal interaction, and to me, that is incredible. My mother is a flight attendant. I saw her a couple weeks ago and she had found a ring in the bathroom and gave it to me. It was just some cheap, fake diamond sort of thing, and I put it on and all I kept thinking about was who did it belong to before? What life did it live?

I also always think about jewelry as a social signifier and that as its own concept. How do you know a king is a king? And then of course, there are those trying to transcend the value of material—all of these qualities are so rich and fundamentally conceptual, to me anyway. We always have to deal with socioeconomics of jewelry, we always have to deal with the monetary value, and they’re relative limits that we get to work within, just like any other artistic mediums with limits to work within. And so I’m trying to find artists working this way that address these things, not so much making jewelry about jewelry, but those trying to make a larger comment on its role in the world. To me that is such an amazing concept. It’s so obvious, but people just don’t think about it.

A: There is another aspect; there is no money in the contemporary jewelry field. There is in the industrial field, whereas in the research field, there is much less. No one invests in the new models or new ideas of jewelry, it is very conservative. It’s mistaken from traditional jewelry. Now for example, things have changed very quickly. The traditional jewelry concept is quite finished for western society. Now the jewelry has become very cheap. If you see all the iron jewelry around…

R: The industries just don’t invest in research at all.

K: What else. We can talk about who you’ve had in the gallery this year, or who either of you value as am innovative maker/thinker in the field, I’d be curious to know.

R: Well, for sure I think Ted Noten is definitely to be considered. I mean he, I think, is a typical example of somebody who could easily be in the art world.

A: Absolutely for sure.

R: More, maybe so, because at times I think some of his pieces are probably even not wearable.

K: He’s an excellent example, someone who figured out a secret formula.

R: Yes. Who else can we mention? There are so many people.

A: Ruddt Peters.

R: Ruudt Peters, yes, he’s another one. He’s very, very active. He changes his collections every year or two and he’s always coming up with new ideas.

A: The Dutch designers—

R: Yes, Holland.

A: —they are freer, probably because they lost the idea of having to wear the jewelry.

R: They’re not so preoccupied with what wearing jewelry means, so it becomes something else. But not necessarily at times, it’s still on the border of jewelry and sculpture, I would say.

A: It’s an everyday fight with the wearable concept. This is a wonder of contemporary jewelry.

R: And obviously there are more well known artists who are making jewelry all the time and have had a lot of success, more or less doing what they’ve always done from the very beginning.

A: But this is our business, because if you don’t push the concept over the fence, why would you create new jewelry or continue to make traditional jewelry?

R: Going back to Padova, why do you think they stayed with gold, do you have any ideas about that?

K: That’s one of the questions I’m trying to answer.

R: Right, I was wondering whether you had any answers from anyone explaining that.

K: All I can say really, is that it is just so very much Italian. I’ve been looking for clues within Italian art history about how Italy has been able to summarize itself. For example, what did Italy take from its rediscovered past, let’s say, during neoclassicism? Then I think of rational architecture and the attempt to create a national aesthetic identity from the past; architects were looking at the way imagined geometric buildings and structures were rendered in 14th century paintings, as well as simple Italian rural architecture… and then you skip to the 1950’s and 60’s, when these goldsmiths out of Padova started making innovative work, and I really can’t say yet how much of it was a response to modernism or how much of it was uniquely Italian, surely the maintenance of gold as a material parallels Italy’s value of the past.

What do you think?

R: Well the idea of Mario Pinton who was the—

A: Of the Padova School.

R: [To Andrea] No, now we are talking about the Padova School and the masters and why their aesthetic was so geometric…

Gold has also been the traditional, let’s say, material in Italy, and I think the idea was that of continuing with that material.

A: We’ve grown up with the gold, and we’re continuing in the field.

R: It’s what they knew how to do.

A: It’s our culture.

R: It’s the culture.

K: The Italian trend is maintaining a cultural tie.

R: What they tried to do was to actually push the boundaries of gold to see what could actually come out of carrying on with that same material; I think that’s what was in their concept. And the fact that most of the works are very minimalist, apart from maybe the initial pieces—

A: A part is because it’s part of a tradition, but on the other hand, the use of gold is an intention of the artist. The gold gives the work more power, so if you take a very simple shape for example, a simple square ring [points to a ring by Giampaolo Babetto], if you know it’s in gold, it’s a little bit different. There is more respect, and that, for example, the very simple shape and the very minimalist form could make them very important objects in gold.

K: This reminds me of engravers during the neoclassic era. For something to have been engraved in that manner, it was a very finite and precise decision of what to render, extremely selective and tedious.  This has the same sense to it; if one decides to “just” make a cube, a perfect cube and it is made in gold, one can’t quite argue with that. It really highlights the decision and the choice of the artist.

A: The decision to use different material is absolutely important…for the color, but it’s not only the color— it was a way to convince people that it was a real piece of art. People used to think of jewelry as only in gold. If it’s not in gold it’s not jewelry.

R: A lot of people still think that.

A: It can be a different shape or of a different idea but in gold; it’s still jewelry. People may think, “I don’t understand, but that is jewelry because it’s gold.”

K: You’re right.

R: I mean for 1979, these rings were probably something very, very innovative. I mean, you just think of it as a normal ring now, but you have to think of when it was made [referencing Babetto].

K: I can imagine. I have become quite obsessed with him, I have. I can honestly credit this man for my being here entirely.


Previous recent exhibitions at Alternatives:

Kazumi Nagano / Maria Rosa Franzin – L’insostenibile leggerezza dell’oro (The unbearable lightness of gold) – 10.11-3.12.2011

Michael Becker – The architecture of light – 22.9-15.10.2011

Graziano Visintin – Geometrie Variabili – 7-29.04.2011

 Alternatives Gallery is located on Via d’Ascanio, 19 – Rome

I came across this review on AJF. It’s great. As always, what appears in bold, is worth remembering.
06 September 2011


Damian Skinner

Cindi Strauss (ed). Ornament as Art: Avant-garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection. Houston & Stuttgart: The Museum of Fine Arts & Arnoldsche, 2007.
ISBN 9783897902732

This review was first published in The Journal of Modern Craft, v.3, n.2, July 2010, pp.269-272.

And so here it is, the enormous catalogue to the Helen Williams Drutt collection, acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) in Texas and co-published by that institution and Arnoldsche. Presided over by Cindi Strauss, curator of Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design, the publication is an extraordinary resource, packed full of analysis, images and the tools of art history (biography, bibliography, chronology and exhibition history). Divided into four parts, the book is in some ways a schizophrenic entity, in part an homage to and documentation of Helen Drutt and her collection (and in general the important role of the collector) and in part a scholarly contribution to our knowledge about contemporary jewelry around the world. It is also – and unashamedly – an old-fashioned catalog, featuring a carefully researched checklist of the collection.

Drutt’s contribution to this project is not overlooked. She contributes a somewhat self-serving essay called ‘A Golden Age of Goldsmithing: Four Decades,’ about the importance of collectors and their role as historical caretakers, securing history in danger of being lost by acquiring objects and narratives. Drutt is also interviewed by Strauss, which, while interesting, effectively duplicates and personalizes information we have read before in Drutt’s own text.

While there is much that is impressive here, the title – Ornament as Art – establishes one of the things that remains problematic about this catalog. Jewelry, with the assistance of the concept (and mythology) of the avant-garde, will be transformed into art. As Houston MFA director Peter C. Marzio writes in his foreword, the museum acquired the Drutt collection ‘motivated by the belief that fine art transcends all media and academic classifications.’ ‘The Drutt Collection attacks traditional academic, art-historical categories,’ writes Marzio. Accordingly, ‘This subversive challenge forces us to abandon certain conventional modes of thought and to redefine ideas of sculpture, painting, decorative arts, and so forth.’ Thus, the collection is intended ‘to open up the traditional categories of artistic expression, and to welcome “craft”, “design”, and “jewelry” into the galleries.‘ It’s notable that art is neither mentioned here, nor given speech marks – but of course not, since this is the defining term. Here, jewelry becomes art by ceasing to be jewelry and therefore part of the crafts. Jewelry, it seems, is not subversive enough to tackle the hierarchies of art history, or to affect the automatic assumption of fine art’s primacy.

While it’s common to imagine that the art versus craft debate no longer has relevance, there is still a lack of sophisticated analysis about this issue. This book disappoints because, putting aside the lack of rigor in Marzio’s foreword, the promise and premise of the title is never fully tackled. The major argument about jewelry’s status as art unfolds in Cindi Strauss’s essay ‘Minimalist and Conceptual Tendencies in the Helen Williams Drutt Collection,’ in which Strauss demonstrates how minimalism and conceptual art offer ways to think about a number of jewelers collected by Drutt.

It is nicely done. Strauss notes that the interdisciplinary nature of minimalism and conceptualism made them relevant to jewelry along with other fine art and craft practices. She also saves some agency for the crafts: ‘Many jewelry artists who were active in the major art-making centers and universities during this period also embraced elements of these movements, yet it is incorrect to imply that jewelry artists active between the late 1960s and the 1980s adopted their tenets in a wholesale manner. Rather, they utilized some of the strategies in forging their own artistic identities.’ She rightly suggests that the strategies of both movements hit jewelry as part of a larger shift in the field and that jewelry was restricted in its ability to conform completely to either: ‘Because of its reliance on form and not merely idea, jewelry, whether decorative, sculptural, or born from serious design and intellectual processes, is unable to adopt these strict conditions as defined by [Sol] LeWitt and others. For regardless of artistic or intellectual associations, what sets jewelry apart from other media is that the boundary between the idea, object, and the body cannot be completely separated.’ She demonstrates that Giampaolo Babetto, for example, made jewelry closely aligned with Donald Judd’s sculpture and the work of other American minimalists: ‘Like Judd’s Specific Objects, these three-dimensional works are neither painting nor sculpture (nor jewelry) but rather self-referential works that exemplify seriality.’

And so it continues, with references to David Watkins and Gary Griffin (Minimalism) and Otto Kunzli (Conceptualism). Strauss concludes, ‘The intersection of Minimalist and Conceptual strategies with contemporary jewelry presents new frameworks for understanding jewelry, frameworks that reinforce the validity of art forms across media, regardless of function. . . . Jewelry that prioritizes ideas, whether Minimal, Conceptual or something else, refuses to be pinpointed as simple adornment. The result is that, by removing artist-made jewelry from the realm of the expected, its true nature and possibility can finally be experienced and realized.’

In actual fact, what is realized is not jewelry’s true nature but its nature as art, which means adopting a submissive and provincial relation to fine art. Discussing Babetto’s minimalist jewelry, Strauss writes, ‘The fact that they were made from precious materials and required the hand of a craftsman would have negated them ideologically in Judd’s eyes; however, the lineage of influence still remains strong.’ Jewelry, it seems, can only ever be poor Minimalism, compromised Conceptual art, which surely leads to the question: why bother making it into second-rate sculpture? Why not leave it as really good jewelry? And why not make the case that Babetto’s jewelry actually challenges the legitimacy of Minimalism’s conclusions, offers a critique of Minimalism’s limitations?

But the main problem I have with Strauss’s discussion is its restricted terms of reference. As a platform for arguing the premise of the book – that jewelry is really art, and can play with the big boys – why choose such a limited focus as minimalism and conceptualism, which at best only relates to a small portion of this collection? There would be a range of other possible ways to effect this transformation, including appropriation, relational aesthetics, postmodernism – even modernism itself would get as good and much more inclusive results. Indeed, the first section of the interview with Helen Drutt makes the case for modernism very strongly. ‘I had never seen a brooch before that could be identified so closely with the aesthetics of fine art,’ says Drutt of her first purchase, a brooch by American jeweler Stanley Lechtzin. Take modernism as a movement of philosophical propositions about art – not as an aesthetic or stylistic phenomenon – and you have the tools to argue that almost all of this collection is art.

As a reader from outside North America and Europe, one of the most notable things about this publication – and Drutt’s collection – is its geographical inclusiveness. Drutt really got around the globe, making connections overseas and getting to far-flung locales where contemporary jewelry was happily being produced. To her credit, Strauss works hard to maintain this global outlook in the book, especially in the essays on featured works in the collection. Between two and twelve pages each, these texts are well-illustrated and comprehensive introductions. Most hearteningly, they sustain the awareness of the breadth of contemporary jewelry practice happening all around the world, not just in Europe or America.

But this dynamic is hard to juggle and at times Strauss’s act comes tumbling down. In her essay ‘A Brief History of Contemporary Jewelry, 1960-2006,’ an almost impossible task, Strauss writes from a kind of moving geographic position, shifting zones as required to lay out the significant movements and ideas of contemporary jewelry internationally. The essay is focused on infrastructure, sociological information about groups and networks, exhibitions and institutions. In part it is a checklist, demonstrating the depth and breadth of the Drutt collection and revealing how this collection gathers authority through its encyclopedic coverage of jewelers who have been central to the practice from the 1960s to the present.

Yet there is also something limited about this presentation of international jewelry discourse. The Drutt collection is great because it allows for a wide range of locations for contemporary jewelry; people all over the world get a look in. Strauss also pays attention to a varied array of countries in her essay. But much is flattened, homogenized. This isn’t global jewelry discourse so much as European one masquerading as something international. The opportunity to challenge definitions of contemporary jewelry practice is again not fully capitalized on. The catholic selection of jewelers working in varied and often conflicting ways, suggests the real possibilities of Drutt’s collection to construct some kind of international jewelry discourse to which everyone is invited. But Strauss’s attention often seems to be elsewhere.

The limitations – indeed the impossibility of what Strauss and this publication set out to achieve  – is most on display in the chronology in the appendix. This heroic but ultimately doomed exercise results in a surprisingly detailed document that is at the same time extremely parochial in its concentration on Europe and America (with a sprinkling of Asia and Australia thrown in). I’m really not sure it is even meaningful to try and achieve something like this, since either everything from everywhere is included (clearly impossible) or the chronology can’t support the scope of the collection and the international story it tells.

This very interesting and impressive publication is required reading for anyone seriously involved with contemporary jewelry. The problematic aspects of it are not unexpected, since what project with this kind of grand ambition would not suffer speed wobbles somewhere along the way? But it seems to me that some of the limitations of this project are intimately tied to Helen Drutt and the way her stamp is felt everywhere in this book. What might have been possible if Drutt herself was less central to the end result? This book is a lavish celebration of an amazing collection and an extraordinary resource that the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is lucky to have. But as a monument to one woman’s activities, it becomes a flawed representation of contemporary jewelry and, for all its marvelous aspects, somehow less than one would hope for.