Gold beater’s block, repoussé hammer, solder pick, bezel pusher, burnishers, pliers, the torch and the kiln. Over millennia these tools have hardly changed. Eternal as well are the elemental metals and precious stones they work into wearable form. It all happens at the jeweler’s bench, where age-old techniques are tantamount to alchemy and earthly treasure is hand-wrought into adornments of spirituality, sovereignty and status. For anyone who has ever wondered what goes into the making of the finest jewelry—and why it has always been so costly—“A View From the Jeweler’s Bench” at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery is a gem of an education.
The exhibition is subtitled “Ancient Treasures, Contemporary Statements,” and it is principally a dialogue between past and present on the essential subjects of mastery and imagination. Juxtaposing the work of 12 contemporary jewelry artists with a number of definitive historical pieces, the curator Sasha Nixon —who received her master’s degree from the Bard Graduate Center in 2018 and developed this show from her qualifying paper—shows how these artists repurpose long-ago forms and techniques to witty, poetic and postmodern ends.
“Inside every piece of contemporary jewelry can be found the DNA of its archetypal ancestor,” sums up one of the artists, Lin Cheung, who is quoted in the nifty little exhibition guide, given free.
Located in the gallery on the Graduate Center’s first floor, the show has seven sections. The first, “The Jeweler’s Bench,” is central, and thus centered in the space. This bench, which is not unlike a standard midcentury desk, holds a jumble of tools, gemstones and pearls. Small display cases that flank the bench explain “Cold Working,” “Stone Setting” and, most provocatively, the importance of “Practitioners as Researchers.” Ms. Nixon informs us that “contemporary jewelers who study archaeological evidence and incorporate ancient goldsmithing techniques in their work are largely responsible for the resurgence of these methods.” This is fascinating. Castellani & Sons, the revered Italian firm that produced the 19th century’s most coveted revival jewelry, never figured out how the ancient Etruscans achieved their spectacular filigree granulations of gold. That came in the 1930s, and the answer was cupric oxide.
Like the facets of a brilliant-cut solitaire, the show’s other sections circle the jeweler’s bench. “The Lure of Ancient Gold,” a nod to the consummate goldsmith skills of antiquity, pulls us into history, myth and metaphor—gold as wealth, warmth and light, the golden fleece and the sun god Apollo. Here a Greek wedding vase circa 340 B.C. depicts Aphrodite offering Adonis a gift from her jewel box. And a terra-cotta head of a woman, decked out in large earrings and a diadem, is actually an Etruscan antefix (a rooftop architectural detail). Nearby, the magnificent “Kul Oba” brooch (c. 1875), a Castellani & Sons reconstruction of an earring from a Scythian tomb, shows just how huge jewelry could get in ancient times. Equally magnificent is Jeanette K. Caines ’s pair of cascading gold “Bird” earrings, made in 2018 especially for this exhibition. Ms. Caines employed Etruscan techniques while also echoing the “Helen of Troy” parure that was excavated at Troy in 1873. A video shows her making the earrings (Ms. Caines says it took her 3½ weeks, plus 27 years of experience), and though technically maximal, the design is slimmed-down, modern.
“Cameos and Memory” leaps from the political and mythological portraiture traditionally carved in stone, shell or glass to show how artist Nicole Jacquard makes it personal: Laser-engraving family photos onto thin sheets of mica, she then sets them in enameled oval frames. The result is a ghostly spin on the scrapbook. “Value and Fashion” addresses the “symbiotic relationship between synthetic and genuine gemstone jewelry, with one encouraging further elaboration of the other.” Two ornate pendant necklaces—an 18th-century amethyst and glass paste beauty, and a Tiffany & Co. diamond extravaganza circa 1900—meet their millennial incarnation in Ashley Buchanan ’s “Iconic Decorative Neckpiece” (2016). Cut from brass and powdercoated in white, it’s the silhouette without the stones.
“La Peregrina” translates as “The Wanderer,” and this section follows the path of an exceptional pearl, found in the 16th century, that appeared in one oil portrait after another as it moved from one royal family to another, ending up on the 20th-century neck of Elizabeth Taylor. “What is an heirloom but a time traveler,” says emiko oye, whose 2013 version of Taylor’s necklace is fashioned from pixel-like Lego pieces—an acknowledgment of the role digital screens now play in showing jewelry to the world.
In “Power and Prestige” Gabriella Kiss rethinks the crown. Her tiara of bronze antlers and gemstone raindrops (2014)—hauntingly sylvan—suggests an elf princess in Tolkien. The show’s final section, “Archetypes and Attachments,” embraces the sentimental aspect of jewelry, its role as emotional touchstone or talisman. This is a charmed realm of symbolic shapes and engraved words, of lockets containing images of loved ones. Ms. Cheung’s “Secret-locked Locket” (2016) is a solid gold oval with no embellishment and no opening. A secret, however, has been permanently sealed inside. We are asked to consider a mystery, the question of who brings meaning to a piece of jewelry. The artist who made it? Or the person who sees their soul in it?
Focusing on the creation of high-quality bling, an exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York ranges from a ring with a Roman emperor’s cameo glass portrait to a recent antler tiara.
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