Contemporary jewelry: 1960 to today


Pin & Earrings by Merry Renk
  photo courtesy of Patrick Kapty


In the last 30 years or so, the Western world has experienced unprecedented technological advances, with immense social change following in their wake. Although jewelry as a decorative art has never been in the vanguard of cultural change, many contemporary jewelers have reflected social change by using their ingenuity and expertise to explore the medium and even question its values.

Continuing tradition            

The most famous names in the jewelry world such as Cartier, Bulgari, Boucheron, Asprey and Tiffany have remained faithful to their exclusive clientele and continued to produce jewelry in the 'grand manner'. The established companies still devise sumptuous designs in precious metals and exquisite gemstones as status symbols and investments. Many of these customers have been from the Middle East where tradition still demands the formal display of wealth and rank.

Van Cleef & Arpels Gold & Diamond Bracelet photograph courtesy of M.S. Rau Antiques

In England, the 1960s brought a new generation of artist-jewelers, as well as a new self-made wealthy clientele. There was a great demand for a different kind of jeweler: less formal, more modern and an expression of the affluent decade. In 1961, the Worshipful Company of  Goldsmiths12 held an influential milestone exhibition that revealed the potential of modern jewelry as a medium for artistic self-expression. Andrew Grima epitomized the 1960s jeweler; his work was self consciously modern, aiming to break with the past. Many of his works were based on objets trouves. He managed to capture the texture of leaves, twigs and bark in precious metals. As well as Grima, there were other jewelers like John Donald, Gillian Packard, and David Thomas who developed contemporary designs using new images celebrating scientific achievement.

Gold, Diamond, Enamel Pearl & Amethyst brooch by Jean Schlumberger for Tiffany
  photo courtesy of Warman's Jewelry, 2nd Ed. 
by Christie Romero and Krause Publications

In New York, Jean Schlumberger reigned supreme over Tiffany in the 1960s, and he too was responsible for shifting the emphasis away from valuable stones and towards "artistic" content in design. Schlumberger's subject matter was almost always organic, sometimes heraldic, always luscious and startling, reflecting the curiosities and marvels of nature. He loved color and dared to mix sapphires and emeralds, amethysts and aquamarines, spinels and turquoises with generous lashings of yellow gold and brilliant enamels.
Theories of the Bauhaus continued to influence many art education establishments and designers throughout Europe. They encouraged the search for a universal, rational, simple beauty - a "democracy" of form. The rigors of the Bauhaus teaching with its desire to define forms in a minimal way are still held as fundamental by many designers.

Silver Pin by Tone Vigeland
  photo courtesy of Marbeth Schon

Jewelry as art     

The art world in the 1940s and 50s was dominated by the American Abstract expressionists. Artists saw themselves as pioneers, liberating the world from the bonds of tradition. These ideas pervaded the world of art and design, and found expression in what were called Studio Crafts. This usually demanded a single individual being responsible for both designing and making unique hand made pieces.

Silver Pin by Paul Lobel  
photo courtesy of Marbeth Schon

Silver Bracelet by Ed Wiener  
photo courtesy of Marbeth Schon

In Germany and France the apprenticeship system remained strong, and the skills of the jeweler were respected as such. German colleges still teach rigorous technical courses as well as fine art. Many teachers are noted jewelers in their own right, including Herman Jünger at the Munich Acadamie der Bildenden Künste, Friedrich Becker in Düsseldorf and Reinhold Reiling in Pforzhiem.

Mary Lee Hu "Neckpiece #9, 1973"  
photo courtesy of Mary  Lee Hu

Daniel Macchiarini unicorn pin
(original design by Peter Macchiarini)

American work is characterized by its freedom from traditional restraint. This bold expressiveness can be seen in the work of many jewelers such as Robert Ebendorf,  William Harper, Mary Lee Hu, Richard Mawdsley, Stanley Lechtzin, Earl Pardon and many more. Many of America's leading jewelers are also teachers who pass on their experience and enthusiasm to new generations of artist jewelers.

Ring by Betty Cooke
  photo courtesy of Marbeth Schon

Several German jewelers work was moving towards the 'artistic' in the early 1970s. They were known for their attention to detail and presented their work as 'pictures'. Ulrike Bahrs and Norbert Murrie produced pictorial pieces that served either as jewelry or as graphical images. Gerd Rothman presented stickpins in a frame with a painted background. Gijs Bakker and Robert Smit from Holland and Claus Bury from Germany showed an affinity with conceptual art, as they were just as much concerned with showing their ideas as showing a finished product.

New Concepts, New materials, New techniques

There was significant change in the fashions designed and worn by young people reflecting the boom years and the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which was taking place in the West. A notable English jeweler was Gerda Flockinger. Her work exhibited irreverence for the traditional treatment of metals. She melted the surface of her jewelry to exploit the natural texture that was created. She fused wire and shapes cut from sheet metal, setting semi precious stones into the finished form so that they appeared like intriguing decorative blisters. Patricia Tormey slammed molten gold between layers of textured charcoal and dropped it into a tray of lentils. In the mid-60s a small group of British jewelers, Wendy Ramshaw13, David Watkins and Caroline Broadhead, took a new interest in abstraction. In a brief return to the Bauhaus principles of design, they considered the relationship between form and function. Watkin's training as a sculptor inevitably influenced his work. His jewelry pieces are architectonic in form, and stand independently as works of art.

One of the least heralded but important jewelers of the 60s and 70s is Stuart Devlin: silversmith, goldsmith, jeweler, sculptor, designer of coins, commemorative medallions, trophies, furniture, and interiors. Among his many accolades, Mr. Devlin holds a Royal Warrant and Appointment as Goldsmith and Jeweler to Her Majesty the Queen of England. In 1967, he began designing jewelry and, over the next decade, became well known in London's West End.

In Holland, traditionally trained jewelers Gijs Bakker and Emmy van Leersum turned the very notion of jewelry on its head when they experimented with simple forms that became both clothing and jewelry.

Austria was now beginning to establish its own style. Students began to experiment with jewelry as a mode of self-expression. Wolf Wennrick, Helge Larsen and Darani Lewers have been the key figures in this development, while Frank Bauer, Anne Bronsworth, Susan Cohn, Rowenta Gough, Peter Tully and Lyn Tune are just a few of the new generation of Austrian jewelers producing increasingly interesting results.
In the 1970s the Austrians Pierre Degan, Fritz Maierhofer and the Englishman Roger Morris captured imagery from space hardware and microtechnology in jewelry. They used metal and colored plastics in combination, with finishes that were reminiscent of machine made products.
The idealistic notion that "good" and "innovative" design could be made available to all was taken up by various jewelers. However manufacturers had remained steadfastly resistant to taking risks, so this remained an ideal rather than a reality. Innovative jewelers also create their own elitism. Despite this, there is little doubt that innovators have influenced the more commercial end of the jewelry market.

Jewelry for men     

It was during the 60s that jewelry was no longer perceived as being solely for women. The fashion conscious man wore necklaces instead of neckties. He joined the ranks of hipster style revolutionaries like Richard Burton and The Earl of Snowdon. In the costume jewelry line there were necklaces for men with dangling disks, bells, abstract shapes, crosses with enamel and fake stones, zodiac symbols and the peace sign.

1960s costume Zodiac pendant
  photo courtesy of Vicky Niolet

Pop Art    

Lucite Icecube Necklace
  photo courtesy of Elizabeth Armstrong

The bold geometric style of Pop Art14 and Op Art that flourished in the 60s quickly found its way into jewelry. Materials such as plastics, particularly Plexiglas (ICI Perspex) and vinyl were predominantly used in costume jewelry. Paco Raban stamped chainmail shapes out of Perspex, while Charles Jourdan gave his shoes ice cube shaped high heels. Pop art embraced the highly varied imagery of popular culture. It was in essence anti-functional and ephemeral, reflecting a new code of expendability. The Sixties fashion was for disposability. The paper and Perspex jewelry of Wendy Ramshaw of this period was very popular. She made cheap disposable paper jewelry that came in kit form. Much of it was printed with 60s ephemera such as Union Jacks, Psychedelia and Day Glo colors.

1960s Lucite Heart Pendant
  photo courtesy of G.K. Michael Framboyan Gallery

1960s Lucite Ring
  photo courtesy of Leigh Leshner

Post Modernism  

Sterling & Anodized Aluminum Brooch
 by Jeffrey P. Wilhelm dated 12/90
  photograph courtesy of Patrick Kapty

14K Gold European Brooch
  photograph courtesy of Patrick Kapty

Today's jewelers are again reflecting cultural trends, using the pluralism associated with Post Modern15 culture to widen their scope. The political aspects of jewelry have diminished. Decoration without added meaning is acceptable again. A greater element of fun has also crept into body ornament. The Englishman Geoff Roberts, formerly a student of sculpture and printmaking, works with plastic and brightly colored metal foil to produce deliberately cheap jewelry that is essentially a combination of fun and fantasy. The Swiss Otto Kunzli, who studied under Hermann Junger in Munich, uses a more satirical wit with such things as large three-dimensional brooches covered in "tasteless" wallpaper. In addition, fine artist Peter Chang has hit the headlines with his large, brightly colored bangles in vacuum-formed plastic. Only time will tell if they will endure.

Ethnic revivals  

During the 70s and 80s there was renewed interest in Asia and the Far East. This led to a return to natural materials such as bone, ivory and Indian Metalwork. Western jewelers were influenced by the varied assortment of goods being imported from Asia. Leather-thonged jewelry hung with dyed feathers typified the ethnic style of the period.

Ed Levin African inspired bracelet  
photo courtesy of Marbeth Schon

British artist - jewelers

Artist - jewelers in Britain in the seventies gained two new means by which to promote their work. One was the opening of an important retail outlet, Electrum, in London. The other was the establishment of the Crafts Advisory Council. This was set up in 1971 to promote and develop the importance of British Crafts. Before this, jewelers had to rely on editorials in fashion magazines such as Honey, Vogue, Harpers and Queen to establish their work.


Australian jewelry design has benefited from the intimate collaboration between artist craftsmen on an international basis in recent years. Many European designers have traveled to Australia, conducting workshops and exhibiting their work. A number of  innovative Australian designers have emerged from this initial contact, Helge Larsen, Peter Tully, Rowena Gough, Dirani Lewers and Jenny Toynbee, some of whom have trained in Germany.


Sterling & 18K Gold Brooch by Roper
  photo courtesy of Patrick Kapty

An important development for the artist jeweler in America was the opening of the specialist retail outlet, Sculpture to wear (later Artwear) in New York. Designers who exhibited at Artwear were constantly being approached by fashion designers for their work. American designers in the Seventies were less concerned than their European counterparts with traditional constraints. Designers drew on American Indian arts, assemblage art, and expressionism. The criterion for having work included in the Artwear gallery was that "the artist pioneered the art of jewelry making, using materials in an unexpected and novel way".

That ideal sums up the new creative spirit that has entered jewelry design in the Twentieth century. Companies like Cartier, Asprey, Garrards and Tiffany are still producing time-honoured designs using precious metals and gemstones. Their pieces represent traditional values, which will always retain an importance, and they offer secure investment for the future. However, it is in the work of artist-jewelers that we find the expression of new ideas and new attitudes towards jewelry that have arisen during the course of this century. It is in this sphere of jewelry design that the boundaries of modern inventiveness and contemporary social comment will continue to be extended.

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    Copyright 1999 MODERN SILVER magazine