Friday, March 9, 2012

Collecting Modern Jewelry

Sarah Churgin, director of jewelry and silver sales at Rago Auctions, sat down with Modernism to talk about modern jewelry collecting. What follows is an edited interview. 

What is the difference between modern jewelry and costume jewelry?

Modernism in jewelry is wearable art. The person who wears that is somebody who has no fear and somebody who will be different. The person who buys costume jewelry, which is mass-produced, is somebody who is looking to fit in. Like any other trend, modernist styles became part of the vernacular, and they have filtered into costume jewelry. 

This men’s sculptural ring by Sam Kramer, made of silver and fused copper with a bezel-set nephrite cabochon, will be on sale at Rago Auctions’ 20th/21st Century Design Auction on June 17. Estimate is $1,000 to $2,000. For more information, visit or call 609/397-9374.

Courtesy Rago Arts. 

Sometimes you see a transition over time from studio work to costume jewelry. An example is Frank Rebaje. The studio work is pretty great. It’s sculptural. It comes from a craft background where he is expressing his point of view as a maker. He later transitioned to costume jewelry, with dozens or hundreds working for him, and mass producing and retailing all over the United States. Sometimes, as with Rebaje, the lines blur. These pieces are still very good for a new collector — inexpensive and nice.

Modern jewelry does not need to be made out of precious materials. The reasons for not using precious materials include, among others, that an emerging artist might not be able to afford precious materials; the artist hasn’t been trained to work with them; or it is political, such as the artist feels that there is too much exploitation in the production of precious goods. The Arts & Crafts artists eschewed the use of precious gems and metal for such social purposes, but that doesn’t mean that Arts & Crafts jewelry can’t have precious metals or gems.  Some artists start out with non-precious materials, but use them later in their career. What distinguishes modern jewelry is the intention of the maker and the wearer. The person who wears a piece of modern jewelry is saying, This is a piece of art and I’m allowing myself to be a walking avatar for this artist. Jewelry says who you are, but modern jewelry is more about art than precious metal.

Modernist jewelry did not occur in a vacuum. The notion of somebody expressing himself in an egalitarian way is directly connected to the Arts & Crafts movement, although with different stylistic influences. Arts & Crafts goes back to naturalistic forms, or Japanese or Celtic traditions. Modernism is breaking with tradition. You see a lot of Arts & Crafts and modernist jewelry in the United States because the country is newer, without a strong guild tradition; craftspeople didn’t have to learn at the foot of a master. Here we have the concept that everyone can be an artist. You too can pick up a soldering gun. When we were isolated during World War II from the influences of Europe, we blossomed. It was really good for our jewelry industry, both fine and costume jewelry.

How can you judge the quality of a piece of modernist jewelry?

Look at how the piece is made. Turn it over front to back, and ask yourself if the fittings are consistent and suitable to the form of the piece. A fitting is a clasping hook or other part that the artist builds himself. A finding is ordered from a manufacturer who makes parts for the jewelry industry. Look for findings that are heavy enough and in scale with the size of the piece. In the last quarter of the 19th century, there was an explosion of mass-produced parts for the jewelry industry, but there are still jewelers today who make their own fittings. Carry a 10x loupe and don’t be afraid to use it. It makes the dealer aware that you are alert. Look for signs of restoration, such as sloppy lead solder work, changes in patina where there shouldn’t be any, things that don’t quite match. If there are stones on the piece, make sure that each setting and stone appears consistent with the others.  

If you are starting out as a collector, a good way to learn is to search out a piece by one of the masters. Looking at jewelry is just like looking at art. A piece has to speak with a single voice. Hold it in your hand until you have internalized the mind of the artist. Handling a piece of jewelry puts you in direct connection with the hand of the artist. Experts know the essential and can say, this is his or not his, or was his and somebody changed it. You can learn that by going to the shows and asking to handle the pieces. Most dealers are truly passionate about their subject and will welcome the opportunity to share their knowledge with you.

A collector should not take anything at face value. All facts and claims should be on the receipt in writing. If someone sells you a Claire Falkenstein, get it in writing. Then take it to a specialist and check. If they say it is counterfeit, you have recourse.

This sterling silver and 18k gold necklace with amethyst, crystal and geodes was created in the 1970s  by Jean Vendome of France. It is being offered for sale at Michaan’s Auctions on June 9. Estimate between $1,500 and $2,000. For information, visit or call 510/-740-0220.

Courtesy Michaan’s. Auctions.

What kind of prices should collectors expect at auction?

Alexander Calder: A Calder brass necklace sold at Sotheby’s in 2005 for $352,000. Other pieces of jewelry of his have sold for more than $100,000.

Harry Bertoia brooches and pendants have been sold for $1,000 to $58,000, with many pieces in the low thousands.

There is a wide range of prices for Claire Falkenstein’s work, from  $1,700 for a copper pendant to $21,000 for a copper and glass necklace.

Prices for Art Smith range from as little as $600 for a ring to as much as $22,500 for a brass necklace.

Margaret De Patta’s pieces range from $6,000 to $21,000.

Sam Kramer brooches range from about $3,000 to $5,000.

Ed Wiener’s pieces sell for the hundreds into the thousands of dollars.

Looking beyond the United States, new collectors might also seek out the following:

Mexico: Margot of Taxco, Antonio Pineda and Hector Aguilar. Prices start in the hundreds and go into the thousands of dollars.

Scandinavia: Postwar designers for Georg Jensen — prices start at a few hundred dollars; Bent Knudsen, Hans Hansen and N.E. From — prices range from the low hundreds to above $1,000.

Additional Resources
These books offer a good introduction to the artists of modernist jewelry.

Modernist Jewelry 1930 to 1960: The Wearable Art Movement by Marbeth Schon
Form & Function, American Modernist Jewelry, 1940 – 1970 by Marbeth Schon
Messengers of Modernism, American Studio Jewelry 1940 to 1960, edited by Martin Eidelberg Warman’s Jewelry by Christie Romero

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