A gem of a career

Elyse Zorn Karlin’s career dazzles by nature. The Port Chester woman lectures, writes and curates exhibitions about the history of jewelry.

By Mary Shustack

Photograph by Bob Rozycki

She lectures on jewelry. She writes about jewelry. She curates exhibitions about jewelry.
And her enthusiasm about her chosen field is palpable.

She will detail the thrill of holding a spectacular diamond ring worth $2 million at one moment then discuss the effect of a historical piece the next.

“To hold a piece of jewelry in your hand and know it’s 2,000 years old is incredible,” Karlin says.
But it’s not about a piece’s monetary value.

“I’ve seen collections of costume jewelry that are so fabulous you could pass out,” she says.
And sharing that history, one she never tires of delving into, is what keeps her so enthused about her chosen field.

On a recent afternoon, Karlin dips into a bag of her own treasures, creating a sparkling dining room-table vignette in her 1920s Port Chester home.

Drawing out each piece from a velvet pouch or hinged box, she shares its story, explaining what made it special to her.

There’s the stickpin with a royal provenance, a tie to Queen Victoria’s family. There’s a brooch with an enameled image of a dancer, an exquisite piece of miniature art. There are necklaces and pendants, earrings and bracelets. Some are studies in artistic simplicity, others elaborate designs crafted with precision and flair.

All carry a meaning far deeper than their surface beauty, which is the heart of why Karlin is so captivated by her chosen field.

An early start

“I was collecting when I was 12 years old, believe it or not,” she says.

Accompanying an interior-decorator aunt to antiques shops, Karlin found herself drawn to gems.

“She was looking at paintings and objects for her clients and I was looking at jewelry.”

Karlin, who has a particular fondness for jewelry of the Arts and Crafts tradition, says all jewelry offers a look into a culture, into the wearer’s personality and into the time in which it was made.
Raised on Long Island until her family moved to Teaneck, N.J., Karlin was singular in her approach to jewelry, even at an early age.

“I can remember when I was in high school I would wear a piece of antique jewelry every day, and everyone looked at me like I was nuts.”

Karlin’s interest in art was also cultivated during this time, when she and childhood friend Mona Brody (the pair recently teamed up to lecture on “The Art and Jewelry of Frida Kahlo”) would skip out of high school in Teaneck and take the bus into Manhattan.

“We never went to the movies. We didn’t go shopping. We went to museums.”

That early love, though, would become a key part of her professional life as well.

A journalism graduate from the University of Missouri, Karlin was working in advertising, in direct marketing in Manhattan, when she followed an interest in jewelry history. She started to learn more and write about it.

“All along the way I took courses and seminars. You never stop learning about history.”
Eventually, she would become president of the American Society of Jewelry Historians.
Spreading the word

Today, there are countless publications and projects. She is co-director of the Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts, which puts out the quarterly Adornment, The Magazine of Jewelry & Related Arts, as well as a monthly digital newsletter. She serves as the publisher and editor-in-chief.
“We try to go from ancient to contemporary,” she says of the broad range of topics in Adornment.
There are annual conferences and lectures and study days in between those major events. Karlin might lead a group to explore wholesale jewelry warehouses, tour Manhattan’s famed Diamond District or stop by studios of jewelry designers.

The organization is also active in encouraging the study of jewelry history in college and through museums.

“The goal of the association is to educate people about jewelry history,” she says.

In early October, “Jewelry in the Americas” was the theme as scholars and collectors, appraisers and jewelry designers gathered at The University Club in Manhattan for a lecture-filled day. Speakers touched on everything from jewelry in the collection of a New England historical institution to the designs of a Native American jewelry artist to an upcoming jewelry exhibition in London.

The day also included a preview of “A Story to Wear,” an in-progress documentary on the history of jewelry in which Karlin is involved both on-screen and behind-the-scenes.

Her books include “Jewelry and Metalwork in the Arts & Crafts Tradition” and the catalog “International Art Jewelry 1895-1925,” which accompanied a recent Forbes Galleries exhibition. She is also the co-author (with Yvonne Markowitz) of “Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry.”

Markowitz is the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan curator of jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A longtime friend and colleague of Karlin’s, Markowitz has teamed up with her on projects, publications and special events. Markowitz is the co-director of the ASJRA.

“She’s a very hard worker,” Markowitz says of Karlin. “She’s 24/7. It’s not just a job. It’s a passion. She’s been at it for decades.”

And like Karlin, Markowitz says that it’s is important to take the study of jewels beyond the visual.
“It just gives you a depth of appreciation,” Markowitz says. “Yes, they’re beautiful, but once you understand something about the context, it just broadens your appreciation.”
Jewelry as art, in art For Karlin, jewelry offers a glimpe into a personality.
“It’s the only piece of art that you can wear,” she says.

And it showcases more than the item itself.

“It says a lot about how you feel about yourself.”

It also, she adds, brings people together. Who hasn’t complimented a stranger on a lovely pin or stunning earrings?

“That’s the thing: Jewelry takes you to so many different places.”

And it can be appreciated across cultures.

“You don’t even have to speak the same language to appreciate jewelry.”

And there is something that it does that is pretty special, too.

“It makes people feel good,” she adds.

It can also be filled with symbolism, from amulets worn to protect the wearer to tokens of love.
“We give jewelry a lot of power,” Karlin says, noting how upset someone becomes if she loses her engagement or wedding ring.

Looking ahead

In recent years, Karlin has begun curating jewelry exhibitions, including “Jewelers of the Hudson Valley” and “International Art Jewelry, 1895-1925,” both at The Forbes Galleries in Manhattan.

Earlier this autumn, she presented “Finer Things: Jewelry and Accessories From the 1880s-1930s” at the Stan Hywet House & Gardens in Akron, Ohio.

Today, Karlin is already well at work on her next exhibition.

She is gathering items for “Out of this World! Jewelry in the Space Age,” set to open March 16 at The Forbes Galleries – everything from items made from meteorites to jewelry that actually traveled to space (courtesy of some female astronauts) to depictions of the moon and stars throughout history. It will be rounded out by a quirky mix of archival materials ranging from plastic ray guns to cereal-box rings.

“I have some costume jewelry based on sputniks from the ’60s,” she says. “It’s going to be a little bit of everything.”

Turning back to showing off some of her own pieces, Karlin again demonstrates how much pleasure jewelry can bring.

“This is by an unknown artist, but I think it’s really fun,” she says about a silvertone necklace complete with seahorse accents and a Mississippi River pearl.

“I just think you should buy good design, what you like,” she adds. “I never bought anything for investment.”

And Karlin, who will happily explain the significance of each piece of jewelry she wears herself, is not the type who must have something valuable adorning her at all times.

“I wear plastic when I fly,” she says. “I have great plastic jewelry.”
Somehow you just knew she would.

For more on the Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts, visit asjra.com.

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