A tale of two jewelry weeks

New York City Jewelry Week made its debut in November of 2018, offering some 100 exhibitions, lectures, workshops, tours, collaborations and special events designed to promote the world of jewelry.

By all accounts, it was an inaugural event that exceeded the expectations of both organizers, led by founders JB Jones and Bella Nyman, and participants. I was among the latter group, taking part in a most memorable way, making nearly 10 stops within a 24-hour period.

This year, my participation so far – due to a mix of deadlines and commitments – was limited to catching just one of the more than 170 events on offer.

A testament to the strength of NYCJW, though, my selection proved memorable.

I made my way to Rago/Wright at The High Line Nine in Chelsea on Tuesday afternoon to see “Structure & Ornament: Studio Jewelry from 1900 to the Present.”

And, thanks to an introduction from Wright senior specialist Megan Whippen, I was fortunate enough to have an impromptu tour through the exhibition in the stunning gallery space by its curator.

Mark McDonald, the noted Mid-Century Modern expert famously called “Mr. Modernism” by The New York Times, walked me through the auction-preview highlights, bringing so many points to life with his extensive knowledge and well-considered perspective as we walked from one display case to the next.

As McDonald began talking about the exhibition, I asked him what type of visitors had been in so far – collectors or jewelry lovers?

“That could be two different people or one and the same,” he said.

Overall, he said, people have been connecting with the artistry on display, the way the work is primarily made by hand and the fact that, by nature, jewelry is personal.

He spoke of jeweler Art Smith (1917-1982) to illustrate the point: “He always said, ‘It wasn’t a piece of jewelry until it went on the body.’”

And indeed one could imagine wearing many of these pieces, such as a somewhat futuristic brooch by Margaret De Patta or an early necklace by Robert Lee Morris. McDonald removed some pieces from their cases to offer a closer look, showing, for example, how Harry Bertoia created the clasp for another brooch, a work in ebony and sterling silver. McDonald also explained the elements of several pieces by William Harper, “obviously an amazing technician.”

As McDonald shared, studio jewelry is not about dazzling gemstones or the intrinsic value of its elements –  “This is generally not what these things are about.”

Indeed, the visit offered yet another way to explore and appreciate jewelry, one that had been on my mind of late.

As I reflected on the exhibition, I was reminded of my recent visit to the Carmel-based studio jewelry designer Loretta Lam – we featured her in our November issue – and her comments about her polymer jewelry. Her work includes accent beads of coconut, metal or shell with sterling, copper and steel used for attaching the parts.

“I’m glad to be part of the alternative-materials trend,” Lam told us. “It’s exciting to see forward-thinking gallerists and savvy collectors realize the inherent value of art jewelry is in the artistry and not the raw materials.”

Something clearly evidenced in the works on display from Rago/Wright.

The auction preview continues through Nov. 23 at Rago/Wright at The High Line Nine, at 507 W. 27th St.. The auction will be held Feb. 12 at Rago in Lambertville, New Jersey.

And with NYC Jewelry Week continuing through Nov. 24, there’s plenty of time – and plenty of exhibitions, lectures, events and more – to catch.

For more, visit nycjewelryweek.com or ragoarts.com.

– Mary Shustack

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