Celebrating the work of mid-20th century studio jewelers

Exhibits at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Seaport, Boston. (Photo by Pratibha Gopalakrishna/BU News Service)

By Pratibha Gopalakrishna
BU News Service

On Feb. 9, Heather White, the guest curator and professor of jewelry and metalsmithing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, delivered a lecture on the work of mid-20th century studio jewelers at the “Adorning Boston and Beyond: Contemporary Studio Jewelry Then + Now” exhibition. The lecture was attended by several artists, as well as students and admirers.

The event was hosted by the Society of Arts and Crafts, one of America’s oldest arts and crafts nonprofit organizations. The society was founded in 1987, and its mission is to encourage the creation, collection, and promotion of contemporary arts and crafts.

Art jewelry emphasizes the creative expression of the craftsman and can be made from a variety of materials like metals, glass, wood, and plastics. It differs from conventional jewelry, where the value of the object is tied to the material it is made from.

According to White, mid-20th century jewelers have been hugely inspirational to the current generation of artisans. Art jewelry designed in the northeastern United States in the 20th century was often ahead of its time and promoted social change.  

Necklace by artist Christina Dias displayed at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Seaport, Boston. (Photo by Pratibha Gopalakrishna/BU News Service)

White said she wanted the exhibit to focus on jewelers from the northeastern United States, and to reflect the region’s diversity. “I had to cast a wider net,” she said. “So, I have artists of color, those who are gay, Asian artists and I wanted more women.”

She selected Arthur Smith, Sam Kramer, Margaret De Patta, Miye Matsukata, Margret Craver, Merry Renk, and J. Fred Woell’s works to be displayed at the exhibit.

White explained that most of these artists were visionaries. She also said they often used architectural and asymmetrical designs, as well as birds as inspiration for their art.

“[De Patta] worked with space and light as her principal material,” said White. “She challenged her wearer.”

White’s exhibit also included works by the well-known sculptor Alexander Calder, who created over 2000 pieces of studio jewelry. She highlighted Calder’s skills in bending the metal to form designs pleasing to the eye.

“What I really love about his work is his brutal honesty,” she said. “My students know how hard it is to bend metals to form designs like this.”

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