Episode 135: Part 1 – Why Jewelers of the 60s and 70s Were Part of the Counterculture—Even if they Didn’t Realize It with Jewelry Experts Susan Cummins and Cindi Strauss

Episode 135

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • The characteristics that define contemporary American jewelry
  • What narrative art jewelry is, and why it was so prevalent in the 1960s and 70s
  • What defines American counterculture, and why so many 60s and 70s jewelers were a part of it
  • Who the most notable American jewelry artists are and why we need to capture their stories
  • How Susan and Cindi developed their book, and why they hope other people will build on their research

About Susan Cummins

Susan Cummins has been involved in numerous ways in the visual arts world over the last 35 years, from working in a pottery studio, doing street fairs, running a retail shop called the Firework in Mill Valley and developing the Susan Cummins Gallery into a nationally recognized venue for regional art and contemporary art jewelry. Now she spends most of her time working with a private family foundation called Rotasa and as a board member of both Art Jewelry Forum and California College of the Arts.

About Cindi Strauss

Cindi Strauss is the Sara and Bill Morgan Curator of Decorative Arts, Craft, and Design and Assistant Director, Programming at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). She received her BA with honors in art history from Hamilton College and her MA in the history of decorative arts from the Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons School of Design. At the MFAH, Cindi is responsible for the acquisition, research, publication, and exhibition of post-1900 decorative arts, design, and craft. Jewelry is a mainstay of Cindi’s curatorial practice. In addition to regularly curating permanent collection installations that include contemporary jewelry from the museum’s collection, she has organized several exhibitions that are either devoted solely to jewelry or include jewelry in them. These include: Beyond Ornament: Contemporary Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection (2003–2004); Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection (2007); Liquid Lines: Exploring the Language of Contemporary Metal (2011); and Beyond Craft: Decorative Arts from the Leatrice S. and Melvin B. Eagle Collection (2014). Cindi has authored or contributed to catalogs and journals on jewelry, craft, and design topics, and has been a frequent lecturer at museums nationwide. She also serves on the editorial advisory committee for Metalsmith magazine.

Additional Resources: 

Museum of Fine Arts Houston

Art Jewelry Forum 


Police State Badge

1969/ 2007

sterling silver, 14k gold

2 7/8 x 2 15/16 x 3 15/16 inches

Museum of Arts and Design, New York City, 2012.20

Diane Kuhn, 2012

PHOTO: John Bigelow Taylor, 2008

Portrait of William Clark in a bubble_2


photographer: Unknown

Necklace for the American Taxpayer


Brass with silver chain

 17 ” long (for the chain)  and 6.25 x 1.25 ” wide for the hanging brass pendant.

Collection unknown

Dad’s Payday


sterling, photograph, fabric, found object

4 ½ x 4 x ¼ inches

Merrily Tompkins Estate, Ellensburg

Photo: Lynn Thompson

Title: “Slow Boat” Pendant (Portrait of Ken Cory) Date: 1976

Medium: Enamel, sterling silver, wood, copper, brass, painted stone, pencil, ballpoint pen spring, waxed lacing, Tiger Balm tin, domino Dimensions: 16 3/4 × 4 1/8 × 1 in. (42.5 × 10.4 × 2.5 cm)

Helen Williams Drutt Family Collection, USA

Snatch Purse


Copper, Enamel, Leather, Beaver Fur, Ermine Tails, Coin Purse

4 ½ x 4 x 3/8”

Merrily Tompkins Estate, Ellensburg

The Good Guys


Walnut, steel, copper, plastic, sterling silver, found objects

101.6 mm diameter

Museum of Arts and Design, NYC, 1977.2.102′                       

PHOTO: John Bigelow Taylor, 2008

Fetish Pendant


wood, brass, copper, glass, steel, paper, silver

3 ½ x 3 ½ x 5/8 inches

Detroit Institute of Art, Founders Society Purchase with funds from the Modern Decorative Arts Group, Andrew L. and Gayle Shaw Camden Contemporary and Decorative Arts Fund, Jean Sosin, Dr. and Mrs. Roger S. Robinson, Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Danto, Dorothy and Byron Gerson, and Dr. and Mrs. Robert J. Miller / Bridgeman Images

November 22, 1963 12:30 p.m.


copper, silver, brass, gold leaf, newspaper photo, walnut, velvet, glass

6 ¼ x 5 x 7/8 inches

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Rose Mary Wadman, 1991.57.1

Front and back covers

Pages from the book


What makes American jewelry American? As Susan Cummins and Cindi Strauss discovered while researching their book, In Flux: American Jewelry and the Counterculture, contemporary American jewelry isn’t defined by style or materials, but by an attitude of independence and rebellion. Susan, who founded Art Jewelry Forum, and Cindi, who is Curator of Decorative Arts, Crafts and Design at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about what it was like to interview some of the most influential American artists; why they hope their book will inspire additional research in this field; and why narrative jewelry artists were part of the counterculture, even if they didn’t consider themselves to be. Read the episode transcript here. 

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guests are Susan Cummins and Cindi Strauss, who, along with Damian Skinner, are the co-authors of In Flux: American Jewelry and the Counterculture. Susan is the founder of Art Jewelry Forum and for several decades drove the organization. Cindi Strauss is the Curator of Decorative Arts, Crafts and Design at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Susan and Cindi, welcome to the program.

Susan: Thank you.

Cindi: Thank you for having us, Sharon.

Sharon: So glad to have you. Can you each give us a brief outline of your jewelry journey? Susan, do you want to start?

Susan: Sure. My journey started in the 80s. I had a gallery in Mill Valley, California. I was showing various crafts, ceramics mostly, and a bit of glass, fiber, a whole grouping, and then I decided I should show jewelry. I don’t really know why, because I didn’t wear jewelry, but it sounded like a good idea. I started showing it, and I was very impressed with how smart and incredibly skilled the artists were. I continued to show that, and the gallery became known for showing jewelry. In 1997, I still had the gallery, and I decided along with numerous other craft groups that we should start an organization that represented the collectors of jewelry. I started Art Jewelry Forum with the help of several other people, of course. That has continued onto today, surprisingly enough, and it now includes not only collectors, curators and gallerists, but also artists and everybody who’s interested in contemporary art jewelry.

Sharon: It’s an international organization.

Susan: Yes, it’s an international organization. It has a website with a lot of articles. We plan all kinds of things like trips to encourage people to get to know more about the field. I also was part of a funding organization, shall we say, a small private fund called Rotasa, and years ago we funded exhibitions and catalogues. That switched into funding specific things that I was working on instead of accepting things from other people. I’ve been very interested in publishing and doing research about this field because I feel that will give it more value and legitimacy. It needs to be researched. So, that’s one of the reasons why this book came into being as well as Flocks’ book. It really talks about the beginnings of American contemporary jewelry in the 60s and 70s. That’s my beginning to current interest in jewelry.

Sharon: I just wanted to say that people can find a lot more if they visit the Art Jewelry Forum website. We’ll have links to everything we talk about on the show. Cindi?

Cindi: Sure. My jewelry journey was surprising and happened all at once. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, had no contemporary jewelry in its collection until 2000, when we acquired an Art Smith necklace from 1948. That was my first real knowledge of post-Arts and Crafts jewelry and post-Mid-Century, people like Harry Bertoia. That led me to Toni Greenbaum’s Messengers of Modernism catalogue, a fantastic resource for American jewelry from the 30s through the 50s. It opened a whole new field for me, and I started to think about how we should focus on some modern jewelry from that period to expand on the Art Smith necklace, because that Mid-Century design was a specialty of the institution. 

Truly, I would say my life changed in respect to jewelry for the better in every way I could explain. When the museum acquired, in 2002, Helen Williams Drutt’s private collection of artist-made contemporary jewelry, dating from 1963 to 2002 at the time of the acquisition, in one fell swoop, we acquired 804 pieces of international jewelry as well as sketchbooks and drawings and research materials. We began to build an extensive library. Helen opened her archives and we had recordings of artist interviews. It was just going from zero to sixty in three seconds and it was extraordinary. It was a field I knew really nothing about, so I was on a very steep learning curve. So many people in the field, from the artists to other curators to collectors—this is how I met Susan—were so generous to me in terms of being resources. The story about how the acquisition happened is familiar to probably many of your audience, so I’ll keep it brief, which is to say that there was an exhibition of Gijs Bakker’s jewelry that Helen organized for the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.

Sharon: Cindi, I’m going to interrupt you for a minute because a lot of people listening will not have heard of Gijs Bakker.

Cindi: Sure. Gijs Bakker, one of the most prominent Dutch artists, began his career in the 1960s, along with wife, Emmy van Leersum, and was part of the group of Dutch jewelry artists who revolutionized the concept of contemporary jewelry using alter-native materials. They created a lot of photo-based work challenging the value system of jewelry and also challenging wearability. It was his photo-based work that was shown in a small exhibition at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft in March 2002 as part of a citywide festival called Photofest, which is all photography-based work. It was through that exhibition, at the opening weekend—that’s how I met Helen. I said to her, “This is something I don’t know anything about. I’m interested in exploring it. I’m starting to build a collection for the museum. Could we meet and have coffee and talk?” So we met, and I peppered her with a lot of questions and said, “Could I call on you for advice in terms of building a collection?” Of course, at this time she had the gallery, and she said, “Well, you know, I have a collection,” and I said, “Yes, I know, and I understand it’s going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” her hometown museum. She said, “Not necessarily. We haven’t had any formal talks about that.” So, one thing led to another, and six months later, we signed papers to acquire the collection.

That set me off on my initial five-year journey, which resulted in the exhibition and catalogue “Ornament as Art: Contemporary Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection” that opened in Houston and traveled to Washington, D.C., to Charlotte, North Carolina, and to Tacoma, Washington. After that point, I felt that I was really steeped in the field. I have, since that point, been adding works to the collection. It was always going to be a long-term commitment and journey for the museum. We have works installed all over the museum in relationship to other contemporary art, whether it’s photography, prints and drawings, sculpture, painting. We also have a robust presentation of jewelry in our departments’ galleries. It is an ongoing journey, just like with Susan. It’s a journey that never ends, happily. There are always new artists to discover and new ideas. Part of that is our meeting of the mind, if you will, and then with Damian, is what resulted in this book.

Sharon: How did you come to write the book? Susan, you started to mention it. The research in this is jaw-dropping. How did you decide to write the book? Why this particular period, the two of you?

Susan: We decided to write the book because I was wondering what’s American about American jewelry. Europeans have done a lot of research and writing about their beginnings, but I didn’t see a document or a book that really talked about the American origins. As Cindi mentioned, Gijs Bakker started in the 60s. So did American contemporary jewelry, but it’s a very different story than the European one. We wanted to talk to the people who are still alive now, so we did tons of interviews for the book. We specifically concentrated on the pioneers who were responding to the political and social events of the time. In other words, we were investigating those artists who were considered narrative artists, because that was the defining feature of American art to those out of the country. We wanted to discover who was making this work and what were they saying in their narrative, so really answering “What was American about American jewelry?” We did tons of research through old documents of the American Crafts Library. We went all over the country and interviewed, and it was about a five-year-long process to get this point. The book is incredibly condensed. You can feel that there’s a lot there, but it took a lot to condense it down to that. 

Really, what we hope is that it’s an easy-to-read story about the stories that jewelers were telling at the time, which was the origin of all that’s come down to us now. It was the beginning of the development of university programs in the country. They just were in the process of expanding them, and people were learning how to make things. Nobody had a lot of skills in this country, so everybody had to learn how to make things. There were a lot of alternative ways of passing around information. The counterculture, we regarded that not as hippies per se, although hippies were part of it, but also a lot about the political and social issues of the time and how people responded to them. The ethos of the time, the values that people developed really became part of the craft counterculture itself. The craft field is based on a lot of those ways of working in the world, a sort of hope and trying to create a new society that had more values than the 50s had aspired to for each individual. People were trying to find ways to have valuable lives, and doing something like making something yourself and selling it at a craft fair became a wonderful alternative for many people who had the skill to do that. That was a very different way of having a life, shall we say, and that’s how American jewelry developed: with those values and skills. I still see remnants of it in the current field. That’s my focus. Cindi, do you have some things you want to add to that?

Cindi: Yeah, the larger public’s ideas and thoughts about American jewelry from that period were rooted in a history and an aesthetic that emerged largely on the East Coast, but certainly spread, as Susan said, with the development of university programs. That was an aesthetic that was largely rooted in the organic modernism of Scandinavian influence, as well as what had come before in America in terms of modernist studio jewelry. There’s a history there in the narrative, and that narrative played out in early exhibitions. It played out in the first SNAG exhibition in 1970 in St. Paul, which is considered one of those milestones of the early American studio jewelry movement. 

Now, we knew that there were artists like Fred Woell, Don Tompkins, Ken Cory, Merrily Tompkins, who were on the West Coast and working in a different vein, as Susan said, a narrative vein, and who were often working with assemblage techniques and found materials and were making commentary on issues of the day. Within the accepted history of that period, they were a minority, with the exception of Fred Woell and really Ken Cory. Their work was not as widely known, as widely collected, as widely understood. Damian and Susan and I started after we thought, as Susan said, “What is American about American jewelry?” 

Fred Woell was an artist who immediately came to mind as embodying a certain type of Americanness. We had an extraordinary trip to visit with Fred’s widow, Pat Wheeler, and to the see the studio and go through some of his papers. When we went, we thought we would be doing a monograph on Fred Woell. It was on that trip that we understood that it was a much larger project, and it was one that would encompass many more artists. As part of our research, there were certain artists who were known to us, and our hope was that we would rediscover artists who were working intently during that period who had been lost to history for whatever reason. There were also artists whose work we were able to reframe for the reasons that Susan mentioned: because of their lifestyle, their belief system, the way they addressed or responded to major issues during the day. So, we started developing these list of artists.

I think what readers will find in the book is looking at some of the well-known artists, perhaps more in depth and in a new frame of analysis, but also learning about a plethora of other artists. For us, it was five years of intense work. There’s a tremendous amount of research that has gone into this book, and from what we’ve been hearing, it has enlightened people about a period. It’s not an alternative history, but it is an additional history. We hope it will inspire people to pick up the mantle and go forth because, of course, one has constraints in terms of word counts for publishing. At a certain point, you have to get down to the business of writing and stop the research, but there are so many threads that we hope other scholars, curators, students, interested parties will pick up and carry forth. In some ways we were able to go in depth, and in other ways we were able to just scratch the surface of what has been a fascinating topic for all of us.

Sharon: I have a lot of questions, but first, I just wanted to mention that SNAG is the Society of North American Goldsmiths, in case people don’t know. Can you explain, Susan or Cindi, what narrative jewelry is?

Cindi: There’s no one definition. Everybody would describe it a little bit differently, but I think a basic definition is jewelry that tells a story, that uses pictorial elements to tell a story. Whatever that story is can range from the personal to the public, to, in our case, responding to things like the Vietnam War, politics, etc. Susan, do you want to add to that?

Susan: It’s a very difficult thing to do when you think about. Narratives usually have a storyline from this point to that point to the next point. Here’s a jeweler trying to put a storyline into one object, one piece. It is tricky to bring enough imagery that’s accessible to the viewer together into one piece to allow the viewer to make up the story that this is about or the comment it’s trying to make. You have to be very skilled and smart to make really good narrative jewelry.

Sharon: It sounds like it would be, yes. When you realized what this book was going to entail—it sounds like you didn’t start out thinking this was going to be such a deep dive—were you excited, or were you more like, “I think I’d probably rather run in the other direction and say, ‘Forget it; I can’t do it’”?

Susan: I don’t think at any point did we stop and think, “Oh, this is a gigantic project.” We just thought, “Let’s see. This person’s interesting; O.K., let’s talk to this person. Oh, gosh, they said these about this other person. Let’s talk to them.” You just go step by step. I don’t think, at any point, did any of us realize how vast a project this was until the end, probably.

Cindi: Yeah, I would say because it happened incrementally, deep dive led to another and another. We would have regular meetings not only over Skype, but we would get together in person, the three of us, for these intense days in which we would talk about—we each had different areas we were focusing on. We’d bring our research together and that would lead to questions: “Should we explore this avenue?” Then someone would go and explore this avenue and come back, and we would think, “Maybe that wasn’t as interesting as we thought it was going to be,” or maybe it was far more interesting than we thought, so it spun out a number of different avenues of research. 

At a certain point, we started looking at the most important threads that were coming out and we were able to organize them as umbrellas, and then look at subthemes and think about the artists. It became like a puzzle. We had pockets of deep research, whether it was the in-person artist interviews or whether it was the archival research that was done, whether it was the general research. Damian and I were not alive during this time. Susan was, which was fantastic because I learned a lot about this in history class and school. Damian is a New Zealander, so he was coming at it from an international perspective. There was a lot of reading he did about American history, but Susan was the one gave us all the first-person accounts in addition to the artists. She participated in the American Craft Council Craft Fairs and was able to balance the sometimes emotionless history books with the first-person experiences that made it come alive. I think that’s what you see throughout the book. It was important to us that the book would be readable, but it was also important to us that it would have a flavor of the times. When you do oral history interviews, there are many different kinds of questions that can be asked. We set out to talk not only about the jewelry that artists were making, but their lives, what was important to them, how they felt. The richness of experiences and emotions that came out in those interviews really inflected the book with feeling like you were there and a part of what these artists were thinking.

This is a 2 part episode please subscribe so you can get part 2 as soon as its released later this week. 

Sharon Berman