Episode 161 Part 2: Modern Marvels: Why Collectors Are Connecting with Modernist Jewelry

Episode 161

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • Why the best modernist pieces are fetching record prices at auction today
  • How “Messengers of Modernism” helped legitimize modernist jewelry as an art form
  • The difference between modern jewelry and modernist jewelry
  • Who the most influential modernist jewelers were and where they drew their inspiration from
  • Why modernist jewelry was a source of empowerment for women

About Toni Greenbaum

Toni Greenbaum is a New York-based art historian specializing in twentieth and twenty-first century jewelry and metalwork. She wrote Messengers of Modernism: American Studio Jewelry 1940-1960 (Montréal: Musée des Arts Décoratifs and Flammarion, 1996), Sam Kramer: Jeweler on the Edge (Stuttgart: Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2019) and “Jewelers in Wonderland,” an essay on Sam Kramer and Karl Fritsch for Jewelry Stories: Highlights from the Collection 1947-2019 (New York: Museum of Arts and Design and Arnoldsche, 2021), along with numerous book chapters, exhibition catalogues, and essays for arts publications. Greenbaum has lectured internationally at institutions such as the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich; Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and Museum of Arts and Design, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art, Savannah. She has worked on exhibitions for several museums, including the Victoria and Albert in London, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, and Bard Graduate Center Gallery, New York.

Additional Resources:


Messengers of Modernism: American Studio Jewelry 1940-1960  (photo: Giles Rivest; cover: Hahn Smith Design, Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts and Flammarion, Paris)

Sam Kramer: Jeweler on the Edge (photo: Chad Redmon; cover: Silke Nalbach, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, Stuttgart)


Once misunderstood as an illegitimate art form, modernist jewelry has come into its own, now fetching five and six-figure prices at auction. Modernist jewelry likely wouldn’t have come this far without the work of Toni Greenbaum, an art historian, professor and author of “Messengers of Modernism: American Studio Jewelry, 1940 to 1960.” She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about the history of modernist jewelry; why it sets the women who wear it apart; and where collectors should start if they want to add modernist pieces to their collections. Read the episode transcript here.  

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. This is the second part of a two-part episode. If you haven’t heard part one, please go to TheJewelryJourney.com. Today my guest is art historian, professor and author Toni Greenbaum. She is the author of the iconic tome, “Messengers of Modernism: American Studio Jewelry, 1940 to 1960,” which analyzes the output of America’s modernist jewelers. Welcome back. 

Do you think that if you had looked up and seen Sam Kramer’s shop, would you have been attracted?

Toni: Oh, my god, I would have been up in a shot. Are you kidding? I would have tumbled up those stairs had I known it was there. I never even knew what it was, but I was always seeking out that aesthetic, that kind of thing. Like I said, my mother would buy handmade jewelry, silver jewelry, and I loved what she bought. I would go to galleries with her. When I say gallery, they were more like shops; they were like shop-galleries, multimedia boutiques, not specifically jewelry, that would carry handmade jewelry. I loved it. Had I seen Sam Kramer’s shop, I would have been up like a shot. The same thing with Art Smith. I would have been down those steps like a shot, but I didn’t know they were there, and I was too busy running after boys and going to the coffee shops in Greenwich Village to look carefully.

Sharon: Out here, I don’t know if you would have had those influences.

Toni: You had a few shops. You’re in the Los Angeles area?

Sharon: Yeah.

Toni: There were a few shops in L.A., not so much in Northern California. There was Nanny’s in San Francisco, which was a craft gallery that carried a lot of jewelers. In Southern California there were a few studio shops, but I don’t know how prominent they were. I don’t know how obvious they were. I don’t think that they were as much on people’s radar as the ones in New York.

Sharon: When you say studio jewelers, was everything one-off, handmade?

Toni: Yes—well, not necessarily one-off. Generally, what these jewelers would do—this is the best generalization—for the larger, more expensive, more involved pieces, they would make one. When they sold it, they’d make another one, and when they sold that, they’d make another one. If the style was popular, they would also have what they would think of as production lines—earrings, cuff links, tie bars that they would replicate, but they were not cast usually. At that time, very little of it was cast. It was hand-wrought, so there were minor differences in each of the examples. But unless we get into the business records of these jewelers, we don’t really know exactly how many they made of each design.

Sharon: Why is it, do you think, that modernist jewelry has been so popular today?

Toni: Oh, that’s a good question. That’s a very good question. I think a lot has to do with Fifty/50 Gallery’s promotion. Fifty/50 was on Broadway at 12th Street, and it was a multimedia gallery that specialized in mid-20th century material. There were three very smart, very savvy, very charismatic owners who truly loved the material like I love it, and when you love something so much, when you have a passion, it’s very easy to make other people love it also. I think a lot of the answer to that question is Fifty/50’s promotion. They were also a very educative gallery. They were smart, and they knew how to give people the information they needed to know they were buying something special. I think it appeals to a certain kind of person. 

Blanche Brown was an art historian in the midcentury who was married to Arthur Danto, who was a philosopher who taught art history at Columbia. His wife, Blanche Brown, was also an art historian. She did a lot of writing, and she would talk about the modernist jewelry, which she loved. It was a badge that she and her cohort would wear with pride because it showed them to be aesthetically aware, politically progressive. It made them stand apart from women who were wearing diamonds and precious jewelry just to show how wealthy their husbands were, which was in the 1940s and 1950s, the women who would wear this jewelry. So, for women like Blanche Brown and women through the 1960s, 70s, 80s and even now—well, now it’s different because we have all the contemporary jewelers—but I think it set these women apart. It made them special in a way. It set them apart from the women who were wearing the Cartier and the Van Cleef and Arpels. 

You dress for your peers. You dress to make your peers admire you, if not be envious. Within the Bohemian subculture of the 1950s, within the Beat Generation of the 1950s and through the 1960s and the hippies in the 1970s, it set apart that kind of woman. Remember, also, feminism was starting to become a very important aspect of lifestyle. I think when “The Feminine Mystique” came out around 1963—I would have to check it—women were starting to feel empowered. They wanted to show themselves to be intelligent and secure and powerful, and I think modernist jewelry imparted that message when one wore it. It’s not that different than people who wear the contemporary jewelry we love so much now. Art Jewelry Forum says it’s jewelry that makes you think, and that is what I think a lot of us relate to in that jewelry. It’s jewelry with a real concept behind it.

Sharon: That leads me to the next question. I know the biographies repeat themselves. When I was looking up information about you, they said you’re an expert in modernist and contemporary jewelry. Contemporary can mean anything. Would you agree with the contemporary aspect?

Toni: I don’t view myself as an expert in contemporary. I think I know more than a lot of people about it only because I study it. It’s very hard to keep up because there are so many new jewelers popping up all the time. The name of my course that I teach at Pratt is Theory and Criticism of Contemporary Jewelry. Because of that, I do have to keep up to the day because it’s a required course for the juniors majoring in jewelry studies, and I feel a responsibility to make them aware of what’s happening right at that point I’m teaching it. Things are changing so much in our field, but I don’t view myself as an expert. I just think I know a lot about it. It’s not my field of expertise, and there’s so much. You’ve got German jewelers, and you’ve got Chinese jewelers, and you’ve got Australian and New Zealand jewelers, and you’ve got Swedish jewelers. All over the world. You’ve got Estonia, a little, small country, as these major jewelers. They are each individual disciplines in and of themselves.

Sharon: How is it that you wrote the catalogue that became “Messengers of Modernism”? Were you asked to write the catalogue? 

Toni: Yeah, I was hired by David Hanks and Associates, which was and still is the curatorial firm. They’re American, but they work for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. At that time, there was a separate Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts, and that’s really where Messengers of Modernism—it came under the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts. Now, it has been absorbed into the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It’s just one building. It was a separate building. Basically I was hired by the museum to write the catalogue.

Sharon: And how did it become a book? 

Toni: It is a book. 

Sharon: Yes, but how did it become—it was a catalogue.

Toni: It’s a book, but it functions as the catalogue in the next edition.

Sharon: Right, but I was saying that you wrote the catalogue, and then you said it was published by Flammarion in Paris. Did they say, “Oh, let’s take it and make it a book?” How did it transform?

Toni: It was always a book, but it functioned as the catalogue for a particular collection, which is their collection of modernist jewelry. Many exhibitions, even painting exhibitions, when you go to a museum and view a painting exhibition and you buy the accompanying text, it’s the catalogue of the exhibition.

Sharon: Yes, but a lot of those don’t become books per se. That’s why I was wondering, did somebody at the publishers see your catalogue and say, “This would make a great book?” I have never seen the exhibition, but I have the book.

Toni: I think this is a semantic conversation more than anything else. It has become, as I said, the standard text, mostly because nothing else really exists, except I believe Marbeth Schon wrote a book on the modernist jewelers which is more encyclopedic. This book, “Messengers of Modernism,” first of all, it puts the collection in the context of studio craft from the turn of the century up until then, which was then the present. The book was published in 1996. I think what you’re saying is it’s more important than what we think of as a museum catalogue and it’s become a standard text.

Sharon: Yeah.

Toni: It was always conceived as a book about modernist jewelry; it was just focusing on this one collection. What I’m saying is people would say, “Well, why isn’t this one in the book? Why did you leave this one out?” and I said, “Well, I didn’t leave this one out. This is a book about a finite collection that’s in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.” If I were writing a book about modernist jewelry, of course I would have included Claire Falkenstein, but she wasn’t in their collection, so it’s not in that book. That was basically what I meant.

Sharon: Is there a volume two that’s going to be coming out with the ones that weren’t in the collection that you think should be in the book?

Toni: That book was published in 1996. We’re already in 2022. People are always asking me, but one never knows. 

Sharon: I guess you don’t need an exhibition to write a catalogue. 

Toni: No, to write a book, of course you don’t.

Sharon: To write a book. What’s on your radar? What do you think you have next? Is it in the realm of modernism that you would be writing about?

Toni: That’s really what I write about. I lecture about contemporary jewelry to my students and occasionally to the public, but my area of expertise is modernism. There are cardiologists that have a part of their practice in general medicine, but if somebody has a gastrointestinal problem, they’re going to send them to a gastroenterologist. I can deal with the broad strokes, which I do, but unless it’s one specific jeweler that I would write about, I would not attempt a book about contemporary jewelry. I would stick with modernism, what I feel very confident and comfortable with.

Sharon: If somebody who’s passionate about jewelry but not wealthy said they want to start building a modernist collection, where would they start?

Toni: That is another good question. First of all, they would really have to comb the auctions. If they were very serious about collecting important works, I would send them to Mark McDonald, who’s the premier dealer in this material. He was one of the partners of Fifty/50.

Sharon: Right, does he still work in that area? Didn’t they close the store? Yeah, they closed the store.

Toni: Yeah, two of the partners tragically died. Mark had Gansevoort Gallery after. That was on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District here in New York, which was a wonderful gallery also specializing in modernist material, multimedia. Then he had a shop up in Hudson, New York, for many years, right opposite Ornamentum Gallery. That closed, but he still deals privately. He is the most knowledgeable dealer in the period that I know of. If anybody was really serious about starting to collect modernist jewelry, he would be the person I recommend they go to.

Sharon: It sounds like somebody to collaborate with if you’re writing your next book.

Toni: We always collaborate. We’re good friends and we always collaborate.

Sharon: Where do you see the market for modernist jewelry? Do you see it continuing to grow? Is it flat? Is it growing?

Toni: Yes, the best of it will continue to grow. There was an auction right before the pandemic hit. I think it was February of 2020, right before we got slammed. It was an auction that was organized by David Rago Auction in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and Wright, which is also an auction gallery specializing in modern and modernism from Chicago. Mark McDonald curated the collection, and the idea behind that exhibition was it was going to go from modernist jewelry from the mid-20th century up to the present and show the lineage and the inheritance from the modernist jewelers. It also included Europeans, and there was some wonderful modernist jewelry in that exhibition that sold very well—the move star pieces, the big pieces. 

Then there was—I guess a year ago, no more than that—there was an auction at Bonhams auction house which was one couple’s collection of modernist jewelry, artist jewelry—and by artists, I mean Picasso and Max Ernst, modernist artists. They collected a lot of Mexican jewelry and two of Art Smith’s most major bracelets, his modern cuff and his lava cuff. I always forget which sold for what, but these were copper and brass cuffs. One sold for $18,000 and one sold for $13,000. I think the modern cuff was $18,000 and the lava cuff was $13,000. If anybody comes to my lecture tomorrow for GemEx, I talk about both of them in detail. This is big money. Five figures is very big money for these items, but these are the best of the best, the majors of the major by Art Smith. Art Smith is currently very, very coveted.

Sharon: Who’s your favorite of the modernist jewelers? Who would you say?

Toni: Well, I have two favorites. There are three that are the most important, so let’s say three favorites. One is Art Smith, and the reason is because the designs are just brilliant. They really take the body into consideration, negative space into consideration, and they’re just spectacularly designed and beautiful to wear. Sam Kramer, the best of his work, the really weird, crazy, surrealist pieces like the one that’s on the cover and the back of the Sam Kramer book. Margaret de Patta, who was from the San Francisco Bay area, and she was diametrically opposite to these two because her work was based upon constructivism. She had studied under Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian constructivist painter, sculptor, photographer. Her work is architectural based upon these eccentrically cut stones. She would be inspired by the rutilations, which are the inclusions within quartz, and she would design her structures around them. I would say those are my three favorites.

Sharon: That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have thought of Margaret de Patta. I guess I think of her in a different category. I don’t know why.

Toni: She’s one of the most important modernist jewelers. She founded that whole San Francisco Bay Area MAG, the Metal Arts Guild. She was their guru. 

Sharon: When I think of San Francisco at that time, I think of all the jewelry I bought when I was 16 and then I said, “What did I want this for?” Now I see it in the flea markets for 14 times the price I paid for it.

Toni: Right.

Sharon: But who knew. Anyway, Toni, thank you so much. It’s been so great to have you. We really learned a lot. It’s a real treat. Thank you.

Toni: I had a great time also. Thank you for inviting me. Thank you.

Thank you again for listening. Please leave us a rating and review so we can help others start their own jewelry journey.

Sharon Berman