What you’ll learn in this episode:
- Why the Netherlands has a high concentration of the world’s art jewelry galleries
- Why public funding and support is crucial for the survival of art jewelry
- How Rob finds new artists, and how he defines what a strong piece is
- How Rob uses social media to find clients across the world
About Rob Koudijs
Rob Koudijs is the founder and owner of Galerie Rob Koudijs, a 100-square-meter exhibition space located in the gallery district in the center of Amsterdam. The gallery specializes in contemporary art jewelry which communicates ideas, has sculptural qualities, and uses materials in innovative ways. The gallery represents a group of jewelry artists who produce work challenging the borders of the applied and the fine arts. As these artists come from all corners of the globe, the latest international developments are on display in regular solo shows and in the gallery’s collection. As well as showing jewelry, Galerie Rob Koudijs stocks a range of books and catalogues by the represented artists.
necklace ‘Red’; silver, glass
photo: Eddo Hartmann
earrings ‘Dominique’; silver
photo: Ceyhan Altuntas
necklace ‘Lunatic’; silver, wood, windowpane oyster
photo: Terhi Tolvanen
ring ‘20ba-4’; fine gold, iron, jade
photo: Esther Brinkmann
brooch ‘19B022’; silver, tiger eye, lapis lazuli, jasper
photo: Helen Britton
ring ’Talk to Me’; silver, aluminium
photo: Paul Adie
Rob Koudijs knew he was taking a risk by leaving his original career path and opening an art jewelry gallery in Amsterdam. That risk paid off, because Rob Koudijs Gallery is still going strong nearly 15 years later, despite jewelry still being a niche art form. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how he discovered his interest in contemporary jewelry, where he thinks the industry is headed, and why the Netherlands has a robust culture of art jewelry. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Rob Koudijs—I’m going to let him pronounce his name—founder of a leading art and jewelry gallery in Amsterdam. He’s also a leading figure in championing art jewelry. We will hear about his jewelry journey today. Rob, welcome to the program.
Rob: Thank you very much, Sharon.
Sharon: I’m so glad to talk with you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. How did you get involved in jewelry and art jewelry in particular?
Rob: Do you want to have the long story or the short one?
Sharon: We want the full story.
Rob: Then I will start where it all began. That was about 40 years ago. I met the man who is now my husband. He was starting architecture in Delft, and when I was in Delft, we went to an art gallery. They had jewelry and he thought, “O.K., I’m an architect. This jewelry is very conceptual, very architectural, and I can wear it.” He bought a piece from Joke van Ommen I don’t know if you know her, but Joke van Ommen was a Dutch artist. A few years later, she went to the United States and founded Jewelerswerk in Washington. I think that must be interesting for you as well. That’s how it started. It was not me; it was he who bought a piece, and then he got interested. We both were interested in art and design, but we didn’t know anything about contemporary jewelry. We thought about finding books about it. Well, there was nothing in the world, not at that time. We are talking about 1979. There was one book shop in Amsterdam and they had books—I don’t where they found them—about contemporary jewelry. I’m telling you about that art book shop because we were invited to a birthday party there. There we met Ruudt Peters —you probably know him—and he—
Sharon: Ruudt Peters?
Rob: Ruudt Peters, that’s how you pronounce it. It is a funny journey, because he invited us to his birthday party, and I’m talking about 40 years ago. There was a friend of his called Marie-José, and she had just started a gallery. She also started going to an art fair, and she invited us to come to that art fair. We went there, and I think within five minutes I started selling. I always say she discovered my talents in contemporary jewelry. She told me later on that she saw my enthusiasm about the work, so she asked me if I’d help her with the art fair. I did that for 10 years, only at my holidays, of course, because I had a totally different job; I was working in healthcare, psychiatry. I took vacations every year to help her with the art fair and to help her open the gallery. That’s what I did for 10 years; that’s how it started, and of course, I got a lot of inspiration from that.
We started buying jewelry—well, you know how it works. Before, there was not that much in the Netherlands. Marie-José just started. When you are getting interested in contemporary jewelry, you think, “This is fantastic, but where can I find it?” So, we went looking for galleries. We found one gallery and we started buying things, and we went to Gallery Marzee and started buying pieces. At one moment, we discovered there was another gallery that opened. That was in 1985, I think, and that was Louise Smit Gallery. So, there were some galleries. There was one in Delft as well, Louis Martin. I became involved in the jewelry world, but it was not my job. Shall I go on?
Rob: After 10 years helping Marie-José she went to the big building where she is now. You probably have been there. Then we stopped working together. Later, we visited the Louise Smit Gallery and she said, “O.K., sit down. I’m here now for 10 years. I don’t see what’s going on in the jewelry world anymore, and I need a business partner.” It’s a long story, but I became business partner in the Louise Smit Gallery.
Sharon: Is that still going? I don’t know.
Rob: No, it’s not there anymore. It existed for 10 years and then I did it for 10 years. The 20-year celebration, I was still there. The idea was that she should focus on the big names, the big artists she was already working with, and it was my task to find new talents. That’s what I did, and I’m still working with them. I have to tell you—I wrote it down—we are talking about 25 years ago, and we started with lots of students, and most of them came from the Netherlands. They had all their education at Rietveld Academie, but we also went to Munich and then we found students there. I brought them into that gallery. I was a business partner, so I got the young talent over there, and that’s how it worked. We did it for 10, years and then very abruptly—is that how you say that?
Rob: It didn’t work out very nicely. She stopped our companionship, and that was that, my 20 years in contemporary jewelry. So I thought, “O.K., this was so nice.” I liked it so much. I did it next to my other job, and I thought, “O.K., I have to try it myself because if I don’t, I will regret it the rest of my life.” It was 2006, and a few months later—I don’t know, half a year later—in April 2007, I opened my own gallery. The idea was, O.K., there were two galleries in Amsterdam. There was one gallery in Delfts. I thought, “It’s crazy. We are a very small country. Contemporary jewelry is a niche in the art world, so will there a public for it?” But, I thought, “If I don’t do it— let’s give it a try, and if after a year I see it doesn’t work out, I will stop with it.” Well, that’s now 14 years ago and I’m still here. That’s more or less the story over 40 years and how it all started.
Sharon: Wow! I love the fact that you’re saying you realized you would regret it for your whole life if you didn’t do it. I think of things myself where I thought, “If I don’t this, I’ll just—” It didn’t work out, but at least I can try.
Rob: Exactly, that’s what I thought, and that’s how it all started. Of course, I was very dedicated to contemporary jewelry. Some artists stayed in the older galleries, but there were a lot of artists that needed a gallery. That’s what’s still going on now. There are not that many galleries in the world. So, I thought, “O.K., I’ll just give it a try,” and I didn’t regret it at all.
Sharon: There’s a handful of galleries in the world, and there are really not that many that were doing. There’s a handful. The majority seem to be in the Netherlands. There are not that many in the world. I don’t think there are a dozen.
Rob: It’s funny, because it’s not like that anymore, but at a certain moment, I think we had five galleries for contemporary jewelry in the Netherlands. At the moment, there are only two—well, the galleries with big names. It’s Marie-José and it’s me in Amsterdam. That’s because the other galleries closed, so there are only two galleries. It’s still a lot for such a small country.
Sharon: Why do you think that is? What is it that the Netherlands has, where you have two galleries or in the past had five, when the rest of the world has so few? It’s so unusual.
Rob: No, you’re right. I’ve thought it over a lot, and I’ve gotten that question many times as well. Probably it has something to do with—not now, but in the past. In the past, in the Netherlands, artists got very good grants. Museums bought contemporary jewelry, and there was a lot of publicity about contemporary jewelry. I think the focus was on contemporary jewelry. I don’t know why. We always say it has something to do with the 60s, when Dutch jewelers started. I don’t know why it happened that way, but I think the government was important. The grants, that’s what it’s all about, because otherwise most of the jewelry artists cannot live from what they are doing. When you get a grant, you can develop yourself, and that’s what happened. That’s why all these artists, the names I told you before, all these artists are still working. After 25, 30 years, they are still there and they are still successful. It has something to do with that.
What you see now is that there are no grants anymore, not for jewelry artists. There is no publicity. Museums don’t buy that much. There’s only one wonderful museum in the Netherlands. You probably have heard of it; maybe you’ve been there. It’s the CODA Museum in Apeldoorn, and they have the biggest collection of contemporary jewelry at the moment. Through the years, Stedelijk Museum didn’t buy any more. Rijksmuseum, they have a nice collection, but they don’t buy. You can be successful, or a field in the art world can be successful if there’s publicity, if there are grants, and if the museums are interested. There were a lot of exhibitions, like I said, but it’s all in the past. The jewelry is still there and the collections are there. The Stedelijk Museum has a big collection, and they started early. I don’t know how it is in the states, but they all started after the war, in the 50s, 60s buying contemporary jewelry. I don’t know if that’s the reason, but that’s what we think. It has something to do with it.
Sharon: It makes a lot of sense. I’m interested in the fact that you use the term contemporary, because if you were going to Google contemporary jewelry, you wouldn’t see a lot of these names come up. You’d see more—I don’t mean to knock it, but run-of-the-mill or production jewelry as opposed to art jewelry. But you use contemporary jewelry. Do people know what you’re talking about when you use it? Suppose you are at an art fair. I’m just interested in the fact that you use the term contemporary jewelry as opposed to art jewelry.
Rob: When I use my hashtags on Instagram, I use art jewelry, studio jewelry, contemporary jewelry; I use them all, because I think in the world, not only in the Netherlands, we use all those names. There is no specific name for it, as far as I know.
Sharon: There isn’t. It’s such a nebulous name. There’s not one name that says what it is.
Rob: Yeah, you can call it art jewelry or art you can wear, sculpture to wear. I think the problem is when you are talking about a painting or a sculpture, well, that’s what it is. You have contemporary sculpture and you have antique sculpture, but it is very difficult. Like I said, it is probably because it is a niche in the art world, and you want to be different from the big jewelry shops, somewhere where they sell the gold and the diamonds. That’s not what we are doing and what our artists are doing, but there’s not a specific name for it, no.
Sharon: What was it that attracted you initially? Was it the art aspect of it? You could have been attracted to gold and diamonds. What was it that attracted to art and jewelry?
Rob: No, it’s more the integration of the artistic concepts. It’s art and it’s design and it has craft. Craft, for me, is very important, all the crafts that are used and the combination of that. Like I said before, my husband and I were interested in art and design and architecture, but this integrates it all. We could wear it, because especially 40 years ago, it was very common for men to wear jewelry. That’s why we started with geometrical jewelry. I think it has something to do with that. It integrates a lot of things. It’s small sculpture. I talk to a lot of collectors, and if you are collecting sculpture, for instance, or paintings or photos, all your walls are full. When you are collecting contemporary jewelry, you have the most wonderful pieces of art, and you can put them in a drawer and go on till you die.
Sharon: This is a question I have; I’ve thought about it a lot. What is a collector? When do you cross the line from being someone who is just an enthusiast into being a collector? When do you become a collector?
Rob: Some people are opposed very much to the word collector. For a long time, we didn’t like to be collectors. We just bought things we liked and we could wear. At a certain moment, you have over a hundred pieces, and then other people are calling you a collector. I know the same thing happens with clients in the gallery, for instance. They also don’t like to be called a collector, but at a certain moment, they have so many good and strong pieces. Then other people start calling you a collector, and then you are a collector whether you want to be or not.
Sharon: Another question, perhaps not so easy to answer: When you say good and strong pieces, what’s a good and strong piece? Is a good and strong piece one that I love? Maybe it’s by a certain artist.
Rob: When someone asks me that, I always give the same answer: It is very personal. Our personal is that we like architectural, sculptural jewelry. We like brooches because we are men and we don’t wear necklaces. So, our focus is on that. When we say it is strong, it has to do with that. It has to be sculptural, and of course it also has something to do with the artist. You follow the artist and think, “O.K., this is new. This is interesting,” because it’s also important that there is somewhat of a development in what an artist is doing. I think that makes it a strong work, but it is very personal. What you think is good or strong or special, I cannot say it for the whole world. It’s only for me.
Sharon: As a gallerist, you must be inundated with artists saying, “Are you interested in carrying my work?” or who come to you and say, “Let me be in your gallery.” How do you sift through all of this?
Rob: That is a very difficult part of being a gallerist, because you have to disappoint people, especially disappoint artists. There are not that many galleries and there a lot of artists. Most of the time when people reach out to me by email or they come to the gallery, I always say, “Send me some images and don’t expect me to react.” That doesn’t sound very kind, but if I can’t do that, I should hire someone to do that for me, because we got a lot of questions about it, “I want to show my work in your gallery.” We are always looking if it is an adjustment to the artists we have in the gallery, for instance. I think that’s very important. And is it new? Is it something special I haven’t seen before? With the adjustment to the other artists, I don’t want three or four artists there that look the same. I’m not interested in that. That’s what’s happening, and most of the time, to be honest, we find the artists ourselves.
Sharon: At shows?
Rob: Yeah, it doesn’t happen often that people reach us and send us emails or show us work and we say, “Oh yeah, that’s fantastic for the gallery.” It doesn’t happen that often, no.
Sharon: Do you find them at shows like Schmuck, or what’s the one in the Netherlands?
Rob: No, there is not that much in the Netherlands. Schmuck is very important, but there is something else. We’ve known all the artists so along already, 25, 30, 35 years, and they know other artists. Sometimes they say, “I know a guy, I know a girl. Have a look at it.” That helps us as well. We don’t go to all the graduation shows. For us, it’s important to go to Schmuck in Munich.
Sharon: We should tell people what Schmuck is. I’m sorry; go ahead. Schmuck being the art jewelry week in Munich.
Rob: In Munich, yes. Schmuck is actually the German word for jewelry, but everybody calls it Shumuck now. Things are changing. We went to all the graduation shows, and of course we follow the artists who are graduating and want to give them a platform in the gallery. We want to show young artists, but that has changed. It’s not that strong in school anymore, not for contemporary jewelry. There are not many artists from the Rietveld Academie anymore, so we have to find them all over the world, and that’s what we do. We have artists from all over the world, from New Zealand, from Austria, from the United States. Most of them come from Europe, but we are a very international gallery.
Sharon: Do you have clients from all over the world? People buying from the gallery all over the world?
Rob: Yes, that has a changed as well. When we started, it was mostly from the Netherlands or from Europe, when people could travel, of course, but that has changed as well. The world is smaller. We have Facebook. We have Instagram. We make online catalogues. You probably have seen a few from us. We reach out to our clients in the world, and there are some very good collectors in the world, especially in the United States. So, we have clients from all over the world, from all countries in Europe, from the United States, and from Australia. These are the countries from where we get clients.
Sharon: In terms of dealing, I don’t know how it’s been in the Netherlands with Covid. Have you been doing more online with Covid, or even before that?
Rob: We did a lot. Like I said, I’m very active on Facebook and especially Instagram, because I think it’s an important medium at the moment. During lockdown, I think we did something by email every week, by Facebook, by Instagram; we sent out to the world. We had the idea while we were in lockdown in the beginning of last year. We were closed for over four months, and then we were closed for 3.5 months. I just opened up a few weeks ago. So, we had to reach out to our clients by email and make it interesting. That’s why we started to make those online catalogues to seduce our clients.
Something else was very important first—that’s how it actually started. We had to let them know we are closed, but we are there and we still have those wonderful artists who we work with, and they’re making new work. We asked them to make new work. They did, and we want to show it to you, and it worked. It kept us through. You have seen my place; it’s not for nothing that you rent a place like that. We needed to pay the rent and so on. It was tough, but it worked because we worked very much online in the last year. I don’t think we’ll stop, even though we’re open again. We discovered what we could do to find a bigger audience.
Sharon: What do you see as the trends, or where do you see the global market in art jewelry going? Do you think it’s an increasing interest? Some people think no, it really hasn’t changed. I like to think it’s growing, but that’s just my American optimism. Where do you see art jewelry? Do you see it expanding the market? Do you see more galleries opening, more interest, more people understanding it? I can’t claim to understand it, but I’m just asking what you think.
Rob: Let’s just say it this way, Sharon: I hope so. I don’t know. What happened in the art world with photography—that’s already quite some time ago—it started to explode and was seen as real art. I hope that would happen to contemporary jewelry as well, but not at this moment. There are fewer galleries. All the galleries are old, more or less; there are a few younger, but most of them are old, so it will stop. I don’t know. I think the biggest problem is that it’s wonderful to do it. It’s the best thing I have done in my life, but if you are young and you have a family and you have to live from it, I don’t think it will work out. It will be very difficult; otherwise, you have to commercialize, and that’s what I don’t want. If I should do it that way, then I stop immediately.
Sharon: When you start selling the T-shirts with the gallery name.
Rob: Yes, for instance. That can be a problem. You probably follow the jewelry world as much as we do, and you know when you go to auctions, we always hope the jewelry will get a higher price. Sometimes it works, but it has to be gold. You see at auctions that good pieces from good artists from the last 50 years, they go up in price, but it has to be from precious materials. Well, not all our artists’ work is made of precious materials. They work with wood and glass and textile. They also work with gold and silver and pearls and diamonds, but they use it not for the sake of gold or diamonds. They use it as their material to express themselves. So, I hope it will get better, especially for all those artists who are working so hard, but it still is a niche in the art world.
Sharon: Yes, very much so. Thank you so much for talking with us today. I’m glad things have opened and that you are expanding in the online world so more people can see what you’re doing and what you have. Thank you so much for talking with us today.
Rob: Thank you, Sharon.
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