Where Does Your Gold Come From & Why Does It Matter? Explore From July 13-15, A Virtual Event. 11th Annual Gold & Diamond Conference with Lisa Koenigsberg, Founder & Conference Director

Episode 120

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • Why jewelry carries meaning beyond just its material value
  • Where jewelry and adornment fits into visual culture
  • How Lisa developed Initiatives in Art and Culture’s series of conferences, and how she has adapted them during Covid
  • When the next IAC Gold Conference is and what speakers to expect

About Lisa Koenigsberg

Lisa Koenigsberg is the Founder and Conference Director of Initiatives in Art and Culture (IAC) which aims to educate diverse audiences in the fine, decorative and visual arts. Lisa has organized conferences, symposia and special sessions at universities, museums and professional organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad which explore fashion, materials and process. Her writings have appeared in books, journals, magazines and in Trendvision’s Trendbook 2018.

Lisa previously served as Advisor to the Dean for Arts Initiatives; Director, Programs in the Arts; and adjunct professor of arts, NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Additional positions include: Assistant Director for Project Funding, Museum of the City of New York; Executive Assistant, Office of the President, American Museum of Natural History; architectural historian, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission; and guest curator, Worcester Art Museum and Yale University Art Gallery.

She holds graduate degrees from The Johns Hopkins University, and from Yale University where she received her Ph.D.

Additional resources:



Throughout history, people have always had an instinct to adorn themselves. Although the materials and trends change, the desire to make things beautiful is deeply human. Lisa Koenigsberg, President of Initiatives in Art and Culture (IAC), joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about this phenomenon, as well as IAC’s series of conferences covering a variety of jewelry topics. Read the episode transcript below. 

Sharon: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Lisa Koenigsberg, President of Initiatives in Art and Culture, an organization which is committed to educating diverse audiences in the fine, decorative and visual arts, with particular emphasis on jewelry. The organization offers some intriguing conferences and live stream events. We’ll hear all about those today as well as Lisa’s own jewelry journey. Lisa, welcome to the program.

Lisa: Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.

Sharon: Tell us about your jewelry journey. I know you covered a lot of ground prior to founding the organization.

Lisa: It’s actually a more complicated question than that, because our journeys—the personal and the professional are always intertwined. I’ll start with one memory from my childhood, which is of my mother getting dressed for special evenings. She had an outfit that was red and shoes that were printed with a raspberry print—perhaps it was floral and I remember it as that—and she had earrings that were two rounds of small rubies with little diamond flowers and a ring that matched. That association is very profound, one of beauty with my mother, one of the meaningfulness of adornment, the specialness that it denotes. Special can mean many things, of course. I happen to be an extremely visual person. I was born into a world, if you will, a culture, and I have always looked at materiality from across a disciplinary perspective. How does the mother’s jewelry indicate that? On the one hand, you have the emotion that resonates, the association, which is a powerful way that humans think. When they see something they associate with X, and if you do it often enough, then you have an accepted, codified language. If we always see, for example, a steeple and then think “church,” then we’ve created a convention of meaning.

The other thing is that her jewels were beautiful objects made of materials, meaning what? You’d have stone; you’d have metal; you’d have artisanry that shapes material, crafts material—another loaded word—into something that is then worn. I think one of the great challenges about jewelry is that adorning ourselves and crafting objects to which we give significant value—and by that I don’t mean monetary value, but we imbue it with spiritual value, we load it with emotional association and the resonance of love, of friendship, the power of faith, for example, a cross, or a more singular object would be the Pope’s ring. This is an innate instinct in us to want to adorn and to create adornment. 

I’m steering away from the word “jewelry” in this context, simply because any word, as we’re discovering these days—we had the War of the Roses, and now we have the War of the Words. What exactly do words mean? Wearing and creating what we could call jewelry is so innately human, and yet we burden it with the weight or the negotiation of associations that can come with the word “luxury.” Luxury, to many people, implies something that is superfluous; it is frivolity. One of the ways people are trying to resolve that dichotomy is in contemplating how the materials that go into the adornment are sourced, how the adornment is made, which gets at “good, better, best” and this idea of fewer, better things, which is not anti-materialist; it is actually an affirmation of the importance of materiality and the importance of being selective, purposeful, considerate and deliberate about choice. But it’s a heavy burden that jewelry bears.

Sharon: That’s true, and in Initiatives in Art and Culture you’ve explored this. Tell us about the organization, your webinars, the conferences you’re doing. Tell us more so we know when we get something in our email about an upcoming event. I know you’ve explored a lot of this.

Lisa: The organization launches and then stewards projects, very often conferences, symposia or series. Now we’re looking at publications that focus on—I’m going to borrow my term back “visual culture,” and by that we mean what you see. From the earliest point in my life which is preschool, pre-everything, I have seen the visual as a language. You have the language of form; you have the language with which you execute form: Is it classic? Is it baroque? Is it spirit? Is it colorful? You have the materials out of which it’s made. What value do we ascribe to those materials? Is one better than the other? Does material value influence our concept of whether something is better or not? 

With this general swirl, what does a picture of Andrew Jackson astride a horse tell you? It references a whole tradition of visual culture. It reinforces the mythology of Jackson, which you may wish to unveil to see some ugly subtext. It is about communicating effectively to a culture with imagery that conveys extant but perhaps not articulated messages that need to be articulated. If you think about religious art, much religious art is not only glorious, but it also serves as a visual manifestation of something so we think, “Oh, that’s a textual narrative.” Before the universality of text, we had images, and how those images are created impacts us as much as the words with which a statement is crafted. 

Then there are many dimensions to value of material. So, it’s made of aventurine and it’s blue, and therefore it’s one of the most costly colors. Is that the product of a society that relies upon it for its subsistence? Then there’s what we might call social sustainability as a dimension. All of these things are, from my perspective, summarized in visual culture. So, our purpose is to explore from every angle—and we welcome new thoughts as to what those angles might consist of—but to explore from every angle possible that which you see. Jewelry is of central importance in that canon of objects. 

Sharon: In a different lifetime when we could travel, I attended one of your conferences, the Gold Conference. You have an upcoming virtual conference. Tell us about that. It really sounds interesting, and it focuses on jewelry and some of the issues you’ve been talking about, sustainability. 

Lisa: With pleasure. We have two conferences that have focused on jewelry that are fairly long-running. One of them tends to look at fashion, cultural zeitgeist, materials, and it often uses color as a lens. It was the 10th anniversary of that conference, which was called Green. It was in 2008 that we made an effort to rework our significant commitment to that and transitioned into exploring jewelry and materials related to jewelry. In the process of working on that conference, we met many people with whom we still have wonderful relationships today, ranging from Toby Pomeroy, who was a pioneer in what was then called ecoluxury and who has such an important mercury-free mining initiative underway, to Benjamin Zucker, who is a gem merchant but also an extraordinary novelist and collector. He came and spoke about green diamonds because we wanted, one might say, a polymorphously perverse approach to green and gold and how it is mined. That was a focus of that conference, and that was the beginning of a leg of a journey. We did a Coral Conference; we did a Diamond Conference.

I woke up one day and said, “Oh golly, we’ve never done gold,” but the nuggets were there, if you will. It’s a corny metaphor, but that was the beginning of what you referred to, a decade as the “Gold Conference,” which has explored the emotional power and resonance of artistic potential residing in gold, associated values attributed to gold and how it is yielded from the earth. As the cultural conversation has become more complex and look into more angles, so has ours with a pronounced emphasis on craft or artisanry as well as on our responsibility to the planet and to one another. It’s something we would call responsible practice. At the same time, I’ve been very interested in pushing the boundaries so that we do more comparison, for example, of gold and diamonds and established categories or vehicles of value and the different ways they are produced, to use the industry terminology, or mined. What are the society implications; what are the different ways we consider value; what’s the relationship between, say, stone and metal in creating something of beauty? We were very fortunate to partner with Ronnie Vanderlinden and a number of groups he’s associated with and do something called Day of Light.

Sharon: Who’s this person? I don’t him; I’m sorry.

Lisa: Ronnie is very prominent in the diamond world. He’s an extraordinary human being of great kindness and immense connectedness throughout that world. When I say “that world,” I mean the world of diamonds in particular, which is a very complicated and interesting universe. We were asked to partner with him and a group of colleagues to produce a day called Day of Light. Out of that day—which looked largely at diamonds, everything from their significance, to the range of colors in which they come, to the moral ramifications of extraction, all of that—out of that, came the idea of pushing the borders of the Gold Conference so the Day of Light shone brightly on the Gold Conference. So, we married the two, or one has expanded to include the other, which is something I’ve been quite interested in. Of course, that doesn’t preclude our looking at colored stones at all, but that, in effect, is the upcoming virtual conference. So, it’s our 11th year of what is now the Gold and Diamond Conference. We are doing it virtually July 13-15. The reason for doing this virtually is, one, I had an extraordinary epiphany. The first time we did a webinar and understood the impact we have or did have, we were really honored because we had 44 countries listening in. That was enormously exciting to me, and I guess unfortunately meant more work, because I was so excited that I said, “All right, we’re going to do this even if this is whatever the world looks like.” The conference is in person because there’s a criticality to being in person that you cannot replicate. On the other hand, the virtual and web context provides other things that also are irreplicable and important, so together they are more than the sum of their parts.

Sharon: What are the dates of the conference?

Lisa: The conference is going to happen July 13-15, which is a Tuesday through Thursday, approximately 10:30-2:00.

Sharon: Is that Eastern Time, 10:30-2:00?

Lisa: Yes, ET. The reason for that is that we try to be mindful of as many time zones as we can be; West Coast, U.K., Europe, etc. and that seems to be a good slice. Those are not precise hours. We are working to have an elegantly crafted program, because the way people experience time virtually is different than they do when you come together for something in person. That’s something we’ve been quite aware of.

Sharon: First, I want to make sure everybody listening knows we’ll have a link to your website and that they can get more information about the conference if they want to sign up for it. I also want to emphasize, just from my own experience, that you’re talking about deep, profound issues, but at the same time you had makers; you had designers. I’m not in mining or manufacturing, but I want to make sure everybody understands that you had guests that were of interest to a lot of people.

Lisa: We have a tremendous cross-section of people participating in the program, from makers to curators to collectors to yes, manufacturers, which is a bit of a separate realm, to people who cut stones, to people who write about value in the world. You pick up the newspaper and there’s a column, “Should I Buy Gold Today?” That’s actually related to what’s on your finger, and the people who come to our conferences mirror that diversity. We have collectors. We have people who love jewelry and are interested in it for a range of reasons, and it is not what they do for a living or their day job. Then we have a range of people who do come from different aspects of it. You can have somebody who works in mining sitting next to somebody who has the breath of god in their hands.

That actually brings up something interesting, which is the hand aspect. The open door to everyone is something that has been fundamental to me forever, and I have to say I’m very indebted to my father for this. My father was deeply, deeply interested in American art all his life. I was immersed in that world; I still am. My father approached that world as the amateur. He read everything. He looked at everything, but this is not what he did for his day job. This was a passion to which he was deeply committed. That enthusiasm and joy in the field of endeavor was something that was transmitted. That spark, that is the most interesting thing to feel that and to bring whatever question, whatever interest, whatever approach you have. 

Something that’s important that needs to be talked about more is how we wear jewels. We tend to think, “Oh, we’re going to put the broach on the shoulder. That’s where it goes.” Well, that’s the idea of a coat pin, but in fact the brooch unbelievable. It is positioned in many ways, has many functions. It becomes quite related to fashion, and by fashion I don’t mean “It’s got to be pink or navy blue,” but literally, “Well, if I’m going to wear it at my waist, can the structure of my outfit, whether it’s pants or a skirt or a dress, accommodate that positioning?” What does positioning mean? We know innately that we respond to these things, because all you have to do is scroll your media feed and say, “Oh my goodness, somebody has an engagement ring and it’s a portrait cut. Somebody else has worn it. It’s a pearl. Somebody else set a magnificent stone and created a highly original ring.” We see these things. We may not be drilling down into the particulars in the footnotes, but we’re all susceptible to the buzz, the power, the cultural associations of needing to do better. There’s the example of the impact of “blood diamond” and what the industry has done and the efforts that inspired them to do better, to be better. Frankly, some of the people who consider this on the most important level, they’re the consumer. Jewelry is a powerful vehicle that touches us all. Take a look at your left hand or your right hand. Are you wearing something? It probably says something to you, and that’s what we’re here to explore and talk about. 

Sharon: You’ve had series of—I call them webinars, but they’re live streams with a variety of people participating from all over the world with live discussions.

Lisa: Yes, our Child of Covid. This was sparked by one of our partners. We were going to have our 10thanniversary conference in April of 2020, and fortuitously it was going to be on Earth Day. Then circumstances prompted us to push it back to October, and we were asked, as was everyone, “What are you doing to meet the circumstances that exist now? What are you putting in front of people? How are you engaging them, how are the issues and the beauties and all the rest of it being brought to bear?” I had no experience in the realm, but I said, “O.K., we’ll do three webinars, one a month, between now and when the conference is meant to happen.” I say meant to happen because we ended up doing a virtual manifestation, but it was that experience, the first episode or webinar that we put forward, and the breadth of audience and the responsiveness of audience that moved me to say, “We’re going to continue doing the conferences, absolutely; they’re critical and irreplaceable, and at the same time this is something important, too.” 

One of the things we strive for is unscripted, guest-prepared lectures, and always with people who are speaking from a perspective of accomplishment, whether they’re an amazing jeweler or somebody who represents a particular part of the government or a particular part of the industry, whether it’s retail or women’s issues. People who bring, from their own informed vantage point, a readiness to talk with each other about questions and shared interests, even if perhaps they come from different avenues. We’ve been excited to welcome people as participants from all over the world, as you suggested, and we also receive questions, comments and responses in real time from people who are all over the world wanting to have answers or make comments about what’s going on. That’s our Child of Covid, but we will find another name because it is here to stay, I hope. 

I like to turn that on its ear and say it’s something that prompts in me a thought about this interlude or period of time that has been Covid. Interlude maybe suggest something a bit too pleasantly musical. Along with the devastation and the very traumatic impacts, loss of life and transformed social structure, have also come some very positive outcomes, even if the way one defines that outcome is a period of reflection to think about how we can do something better, how we can have better lives, how we can be more reflective or conscious or kind. What is the meaning of what we do? Do we want to be a bit deeper with less of the frequency that seems to have characterized culture prior to the pandemic? 

Sharon: I understand why you’ve had so many conferences, virtual or in person, because these are deep issues. You bring in people from across the board, people who are working hands-on, bench jewelers, designers, people who are familiar with mining and manufacturing. We could talk about that more, but what was interesting to me in your last webinar was a lot of people saying, “We’re not there yet. We have been working on environmental consciousness and how and where things are mined.” 

I want to make sure everybody knows that your next conference is July 13-15, and it’s Gold and Diamond. For me, being on the West Coast, I’m thrilled when these things are virtual, even though I’ve been fortunate enough to go to New York to attend some in person. To sit on my living room couch and listen to these is great. Lisa, thank you so much for being here today.

Lisa: May I leave you with a parting thought?

Sharon: Absolutely.

Lisa: O.K., I’m going to take this off. On my right hand, I wear two rings. One of them was given to me by mother on my first Mother’s Day as a mother. Imagine that I’m holding up this ring, which is beautiful; it is Greek in expression, timeless looking, very, very warm gold. Those are the attributes visually. Then there are all the associations the ring has, because my mother wore it for years and years, and I was actually present when my father gave it to her. So, that ring is on my hand. Clearly that ring is important to me. In a way, the jewelry journey starts with each of us. The fact that jewelry is meaningful in whatever way it is actually prompts a quest for the materials. That opens up the world of questions about practice and sourcing, for example. Then, as it’s transformed, you have other questions regarding taste, etc. But it all begins with us and our deep-seated connection to jewelry. I think the personal connection there is something that we celebrate, and hopefully it is a universal touch point for all of us as we go forward to talk about it in whatever ways we will. 

Sharon: There’s so much to talk about. We can talk for hours about some of these subjects, and I’d love to do that. Hopefully we’ll have you back again and we’ll continue the conversation, but thank you so much for being here today.

Lisa: It’s absolutely a pleasure. I’d love to come back anytime.

Sharon: O.K., thank you.

We will have images posted on the website. You can find us wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Please join us next time, when our guest will be another jewelry industry professional who will share their experience and expertise. Thank you so much for listening.

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Sharon Berman