Although the definition of “art jewelry” might change from person to person, any art jewelry enthusiast can agree that it’s a craft that should be celebrated and promoted. One of the ways Art Jewelry Forum (AJF) does this is with its Young Artist Award, an annual award given to an emerging artist who makes high-quality and never-before-seen work. AJF board member Bonnie Levine joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about what the panel of judges looks for in a winner, what former winners are doing now and how jewelry artists can apply for the next Young Artist Award. Read the episode transcript below.

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Bonnie Levine, former co-owner of Hedone Gallery, which is an online gallery specializing in art jewelry. She’s also on the board of Art Jewelry Forum and is in charge of AJF’s Young Artist Award, which recognizes innovative work created by jewelry artists early in their careers. We’re going to hear all about that today. Bonnie, so glad to be talking with you.

Bonnie: I’m so happy to be here, thank you.

Sharon: Please tell us about your jewelry journey. I was reading a little yesterday. You really took a circuitous route.

Bonnie: I did. It started really early on. My mom was a painter and did antique tours in the French Quarter in New Orleans; I’m from New Orleans. I worked in an antique store as a teenager and just fell in love with antique jewelry. That’s how it all started, and over the years, my passion morphed into more contemporary design, more structural shapes and more handmade objects. I found my way to the craft world, where it felt like the design and handmade and jewelry all came together. I went to lots and lots of art fairs, bought a lot of jewelry.

When I got married—I’m so lucky that my husband loves jewelry about as much as I do—we went to a lot of art fairs, where we would buy jewelry and glass. Then, we decided that we would jump into the gallery world, open a contemporary jewelry gallery, a virtual gallery, no brick and mortar. We did that for a number of years and we participated in several art fairs, like SOFA in Chicago, which is actually getting ready to launch tomorrow night. Now, I’m pouring my jewelry passion into AJF, where, as you said, I’m on the board. I’m also involved in several jewelry shows that happen here in the New York City area. It’s been a long journey and a really fun one.

Sharon: Professionally, this is down the road for you, because that’s not what you decided to do. You didn’t make it your career originally.

Bonnie: No, my major professional career was in human resources at a major pharmaceutical company, where I spent the last 25 years. Before that, I was a speech pathologist. So, jewelry is career number three or four.

Sharon: Wow, a speech pathologist! That’s a new one. I don’t want to forget that in your involvement in AJF, you spearheaded the fabulous trip to Portugal the group just took, which is a massive undertaking. It was a fabulous trip, but the amount of work and detail and organization that goes into that—it’s all done by volunteers, and you were the volunteer.

Bonnie: Yes, it was a labor of love, but such a terrific experience to learn about art jewelry in Portugal, which has not had much exposure on the international stage until now.

Sharon: Right, I hope we jump-started them. For those who aren’t familiar with Art Jewelry Forum, give a little overview of what the organization is.

Bonnie: It was started in 1997, over 20 years ago, as a way to celebrate art jewelry and connect people who really love it. It’s a community of artists and collectors and enthusiasts and curators and educators and gallerists and students, who are very involved in the jewelry world from different points of view, but who connect in various ways to learn about art jewelry, to advocate for the field and to expand and stimulate the marketplace. For example, AJF sponsors artists through two award programs, as you mentioned earlier, one of which we’re going to talk about today. We sponsor domestic and international trips and events, where collectors can come together with artists and gallerists to interact with each other. We host a very robust website, where you can find interviews, articles, critical discourse on the field and a library to archive academic work in the field, as well as news about exhibitions and other things that are happening around the world in jewelry. If I had to sum it up, I’d say that AJF is a really important platform for critical discourse in the field and a place where artists and audiences can come together to learn, advocate and connect.

Sharon: I came in originally not through art jewelry, but just because I was so intrigued by the travel. You don’t have to just be focused on art jewelry, but let me ask the question that always stops me in my tracks when people ask. I don’t know your thoughts about this. What is art jewelry?

Bonnie:    It is such a tough question, isn’t it?

Sharon: It’s a really impossible question.

Bonnie: It’s jewelry that has a point of view—

Sharon:  Yes, that’s a good way to say it.

Bonnie:   Yeah, it has a point of view. It’s made with alternative materials. It can tell a story. It makes a statement. When I came into it, it was because I was intrigued by alternative materials. A lot of the jewelry I’ve bought over the years is not metal, and it is a conversation starter. It makes you feel different. It makes you feel like you’re not wearing the same thing that everyone else is wearing. People want to talk about it and people want to touch it, and that’s what I love about this jewelry.

Sharon: That’s a good description. For people who might not know, alternative materials can be plastic, wood, fiber, everything, but just not gold and silver.

Bonnie: Correct. Paper, glass.

Sharon: Yes, everything. It’s just amazing. I have a pair of earrings that were made from coated sugar.

Bonnie:  Yes, you even see there are many artists working in recycled plastic bags—

Sharon: Yes, a lot.

Bonnie: Making amazing jewelry.

Sharon:  So, the Young Artist Award, why was it established and how many years has it been around? Who should consider submitting?

Bonnie: Let me tell you about it, because it’s one of the really important and wonderful things that AJF supports. It started quite a while ago in 2000 as a way to raise visibility about art jewelry and also to advance the career of an artist who’s just getting started in their professional career. It is an international competition. It’s very selective, and it’s juried by a panel of three professionals, one always a collector. There is a curator or an educator, and then the artist who won the award the previous cycle is also on the jury. So the jury comes to this with three different points of view. It’s very rich discussions that happen during the jurying process. I’d say we get about 125 or so applications from about 30 countries. It’s a wonderful representation from the international world of art jewelry. Over the years, there have been 17 winners and over 45 jurors who have been involved in this program. This year, we’re really excited that collectors Karen and Michael Rotenberg have offered to fund the program, not only this year, but for the next three cycles of this competition. Their collection focuses on emerging artists. They have a real passion for supporting emerging artists and encouraging their commitment to the field. We’re so grateful to the Rotenbergs for their leadership in supporting young artists.

Sharon: They are huge collectors and advocates. That’s wonderful that they’re funding it. I know at one point, there was a discussion or some controversy about it because there was an age requirement. I don’t think there is anymore, meaning somebody who’s over a certain age couldn’t submit because they weren’t a “young artist.”

Bonnie:  There is still.

Sharon:  There is still?

Bonnie:  Yes, there is. There is still an age criterion that you have to be 35 years or younger to apply for this particular award. It’s always been challenging, and I always get lots of emails every year from people who might be 36 or even in their 50s and 60s, for whom making jewelry is a second career, so they consider themselves emerging artists. It is difficult, but the award is really meant for a young artist who’s just getting started at the beginning of their career and at the beginning of their adult life. In fact, it used to be called the Artist Award. This year we changed the name to the Young Artist Award to further drive home the point that this is for someone who is at the early stages of their career, who shows promise. We’ve also learned that for many types of competitions in the field, age is a common criterion.

Sharon: So, what is the jury looking for?

Bonnie: I think when they look at work, they’re looking for several things. One, they’re looking for originality. They’re looking for something that’s new; it’s different; it hasn’t been done before. They’re also looking for depth of concept. They’re looking for a point of view, maybe something that’s not just pretty but tells a story or has some concept behind it. They’re also looking for craftsmanship and the quality of that craftsmanship. The maker has to submit several images of five or six different pieces of work, and one of the criteria is that you have to show the back of the piece of jewelry, because it is important that the back is as well-made as the front. Craftsmanship is a very important criterion here.

Sharon: And how many winners are there?

Bonnie: Let me tell you a little bit about the process.

Sharon: Please.

Bonnie:  First, I would say the most important thing is for anyone who might be interested in this and wants to learn more about it, you should go to the website,, and you can find information and detailed guidelines for the award and the process and a link to the application site. The deadline is January 12, 2020, so there are still a couple of months left to go. The jury will go through three rounds of consideration, where they will get the field from about 125 down to 12. From that final group, the jury will select five finalists, and from those five, one winner will be chosen.

Sharon: From what I’ve seen, there is one winner who gets all the glory, but the finalists do get promotion. They do get visibility.

Bonnie: Absolutely; that’s very true. The winner gets a $7,500 unrestricted cash award to do with as they please. They get a membership for one year in AJF, and they also get to serve as a juror for the next competition. But all five, the winner and the four finalists—the really exciting thing is that their work will be shown by Platina gallery. It’s one of our member galleries; it’s a very well-known gallery from Stockholm. The work will be shown by Platina at Schmuck during Munich Jewellery Week in March 2020, so all of the five finalists are able to have their work shown on an international stage in Munich. The winner is expected to be there because the award will be presented to them in person during a special presentation ceremony during Munich Jewellery Week. Also, all the finalists and the winner will have an interview on the website, so all of the finalists are promoted, definitely.

Sharon: Are the entries blind? Do you give your name with the entry? People must recognize, “Oh, that’s Sally Smith’s work.”

Bonnie: In this award, yes, I think sometimes the jury may recognize some of the work, but these are younger artists starting out, so not always. The jury does not know the name of the artist. All the jury sees is a one-page résumé with no name, an artist statement, again no name, and then the applicants submit up to 10 images of six to eight pieces of work. So it is blind.

Sharon: When you say six to eight pieces, six to eight photos of the same thing, right? It’s like they’re submitting one work for consideration.

Bonnie: No, the jury wants to see images of six to eight different pieces of work.

Sharon: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Bonnie: Yes, they want to see a body of work, as you want to make sure there is the originality and depth of concept and craftsmanship across a whole body of work, not just one piece.

Sharon: How interesting!

Bonnie: Yes, we want to see. You can submit up to 10 images that show six to eight different pieces of work.

Sharon: In addition to being such a great opportunity for a young artist in terms of visibility and recognition, it’s quite an accomplishment because it’s a high bar. That’s a pretty high bar.

Bonnie: It’s a very, very high bar. Artists who have won or finalists have told us that winning this award has really increased their exposure and has given them greater networking opportunities and exhibition opportunities. It’s enhanced their confidence and the feeling that they’re really supported by the field, and it’s also expanded their practice. We’ve heard stories that artists have moved studios, moved to a different city where there’s a larger jewelry community and have been able to buy materials. There are lots and lots of benefits and reasons why a young maker really should consider this.

Sharon: Oh, absolutely. I think if you believe in yourself and your work, even to submit is exhibiting confidence in what you do. Who have some of the past awardees been? Who have been some of the finalists and winners? They may not be household names I recognize.

Bonnie: Yes, I suspect they may not be, but I’ll give you a couple of past winners. One of the earliest, back in 2001 was a guy named Mark Rooker. He was the second winner, and today he is the head of the jewelry and metals department at James Madison University in Virginia. Several years later, in 2005, a gentleman named Sergey Jivetin won. He taught at RISD and several other universities.

Sharon: I want to stop you a minute, RISD being Rhode Island School of Design. Not everybody knows this. O.K., go ahead.

Bonnie: Yes, Rhode Island School of Design, which is a very well-known design school in Rhode Island that has an important jewelry program. His work has won many, many honors and awards over the years and is in many permanent collections, including Museum of Arts and Design in New York, The Met, Dallas Museum of Art and Mint Museum. Today, he is tangentially involved in jewelry and is focused on interactive performances and site-specific sculpture, so his art journey continues in really interesting ways. Another winner that some of our audience might know is Sharon Massey. She won in 2009. She’s a tenured associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work was selected to be at Schmuck in Munich twice. She was on the past board of SNAG. She’s a trustee of the Enamelist Society—

Sharon: SNAG being Society of North American Goldsmiths. I’m just interjecting.

Bonnie:I’m sorry.

Sharon: No, no, no, we bandy these terms around, but I know a lot of people don’t know them, just as I don’t know a lot of other things.

Bonnie:  And today, Sharon continues to have a very active studio practice and exhibition schedule. A more recent winner is a Korean artist named Sooyeon Kim, who won in 2013. She’s a Korean artist educated in Korea and in the U.S. She has been making and exhibiting since about 2006. She’s won several awards. She’s lectured in the U.S. and Korea. Her work is really, really terrific, where she explores the experience of memories through photographs and a computer and transforms them into incredible wearable objects. Those are a couple of examples, but there are many people whose careers were enhanced or jump-started by winning the Artist Award or the Young Artist Award, as we have now called it.

Sharon: I always thought it was a prestigious thing, but you described the bar that somebody has to get past. I’m sure there must be a lot of discussion among the jurors in terms of who the finalists are. Bonnie, thank you so much for being here today. To everybody listening, we’ll have Bonnie’s contact information as well as a link to the Art Jewelry Forum, and you’ll find more information about the Young Artist Award in our show notes at

That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.