Although the coronavirus pandemic has postponed its annual conference, the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) has no plans to end its mission of supporting jewelry designers. Board member Elizabeth Shypertt was a recent guest on the Jewelry Journey podcast, where she explained how SNAG is moving forward, her history as an art jewelry curator and gallerist, and why jewelry remains an underappreciated art form. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey. Today, my guest is Elizabeth Shypertt, who co-owned the San Francisco-based art jewelry gallery Velvet da Vinci. The gallery recently moved online. Elizabeth is extremely knowledgeable about art jewelry and is on the board of SNAG, the Society of North American Goldsmiths. Today, we’ll hear about Elizabeth’s jewelry journey as well as the lengths SNAG has gone to deal with the impact of the virus. Elizabeth, it’s so glad to have you.
Elizabeth: It’s so nice to be here. Thank you.
Sharon: I’m delighted to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. Were you always interested in jewelry? What else did you study, or did you segue from something else?
Elizabeth: I actually started making jewelry in high school. I grew up here in San Francisco and the high schools have art programs. I did some design and drawing, and I really found my passion in jewelry. Then I went off to college, and my parents weren’t going to pay for art school and I didn’t want to pay for it myself, so I studied literature because I had to study something more serious that I could get away with. Funny how these things come up. I was in Europe for about eight years, nine years, and when I came back to San Francisco I was working in banking. I started taking night classes in jewelry making at the de Young Museum School. When that closed, I moved out to SF State with a teacher, Dawn Nakanishi. There was a core group of us who studied with her and became friends. At some point around dinner one night and having way too much wine, we decided that nobody in San Francisco was showing jewelry very well, especially our kind of jewelry, art jewelry, and we decided we’d open a gallery. I had just been fired from my last job, so that was perfect timing. That’s how it all started. There were five of us originally, and then little by little it came down to two. I left about—I don’t even know now—five years ago—and the last partner left. I closed it about two years after that. That’s my art background.
Sharon: When you say the de Young Museum School, what is that?
Elizabeth: The de Young Museum.
Sharon: Oh, de Young in San Francisco, I see. Wow!
Sharon: Can you tell us about your experience as a gallerist? How did you see the world change over the years while you were involved?
Elizabeth: When we started, we rented a space on Hayes Street, which has now become very hip. It was fabulous, but when we started, it was the only thing we could afford and it was really rundown. It had the possibility of becoming something better, but it was a little hole in the wall, hookers and drug deals were going down all the time. We showed our own work and we got friends to show work with us. It was all on consignment because we couldn’t afford to do it any other way. Little by little, we started getting more of a reputation. My business partner was in England and made some friends there. Eventually he—he’s now married—became one of our biggest sellers. We started doing international shows because of that, and it was one of these things that happened naturally and since it is a very limited field—there are so few places that show art jewelry.
I was always very careful to make sure people got paid on time and that everyone knew exactly what they had with us at any time. I was careful about keeping good inventory and payments and we got a very good reputation. We did some really interesting shows, a number of them political, which was the highlight of all the shows that did. We did one when Bush was standing on the aircraft carrier saying, “Mission accomplished.” We decided that probably wasn’t true and sent out a call for entries to do a show called “Antiwar Medals.” Every single one—it was not juried—was a medal that somebody wanted to send to us. They were all the size of medals that would be given to officers in the military, but all of them were protest pieces. Then a few years later, the last show we did when I was still there, was called “La Frontera.” It was about borders, mostly the U.S./Mexican border, but it brought people from all over the world. There were difficulties with borders and their perceptions, and that show traveled to a number of places also.
Sharon: Wasn’t it at MAD?
Elizabeth: It was at MAD. Before that, we had opened in Mexico City. It was in the U.S. Museum right downtown, a beautiful, old colonial building, Franz Meier, and then it came to San Francisco and then it traveled to MAD.
Sharon: Did you see the interest in art jewelry grow over the years you were involved with the gallery, or was it always about the same?
Elizabeth: Again, it’s one of these fields that is so narrow. I was involved in the gallery for 23 years, and most of that time my job was to educate people. People would come in and say, “Wow, this is a piece that’s made out of copper,” or maybe some precious metals, but often they were pieces that were made out of copper or some non-precious metals or plastic or fabric and they would not understand why they were so expensive. Just because a piece isn’t made out of gold doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be expensive because it is a piece of art. That was a very difficult thing to try to get out to the public. I grew up in San Francisco near a very wealthy area and I still have girlfriends from grammar school, and most of them still have a lot of money. Most of them never shopped with me. If they were going to spend money, they would go to Tiffany’s or Shreve’s. I find it disheartening that if you want to have an heirloom piece, you can’t find the beauty in buying from someone who went through school to learn how to do this and sat a bench and made that specific piece for you or for someone like you, and instead you want to go to a larger store, to Tiffany’s or some bigger place, to buy a piece that was made who knows where and by whom. I don’t know.
So many times, being in this field, I kept thinking, “Hey, this is it. Now we’re going to get recognition. People are going to understand how interesting and valuable this art form is.” Honestly, I don’t think it ever happened while I was still in the gallery. We had people who would shop with us always. Boyfriends would come in and buy for their girlfriends who later turned into their wives, and then they’d have children and every time they’d come in and buy for them. That happened also, but it was never something—I was in that business for 23 years and I can remember meeting people in the last few years who would walk into the gallery and say, “Oh, did you just open?” We were just not that big. It’s not like L.A. It’s a very difficult field that is not taken seriously. It’s part of the reason I got more involved with SNAG.
Sharon: Tell us about SNAG.
Elizabeth: SNAG has been around for 51 years now. It celebrated 50 years last year. It is an organization that has helped many art jewelers and more traditional jewelers launch their careers. For 48 or 45 years, there has been a conference every year somewhere, mostly in the states. There have been Toronto ones, but mostly it’s been in the States in a different city every year. This was the first year we have canceled because of the virus, and it’s been a very tough few months. Here is this 50-year-old institution, and we were worried we would have to close the doors, and I didn’t want that to happen on my watch. It still has a good future and I think it can still be a valuable institution for anybody who’s doing jewelry. We had to lay off more than half the staff, and I am amazed at how everyone—not only the board that is now a working board again, but the few staff we have left—has come forward. We are all working very hard and the future looks doable. We will get through this year. We need an angel; we need somebody to come down and help, and people are coming forward with lots of little donations, lots of big donations, and that’s great. Hopefully we will make it through.
Sharon: The three conferences I’ve been to have been great. I’m not a maker, but they’ve been great in terms of meeting other makers and seeing different jewelry. I don’t think I’ve ever met a goldsmith there.
Elizabeth: There aren’t many. With the conferences, we get really great speakers. There is education about different areas of art jewelry, but then it’s all that mingling and talking and meeting people. There are always shows around the city wherever the conference is being held, and we have exhibitions that are sometimes themed. Sometimes they’re student exhibitions. There are also exhibitions in the hotel where the conference is held, or we do something called portfolio reviews. You can talk to an expert for 20 minutes and have them look at your work and critique it. It’s a really important thing.
We’re working towards being able to have a conference next year. As long as there is a vaccine, we’ll be able to do it. It’ll be in the spring, hopefully, and if not, then it’ll be in the fall. That’s what we’re working towards, and it’s going to be very different. It might be at a school instead of in a big hotel. There will be changes, but the conferences are not just for the makers; the conferences are for collectors or for anybody who is interested in finding out more about art jewelry. They’re really interesting and they’re always in interesting places.
Sharon: Yeah, it took me to cities I never would have gotten to. I think it was in Minneapolis one year and I had never been. I liked the gallery tours because there’s so much going on around the city. I like being taken by the hand and shown where things are, and then the trunk shows are fabulous on the last day.
Elizabeth: That’s something relatively new. It’s only been going on for six or seven years. It’s great because members apply for a table. It’s first come, first serve, and it’s a place where you can buy work. A lot of people collect each other, which is nice. It’s open to the public. You don’t have to be at the conference to go to the trunk show, and it’s a great way to buy jewelry. Often young people, students, will come together and get one table and split it between them, so you can find really interesting work for not very much money.
Sharon: It’s my favorite part of the whole conference, and it’s definitely a worthwhile conference. As you say, you don’t have to be a maker. I just like to go to hear the speakers and the makers talk about how things are done, how they do things, how they learned, how they grew. It’s very interesting. How many people are on the board right now?
Elizabeth: There are a couple of members who had to step down for various reasons. We are eight with three coming on who would have started their terms at the conference in May. We have membership in September, so that’s when they will come in. We’re normally about 14, so it’s small right now. I can’t remember exactly how many, but there have to be more people elected than appointed. Once we get the elected people on the board, then we can appoint more.
Sharon: It sounds like you are really pulling together. I hope, from my own selfish standpoint, that it continues and that there is a conference next year, whether it’s spring or fall. Elizabeth, what else would you like us to know about your work, about gallery work, about SAG?
Elizabeth: One thing. There are a few museums around the country that do art jewelry shows. I curated a show here at the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco of Tex Gieling’s work, who was a teacher for 50 years here in the Bay Area. MOD obviously has a jewelry collection and the Boston Museum has a jewelry collection.
Sharon: Houston, I think.
Elizabeth: Houston has a jewelry collection. I’m hoping the more museums that recognize the value of this jewelry, the jewelry that I hold so dear, the more the public will recognize it. I think that would be an important step. If anybody out there has connections with museums to either encourage them to purchase art jewelry or to donate pieces to them—I realize museums have a hard time. If you give a piece of jewelry to a museum, once they accept it they are responsible for taking care of it. A lot of museums don’t know how to do this so they don’t house jewelry collections, but the more the word spreads the better. A lot of us who had galleries or have galleries are getting old, and a lot of the collectors are also getting old. We do have a lot of young people coming out of school and they should get some recognition. The more of us who are out there trying to make that happen, the better off we will be, they will be.
Sharon: That’s a good point. It’s a challenge; it’s always been a challenge. The collecting world is getting older and you don’t see many young people. You’re right.
Elizabeth: You don’t.
Sharon: Thank you so much for being here today. We really appreciate it. For everybody listening, that’s it for the Jewelry Journey. We’ll have some images of Elizabeth’s gallery and work that she admires and some of the things she mentioned today. Please join us for the next episode of the Jewelry Journey Podcast, when we’ll have another jewelry industry professional giving us their take on the world of jewelry. You can find us wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Thank you very much.
Elizabeth: Thank you, Sharon. This is great.
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