As an artist, jewelry designer and director of the 92nd Street Y Jewelry Center, Jonathan Wahl knows the jewelry industry from all angles. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about his path, what makes for “bad” jewelry and New York’s first Jewelry Week. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Welcome to the next episode in our Jewelry Journey. Today, my guest is artist and jewelry maker Jonathan Wahl. In addition to these hats, Jonathan has been director of the Jewelry Center at the 92nd Street Y in New York since 1990, and he has guided the center’s growth to become the largest program of its kind in the country. In his spare time, he’s also on the advisory board for the inaugural Jewelry Week to be held in New York City the week of November 12th. We’re so very happy to have him. Jonathan, welcome to the program.
Jonathan: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Sharon: Jonathan, we know that you’re juggling a lot of hats. Have you always been very creative? Did you know from an early age you wanted to be an artist? What was the path that took you where you are today?
Jonathan: I think if I hadn’t gone to art school, my parents would have thought I was insane.
Sharon: Oh, that’s different.
Jonathan: Yeah, I was always, always, always, always an artist, 100% an artist. There was no question that I was going to go into the arts. Initially, I thought I was going to go into graphic design because I went to an all-boys prep school and everyone there was going to be a doctor, lawyer or whatever else one does after prep school. I was going to go to art school, so I thought, “Well, I have to do something that I can make a living at.” I couldn’t just go be a bohemian.
Sharon: Well, a lot of parents would say that being a graphic designer is being a bohemian.
Jonathan: I thought graphic design was the most tangible, businesslike thing I could go into. Strangely enough, I didn’t like it, even though the drawings that I do now are so meticulous and almost like graphic design, as I sometimes chuckle to myself. Not liking graphic design, I found myself interested in jewelry because a professor at Tyler at the time, said, “You know, you could be a jewelry designer and move to New York and have a career.” At 18 years old, that sounds kind of sparkly and cool and tangible and less scary than being an artist.
Sharon: So, you studied jewelry design? Were you a metalsmith? What was that like?
Jonathan: Yes, I have my BSA in jewelry and metalsmithing. One of the amazing strengths of Tyler is that they have an incredible studio, so I was able to really dig my hands into almost anything that touches the jewelry industry, whether it’s anodizing or casting or fabrication of any type. I got to make an amazing array of things and experiment and investigate. It was the 80s. Jewelry was big. I made a lot of big jewelry, but I quickly started to gravitate towards objects that were metaphors, functional objects, clocks and boxes – things that jewelry functions as started to reveal themselves. I started to realize that maybe jewelry wasn’t where I wanted to go, and it was probably more sculpture that I was going to end up in. I ultimately went to SUNY New Paltz after taking some time off and working in London. I basically studied metalsmithing. My sculpture work was all recreated American tinware, but conceptually it was set heavily into a sculptural context.
Sharon: You went back into jewelry from there, though.
Jonathan: Not exactly. I finished New Paltz and became an artist in residence in Berlin, where I continued to make sculpture in an area that was called “Klein Plastique,” small sculpture, which we didn’t have in America. I thought it was a fascinating place to be. Then, upon moving to New York, basically for a whole decade I was a sculptor. I got my first New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship for my sculpture and a Tiffany Fellowship for giant, six-foot-tall, kind of extravagant tinware pieces that were metalsmithing, but they were really sculptural. Simultaneously, I became the assistant director of the Craft Students League, which is a community education program that’s no longer in existence. Then in 1999, I became a director at the Jewelry Center, because I do have skills in jewelry and I was teaching jewelry in graduate school. It was a very likely fit for me to nudge myself to New York.
Sharon: That’s so fascinating to me because I don’t know a lot about this world. I don’t know how people make their living as a sculptor.
Jonathan: That’s where that part-time day job with health benefits comes in, but in 2005, I also launched a jewelry line. After a decade of being in New York and having ties in Latin America and thinking I was the bees’ knees and the best artist ever, interest in my work changed because my work changed. I got a little bit lost and I thought, “Well, why don’t you make some jewelry?” I put together a jewelry line and I was talking to our PR person here about young designers in New York City. There was an article in W Jewelry about this young designer in New York City and I said to our PR person, “I could bring you 10 of these people in school right now,” and she said, “But wait, aren’t you working on a line?” I said, “Yeah, I am.” So, instead, she pitched the line that I was putting together, and I got a huge spread in W Jewelry. We had an article called “Next Wave” with 10 designers from across the globe, and then Barney’s called, and Bergdorf’s called. It started to get real.
Sharon: Nice problem to have.
Jonathan: Yeah, a nice problem to have. Barney’s wanted to do seven stores and Japan all at once, and I suddenly realized, “Oh, my gosh, this is going to be a business.” I thought, “I don’t know if I want it to be a business. I’m an artist.” So, I kind of said no to Barney’s. It was a horrible thing, and I said no to Bergdorf’s because I was saying yes to Barney’s, and then I was like, “You know what? Just don’t go there. It’s too complicated. Don’t.” Instead, I did a pretty nice business with De Vera in New York, which is an absolutely beautiful store for jewelry in New York City, probably my favorite one. That gave me the opportunity to make the jewelry when I felt like it and do it on my own terms, not having a buyer looking at me and talking about buybacks or seasons or anything of that nature. Truly, at heart, as romantic as this sounds; I’m an artist and artists want to do what they want.
Sharon: Right, it’s definitely a fork in the road.
Sharon: But with such success, it must have been hard to turn down. You still make jewelry though, just when you’re moved to do it.
Jonathan: I haven’t made a whole lot of work. I have two small collections at De Vera and at Egan Day in Philadelphia, which is another really beautiful store in my hometown. The collections don’t get the attention they deserve because I’m at the Jewelry Center three days a week and I’m in my studio four days a week. Somewhere in between everything else, it has to happen, and I don’t have time to focus on jewelry in the making capacity. However, in my role here as the director of the Jewelry Center, I have a lot of interaction with the jewelry world.
Sharon: In your studio time, right now you’re emphasizing drawing, but you’re drawing gems, or what stems from gems.
Jonathan: After I launched the jewelry line, I was talking to curators and people in the art world, and when I said I was a jeweler and a sculptor, their eyes kind of glazed over. It’s still hard for some curators and some people to take two things at once. If I was a bartender and a sculptor, people get that. If I was a performance artist and a part-time male escort, that’s a great editorial, but when it comes to the decorative arts and fine arts, they still are confusing bedfellows. I think it’s changed a little bit more in the past decade. It was a surprising place to be, particularly when these people looked at me askew and they were wearing “bad” jewelry. But it led me to think about my process, and I was still interested in jewelry. I still thought it was an important place.
So, to make a very long story short, as I was doing these sketches of these big jewelry ideas, I came across a book that had jet jewelry in it. I looked at some of these objects and out of context, they were really transcendent. Some of the Victorian eternity knots look like Bakelite jewelry from the 30s. They look like 80s plastic jewelry. As I started to render them really large, they became these abstract objects. That’s when I started to draw, and I became interested in presenting these very specific objects of jewelry in a different context and presenting them to the world in a different format for consideration, and I think the rendering became really important. They became seductive because they were these really rich blacks and sparkly highlights and, again, it was “for your consideration,” as one would say. I found myself in this place and that was how I expressed where I was. Since then, there have been pieces and series based on gems, gems as reflectors, gems as eyes, all these metaphors associated with gems. Now this sparkly association with gems has slowly flowed into my fascination with water, and patterns on water, and rendering patterns on water. Some of them are a little bit fabricated, almost like a jewelry object or a brooch. There’s something going on there that is combining all these threads that I’ve dealt with over my life.
Sharon: It’s an interesting way to combine it. To me, the drawing is graphic design. Maybe they’re totally different, but are they the same? You said that you felt that’s not what you wanted to do.
Jonathan: I just thought the techniques of graphic design, at that time as an undergraduate, I found so annoying pre-computer. I’m heavily invested now in being a meticulous drawer, but I also think in dealing with jewelry, you have to be meticulous and you have to be controlled. What’s different now is that the initial bodies of work were portraits of objects. Now, I’m the author of this image-making, which is a fascinating place to go into because I’m not trained as an image maker; I’m trained as an object maker, which is probably why these images look a little bit like objects.
Sharon: That’s interesting. As I said, I’m learning a lot. To me, it’s a picture. I don’t mean to belittle it, but I never think of a picture as an object and that’s interesting.
I wanted to go back and ask you something, because you said these people were wearing “bad” jewelry. What is “bad” jewelry?
Jonathan: There is no “bad” jewelry, but when I looked at chic people in the world wearing a really great black dress or Marni dress back in the day, I was like, “Wow, your jewelry is not that interesting. You might be collecting blue chip art, but man, your jewelry is really lame.” I just didn’t find it very interesting or creative or inventive. Not that everyone has to present on all those levels, but I thought it interesting the way some people consider some things more than others.
Sharon: That’s interesting, that you’re wearing a designer piece–
Jonathan: Exactly. That’s a whole other conversation about how an iconic object of ornament fits within that fashion world. That’s a long, complicated, convoluted story about how things are presented and how you get representation in fashion magazines and how the industry fits in there. I’m still fascinated with all these levels of art, craft, and commerce. It’s interesting.
Sharon: There are so many factors. You said something along the lines of jewelry becoming accepted in the fashion world or art world, but I was wondering if you’re separating art jewelry from contemporary jewelry. For example, a Todd Reed piece is perfectly fine and very nice, but it’s not art jewelry to me. Everybody has their own perception.
Jonathan: Everyone does have their perceptions. For me, I’m certainly engaging in the jewelry world in specific ways and other times very tangentially, and I mean on all levels. I don’t have a lot of conceit when it comes to jewelry. I think it should work for you in whatever way it works. When I made the comment about an art collector not having the most interesting jewelry because that person was wearing an interesting dress, I want the whole thing to fit together. That’s where I was coming from. That’s “bad” jewelry because it doesn’t fit within what you’re presenting. I think everyone’s got a different way of wearing jewelry. The jewelry I made that Barney’s wanted was really conservative because I’m a pretty conservative-looking person. I’m wearing pants and a rugby shirt right now. I don’t wear a lot of art jewelry because I don’t see how it fits into my persona or my lifestyle, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t like it or don’t find it incredibly interesting. I do, and I think it’s an outlier for so many things in a larger design world. Also, New York City is kind of — sorry, New Yorkers — it’s a boring jewelry town.
Sharon: That’s what they say about Los Angeles?
Jonathan: Things change with fashion and they are tied together, but right now it’s a little bit bigger and a little more deconstructed, a little more arty. I find the trends across the board all converging into this very deconstructed place, whether it’s ceramics or painting or sculpture or jewelry. It’s very blasé, gestural. It’s interesting in one thread of the aesthetic world. In other places, there’s incredible fine jewelry being made. I’ve been working with the editor of Town & Country, who started the Town & Country Jewelry Awards, and she represents a whole other type of jewelry. I think with New York Jewelry Week, as I was talking to Bella and JB, they came to me first.
Sharon: That’s Bella Neyman?
Jonathan: Yes, Bella Neyman and JB Jones, who are the founders of New York Jewelry Week. I said, “It’s not going to be Schmuck,” because Schmuck is a whole other trajectory. It’s funded by the Bavarian state and German government. It’s 40 years in the making and New York doesn’t have that same feel. It doesn’t have the same persona. It doesn’t have the academy in Munich that creates all these people in Munich. So, I said, “You know, the opportunity is in the deficit here.” I always find people from the art jewelry world saying, “We’re not appreciated. We’re not discovered. We’re not out there.” In New York, we have these big luxury jewelry lines and a lot of other makers and studio jewelers and everyone in between. This is the opportunity to get all these people in the room and talk to each other. No one’s got to walk in wearing anyone else’s jewelry, but at least it’s an opportunity for interaction, and that’s what I really hope to see from New York Jewelry Week.
Sharon: And that’s November 12 through 18.
Sharon: O.K., great, thanks. Just to let people know if they don’t know what Schmuck is, it’s Munich Jewelry Week.
Sharon: It’s one of the largest centers of art jewelry and they call it the big art jewelry trade show. So, we have New York Jewelry Week and it sounds like it’s going to be interesting in terms of, as you’re saying, bringing everything together and putting everybody in one room and seeing what happens.
Jonathan: Yeah, I’m excited. One of my colleagues is curating a show on porcelain jewelry and this is a great opportunity. As I was saying to her, there are some really wonderful people that we know, that the fashion world loves that make porcelain jewelry, and there are art jewelers that make porcelain jewelry. I think she needs to take that whole spectrum of porcelain jewelry and put it all in one show together, and everyone’s going to show up and be in the same room. Oftentimes we overlook, or we don’t think we should include things. Specifically, because this show is so materially based, I think it’ll be a really interesting combination of people from across the spectrum of the New York jewelry world, and I hope that’s the case with New York Jewelry Week.
Sharon: Talking about porcelain jewelry, that sounds very interesting. So, 92nd Street Y. My first question is when are you going to open a center out here? Because I just drool when I hear what’s going on.
Jonathan: I really have my hands full with this center here. It’s 60 classes a week, about 500 students a week, or 500 butts in seats as we say, with a weekend faculty workshop or visiting artist workshop every weekend. I’ve created, with the help of one of our donors, the only residency for jewelry in New York City. We’re going to have our second resident here August 22, Anika Harkema from the Netherlands. Again, it’s another opportunity to expand the conversation of jewelry, because I think Anika would be considered an art jeweler. I also do, as you know, my annual trips somewhere in the world. We recently went to Israel, but we’ve been to Japan, India, Prague, Vienna and Italy, and I’m toying with the idea of Korea, which I think will be really fascinating. Yeah, the Y is busy. I’m also doing this lecture series with Stellene Volandes of Town & Country and other jewelry notables called the Jewelry Talks Series. We also have our annual benefit coming up in December, which is always a flurry of activity that I’m responsible for, so it’s a lot.
Sharon: So much going on, but it sounds fabulous. I could talk to you about each area for a lot longer, but I think we’re getting to the end of time. I want to thank you so much. I know you’re getting ready to go on vacation and I know how crammed you are before going, so I really appreciate you squeezing us in.
Jonathan: Thank you, it’s a pleasure and I look forward to seeing you at New York Jewelry Week, if not before.
Sharon: I’m really looking forward to it, and I want to thank you so much for being here. To our audience, that wraps up another episode of The Jewelry Journey. If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we’d really appreciate it if you’d go to iTunes, or whatever platform you subscribe to, and rate us. Please join us on the next Jewelry Journey, as we continue our travels from antique to art jewelry. Thanks so much for listening.
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