What exactly is contemporary jewelry, and is it the same as art jewelry? Regardless of how you define it, Patti Bleicher displays it at Gallery Loupe for Contemporary Art Jewelry in Montclair, New Jersey. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to speak about her path to the jewelry world, what she looks for in the work she shows and more. Read the transcript below.

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, my guest is Patti Bleicher, co-founder of the Art Jewelry Gallery Loupe in Montclair, New Jersey. Patti started the gallery in 2006, along with her business partner, Eileen David. They’ve passed the ten-year milestone, which is pretty impressive when you talk about galleries. The gallery’s upcoming exhibit is showing the work of artist Timothy Vesca McMann. It’s called “Soft Spot,” and we’ll be talking about this and more. Patti, so glad to have you today.

Patti: It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

Sharon: Thanks for being here. Can you tell us a little about your career path? When did you start liking jewelry? When did you decide you wanted to become a gallerist? How did you end up where you are?

Patti: I’ve always loved art and been drawn to art. In particular, at a very young age, there was something fascinating to me about objects — what they meant, what their hidden meaning was. It led into jewelry, because it was also something I could hold and feel. I liked texture. I liked holding the object. This was my path of being drawn to art, being drawn to objects and what they meant. Then, I loved actually being able to put these objects on to wear them. Very early on, I loved being able to put a ring on or a bracelet. There was something magical about that

It was a passion that I never really pursued professionally, but it was something that I always wanted to be more involved in. It was a world that seemed wonderful to me, and since I’m not an artist, the most logical way to be part of this world was to open a gallery. I also realized there weren’t many people who knew about jewelry and contemporary jewelry, so it was a way for me to contribute to the field. I thought by opening the gallery, I could expose or introduce more people to this world because there aren’t very many galleries.

Sharon: Specifically art jewelry?

Patti: I’m talking about jewelry, exactly.

Sharon: We need to differentiate it from contemporary. It’s hard to describe, but I would differentiate it from contemporary jewelry.

Patti: It’s interesting you say that, because I use them interchangeably. I will sometimes call it contemporary jewelry and sometimes call it art jewelry. On our website, we call Gallery Loupe a gallery for contemporary art jewelry, so there we’re using both.

Sharon: Art jewelry is contemporary, that’s true. When people say contemporary jewelry — maybe it’s the way I perceive it — I think of it as more mainstream. Not that it’s not beautiful, but contemporary jewelry can be David Yurman, and there’s nothing wrong with David Yurman, but I’m just saying it’s more ubiquitous.

Patti: Yes, I think there’s a gray area there in terms of what we call it and what’s included in these different groups. Personally, I wouldn’t think of a commercial jewelry line. It could be wonderful, beautiful jewelry, but something like David Yurman, I wouldn’t call that contemporary jewelry, although I could certainly see why you might.

Sharon: That’s interesting. I’ve seen what attracts you, so I want to know when you started liking — I’ll call it jewelry outside of the lines. I know you like jewelry, but not everybody is drawn to “edgy” or different stuff.

Patti: I can trace it very clearly. I remember the first jewelry I was drawn to, when I was probably four years old. I loved to visit the dollar diamond rings at Woolworth’s. That was a fascination. For many years I liked that kind of jewelry, more commercial, precious materials. I was probably in my late teens or early 20s when I started to search for things that were different. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, but I knew I didn’t want traditional jewelry anymore. This was a time when I was interested in Native American work. There was a time when I was interested in Victorian work. I was also looking at studio work, but I was thinking of it more as craft jewelry at the time.

Sharon: We can get into a conversation about what’s craft versus studio.

Patti: Yeah, that’s what I was calling it. Very early on I wanted something different. I usually wanted something that was made by an individual maker, where you could see the mark of the hand. I wasn’t at all interested in it being precious material.

Sharon: The mark of the hand, is that the way you describe it, or is that a term? That’s a great way to put it.

Patti: I think it’s a term. I have probably heard other people describe it that way.

Sharon: I love that.

Patti:It really gives you a feel for what you’re talking about and what I’m drawn to. I just kept looking and trying to narrow down what I really liked and what really, really excited me. Whenever I travelled, I would try to visit galleries. Not jewelry galleries per se, but any kind of art gallery, or what I thought of as craft galleries, or places where there were objects of jewelry. At one point, I was introduced to a piece of Marjorie Simon, who is an east coast artist who does a lot of writing. I found this piece of hers out west in Colorado, and the woman who sold it to me said, “Well, she’s from your neck of the woods. She’s from New Jersey.” I eventually connected with her, and she started pointing me in the right direction in terms of, “If you like this, these are other people you should look at,” or “Here’s where you should go and where you might find bibliographies and you can start doing some reading.” I went along and educated myself and tried to learn as much as I possibly could.

When I started to look at what I’m calling contemporary jewelry or contemporary studio work or art jewelry work — I use all those terms — that’s when I got really, really excited. I knew these were the pieces that I had been looking for. This was the world that really interested me. I wanted to learn more about it and be part of it in some way. When we eventually did open a gallery and chose the name, the Loupe came from the idea of taking a closer look at jewelry that’s in the jeweler’s loupe and thinking outside of what most people think of as jewelry. Really, it means taking a closer look and seeing what there is to think about and learn from these pieces.

Sharon: I love that. Tell us, what do you look for when you’re looking for a new artist? I’ve talked to other gallerists, and they say they’re always receiving submissions from makers. What do you look for? How do you introduce somebody new?

Patti: I’m always looking for work that’s going to excite me, and I mean where I see an image and my heart skips a beat because it’s something new, something different, something that looks really special. I’m always looking for an artist with originality, an artist with their own voice and jewelry that’s going to add to the work that’s already in the gallery. I also have to say that while I love showing new work, and it’s really important to me and young artists, I also get a lot of pleasure showing the masters, the Thomas Gentilles or the Georg Dobler or the Robert Baines, because these are people who have accomplished so much and spent so much of their careers looking at, making, and thinking about this work, and they’re still making new work today. To be able to present new work by these masters is also very, very exciting to me. It’s the new original voice and the new work that’s still being produced by the old masters. Old is probably not the right way to put it.

Sharon: Established.

Patti: It’s established, yes.

Sharon: You’ve mentioned that the two main audiences you’re looking to attract are the serious collectors and the person in off the street. First of all, have you seen people who’ve wandered in once and then wandered in again and again? Have you seen people grow into serious collectors?

Patti: Yes, I have. It’s really gratifying when that happens. It doesn’t happen that often, but there are different kinds. There are people who walk in and they’re so excited when they see the work, and they say, “Wow, this is so different. I love this,” and “I’ve never seen work like this before,” and they come back again and again. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as collectors or see themselves as building collections, but they’re drawn to the work and they come back, and they start to build beautiful collections.

There are also people who come in and start seriously collecting and consciously know that’s what they’re doing. That’s been wonderful, and that was one of my main purposes of the gallery, to reach out to these kinds of people. I also think the fact that they’re seeing more contemporary jewelry, art jewelry — whatever you want to call it — as permanent collections in museums gives them a push and says, “Yes, this is a valid art form you should consider collecting.” In this area in North Jersey, there’s access to so many local museums like the Newark Art Museum, which has a permanent collection, and the MAD and Cooper Hewitt. They feel more comfortable collecting because it’s something they’re seeing elsewhere as well.

Sharon: Seeing collections in museums definitely legitimizes collecting.

Patti: Exactly.

Sharon: And we could have a whole discussion on what a collector is, because I think collectors don’t think of themselves that way.

Patti: I think a lot of people don’t like to think of themselves that way because they aren’t consciously doing it, but I know people who’ve come in over the years and now have wonderful collections of work.

Sharon: I’m sure.

Patti: In that sense, it’s really been worthwhile. I’m so happy that I’ve been able to do this and share it.

Sharon: You’ve exposed a lot of people to it, people who have never seen it before.

Patti: Right.

Sharon: It’s good that there’s growth in the art jewelry market, but it’s slow. What do you think would fuel faster growth? I don’t know if faster growth is needed, but do you see it growing? What’s impacting it?

Patti: If you stop thinking so much about the different categories and you make it more inclusive, for instance, I think that helps to grow the field. For instance, what Bella Neyman is doing with New York City Jewelry Week. She’s opening it up to all kinds of jewelry. There is art jewelry there, and it’s going to be well represented, but there are other kinds as well — traditional and more commercial and more fashion jewelry, whatever you want to call it. I think jewelry is jewelry to a certain extent, and if you are more inclusive, it’s going to help grow the audience. Someone who’s coming to New York City Jewelry Week because they’re interested in traditional jewelry or fashion jewelry, they’re going to see the art jewelry as well. The more people who see it and are exposed to it, the better. I think by being more inclusive, you make that more of a possibility.

Sharon: It’s all part of a continuum. Let me ask you: as a gallerist, you have to sell. I don’t mean that in a bad sense, but you do have to sell.

Patti: It’s a good thing to sell. I can give you two really good reasons for selling that I’m not embarrassed about at all. One is that in order to continue to grow, you need to support the gallery. The gallery needs to be supported, and that’s good. The other thing is the artist needs to be supported, and that’s key. As a gallerist, I feel very responsible to the artists we’re representing. I want to see them continue to thrive and grow, and I want them to be able to make work and have studio time where they have the freedom to pursue what they want to pursue. Selling is a good thing if they need it to live.

Sharon: I think you are attractive to your clients because you’re so passionate and you’re very authentic. Have you ever said, “How do I sell?” We work with other professionals who don’t want to sell, and I’m wondering if you had to develop skills, or are you a natural?

Patti: I never had a hang up about selling. I was always happy when we sold, but sure, I’ve had to think about how we reach people, how we sell the work, how we support our artists, how we support the gallery. It’s different kinds of outreach. It’s thinking outside the box in terms of how we reach people. We’ve had shows where we’ve hired buses to bring people to the gallery in Montclair from the city, because even though it’s a half-hour away, people can get hung up on not wanting to cross the river. They think of it as a place that’s hard to get to, even though it’s super easy and it’s just a half-hour away. We’ve had to think of ways to make it easier to get people out, so we have been providing transportation.

Another has been to do pop-ups in the city in rented spaces. We’ve tried partnering with other galleries to use part of their spaces, holding lectures and talks in different studios in the city, partnering with museums or places like the 92nd Street Y, and having our artists give talks while we’re having an exhibition at the gallery in New York. Those are ways we’ve had to reach out and be creative in terms of partnering. We’ve also had to think about the work we show. There are people who are just starting out and just starting to understand the work, so we try to find wonderful work that has lots of integrity but is not such a leap for them. Maybe it’s a little more approachable, more wearable. They’re fabulous, over-the-top, one-of-a-kind pieces, but they are a little bit easier for people to say, “Yeah, I think I’d feel comfortable wearing that to work.”

Sharon: I think that’s the question. Can you wear it to the office?

Patti: Yes, can you wear it to the office. In that sense, we must think about the varied groups that come here. We have a diverse group of work, so there is something for everyone. People feel comfortable coming in and looking, and they’re not intimidated by the work, because that can happen as well.

Sharon: Yes, if you go into a very high-end store, like Harry Winston, it’s the same thing.

Patti: Exactly. One of the things that makes it more approachable — and most art jewelry galleries have this — is the fact that there are drawers you can open and look through. People love doing that.

Sharon: Yeah, I love to do that.

Patti: Everybody loves doing that. You’re finding little hidden treasures in the drawers. The MAD, Museum of Arts and Design, also has drawers where people can look through the work, and lots of times, people will come in and say, “Oh, this reminds me so much of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. They have drawers like this.” They’re so excited to see something similar, but in a different context where they can take out the piece and look at it and try it on.

Sharon: I can see how that would lower the intimidation level.

Patti: Yes, it does when people feel like they can actually touch it. It’s welcoming.

Sharon: Exactly, that’s a great way to put it. We could go on all day because there’s so much to talk about, but I think our time is up. That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts. Please, if you can rate us, we’d really appreciate it. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the jewelry world. Thanks so much for listening.