Charon Kransen has spent 50 years in the jewelry industry, touching virtually every aspect of the field. But he believes his most important role has been that of educator—both educating consumers on the value of art jewelry and educating jewelry artists on how to create meaningful work. He shared his thoughts with Sharon Berman on the latest episode of the Jewelry Journey podcast. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, I’m pleased to be talking with Charon Kransen of Charon Kransen Arts. Charon is an internationally known lecturer and gallerist representing studio jewelers from the around the world. He’s educated as a jewelry artist. He studied in Holland, Germany, Israel and Norway, and he’s taught and lectured extensively worldwide. Charon, so glad to be talking with you.
Charon: Same here, glad to be here.
Sharon: Charon, you cover so much ground in what you do. You deal in art jewelry. You sell books about art jewelry and you give talks on the subject. Can you tell us about your history, your path, what led you to where you are now?
Charon: I studied jewelry. It started in Israel at the Beth Academy. I just happened to pass the academy on a free day, and I thought, “This looks like an interesting place.” The rest is history. I wasn’t even planning to study there; I just went there to see what the place was all about, and it happened to be on the day of the entrance exams. I think it was the dean at the academy who said, “Well, I don’t really have time for you, but if you’re interested, this is the day of the entrance exams. If you want to participate, you’ll find out everything about the place.” A week later, I got a letter that I was accepted.
Sharon: Oh, my gosh, wow!
Charon: It was meant to be somehow. My mom used to say that I was always a jeweler because in school, I think it was elementary school, we had a craft afternoon every week, and we would make little pendants with pieces of copper and sprinkle a little enamel on it and fire it. That must have been my first introduction to jewelry.
Sharon: So, you always had an artistic bent.
Charon: Oh, absolutely. I was such an outsider, and I think it’s important to mention that I was born a few years after the end of the second World War, and Europe was just a mess. I grew up in Holland and Holland at the time was still very much a Calvinistic country. I don’t know if you know what Calvinism means, but maybe the best way to describe it is something my father used to say, which was, “Act normal. That’s already crazy enough.” That defines the atmosphere, the environment in which I grew up. Calvinism basically says, “Blend in. Don’t think you’re anybody special. Just blend in. Don’t stick out your head or your nose and don’t think you’re anybody special. Just blend in.” Well, what do you do if you feel that you have interests in the arts? Not that I knew what I was interested in exactly, but I was an outsider. I remember wearing purple. You might say, “That’s not so special.” Well, it was special in Holland, because the colors around me when I grew up were black, gray, beige, brown, dark blue, but bright colors, no way. I was wearing black and purple and stripes and I don’t even know why. You ask yourself, “Oh, you just wanted to be different.” I don’t think I was conscious of wanting to be a rebel. It was more like there are other ways to dress. There are other ways to behave. There are other ways to be interesting. For example, I was in a class of mostly boys. Everybody was into soccer. I hated soccer. I thought it was totally dumb and I was more interested in things that were different, really not because I wanted to be different, but simply because that’s what I was interested in.
Sharon: Because that’s who you are.
Charon: That’s who I was.
Sharon: So, you were born in Holland, but at the time you graduated from high school or when you went to college, you were in Israel.
Charon: Right, I wanted to get the hell out of Holland because I have a big Holocaust history in my family and grew up, even though the war was over, feeling that the war was still there because of the trauma my family experienced. As soon as I graduated, I wanted to get out of there and my parents wouldn’t allow me to go unless I went to Israel. That’s how I escaped Holland. I went to a kibbutz for a year to study Hebrew because that’s what they would allow me to do, and then one thing led to the other. That’s how I arrived in Jerusalem and to the academy.
Sharon: Did you want to be a maker? Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do then? What did you want?
Charon: The first year at the academy, as in most places, is kind of a general year. I can’t even remember exactly, to be quite frank, why I chose jewelry. Let’s say I just enrolled. That became my major and I liked it. I liked the small format, the eye for detail which I seem to have always had, and I didn’t really question whether I wanted to be a sculptor or a painter or an architect. Come on, you’re 18 or 19. There are so many things. I was good in dance. I was good in music. Maybe I could have acted. I really didn’t know what major I wanted to pick so I just enrolled. The reason why I went to Germany afterwards was because Israel, at the time, I think it’s fair to say, was pretty isolated in many ways. I’d been there four years or so. I felt like I needed to move on. I heard about this world-famous place in Partenheim, Germany, that was, at the time, considered to be the place to study. So, I went as a nice Jewish boy—well, nice Jewish boy, that was kind of a—do you know who I looked like? I looked like a black activist with an afro, Angela Davis. I looked like her.
Charon: It was kind of shocking, but I didn’t even realize it really. I just said, “O.K., this seems to be the best school for what I want,” so I went, and I spent four years at that horrible petit bourgeois city. It had an art college for jewelry design and then it had the academy. I enrolled in the academy, in the regular program, and graduated and well, what’s next? I think it was 1974 or 1975. I think it’s fair to say I was sick and tired of Germany and everything that, in those four years, was triggered in terms of my history and my family’s history. All I could think about was “I need to clear my mind; I need to get away”, so I chose a place so far away. I went all the way north in Norway to Lapland, where I worked for a year in an atelier that was established there. I had a great time there during that year and I think I did clear my head to a certain extent.
Sharon: Were you always focused on art jewelry? When you say you worked in an atelier, was it a goldsmith? What kind of jewelry was it?
Charon: Well, in Lapland it was an atelier that was established by a Danish jeweler who built a whole complex there. It was a studio and an atelier and a showroom, and he was fascinated by the traditional Lappish design. Most of the ornaments were made in reindeer bone and he started to make those designs in silver, so that’s what we did. He was involved in exporting this kind of jewelry and promoting it to the Laps themselves. It was more like being in an atelier full-time, eight hours a day, and bringing into practice what I learned. It wasn’t so much my own design we did there, but I think it did help me in terms of having an atelier experience and that kind of discipline.
Sharon: It sounds like it worked for you.
Charon: Oh, totally. Nothing that we have in the western world was available there. There is tundra. There are horses. You can go cross-country skiing. You can cut out a huge piece of ice and float down the river and have a bottle of wine. I mean we did all kinds of things that I would have never thought I would ever do, but that’s what you do there.
Sharon: Interesting, it sounds like an experience.
Charon: It was. So, then I came back to Holland and I still ask myself, “Why did I come back to Holland?” because I had lost a connection. Pretty quickly, I was offered to be the head of the jewelry and enamel department at an art college because the person who was there for a long time moved to France. It was interesting because in the end, two candidates were left. Between me and the other candidate, I definitely think she was much more talented than I was. There are books about her. She was one of the pioneers in Holland, but she didn’t know anything about enamel, and I had majored in enamel, so I got the position.
Years after that, something similar happened in the art department at Utrecht University, where the professor had a stroke, so I got the position, also based on my experience with enamel. We founded the jewelry and product design department, and I was there for quite a number of years. It was an incredibly vibrant time. We’re talking about the mid-70s, when, as a result of all the changes that happened in the 60s, there was this whole new movement—we didn’t even know how to call it, but let’s call it contemporary jewelry—and it just blossomed. There were galleries opened, like Gallery Rah, which opened in 1976, and museums started to collect contemporary jewelry. There was the Dutch Jewelry Designers Organization, of which I, after a number of years, became the President. It was an incredibly vibrant time where, suddenly, people discovered new materials that had never been used before or seen, at least not in the western world, as materials one could use for jewelry. Not that we knew exactly what the new jewelry was all about. It was clear that the makers didn’t want to make regular jewelry anymore. That was basically for the financial elite. It was a whole different approach, and I don’t think at the time people knew what this new jewelry was all about, but it became much clearer that we wanted to be seen as people who were trained as artists and who chose jewelry as their medium. I shouldn’t say it started in Holland, but Holland was definitely a place where a lot happened at that time. So, it was incredibly exciting, and as you know, the jewelry scene in Holland today is still very vibrant.
Sharon: Sounds like a fascinating time to be there. You’ve covered a lot of ground in terms of your own education and in terms of what you’ve done. What ties it together today, because you write books; you deal in art jewelry; you travel around the world speaking about it. So what ties everything that you do together?
Charon: I think my real passion is in education and that is something—I’m going back to Holland to describe the situation. Holland never had a big history with jewelry, not like in France where you have all the jewelry houses. In Holland, you don’t show off your wealth, really. So, when all of a sudden there was this new jewelry, people really didn’t know what to think of it. I worked part-time for Gallery Rah pretty soon after they opened and lots of people came in, looked at all this new work and just didn’t know how to react. I think that is when we realized they don’t know what they’re looking at because they haven’t developed a reference. They’re fascinated; they find it intriguing; they have no idea whether they could actually wear it, whether it was valuable, whether one would pay money for this kind of work, but they were intrigued. Still today, we need to educate. If we don’t educate, we’re never going to create people who want to buy this kind of work and wear it and appreciate it. This experience in Holland in the mid-70s and everything after convinced me that the only way to promote this work and make a living for artists who have chosen this direction is through education.
I taught for quite a number of years. In every place where I am, we are being swallowed by the other jewelry fields. Everything in magazines is about traditional commercial jewelry. Of course, it’s a huge market. This is what most people buy. People buy what already exists. What we produce, or what the contemporary artists produce, is not something that people want. The way I look at it, we are offering something through education that you as a client don’t even know you desire or love or find intriguing and want to own. It’s exposure. All of us, we’ve talked so much; we’ve organized so many exhibitions; we’ve lectured about this rather young field, and that is probably why we are now where we are. Whether I do a presentation at an art fair or whether I lecture or whether I do seminars or whether I write a book, to me, it’s all about education.
Sharon: When you say, why we are where we are, where are we? Is it still an emerging field, or are you saying that we’ve established ourselves?
Charon: There are times that I feel that we are in a good place, and there are times that I almost feel depressed because of what I see people buy, what people are drawn to, where people spend their money. For the first time last June, I went to the JCK. I did a book presentation. They never had a book stand there about jewelry. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the JCK—
Sharon: No, but I know of it.
Charon: Well, don’t go there. You’ll walk away depressed because there are these huge presentations from—I don’t know how many jewelry companies from all over the world. I look at it and I’m like, “Why? Why do people buy this?” There is nothing creative about that kind of jewelry. It’s all about precious metal. It’s all about copies of copies of copies of copies of something that, maybe a thousand years ago, was an original idea. This is what people buy. There are billions and billions of dollars in revenue in that kind of market and we are so small in that respect. Maybe we just have to accept that we are kind of elitist because this field is small and, let’s face it, you have to have a certain sophistication and certain courage to wear this kind of jewelry, and I think a lot of people just don’t want to go there. They’re too intimidated.
Sharon: That’s true for some and I think beauty’s in the eye of the beholder. I just want to say for anybody who doesn’t know what JCK is, it’s one of the major industry trade shows. It’s held in June in Vegas every year and people come from all over the world.
We can debate whether it’s elitist, but I do understand what you’re saying. When people are evaluating a piece of contemporary jewelry or art jewelry or studio jewelry, whatever you want to call it, what do you want them to be thinking about in terms of “should I acquire this piece?”
Charon: The way I approach it is, O.K., I’m showing this collection wherever it is. I don’t really want to advise people. I want them to take the first step. In other words, they walk into a booth and they look around and they go through the whole process of, “Oh my god, this is overwhelming,” and “What is this?” and “Can I wear this?” and “This looks heavy,” and go through the whole process, but in the end, they will stop at a piece that stops them. That to me is the beginning of, why is this person attracted to this piece? I’m convinced after all these years—I’ve been in this field for 50 years—if you’re not into name buying and you’re not into investing, if you truly look at work and stop at a certain piece, I think that piece tells you and the world something about you in a non-verbal way. Somehow you have a connection to this piece, because otherwise you wouldn’t be touched by it; otherwise, you wouldn’t be intrigued by it. I think in purchasing and wearing it, you are telling the world part of who you are that you cannot or don’t want to express in a verbal way. I could meet a stranger who wears a piece and that person tells me something about his or her life or who they are, and I’m not talking about the way in which certain people wear, like, “Look at me,” kind of showoff. This is truly the way we dress, the way we wear our hair. There are all kinds of ways in which we are telling the world who we are, and I find it fascinating. So, to answer your question, what do I advise? I try to talk because I’m interested. What is it about this piece that you’re interested in? What does it give you? What does it tell you? What does it make you feel? And once you establish that connection, in nine out of ten cases, it’s the right thing for them and they begin to live with it, and it becomes part of them.
Sharon: You’ve seen so much jewelry. You’ve talked to so many people. How do you find new artists? How do you find things that strike you and make you say, “Oh, that is really different,” or “I’d like to represent them”?
Charon: Yes, I’ve seen an awful lot of jewelry in my life, everywhere in the world. I’ve seen amazing jewelry. I’ve seen terrible jewelry. I’ve seen mediocre jewelry. I represent a vision and that’s a personal choice. The best way to describe it is when I open a package when an artist sends me work and I literally jump instead of saying, “O.K., I’ve seen it all.” It really thrills me. Probably the best way to describe it is, “Wow, with this work I get to see and understand the mind of this particular artist. What a great gift.” How did he or she come up with that idea? Everything has been tried already, and yet there is something completely innovative in content or approach or technique or material or a combination that I still find very exciting. I think the moment I don’t find it exciting anymore, I’ll probably stop doing what I’m doing.
Sharon: You’re very fortunate to be doing something that has the potential to excite you from time to time.
Charon: It’s energizing. I constantly hear, “Charon, you’re so busy. You’re doing this and you travel a lot and you teach. Where does the energy come from?” I think especially people who educate understand that yes, it takes a lot of energy, but it also energizes. What is more wonderful than to have that feeling of bliss? As an artist also, you make something and you look at it and you think, “My god, how is it possible I made this? I came up with this? I’m surprising myself.” You’re not just surprising another. You surprise yourself that this is of your making. This is a product of your hands and mind and soul, and I think in that respect, we’re incredibly privileged that we do things that give us that kind of energy and bliss. That’s the only way I can really describe it.
Sharon: Not everybody can say that. Just one last question: You mentioned that you give talks to jewelry artists about having confidence in the work they do. Can you tell us about that?
Charon: So, we’re in this field. We are educating thousands and thousands of people worldwide who graduate from jewelry programs everywhere in the world. What is happening with those people? I always have big questions about it. There’s maybe only a little room at the top. I recently read a survey that only 10 percent or 15 percent of people who study art end up graduating and continuing in their field. It’s kind of shocking, and I think it is because, if you have chosen this field, most people don’t realize how hard it is. Selling contemporary jewelry is hard and always has been, if you compare it to the other field. I think a lot of professionals—and this is my observation—have become commercial jewelry artists, as I would call them, and they don’t even know, because it’s just too hard to survive. They have done a lot of compromises and end up working for money, working to survive, working to pay the bills, but they’ve lost their real creative talent. Go to a lot of the craft fairs. You see the same old things. I’ve talked to a lot of people and I see this all over the world. Go to Japan, for instance. There are so many wonderful artists, artists who’ve had great education. Most of them have completely surrendered to the taste and demand of the general public in Japan, and you see that in a lot of countries. I was just in Korea and the same thing happens because the market for contemporary jewelry is so small, so how are these people going to survive?
What I do all over the world is work with groups of graduate students or young professionals, and we go through a whole cycle of returning to our original talent and understanding that’s a life choice. Why would you surrender or why would you become a commercial artist if you have the possibility to make a different choice? I always say, “What makes you get up in the morning?” I could probably capture it in two words, and that is passion and focus. Why wouldn’t you work more than anything else with your passion? Why would you ever consider giving that up? For money? Everybody has to pay bills. So that’s sort of the essence of the seminars that I organize. It’s not about me because I’m just a facilitator, but people walk away in general feeling inspired and especially empowered, like, “I can do this and I want to go there, because that’s really what I want to do, no matter what my environment and family say. I can accept that I might have to find another way or another job on the side, so that at least I can cover certain ways to survive.” It reminds me of my friend Marion Harris—I don’t know if you remember her. She died quite a long time ago.
Sharon: I know the name.
Charon: I was President and she was Vice President of the Dutch Jewelry Designers Organization, and it was a time when I broke up a relationship and I was very shocked, and I was grieving or maybe depressed. Marion being Marion said, “Charon, look, you can lose anything in life. You can lose your job. You can lose your partner. You can lose your money. You can lose your house. You can lose your friends. You can lose anything. The only thing that nobody can ever take away from you is what you have inside and your specific talent. So, what you need to do, and what everybody needs to do, no matter in what situation you are, you always need to nourish that talent, that unique thing that you have and that everybody has. You need to let it grow. You have to create situations in which it can develop and mature.” And I often think about that and how many people have moved away from that dream, from that passion, from that fire. That’s really what I want to see in work. I want to see the passion. I want to see the fire, because what else is important?
Sharon: I’m sure that your audience walks away energized and ready to go back to the bench with renewed vigor after having talked to you.
Charon: This is also, as you understand, my own experience being an outsider. I’ve always been an outsider wherever I was and instead of feeling victimized by it, which I’m sure I did for a long time, I’ve learned to embrace it. It took a long time. Embrace being who you really want to be, and what you really want to do, and what you really what to make, and how you want to express yourself and whatever you want to convey to the world for the relatively short time that we’re on this planet.
Sharon: It’s a great message.
Charon: But most of us feel like, “I’m just so different. I’m an outsider and it’s a bad thing, and that’s what people tell me all the time.” So, it is about owning that you are a unique person and that in your work, you have something unique to tell. So, do it, because if you keep postponing it, before you know, your life is over and then what? You die with great regrets.
Sharon: A great message for all of us, whether we’re thinking about our work in the art field or in jewelry arts or whatever it is. I think it’s also what you see in great art jewelry, you see that passion coming through.
Sharon: Charon, thank you so much. This has been so interesting. Thank you so much for being so open and telling us about your life.
Charon: This is my first podcast. I’ve never done this. I’ve given interviews, but I’ve never done anything like this.
Sharon: We greatly appreciate you talking with us. 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, and please rate 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.
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