While most makers, collectors, and gallerists head to big cities to make their way in the world of conceptual jewelry, Stefan Friedmann and his wife, Laura Lapachin, went in the opposite direction. They founded Ornamentum Gallery in 2002 in Hudson, New York, a small town in the Catskills. Hudson has since become a trendy destination for New York City dwellers, which has allowed Ornamentum to expand into one of the largest exhibition spaces in the country for art jewelry. Stefan joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about the gallery’s history, the artists he likes to represent, and where Ornamentum is heading next. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Stefan Friedmann, a trained metalsmith turned gallerist and cofounder of Ornamentum Gallery in Hudson, New York. Founded in 2002, today Ornamentum is one of the country’s largest exhibition spaces for art jewelry. We’ll hear about Stefan’s jewelry journey, which has taken him from maker to gallerist. Stefan, welcome to the program.
Stefan: Thanks for having me.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell me a little about your jewelry journey.
Stefan: Well, it’s been a long journey. I started taking classes in the evening during high school to learn the basics and got my interest piqued to make a career out of it. I went on to Wayne State University in the fine arts program, in the jewelry department, as my major and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts there in 1995. It was there that I met Laura, who became my wife and gallery partner years after. Once we were both finished with school there, we went on to study for three years in the city of Pforzheim, Germany, where both our skills and our aesthetics were further developed. It led us to a very serious trajectory in the field of contemporary jewelry.
Sharon: You were making jewelry and then segued into opening the gallery?
Stefan: We were making to some degree. After our studies, we returned the USA and were working at this and that, odd jobs and production work for other galleries, trying to find our place and also meet our financial needs. We were always trying to figure out where and how our future would be directed and looking around the country for the right location to do different things. Some options that passed through our minds were a country house where we’d have a studio and just focus on our own work, or a more retail environment where we could have—in Europe it’s referred to as an atelier—a workshop in the back and greet customers in the front. We had numerous wonderful colleagues and friends from the field that we made along the way, and our vision was to feature their work in addition to ours. But, things kind of develop on their own.
First of all, we found Hudson through searching and going through a magazine article. In W Magazine, there was a feature about New Yorkers buying country houses upstate and renovating meticulously. The area was referred to as the Unhamptons. It seemed very intriguing to us. We came and checked out the area a few times, thinking we’d keep watching it develop, as it was a bit gritty around the edges still and we weren’t sure if the momentum would continue upwards. Then came the fateful day in September of 2001. After that, we thought New Yorkers were going to start an exodus from the city, and if we didn’t jump into Hudson, it was going to be too late. So, we found this building that we’ve been in since 2002. Hudson, at the time, was still a place where we were able to buy, and that’s been a godsend, especially in the past year. We’ve owned our building and it was a good decision. We didn’t really know what we were doing but we jumped in. Within a few months, the real estate bubble of the Bush area started growing, and Hudson just started moving up, up and up. Now we’re feeling a Covid boom, where it’s continuing in that same direction as New Yorkers continue to search for places to escape to. We just had a bit of dumb luck finding our location.
Sharon: I’ve heard great things about Hudson. I know there are several interesting places opening there, interesting stores that you wouldn’t think would be in a place a little bit more removed from the city. It sounds like you hit it right. That is a huge step, opening your own place and taking it on. How did you come up with name Ornamentum?
Stefan: That was just from pondering different names. I think I did a search of Latin words that worked into what we were envisioning. “Ornamentum” means everything that pertains to adornment. I think it fits us pretty well, even as we’ve moved out of jewelry into the silversmith and wall art and objet d’art fields that relate to jewelry in some way, or to the traditions of jewelry and silversmithing. Ornamentum is encompassing.
Sharon: It’s a great name. It’s an actual Latin word; I presume it’s Latin.
Stefan: It is indeed, so directly translated it’s all of which pertains to adornment.
Sharon: It’s a great name for a gallery. How do you find your artists? What piques your interest? There are so many, so what is it that makes something stand out, no matter what medium it’s in?
Stefan: It’s a hard thing to quantify. We don’t have explicit rules or guidelines, but we look for work that somehow speaks to us and has a place in this vast field. It sets itself apart from what other people are doing and signifies a little chapter in the history of jewelry. Above that, it needs to speak to both of us. If we don’t both agree and feel strongly about it, then we don’t take it.
Sharon: You must see a lot of different people but with the same sort of work, and then something will stand out. It’s like, “This is different.”
Stefan: Indeed. I think the more you’re around work every day, the harder it is to be dumbstruck by a new idea. We’re thankful we have a pretty sizeable stable of very good artists, so we’re not feeling the need to be actively searching the whole time. But, when something profound or very interesting comes our way, we are open to taking on new artists.
Sharon: You do have a prestigious list—prestigious within the art jewelry world and some really solid names. I’m not familiar with all of them, but, for instance, you just opened an exhibit with Jiro—how do you pronounce his name?
Stefan: Jiro Kamata.
Sharon: Jiro Kamata. Why don’t you describe the work, because not everybody will be familiar with his unique name. Why don’t you describe why he stands out or what he does?
Stefan: Absolutely. First of all, your listeners can all view his works on our website, OrnamentumGallery.com.
Sharon: Yeah. We will have a link to that and some photos of his work from the exhibit.
Stefan: Jiro is an artist we have a very personal connection to. He was a fellow guest student at the Design University with Laura in the class. It was a great group of foreign students, all in Germany studying from Japan, Korea, Norway, America, etc. Their common language was broken German, so they had a wonderful time together and built lasting friendships. In 2002, when we opened the gallery, Jiro was, of course, one of the first people we asked about including his work with us. We’ve been showing his work since then, and that’s since before he finished his studies. After Pforzheim, Jiro went to study at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, where he received his master’s degree.
Since before his thesis work, he’s been interested in reflection and light in many different aspects, from using sunglass lenses overlapping to the silhouettes of shadows from the sunlight going through tree branches onto the pavement. His thesis work was a series of very simple pendants that were highly polished. They would take on the decoration of the cages that were built around each one to hang in a room. Absolutely minimal form, but when presented in its exhibition space, it would be almost baroque in decoration.
This has gone on and developed. Each body of work has a slight alteration from the previous. Now his work is using camera lenses, setting them in silver-like stones. Each of the camera lenses reflects a polished background and is coated both on the top and undersurface with—he refers to it as PVD coating, which is a reflective coating. The colors bounce and reflect off each other and give a very color-changing effect, very mysterious. You don’t know if you’re looking at a concave surface or a convex surface. Sometimes you’re peering deep within, and sometimes you’re looking at the color bouncing off the top.
Sharon: It draws you in.
Stefan:It does indeed. They’re set in almost a machine-like perfection. The silver work around them is perfectly constructed by hand. He has these absolutely reduced, minimal forms, but with maximum effect, maximum drama. The scale is also a big part of that. The lenses wear like pearls around your neck, but they’re sometimes three to four inches in diameter.
Sharon: I would encourage everybody listening, if they’re not familiar with the work, to check your website. His work is really recognizable, but I never thought about it as the lenses being gems. Is that part of what you look for? When you were thinking about opening the gallery, and now when you look for artists to represent, you used the word conceptual. What does that mean to you?
Stefan: That word can be taken in many different ways, but basically I see it as something where there’s thought and idea behind the decoration.
Sharon: That’s interesting. You’re right; it’s a hard word to define. I could see it as a reason for doing things a certain way or a reason for being, just thinking about the lenses as gems.
Stefan: You can see so many examples of people taking the same old stone setting and adding different scrolls and filigrees to them, and it’s really just decoration. It’s more interesting if someone redefines how the stone is set, or if there’s even a stone set, or if there’s a completely different material experimented with.
Sharon: When I think about taking a leap from being a metalsmith who makes individual items to being a gallerist, to me, that is a huge step and a huge risk. You seem to be a risk taker. You’ve been, I think, the only art jewelry gallery owner at Design Miami when One World was open years ago. Am I remembering correctly?
Stefan: We joined the Design Miami Show as the jewelry gallery back in 2008, and I think we remained the only jewelry gallery there for three years. In the subsequent years, we were joined there by only a few. Historical jewelry by artists as well as a few European contemporary jewelry galleries have joined us there, but we are absolutely credited with having opened that niche to the world of contemporary art jewelry.
Sharon: I was delighted you did that and to see it there. It must have been 2011 when you were still the only art jewelry gallery. What were your thoughts behind taking that risk?
Stefan: We were listening to the concerns of both artists and other galleries. There’s been a long tradition of craft and jewelry collectors worldwide, also very strong in the states, but the conversation was all about, “These people are getting old and they’re going to not be part of the market over the next years and decades. What are we going to do?” We were also hearing about this vibrant, young collecting crowd, full of parties and a different attitude towards collecting, that was going down to Miami. We thought, “Well, it’s a market that definitely needs to be tapped.” It was quite frightening to do because it was a huge financial risk, especially compared to the venues that have typically partaken in the jewelry scene—the price point was much, much higher—we dove in and started building that uphill, one client at a time. I won’t say it’s been an easy road, but it’s been something we’ve been happy with.
Sharon: I give you a lot of credit. It is a big risk. Everyone’s lining up afterwards, but to be the first one, I give you a lot of credit. You mentioned the pandemic. It’s brought people to Hudson who want to escape and perhaps purchase real estate. How has it affected your business? Have you been doing more online? You do a lot of shows. I know you travel a lot to ferret out new people.
Stefan: That’s definitely slowed down. In 2020, we didn’t know what to expect. We had enjoyed a short family vacation in the beginning of March during our son’s school break. We came back, and within a few days the whole country was locked down. We, like many other businesses, were closed for about three months. When we reopened in May or June, we started getting visitors, but most of them were people who were just sick and tired of being trapped at home. They were too nervous to touch anything or ask questions, but slowly people’s attitudes loosened up. We did and we still are requiring masks in our gallery. We wear them ourselves and filter the air, but we have been welcoming people into our space. Once summer hit and the New York City folk realized it wasn’t going to end any time soon, the real estate market upstate started going crazy. More and more people were coming up, and Hudson, being one of the most beautiful and sophisticated downtown areas of upstate, got busier and busier. We were thankful that we started doing business out of the gallery again, and it kept us going throughout the holiday season. Right around New Year’s, though, we had a close exposure and had to close the gallery for another two weeks.
Sharon: Oh, my gosh!
Stefan: But, everyone was fine. No one in our family got sick, but that’s the way things are going these days. We pushed an exhibition back a few weeks and changed things around, and we learned that no plans at this time are solid. We just take it day by day.
Sharon: Hopefully there is light at the end of the tunnel, although we all want to get closer to the end of the tunnel as quickly as possible. It sounds like you’ve gone through some hard times, but you’ve weathered them. Hopefully as the world turns around, you’ll get a lot more people to Hudson and into the gallery. Thank you so much for taking the time today to talk with us. I know Hudson’s a beautiful place. I haven’t been there, but it’s on my bucket list. I look forward to seeing the gallery.
Stefan: We look forward to having you here, and we look forward to the time that you can come.
Sharon: Yes, Stefan, thank you so much for talking with us today. We’ll talk to you, O.K.?
Stefan: We look forward to it. Thank you so much.
Sharon: We will have images posted on the website. You can find us wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Please join us next time when our guest will be another jewelry industry professional who will share their experience and expertise. Thank you so much for listening.
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