Cataloging a jewelry collection can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. For Rebekah Frank, a San Francisco-based jewelry artist and former Executive Director of Art Jewelry Forum, organizing records can be a fun way to illuminate and preserve the stories behind your jewelry. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to share insights from her recent survey on jewelry cataloging and her tips for creating a cataloging system that works for you. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Rebekah Frank, a jewelry artist, metalsmith and former Executive Director of Art Jewelry Forum. Rebekah recently researched and wrote an article about cataloging a jewelry collection, which generated quite a bit of discussion. It’s on a lot of people’s minds today. She’ll be talking with us about her work and share some of what she learned in creating the article. Rebekah, so glad to be talking with you.
Rebekah: Happy to be here with you too, Sharon.
Sharon: It’s great to talk to you. Please tell us about your jewelry journey. When did you start becoming interested in jewelry and metals, and what attracted you to it? When did you know that you wanted to be a jewelry artist?
Rebekah: Finding out that I wanted to be a jewelry artist was quite a journey. I didn’t start out in jewelry at all. At community college, I took a welding class and a ballet class along with my academic courses, and I have no idea why I chose those two classes. I have no recollection, and the ballet didn’t stick, but the welding did. I fell in love with steel and the process of making things with your hands. Before that, I mainly had been reading books and doing math and sciences, so seeing what happens when you can physically manipulate materials with your hands was very mind-altering for me. I got very excited about it. For me, I have been working with steel consistently since I was 18. I started as a welder and then moved to blacksmithing. I did architectural ironwork as a blacksmith, so that’s railings and gates and sculptural work, public art installations.
Then I moved on to working at a research laboratory as a welder and machinist. While at that job—that was at The University of Texas at Austin—I decided that I had a lot of skills and could do a lot of things, but I hadn’t ever made art. I thought I might be interested in that, and I was tired of the jobs that I had. So I used that job at The University of Texas at Austin to pay my way through art school. I started my undergrad in jewelry and metalsmithing when I was 30 at a small state school in central Texas. I chose jewelry because I didn’t like the sculpture professor and I really loved the jewelry professor. It was jewelry and metalsmithing, so they had anvils and forges and welders. Metalsmithing is the big umbrella term for vessels and teapots and small sculptural objects as well as wearable objects like jewelry. That professor was Beverly Penn. I studied with her for three years and she was really wonderful. That was a great experience.
I went from my undergrad, finishing in three years, directly to Cranbrook, where I studied with Iris Eichenberg near Detroit in Michigan. It was there that I really started making jewelry. In my undergrad, I mainly made small objects, such as an hourglass and weird containers, things like that. Jewelry mostly started when I was 32, so it’s been 10 years now of me making jewelry and steel has been consistent the whole time. I make steel jewelry. I made steel vessels and I can build huge, big steel gates.
Sharon: I know your signature pieces, where everybody points and says, “Oh, that’s Rebekah’s,” are made of steel, which is surprising because I don’t know anybody else who works in steel.
Rebekah: Yeah, I think a lot of jewelry artists use steel inside of their pieces or as a component. There are a few people who do use steel. Henegarth from France comes to mind. He uses steel exclusively in his work, but I think my pieces stand out because they’re unadulterated steel. I don’t do much to it except form it into mainly circles and squares. I think that’s one of the things that makes it iconic. It’s a combination between the material choice and the material handling.
Sharon: Yeah, it’s not enameled or covered. Steel itself is usually hidden. You can’t tell whether it’s steel or silver. I saw some the other day that was covered in pink. I know you’ve studied all over the world, and it seems you were comfortable going from country to country and learning this and that.
Rebekah: Strangely, that happened through my blacksmithing. I mentioned I took a welding class at a community college. That was in California and I ended up completing a two-year degree in mathematics, which wouldn’t shock anybody when they see my work. I continued working and studying at community colleges in Texas in a welding technology program, and it was through that community college welding technology program that I began traveling internationally. I got a grant from that school to go study in Koblenz, Germany, at a traditional technical school that young Germans attend to learn how to be a mechanic, where their factory workers and machinists and welders go through. Basically, it’s a vocational school in Germany. I studied there for two months and I was very frugal with the grant funds, so I ended up staying in Europe for a full year on that one grant.
I went from Germany to Israel, where I worked with a Japanese blacksmith who was married to an Israeli woman in a small artist village named Ein Hod, near Haifa. From there, I went to Spain and I worked in a tiny town, Casares, which is near the coast in the south of Spain, for a British man. I got a very international experience because I never worked for somebody who was from the country where they were working. I worked there for four months, and then I went and worked/played in a workshop in Prague and I attended two blacksmithing conferences, one in the Czech Republic and one in Italy. While I was there, I was offered roofing. I did construction in France. I worked my way through Europe attending conferences and meeting different blacksmiths, and it was an amazing experience.
Later, the same school back in Texas, they got a group together to go to Santa Clara del Cobre in Mexico, which is a very famous region for craftworks, and there I went to another technical school. I don’t know what it stands for, but it’s called CECATI, and that’s where they train people in copper vessel forming. I believe we were there for three weeks. Twenty-five blacksmiths from Texas went down there and they had an exchange program through the same community college, Austin Community College, for a long time. That is where that started and from there, I ended up traveling a lot in my personal life, moving around. I’m a military brat, so I grew up on military bases. I didn’t grow up in any one place. I don’t have a rootedness, so traveling feels great.
Sharon: It sounds so amazing. Amazing in terms of the experiences, but in terms of your flexibility and your ability to go work in these small places. I know you did a lot of research for this article on cataloging jewelry, which has prompted a big discussion. Whenever I’m at an antique jewelry conference or an art jewelry conference or whatever kind of jewelry conference, people are always asking, “How do you keep track of your jewelry?” or “How do you know what you have?” You did a lot of research and a big article on this. What prompted the article?
Rebekah: A couple of things. I was the Director of Art Jewelry Forum and for those who don’t know, Art Jewelry Forum is a non-profit that focuses on cultivating interest and educating people about what art jewelry is. A lot of their attention is on the collectors, the people who love and purchase and look at jewelry. One of the things we did while I was there, we would visit people’s homes who had jewelry collections and look at the various ways they were organized and displayed or not displayed. Some people wear the jewelry they collect, and some people don’t. We were seeing the variety there and everybody has different systems. Some people are just filing it. Some people have templates in Filemaker Pro that they’ve created to help them keep track of pieces. That was one insight into how the article came about.
The other was also at Art Jewelry Forum (AJF); I would field a lot of calls and emails from people who—maybe they were a collector whose house was damaged by the fires in California, and they were trying to locate a piece so they could have it listed for their insurance, or they were looking for something to be repaired that had been damaged. I also got a lot of emails from curators who had a bequest or a loan and they needed more information about an artist in a private collection. That was another catalyst to the article.
The last one is that I’m an artist myself, and one of my collectors passed away and his daughter emailed me with pictures of the work, looking for the data she needed to be able to include the jewelry in the estate after his passing. Those three areas gave me this window into the behind-the-scenes of how important it is to have the data, the information and the stories behind the pieces collected in one place, so that it’s easier at those moments, the terrible tragedies of somebody passing away or something catastrophic happening to your home, as well as the joyous things, like giving the collection to a museum or loaning a piece to a museum. That information is really important, and I understood that a lot of people don’t know how to get started or they are intimidated by the process, and I got curious about it from that.
After AJF, I had the distinct honor of being able to help somebody catalogue their collection. Because of my interest in it and the conversations I had, I found this person who was interested in doing it. I’ve actively been doing it, which gave me the insight to talk about what it’s like to dive into a collection that has been—the paper files, the postcards, the catalogues and the books have been saved, but it’s about creating a sense of order. I love spreadsheets. I have a small degree in mathematics and my work is very orderly, so you might easily make the jump that I have an orderly mind and I enjoy putting things in order. I find it to be fun.
Sharon: In this research, what was the most surprising thing you found or learned about? What was something that stuck in your mind?
Rebekah: With this survey, the thing that stuck out was that a lot of people have some kind of system. It’s not as if people are amassing jewelry and throwing away all the receipts and not keeping any of the information. They just don’t have it organized. That was something I was surprised by because for some reason, from the conversations I had with people, I thought that people weren’t giving any time towards keeping anything at all, and that’s not the case. Most people have stuff. They just don’t have it organized in a way that is accessible. Back to the collector I had who passed away, he probably had information about me; he just didn’t have it organized in a way that his daughter, through the grief and the upheaval that happens when somebody passes away, could access. That was one thing that surprised me that people do have the things, but maybe they don’t have them in a way that’s easy.
The other thing about working with a collection is that it’s a lot more enjoyable than people think. It’s like walking down memory lane or Christmas time. You’re opening your boxes of jewelry and going through the pieces, and you’re picking up an item and remembering what it was, who you were with when you bought it and the story the artist told you. That part of it is way more fun. People think, “Oh, it’s spreadsheets and numbers. I just can’t handle it,” but once you get into it, it’s quite enjoyable to discover the history of the pieces you have, record those stories and write down the reason you purchased the piece. Maybe there wasn’t a reason. Maybe you just liked it, which is actually a very good reason. Or maybe it’s the material that’s odd; it’s something with mammoth bone that was found in a desert. Those are the kinds of stories those pieces hold for you. That part’s really fun.
Sharon: That’s interesting. I can certainly relate to having drawers and piles of information. I think that’s what’s intimidating. I also think it’s important to remind everybody that this isn’t just for art jewelry. People who collect costume or anything, who have a lot of it—I talked to somebody who has a lot of costume jewelry, and they talked about the fact that they bought it directly from the people who aren’t making it anymore. You want to capture those stories and don’t want them to be lost.
Rebekah: Yeah, and thinking about it that way might take away the intimidation, as opposed to thinking about it as alphabetical or spreadsheets and the more intimidating parts of it. Just pick up a piece and put the story down. That’s what you’re doing, and that might help people get started.
Sharon: You answered my question because it was going to be about people who have piles of information. It’s interesting, because I do have one piece that I got on an art jewelry trip, an AGM trip. I think it was when we went to Barcelona. Every time I think about it, it’s the story. It’s not the value of the piece or anything. I don’t want that story to be lost because it was so immense.
Rebekah: Those stories are so important, and they’re a big part of the field. You mentioned other types of jewelry and, frankly, other types of objects. There’s no reason this is only for pieces made by the stars of the art jewelry world. Fine jewelry, costume jewelry, antique jewelry, they all have relevance to being cataloged. Cataloging might serve you in the future if you wanted to share your collection. I think, Sharon, you were just on a trip where the person was able to print out different objects with their names and where they were purchased. We can use this little guide as you look at the pieces. Then, if there is a show coming up looking for antique jewelry or costume jewelry related to a certain period, you’re more able to respond to those requests if you have cataloged it. Costume jewelry has stories, too, and those heirloom pieces from your family. Just because you know that story, that this piece was from your great aunt and she got it when she was sweet 16, those stories are equally important. Cataloging is just a way to tell those stories.
Sharon: Right, exactly. I know in your article you suggested starting with a paper filing system with folders. I think a lot of us looked at that and said, “Well, why am I going to do that if I’m going to end up putting it in a database?” What are your thoughts about that?
Rebekah: It’s just a good way to get started, and it’s something you can do right now. You can take one day, drink a cup of coffee, put on your favorite music or your favorite podcast and attack a pile, and then you put it into one storage area. You take invoices and put them by year purchased. You’ll often have a lot of extra pieces from an artist or from an event, and you file those alphabetically. That is just a way to start. Some people don’t want to do a spreadsheet or they don’t want to do a database, so doing that is something. I was talking with somebody on social media and they had an index card they had done in a very—what is that called—non-digital way, whatever that word is. They had an index card with an image of the piece and they had handwritten the name, the year, how much they paid for it and where they bought it. They just had those little file cards sorted. That’s what they wanted to do for their pieces, and that’s a beautiful thing. It doesn’t always have to be so technical, but when you have everything sorted by year or alphabetically, if you do decide to take the next steps to do digital cataloging, it makes that easier.
Sharon: So much easier. That person is more than halfway there right now.
Rebekah: Exactly, and you can do it simultaneously. If you decide you want to do it digitally, you could go through your pile and put it in the paper file as well as digitally filing it at the same time. I wanted to include the paper filing because some people just don’t want to do the digital stuff, and that’s fine, but having piles and piles everywhere isn’t going to help anybody.
Sharon: Several years ago, I cataloged some art—we’re not talking about any Picassos, Rembrandts or anything, but some of the prints I had. At the time, I did it in a Google Doc because people would say, “Email me what you have and I’ll take a look at it.” You want somebody to be able to look at it online, whether you’re going to be selling it or whether you know somebody’s looking and you want to say, “Oh, I want to show you what I have.” When you have it on an index card, it’s harder to distribute.
Rebekah: Yeah, absolutely. That is the magic of it, and it is shifting the way people look at their collections now. They need to have them digitally. Before, a private collection was in somebody’s private home, and you would only see it if you were there for a party or an event or a tour. Some artists never knew where those pieces ended up. They might think it was destroyed or lost, but really, it’s in somebody’s home and it just disappeared off the radar. Now, because of this move towards digital, there are two sites I’m aware of that invite collectors to put their private collections online through a digital archiving system, making it so that people can see it. Of course, the collector chooses whether to make something visible, but it’s like a social media site for collectors to share their private collections. It’s like you’re saying. It’s because they want to show their collection to somebody, or they want to share it with friends, or they want to share it with the public for educational reasons. That is really new.
One site—I think it launched last year—is called Collecteurs. It’s fine-art focused and very high-end. I believe it came out of a think tank at New Museum in New York. It’s a really interesting platform where you can search private collections that a collector has made public. Then there’s another one called Catalogue. That is more geared towards the craft world, and not just the fine art craft world, but indigenous crafts and craft museums putting up small collections. It’s a similar social media-style platform so people can search it and learn from it, and pieces that were thought to be lost can be rediscovered and shared. If a young curator is looking for pieces, she can use these sites to locate pieces that might otherwise not have been known about. That’s how the digital shift is affecting the way people think about private collections and their accessibility.
Sharon: It sounds like for art dealers, it must be a great way to put together a target list. We talked about some of the parameters of being online. What are some of the parameters people should consider when deciding how to catalogue a collection, whether it should be hard copy or whether it should be digital, and how much information to include?
Rebekah: I think that’s a really personal choice. One of the good things about any of this stuff is that you can always go back later. If you decide to make it more detailed, you can. I know a lot of people wake up one day and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, what have I done? I have hundreds of pieces of jewelry,” and that’s definitely a joy when they discover that. They didn’t necessarily intend to become collectors, and when they look at their work, they might have a mix of fine jewelry and antique jewelry and heirloom jewelry and costume jewelry and some art pieces. Then, it’s really subjective. It’s what the person wants to record. If you already recognize that you have pieces from some heavy hitters of the jewelry field where your focus is, then you might just focus on those pieces. Or you might realize, “Wow, I have a lot of this one artist. I should make sure I know who that person is, that I know their bio and where they’re from and all those things.” If you’re the type of person who realizes, “Well, I’ve got pieces that museums might want; this is pretty advanced,” then you might talk to a museum about what they like.
The article I wrote has a list of different data points that may or may not be useful. If you wanted to go all in and get every single bit of information on an artist and on a piece, you can definitely use that list as a starting point. If you’re not doing anything, then start with the artist’s name, the name of the piece (if there is a name), the material, where you bought it, if you bought it from the artist at a craft fair or tradeshow or if you bought it from a gallery, the date and the purchase price. You might be able to look at a piece and know that information off the top of your head right now, but in a few years you won’t. Nobody would. Getting that basic information down is really helpful, the base of it being the minimum amount about the object, the artist and where you bought it.
Sharon: To me, everything else would be like the dressing if you had that sort of information. Tell us about your work. I want to make sure we cover it. You had a show at Ornamentum in Hudson, New York, recently, right?
Rebekah: That’s correct. I can’t remember when it started, somewhere in mid-July and it finished in September, right after Labor Day. It was up for about six weeks. Hudson is a small town just outside of New York City. It’s kind of a destination town—it’s beautiful in the Hudson Valley, on the Hudson River. I just love the gallery space at Ornamentum. They have a small store, a boutique—I don’t know what you would call it—where you can see a lot of different jewelry artists, drawers full of jewelry of all different sizes and from all different countries and all different materials. Next to that, they have this gorgeous whitewall space, which is pretty rare in the jewelry world, to have a whitewall gallery space to be able to install your jewelry for an exhibition. I had a show there and I showed a new body of work. The show was called “Just Add Flesh,” and that’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to how people look at my work when it’s hanging, and they don’t understand it until they put it on their body. My work is chain. It’s very linear. The chain is flexible, and then there are curved or angled pieces that are rigid. When you put them on the body, they fall very, very differently and they move a lot. There’s a lot of life in the pieces, but when they’re hanging on the wall, they look like drawings. The lines and curves become static, so being able to do that in a large whitewall space at Ornamentum was lovely. I had a series of photographs taken of different people, friends of mine, mostly artists and mostly career people, wearing the jewelry. Those photographs were displayed along with the work during the exhibition, which helps because, again, when you see the work, you don’t understand how it will work on the body. You don’t even understand that it is wearable until you take it off the wall and put it on, which can be very intimidating in that kind of space. The photographs helped as a prompt to let people see that they are wearable.
Sharon: I saw some of the photographs. Was it on Instagram?
Rebekah: Yeah, on Instagram. My Instagram is @RebekahGailFrank. The photographer, Lydia Daniller, is amazing and she did a great job of capturing the mood I wanted for the pieces. The photographs are very strong. A lot of times, jewelry photographs will not include the person’s eyes, for example, because they’re considered to be distracting from the jewelry. I wanted to have the full person be seen and photographed with the piece because, for me, my jewelry and the person who wears it are in a conversation. It’s a body, if not a pedestal. They worked out.
Sharon: They were beautiful. What’s next for you?
Rebekah: What’s next? As I was going to say, I have a couple of group exhibitions in Europe next year, one in Munich in the first of the year called “Site Effects,” which is an exchange of ideas across continents. That’ll be a really intriguing exhibition. I’m curious to see the other work in it. The other is a group exhibit in Stockholm with four jewelry artists from four different countries who work in steel. Those two are happening, and then Ornamentum is going to take the exhibition they just had in Hudson to Design Miami. That’s the first weekend in December at Design Miami. That’s a big honor, to be able to be seen in that context.
Sharon: That’s wonderful, wow!
Rebekah: Thank you.
Sharon: Rebekah, you have a lot going on. Thank you so much for being here and for sharing everything you learned in doing all this research. The article on cataloging is on the Art Jewelry Forum website, is that correct? I know it was in the newsletter.
Rebekah: Absolutely, that’s correct. It’s also on my website. I put all the articles I write with links on my website so people can find them. Maybe you remember my name; maybe you remember Art Jewelry Forum, but you’ll find it through one of those places.
Sharon: We’ll also have a link to the article in the show notes as well as a link to your contact information.
Sharon: To everybody listening, that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review 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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