Art jewelry may be hard to define, but it seems that it’s finally getting its due among art and jewelry lovers alike. According to Susan Cummins, founder of Art Jewelry Forum, the way people are buying, collecting and exhibiting art jewelry is changing—and that’s a good thing. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about why she founded Art Jewelry Forum, why she collects jewelry (even though she doesn’t wear it), and why the barriers between art jewelry and other artistic disciplines are breaking down. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey. Today, my guest is Susan Cummins, former head of Art Jewelry Forum, and the visionary who drove and expanded the organization for the past several decades. Susan works tirelessly to have art jewelry seen as important in the art world. Today, she’ll tell us about her own jewelry journey and how she came to champion art jewelry. Susan, welcome to the program.
Susan: I’m thrilled to be here, Sharon. Thank you for inviting me.
Sharon: Delighted to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. You didn’t come to art jewelry through jewelry. From our past conversations, that’s my impression.
Susan: That is true. I’m not really interested in jewelry in general. I don’t wear jewelry, so I’m a totally unsuspecting candidate to be championing jewelry. I’m particularly interested in what we call art jewelry or contemporary jewelry. I can blame it all on the fact that I had a gallery. I was working with a potter at the time, so I became part of what was known as the crafts world in the 70s. I started out by doing work with her at craft fairs, and we had a small shop. I began to meet people within that world and understand the values they had, and I really appreciated the way they lived. Once I got the gallery, which was in the 80s in Mill Valley, California, a suburb of San Francisco, I was looking around for a craft I could feature in the gallery. I had come to gallery work through art history and my experience with the crafts world, so I wanted a particular craft to specialize in, and jewelry seemed to be just the thing. I wanted to emphasize that and show the very best people in the United States that were making jewelry. I gathered people together and they were very enthusiastic, and after a while, I began to realize these people are super smart. They’re knowledgeable. They’re very intelligent, and I liked the way they thought about what they were making. That started to convince me that jewelers were very important and that I really respected them. That’s how I got to know about American jewelry.
When I closed the gallery in 2002, I thought, “I don’t know anything about European jewelry,” which I really had no access to. I couldn’t get there from the West Coast easily and I didn’t have the money to go there. So, I said, “O.K., I’m going to organize a trip.” In 2005, with some other collector friends of mine, I planned a trip that was organized by a couple of jewelers I had shown who are Americans, but who had studied in Europe. We went to Amsterdam, which is a center of art jewelry, and Munich, which also has a fair every year I love going to called Schmuck. So, I started on European jewelry. That was my journey as to how I got here and how I began seriously collecting over the years since then.
Sharon: It sounds like it was the jewelers that attracted you, as opposed to the jewelry. Or was it both?
Susan: It was really both. It was the jewelers and what they were making, and the way they used materials and talked about what they were doing. It was the combination. I could appreciate the object, but it came alive when I knew what the story was behind it. That’s continued to be true for me ever since.
Sharon: How do you describe art jewelry? You said art jewelry or contemporary jewelry. It can encompass so many things.
Susan: Yes. In fact, it’s just the most slippery, slimy word. I think it’s hard to define. It means different things to different people, I would say. The best way I can usually describe it is to talk about specific examples, so you can see what I’m getting at when I say that it’s a piece of jewelry that has a concept behind it. One of the most common ones you see, which is a production item that is still available after many years of being on the market, is a rubber bracelet by Otto Künzli. Otto Künzli is a German jeweler who taught for a long time at the Munich Academy, which is a famous place in terms of producing highly-regarded jewelers. This bracelet looks like a black, rubber bracelet. It has a little, round bump partway along the tube, and in that little bump is a piece of gold. First of all, when you buy the piece, you aren’t paying a cheap amount of money for this rubber bracelet; you’re paying for the gold inside the rubber. Well, you can’t see it, and you don’t know whether it’s there or not. So, it starts out by being a question: do you believe the jeweler that he actually put gold in there? Do you believe the dealer that’s selling it to you? It’s the first challenge of the piece. Then, if you think about it a little more, you realize that jewelry has often been hidden. When regimes were threatening them, people would hide jewelry in their clothes and take it to a place where they could save it for themselves, or you think about how sometimes, in certain parts of the world, you don’t want to be on the street if people can see you’re wearing expensive jewelry. It’s these kinds of ideas, of hiding the value of jewelry, that add a lot of layers of interesting thought to that piece. It really talks about those things. It’s called “Gold Makes You Blind.” Even further than those things you think of yourself, you can find out that there was a big debate amongst jewelers in the 60s and 70s about preciousness and whether or not it was O.K. to use gold. Here, Otto is using gold, but not letting you see it. It can make you blind, but you don’t even know it’s there. It’s a very interesting, multilayered piece.
Another example of a piece he did, that I think is also fascinating in a different way, is a necklace made up of old wedding rings. He advertised in a local newspaper for people to give him their old wedding rings. He collected them from each of those people and asked them why they were giving them away, so each of the rings contains a story of love lost or divorce or death. It’s filled with the memories of happiness or deep sadness. It’s this hugely weighty necklace that carries all of these stories in a piece of jewelry.
Sharon: It sounds like a fascinating piece. I haven’t seen those. You didn’t start Art Jewelry Forum, but you certainly powered it and energized it. How did you find it, and what motivated you to get so involved?
Susan: Actually, I did start it.
Sharon: I thought you said didn’t. O.K., I misunderstood.
Susan: In the 80s and 90s, a lot of people that were collecting various craft media started collectors’ groups. The ceramicists had a collectors’ group; the glass blowers and makers had a collectors’ group; the fiber people had a collectors’ group. I thought, “Why don’t we have a collectors’ group for jewelry?” As a gallerist then—in 1997, I had a gallery. I was doing a fair in Chicago called SOFA which is—
Sharon: Sculpture Objects and Fine Arts.
Susan: Yes, Sculpture Objects and Fine Arts. I think that’s an acronym for it. Anyway, I collected a group of jewelry enthusiasts at breakfast and said, “We need to start an organization of jewelry collectors.” The first year I didn’t get any volunteers. The second year I tried it again, and that year I got some volunteers. That was the beginning of this group of people that were mainly collectors, but they were also gallerists and curators and researchers. Those people were just viewers; they were not makers. They were only people who would buy things or contribute to the understanding of them. That was the beginning, and the real goals of AJF were to encourage the appreciation of art jewelry. It was done through many different ways: supporting artists with grants, supporting galleries by encouraging people to buy from them, supporting collectors by giving them opportunities to meet each other on trips and to learn about the jewelry through visiting studios, and encouraging curators to do exhibitions and learn about jewelry by educating them and giving them material on a website to use for their research. The idea was that we would gather these people together and educate them and give them an enthusiastic and easy way to learn about jewelry by taking trips and meeting each other and writing researched articles. That allowed Art Jewelry Forum to get started as both a website and a trip originator, plus a place that gave grants to artists and so forth. We do a number of different things, but those are probably the most important.
Sharon: In the interest of full disclosure, I’m on the board of Art Jewelry Forum. Everything the organization does is well-done and the trips have been fabulous. Who should consider becoming a member?
Susan: I was just going to say that, too. Anyone interested in jewelry should become a member. They’re fun trips. Everybody enjoys each other. It’s a great group of people. You learn a lot on the trips, and anybody who’s curious about jewelry at all can have a great time with Art Jewelry Forum. There are lots of things happening. We’re now doing live interviews with jewelers. If you’re the least bit interested in expanding your view of jewelry in general, anybody who’s interested in jewelry can join.
Sharon: And it’s all kinds of people—people who make jewelry, gallerists, curators, people like me who just enjoy jewelry.
You’re a true collector. People have said to me, “What is it with Susan? She is so involved in jewelry, but she doesn’t wear jewelry.” You collect it. What do you want to do with it? Why don’t you wear the jewelry?
Susan: It’s a question I can never answer. All I can say is that I just don’t feel comfortable wearing jewelry. I’m a very plain dresser and a very plain person style-wise. I think it’s partly lazy, partly just not being interested in putting it on me, but I love it. I love the way it looks; I love the ideas behind it. I started collecting because I wanted to possess those things. I also have an art collection. I have things on the wall that I get because I love them. I wouldn’t say so much that I’m an art collector, because I don’t have that much of it, but I do have important artists in the collection and names of people you may recognize. I collect jewelry exactly the same way. I will give the jewelry collection to a museum in the future. That’s the goal. In the meantime, I’m doing research on it.
I’ve visited a lot of the artists I collect, especially the ones I collect a lot of pieces from, and I find out why they made this piece, why they made it out of that material, where that material came from, what they were doing at the time, and all about their lives and their thinking. I document all of those visits and research each piece, so that when I do give it to a museum, they’ll have a lot of information about each one. I take it seriously. I really love doing all of that research. I think it’s a selfish thing, I have to say, because I love doing it and have such a good time doing it. Over the years, I’ve developed an idea of what it is in particular that I like. That’s the fun of it, discovering something about your own interests or your own self by collecting and looking at and understanding work.
What I’m interested in now is work that’s what I call a power object. It says something very strongly spiritually or very powerfully. Some of the people I’m interested in are Dorothea Prihl, who’s an East German who does things that are almost primitive looking. She works in a studio that doesn’t have any running water, that she heats with wood, and she uses mainly simple tools to make her work. It’s made of wood and silver and very simple things, but very, very powerful. Bernhard Schobinger, who’s a Swiss jeweler, makes things out of things he finds, and he puts it together in almost a Dadaistic way. He’s very challenging. Can this be jewelry? Can that be jewelry? He’s always doing things a little bit in your face. Then there’s Manfred Bischoff, another favorite of mine, who is a German who recently died. He lived most of his life in Italy, and he did things that were very lyrical and psychologically based. He had a lot of interest in psychology, mythology, that sort of thing, and those things got into his jewelry. One last person is Kadri Mälk, who is a jeweler from Estonia who I refer to often as the “black witch,” because she does things with her work that seems to cast spells, or that she’s cast a spell on. There’s a part of her that is interested in mushrooms from the forest and various kinds of mythological beings and so forth. You can see there’s a bit of a thread that runs through these people’s work.
Sharon: I don’t think we still use it, but at one time, the tagline for Art Jewelry Forum was “Jewelry That Makes You Think,” and that’s what you’re saying.
Susan: Yeah, it’s still there. People are using it. It went away for a while, but it came back again because I do think that is what my definition of art jewelry would be.
Sharon: It’s jewelry that makes you think?
Sharon: You’ve been in the art jewelry field a long time. What changes have you seen? Has it grown? Has there been more interest? Are people dying off, because it tends to be an older group—older meaning at least my age. For the most part, it’s not usually 20-year-olds or younger. Well, they are in terms of makers—makers seem to be young. Maybe I’m putting my foot in my mouth. What changes have you seen?
Susan: People are always saying it’s dying off and the collectors are old and so forth. Yeah, I’m sure they are, and their way of collecting is part of this specific structure where there are artists making work; there are galleries showing work; there are collectors and enthusiasts buying work. That model is going to change and already is changing. I doubt I’ll end up being in a different model than that, but by the time I die off, probably that model will have changed. You can already see the signs of that in the fact that a lot more jewelers are using social media platforms, which I don’t follow, so I’m not going to say I have a big idea about that. But right now, there is one big change, because the jewelers have much more access to a larger audience of all sorts, not just a specific collector group audience.
Also, this week AJF did a live interview with a woman named Georgina Trevino, who’s a metalsmith from a Mexican background who lives in San Diego. She studied with Sondra Sherman at San Diego State, and she does what I think is the direction things are going. She works in many styles. She makes one-of-a-kind art jewelry, and she’ll have a show with Sienna Patti, which is one of the major American art jewelry galleries, sometime later, probably next year. She also makes cheap production pieces. She plays around with those, but basically, they’re all very cheap and use very cheap materials. She works for stylists, for fashion or industry shoots. She finds people to collaborate with from all other kinds of disciplines, and she makes work with them and works on projects she thinks sound fun. She’s breaking all the boundaries between the silos of these early days, when it was very specific: you had to go to school, make work, get in the gallery, and then somebody buys your work. She’s not waiting for that sort of thing to happen. She’s using all the resources she has to show her work and make different kinds of work.
This is happening also in museums and in galleries. Museums are breaking down all the silos between their different sections. They’re trying to mix it up, so art jewelry can be shown with paintings or sculpture or anything else from the same time period or with the same theme. Schools are also breaking down the silos and barriers between one discipline and another. Somebody might study jewelry, but they also look at architecture, or they look at woodworking, or they look at other types of disciplines and learn things about them and can use them to make jewelry, if they are interested. All the imposed old rules are being questioned. People are asking why can’t a jeweler learn other skills? Why can’t a jeweler have bigger ideas? Why can’t an artist from a conceptual art field, somebody like Katie Paterson or Mona Hatoum, make jewelry? Jewelry is creeping into the art world through artists making jewelry, not having someone make the jewelry for them, but allowing jewelry to be part of their overall work.
I should make a point here that there is something called artist’s jewelry, which is different than art jewelry, just to confuse you even more. Artist’s jewelry is that a famous person, like Louise Bourgeois, for example, makes jewelry, but she’s not really making the jewelry; she’s having a jeweler make the jewelry for her. She did make a great necklace I have in the collection, I will admit, but I think that’s the only piece of jewelry I have by a famous artist. Mostly famous artists’ work is very pristine and perfect, because they hire very pristine and perfect jewelers to make it. So, it doesn’t have the same authenticity or struggle in that piece of jewelry because it wasn’t thought of, conceived by and then made by the same person. Anyway, that’s a diversion.
I think these barriers are all breaking down, and I think the barriers in the marketplace will break down. They say craft is dead, but long live craft. It’s just permeating all the other marketplaces and all the other disciplines, as are those other disciplines coming to look at jewelry. There is a breath of fresh air about it, I think, and I do think it’s endemic in all the institutions.
Sharon: That’s really interesting. It seems galleries are popping up all over the world with artist’s jewelry or jewelry by artists. I’m glad you’re defining it, because I was like, “I know it’s not art jewelry, but— “
Susan: I do think of it as a good thing to have. I think there are quite few people that like to collect it as well, and it’s probably a much higher value, because the people that make it have a higher value in the art marketplace. They can therefore have a higher value for the jewelry they make, and that’s a good way for art jewelry to be connected to that. It’s something that could also have a higher value for that reason. I think that’s good, but it’s also very confusing.
Sharon: I was in a business meeting, and I guess I had been talking about one of my art jewelry trips, and somebody said, “What’s art jewelry?” I was speechless, because it’s so hard to describe, especially for people who don’t even know jewelry.
Susan: Just say it’s jewelry that makes you think.
Sharon: Where would you like to go from here, Susan? I know you’re doing a lot of research.
Susan: I’ve already started going from here. Basically, I started doing street fairs, then I had a shop, then I had a gallery, and then I started AJF. I’ve been on other boards and I’ve been funding, for quite a long time now, other people to write books or catalogues or do exhibitions through a charitable fund called ROTASA. After doing that for a long time, I decided maybe I would like to write something. Art Jewelry Forum has something called a fiscal sponsorship program, which allows charitable funds to donate to Art Jewelry Forum, because it’s a nonprofit and that’s the only place a charitable fund can donate. Then AJF funnels that money, manages that money and pays the bills for projects that people suggest with this program. Damien Skinner, who’s a Ph.D. art historian from New Zealand who was the first editor for the AJF website, and Cindi Strauss, who is the Decorative Curator from the Houston MFA and knows a lot about jewelry, the three of us joined together to put together a project about the early days of American jewelry, because very little has been written about that. We have just sent off to the publisher the manuscript for a book called “Influx: American Jewelry and the Counterculture.” This is about American jewelry in the 60s and 70s and how art jewelry started in America. It’s a bit of a different story than how it started in Europe. The story of Europe has been told in numerous books—the Europeans are much better at producing books and research than we are in America, so I wanted to try and tell how American jewelry got started. For the last four or maybe five years now, we’ve been researching, doing interviews and collecting information. In late October, early November, you will be able to get a copy of “Influx: American Jewelry in the Counterculture.”
Sharon: Susan, that’s great! That sounds like a fascinating read.
Susan: I have several more writing projects in the hopper, so this could be a never-ending process. I’m excited about that, not that I’m a great writer or anything, but I can do research and I can try and write up what I found.
Sharon: I’m looking forward to whatever you put out. That book on American jewelry sounds very interesting. Thank you so much for being here today, Susan. To everybody listening, that’s it for the Jewelry Journey today. We’ll have images posted on the website along with the podcast. Please join us next time, when our guest will be another jewelry industry professional who can share their experience and expertise in the field. You can download the Jewelry Journey Podcast wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Thank you so much for listening.
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