Jewelry Journey Podcast

Jewelry artists have always been fascinated by space, and a new exhibit explores this motif from the 19th century to the present. “Out of this World! Jewelry in the Space Age” is a traveling exhibit curated by Elyse Zorn Karlin and currently on view at the Tellus Science Museum in Cartersville, Georgia. Elyse, who is the cofounder of ASJRA, the Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts, joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about her inspiration for the exhibit, the process of curating it, and some of her favorite pieces on view. Read the episode transcript here. 

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Elyse Zorn Karlin, a woman who wears several hats in the jewelry world. She is an expert and author of several books about jewelry. She is the cofounder of ASJRA, the Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts, which puts on a fascinating conference each year, in addition to sponsoring lectures throughout the year. Today, we are showcasing the current exhibit that Elyse is curating. It’s at the Tellus Science Museum in Georgia. It’s jewelry that’s out of this world, related to the space age. I don’t have the exact title. Elyse will tell us about that. Elyse, welcome to the program.

Elyse: Thank you for having me.

Sharon: So glad to have you. 

Elyse: The exact title is actually “Out of this World! Jewelry in the Space Age.” You were pretty close.

Sharon: I see that now in my notes here, thank you. “Out of this World! Jewelry in the Space Age” seems like an unusual exhibition for any kind of museum, let alone a science museum. How did that come about?

Elyse: Actually, it’s not that unusual for a science museum. It came about because I had a lot of brooches from the 60s I was looking at one day, and I realized they were stylized kind of like Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to ever be launched into space, and that piqued my interest. What other jewelry is there that might be related to space? It turned out it’s a lot. The first venue for the exhibition was the Forbes Gallery in New York City. I had curated other exhibitions for them, and when I came up with this idea, they really liked it and said, “Go for it.” They don’t handle traveling exhibitions; in fact, the gallery no longer exists, so it became my exhibition when it was done. I owned the rights to it, so I started looking for places to travel with it. I went to art museums but also science museums, because it seemed to me that the connection of space, even though it was jewelry, was very strong in a science museum. It turned out I was correct. The next venue was the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and now it’s at the Tellus.

Sharon: Did it take a lot of convincing? I can see the connection, but I’m thinking that a lot of prestigious people who make these decisions might not see it. 

Elyse: Well, let me explain what’s in the exhibition. First of all, we trace the timeline of jewelry and history, but jewelry with symbols of moons and stars and planets goes back to ancient times. We don’t start that early in the exhibition; we start in the Georgian period, when Haley’s Comet reappeared as he had predicted. In 1835, there was a craze for comet jewelry, and that’s where we start from. We go up to the present day, where there are an amazing number of artists who base their work on space motifs. We also have jewelry that’s made from materials that come from space, like meteorites and other materials. We have jewelry that’s made from materials used for spacecraft, and we also have jewelry that’s been flown by astronauts that have taken it up to the space station. There is a strong connection to things that are already in museums, like meteorites, and that’s where the connection comes from.

Sharon: So, do you have diamonds, because diamonds are made of carbon and there is a science connection?

Elyse: There are diamonds in some of the jewelry, but we don’t specifically include diamonds. We have moissanite. For those who are not familiar, genuine moissanite is found in meteorites. It’s very rare to find, and it’s found in very small quantities. Moissanite looks and tests exactly like a diamond, but it’s a different material. It’s as hard as a diamond. It’s now being made as synthetic moissanite. People are wearing moissanite rings in place of diamonds that cost about half the price, and it looks great.

Sharon: Yeah, that’s how I think of it, as a diamond replacement or diamond lookalike. Not that I am so in love with diamonds, but that’s what I think of it. I didn’t realize most of it is artificial, from what you’re saying.

Elyse: Yeah, one company was making it for industrial use, just as diamonds are used for industrial use because they’re so hard. Later it occurred to them that moissanite could be used as jewelry. If I’m not mistaken, their patent recently expired, so the price has come down even more, because it’s being made in China and India and all kinds of places.

Sharon: Interesting. How did you collect all this? Did you put the word out to your jewelry buddies?

Elyse: For some of it, I knew people who owned things and I asked them to lend it. Some I purchased. Whenever I came across a great piece I knew I’d never see again for sale, I would purchase it. Then, I just started looking around. I talked to people who knew jewelers. I talked to jewelers I knew, and I looked on the internet. Whenever I found somebody who was making something interesting, I asked them if they would lend, and hardly anybody has said no to date.

Sharon: Wow! I’m thinking about all the work that goes into that.

Elyse: It’s a lot of work. It’s a huge amount of work. We have about 50 lenders and about 150 objects, plus we have other space ephemera, so that’s 200 objects total in the exhibition. It’s a lot of coordination.

Sharon: Wow! Did you work with the science curators at the museum on this? How did that go?

Elyse: No, I have to say I worked more with the exhibition designers. At the Tellus, the person I’m working with is the Director of Exhibitions, so she does everything. She has a team, but she works on all kinds of exhibitions about gemstones and other science-related subjects.

Sharon: Did you give her the things you wanted to exhibit, and she figured out how to best do it?

Elyse: Yes, they designed the exhibition themselves. They did a great job, but we worked very closely. Every step of the way they sent me what they were thinking about. I would explain to them the relationship between objects. They basically went with the categories and material I had created for the original exhibition, but at each venue they make it look like their own, which is very nice. It’s fun for me to see it looking differently.

Sharon: Yeah, you’re repurposing. You’re squeezing as much as you can out of it.

Elyse: Right.

Sharon: Do the objects change from place to place? Do you tweak them?

Elyse: Yes, sometimes people don’t want to lend for a second or third venue because they wear their jewelry. Of course, Covid this year made one or two people a little reluctant, but to my amazement, almost everybody I asked lent. I would say 90% of the exhibition stays intact, and we might add 10% more.

Sharon: Can you give us an example of something you might have changed or tweaked from one exhibit to another?

Elyse: At this venue, we have several new contemporary artists whose work we’ve included. There’s one artist, Ezra Satok-Wolman—I hope I’m pronouncing his name right. I happened to see that he had an exhibition in Barcelona, Spain, and it was “Jewelry for an Astronaut.” I immediately contacted him and fell in love with his jewelry. Another jeweler I know, Wayne Warner—I’ve known him to make beautiful jewelry, but I didn’t know he also worked with meteorite. We included two of his pieces. I discovered another artist; I just found her work online. Her is Sue Szabo. She’s a doctor. She does jewelry for fun, and I fell in love with her pieces. You just don’t know what you’re going to see and when. You’ve got to take it with you can. 

Sharon: That sounds like so much fun.

Elyse: It’s like discovering something wonderful. 

Sharon: For people who come to the science museum because they have more of a science orientation, or if they come with more a jewelry orientation, what do you want them to walk away with?

Elyse: I think if they have a science orientation, if they’re coming because it’s a science museum, I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised to see how art and science intersect. One is dependent on the other. We have materials that are used by NASA to build space ships that are also used to make jewelry, and we have tons of meteorite jewelry. We have tektite jewelry. Tektite is when a meteorite hits—first of all, I should say correctly that it’s a meteor until it hits the ground, then it’s a meteorite. The heat from the impact will send materials from the earth up into the air, and when it comes down again it turns into glass as it hardens. That’s what a tektite is. We have artists who are making jewelry from tektites, and there are specific kinds of tektites that come in different colors. We have jewelers working with that. One of the most interesting items we have is jewelry made of nitinol, which is nickel titanium. It was invented by the Naval Research Lab. We have an artist who bends and twists it and makes these fabulous pieces out of the wire. 

If you come as a jewelry person, you’ll learn some science. You’ll learn about materials from space. I think even children enjoy the exhibition, because we have a lot of vintage space-related things from the 60s; toys and children’s mugs and rocket ship banks and things like that. There’s something for everyone.

Sharon: It sounds wonderful. Do people come to you say, “I had no idea there was such an intersection of art and jewelry”?

Elyse: Yeah, people are very surprised, pleasantly surprised I think. 

Sharon: Is the museum open now?

Elyse: Yes, it is. We did the opening night virtually because they didn’t want too many people in one place, but the museum is open. I don’t know if it will stay open. Right now nobody knows what’s going to happen anywhere. You do have to get tickets, not for the exhibition itself, but they time how many people can come into the museum at a time for safety purposes.

Sharon: Yeah, hopefully it will stay that way. Even if you have to buy tickets, there are so many places that are totally closed. 

Elyse: I will say that on the opening night, I gave a lecture and they did a tour. That’s on the museum’s YouTube account, which anybody can access. If you can’t get there, you can see it online.

Sharon: It sounds like you learned so much about science. 

Elyse: I did. I didn’t know anything about meteorites when I started. I have learned a lot.

Sharon: I know you’re a tremendous author. You’ve done a lot of writing. I presume from knowing you and talking with you that you enjoy writing. Is there a catalogue you’ve put together for this?

Elyse: There was a catalogue when it was at the Forbes. They did not redo it, and they’re not selling it. There are still some limited numbers of the catalogue available. If anybody wanted one, I could put them in touch with the person who has them. I don’t have any except my own copy. It’s a very small catalogue, but it was nicely done at the Forbes.

Sharon: Was the Forbes a private gallery?

Elyse: Yes, Forbes Magazine basically had a gallery in their building, and it was lovely. The cases were all built in the walls. It existed because Malcolm Forbes had a huge Fabergé collection, and that’s where it resided. After he passed away, his sons sold all the Fabergé back to Russia, which was probably the right thing to have happen. Then they had this gallery, so they had rotating exhibits there, mostly jewelry. I happened to come along at the right time and met the director. I think I did a total of three exhibits there. It’s closed now. It’s no longer there because they sold the building.

Sharon: I was wondering if it was a private gallery that had closed its doors.

Elyse: Yeah, it was free. Anybody could come. It was terrific; it was lovely.

Sharon: You wear a lot of hats. You curate a lot of conferences, even if it’s not the ASJRA conference.

Elyse: Right, I do one in Florida, too.

Sharon: Right, the one in Florida. 

Elyse: U.S. Antique Shows does the jewelry history series every year in conjunction with the big Miami Antique Show.

Sharon: Are they considering doing that virtually this year?

Elyse: We’re talking to them about it. We haven’t had any final decision, but we’re hopeful they might do that.

Sharon: Having attended the conference and the show a couple times, I hope you can do something virtually, because I always learned a lot going. It was so enjoyable going to the conference. The show’s great, but going to the conference added so much.

Elyse: Yeah, it was a very relaxed conference. You’re down in Florida enjoying the warm weather. It was very nice.

Sharon: Are you curating the other places this exhibit may go?

Elyse: I’m starting to look for other venues. It’s been dicey right now to approach anybody, because most museums are closed or closing, and they’ve already postponed things they had on their books. I don’t think too many are looking for something to add right now, but I’m hopeful that it will travel to other venues. It’s going to be at the Tellus until next October.  It’s there for 11 months, so it couldn’t travel that soon anyway.

Sharon: Hopefully within 11 months this will be over. 

Elyse: Yeah, we should be in a whole different place by then, hopefully.

Sharon: I hope. Are you writing other books right now? 

Elyse: I was thinking about that the other day. I have about six books on the back burner, believe it or not. None of them I’m ready to talk about yet, but one is with Yvonne Markowitz, who’s my partner in ASJRA. We’re working on a project, but she’s got another book she has to finish ahead of it. I’m working on another book related to Arts and Crafts jewelry, and I have a novel and a mystery on the back burner, both related to jewelry. Someday I may get to them.

Sharon: Oh, wow! 

Elyse: It’s been a very busy year, surprisingly, even though I’ve been stuck at home. We did our conference virtually and I was curating the exhibition, so I haven’t gotten to any of that kind of writing. I’ve just written for our magazine and newsletter.

Sharon: I know you did the ASJRA conference virtually. I think people really had to scramble, because they had things coming up that were supposed to take place in person, and everybody had to figure how to do this virtually. 

Elyse: We postponed twice. It was supposed to be in April, then September, and then we ended up in October virtually. It was a good transition. We figured out how to do it virtually pretty well, but we had a great AV guy working for us.

Sharon: That’s great. That makes all the difference. 

Elyse: Yes.

Sharon: And I know you’ve been doing a talk on jewelry of the French courtesans for several organizations. 

Elyse: Yes, that’s one of my favorite lectures. I just gave it last week. That’s a lecture I’ve been doing for a couple of years now, but I’m always learning new things, so it always changes.

Sharon: When is the next ASJRA conference supposed to be, whether it’s virtual or in person? 

Elyse: Possibly in the spring. We’re not certain yet. When we started out 15 years ago, we always did it over Columbus Day weekend. We thought people would remember that date, but now we’ve switched it around. I’m leaning towards considering the spring, but we haven’t gotten that far yet. We’re still recuperating from the last one, but in December we have a lecture that’s open to anyone. Beth Wees from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is going to be lecturing on cameos. People can just go to our website to sign up for that lecture. There’s a banner at the bottom of our home page, and you just click on it to sign up. In February, we have another lecture coming up that I can’t quite announce yet, but it’s a joint venture with another organization. I think it’s going to be a very interesting lecture.

Sharon: I always get them on my calendar as soon as they come out, because they’re always so interesting.

Elyse: We’re glad.

Sharon: I’m looking forward to the one on cameos. That sounds great, because people aren’t talking about cameos.

Elyse: Yeah, I’m quickly going to look up the exact title for you.

Sharon: I know it’s on my calendar.

Elyse: You’d think I would remember, but I have too many things going on in my head. It’s called “Cameo Fever: From Catherine the Great to Scarlet O’Hara.” I haven’t heard it yet. I’m looking forward to it.

Sharon: I want to encourage anybody listening who hasn’t explored or become a member of ASJRA to definitely take a look at that, the U.S. Jewelry History Show and the conference. They’re all worthwhile. I’ve never come away from one feeling like, “Why did I spend my time doing that?”

Elyse: That’s very nice to hear.

Sharon: You know I’ve been a longtime member.

Elyse: Yes, we do, and we’re glad to have you.

Sharon: Elyse, thank you so much for being here today. We greatly appreciate it.

Elyse: My pleasure, anytime.

Sharon: Hopefully we’ll see each other in person in the not-too-distant future.

Elyse: I sure hope so. That will be something to look forward to.

Sharon: Yes, definitely. That is all for the Jewelry Journey. Don’t forget we’ll have images posted on the website. You can find the podcast 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. Thanks so much for listening.