Santa Fe is known as an arts destination, and Allison Barnett prides herself on bringing unique contemporary jewelry to the scene with her gallery Patina, which she co-owns with her husband. Allison was a recent guest on the Jewelry Journey podcast, where she talked about how she got into the gallery business; how she finds and chooses artists; and what kinds of pieces resonate with her customers. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Allison Barnett, founder and co-owner with her husband, Ivan, of Patina Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The gallery recently celebrated 20 years in business, and it is a must-see when you’re making the rounds in Santa Fe. Today, she’ll tell us about life as a gallerist and the changes she has seen in the market and what is on the horizon. Allison, welcome to the program.
Allison: Thank you so much. I’m thrilled to be here.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. When did you start liking jewelry?
Allison: I always knew I wanted to be an artist and I always enjoyed drawing with my grandmother on the weekends; she was an artist as well. I always saw things dimensionally and I liked small things, so I would go to her jewelry collection. I think it started very early on. If I fast forward many years later, I was studying jewelry design and metalsmithing in Florence, Italy, when I was in school and taking classes there. I was going to cafés and drinking a lot of coffee, and I kept imagining one day I would have a coffee bar where I would “serve” jewelry; where everyone was sitting in little cubicles, enjoying their cappuccino, and they could be looking at beautiful handmade jewelry, like with a table setting and a shadow box. That’s where the idea for me germinated.
Sharon: Sounds like a great idea.
Allison: I’m not too far off from that now.
Sharon: You’re a metalsmith and a goldsmith also, right? You studied that?
Allison: I would say metalsmith. I studied metalsmithing at Syracuse University. I graduated in 1991. I had some great teachers there, Barbara Walter and Michael Jerry, and I would say more metalsmithing than goldsmithing.
Sharon: When did you decide you wanted to start a gallery? That’s a big step.
Allison: It is a very big step. I am more extroverted; I love people. As I was beginning to formulate this, I realized that I would probably not be happy sitting in a studio alone all day making jewelry. Then, I met my husband in the early ’90s in Santa Fe; as we were getting to know one another that idea was coming to the surface. He said he had also thought about having a gallery, so that was when the idea germinated. It took a few years to manifest itself because we opened the gallery in 1999 and we were married in 1997. We are very yin and yang. We really complement each other, and here we are 20 years later.
Sharon: He’s an artist also, right?
Allison: He is an artist as well. He’s a bit older than I am. He studied illustration at Philadelphia College of Art, but he’s always had a great mind for business, and he’s been an artist his whole life. He’s done work with metal. He’s written books and done illustrations for books. He’s had his hands in many different creative areas, so the idea of doing the gallery together made sense. I’m in the forefront—as he would say, I’m the face of Patina—and he’s in the background, coming up with brilliant ideas. They don’t stop coming from him. I enjoy being with our clients and our collectors on the floor and actively participating with them in helping them collect this wonderful work.
Sharon: What does the name Patina mean? Why did you decide to name it Patina, and why did you decide to carry contemporary, bordering on avant-garde jewelry?
Allison: We’ll take it one at a time. Ivan came up with Patina and it resonated with both of us. We’ve come up with the tagline “Beauty Over Time,” and it’s just perfect. For me, it’s about the philosophy of life and things that get better with time, like you and me or a great piece of jewelry, and it isn’t just jewelry. We have works in wood and in clay. I love surface. I love textiles. I love metal. That idea of patina resonates across the board, no matter what the medium is. What was the second part of the question?
Sharon: “Beauty Over Time,” I like that a lot.
Allison: Thank you.
Sharon: You carry a very contemporary collection, and it borders on avant-garde. It’s art jewelry, but it’s not what you’d call art jewelry, being way out there.
Sharon: Why did you decide to focus on that area?
Allison: Beauty still resonates with me. We use another tagline in the gallery, which is “Soul-Stirring Works.” To me, that is when I’m holding something in my hand and it’s the texture of it; it’s the weight of it; it’s how it’s been crafted. I’ve always been interested in the beauty of craftsmanship and I would call it sometimes avant-garde. We strike this balance. We don’t have a lot of artists who are doing works that are highly conceptual, and as I said, beauty still matters to me. I want a woman or a man, mostly women, to feel beautiful when they put on a piece of jewelry, but I also want them to feel like they’re holding something that’s different, that stimulates their senses. Sometimes it’s avant-garde, sometimes it’s not, but at the end of the day, it has to stir their soul.
Sharon: That’s a great way to look at it. Tell us about the gallery. You mentioned more women than men, which makes sense, but do you have a lot of online sales or wedding sales? Tell us about your market and your customers.
Allison: Our online is growing. We have invested over the last five years in having what I think is a very beautiful website for our type of gallery. We really tried to create a website that is user-friendly with beautiful images and beautiful descriptions. We have a whole team of great associates here in the gallery who do writing for us, who do photography for us. All of that matters, this whole team of people behind what Ivan and I are trying to bring to the forefront every day. The web sales are growing. It’s very organic. I’m so delighted when I hear the little cash register on my phone when there’s a sale. An online sale, there’s sort of a philosophy. Some of it is organic; it just happens. Sometimes it’s the usage of email and sending photographs, and it ends up being that type of sale. We are in a beautiful place in Santa Fe, New Mexico, up in the mountains at 7,000 feet in an arts destination city. We have many clients who live here or have second or third homes here as well as clients who live elsewhere. We attract a great array of people coming here for art and culture.
Sharon: Santa Fe is definitely a city for artists and your gallery fits right in. I was just reading that “A City Different” is its motto. You went to Schmuck last February and March and you wrote about it. There’s a lot of promotion you put out about it. I think you found 10 new artists. What was it about them that attracted you or made you think, “I want to include these in our gallery”?
Allison: That’s a great question. For me, it’s that constant idea of looking for something that’s different, something that stimulates all my senses. It’s a visual sense. It’s touching. It has to be beautiful and resonate with me and stir my soul. If I don’t feel like I can stand behind it or sell it and try to connect it with my collectors, I don’t believe in it. It has to move me. At that show, there was certainly a lot of work that was very conceptual, which I love. I think it’s just marvelous. It isn’t always the right choice for our gallery, but there were plenty of artists doing works that were really interesting and different. We met a lot of gallerists. We met a lot of artists doing great work in different types of metal, in parchment, high-carat gold and enamel. It was a total thrill to be there and even to be recognized by European artists. They knew who we were, and they were delighted to meet us and form an alliance with us.
Sharon: That’s great. It can be overwhelming and there is such a range there.
Sharon: How does the geographic location, the fact that you’re in Santa Fe, influence the kind of artists you choose? Are you influenced by the fact that you’re in the southwest? I know when I go to Santa Fe, I walk away feeling so overwhelmed by Native American jewelry, like, “Oh my god, I’ve seen enough. I don’t want to see any more.”
Allison: Right, people come to Santa Fe for all different reasons, and I’ve always felt that it’s the light and the colors here that move so many people. We have all four seasons. I think when people and collectors are here, they’re moved by those things. I think Santa Fe attracts a lot of European people, world travelers and also people who are dealing in tribal arts, and I’m interested in all of those things. I’ve chosen contemporary jewelry as my focus, but I think my interest in ethnographic and tribal art and in textiles makes what we do here important. It still resonates, even though it’s not Native American and it’s not tribal art. It still fits in with the genre of all the cultural aspects of our city and it’s found its place. It’s been 20 years and I think we’re a bit of a respite when people are overwhelmed with all the Native American jewelry. There’s wonderful Native American; it’s wonderful turquoise and silver—
Sharon: Oh, it’s just beautiful.
Allison: It’s something we don’t have in the gallery because I feel like that is spoken for in our wonderful city. So when clients come in, they see something that’s different, but they also see something—I hope that when they get home, they still feel that it resonates with them. It will work, whether they live in Los Angeles or Massachusetts, wherever they are. They can still wear this piece from Patina and it works, and it doesn’t feel like they’re wearing something they bought in Santa Fe that’s Native American. I’ve had clients who say that it feels like they’re wearing a costume when they come home with a glass blossom necklace from one of the Native American artists, or a piece of pawned jewelry, and there’s an absolute place for it. It’s just something we don’t do.
Sharon: Right. A lot of it is beautiful. It’s just that you can only wear so many necklaces. Even I could only wear so many necklaces or bracelets at a time.
Sharon: I say that because I have three bracelets on one hand here.
Allison: Oh, I love it.
Sharon: You’ve used the word “collector” several times. Who are your collectors? Are they people who come in and say, “I have five pieces by this artist. What do you have that’s new by him or her?” Or is it somebody who comes in because they’ve bought from you before? What is a collector to you?
Allison: A collector to me is someone who—obviously, they have more than one, probably more than three or five works. It could be from a singular artist or from a genre of art or just across the board. We have several artists in the gallery who our clients have been collecting for over 20 years. I’ll use one artist as an example: Claire Kahn, who does the most miraculous bead crochet with cylindrical glass beads and gemstones. We’re about to have her next exhibition, called “Signs of Life,” which opens October 18, and we have so many collectors. It’s been 10 years that clients have been coming in, and we have one collector who has nearly 50 pieces of hers. She started with one piece and it’s grown over those 10 years. That collector, like me, she loves surface; she loves tactile; she loves color. Every thought that Claire has, with the intention behind how she makes these pieces, it resonates with this particular collector, and it’s not just her. Today, I had two collectors in who were each looking at different works by Claire Kahn and loving them for different reasons. The beauty of them is that you can wear 10 necklaces or even 10 bracelets and it’s OK. It looks fantastic.
Sharon: Yeah, it must be fantastic.
Allison: I would say our clients and collectors are very sophisticated. What we sell is not glitzy; it’s not overdone. These are clients who don’t want their jewelry to look like they have the wealth they do. Claire’s a great example. There’s an understatement to her work. It doesn’t scream out to people, “I spent a lot of money on this particular piece.” Some of her pieces are very expensive, but they feel so good. They look so good and she’s the perfect artist for Patina because she’s constantly making new work. Every piece is one of a kind. With her making these pieces every day, every week, every year, clients have a hunger for what the next piece will be. They know that she won’t do a commission, and they know they have to get it while they can. It’s the perfect, wonderful storm.
Sharon: It is very elegant and unless you know the work, you don’t realize what’s gone into it unless you really study it and see what she’s done. It’s amazing work.
Allison: I feel like my role—because I studied metalsmithing and studio art—I feel like I’m a great docent or educator. I’m holding a client’s hand as they walk through the gallery, telling them about the work and how it’s made, why it has meaning to me and why I think it should have meaning to them and the history of these artists. Many of them are what I would call early pioneers in our field of art jewelry and metalsmithing, and we’ve come away from pure metalsmithing. Claire works with beads. I have other artists working in parchment or paper. I’m really open to all materials. When we first opened, it was more about metalsmithing and gemstones, but now Patina is so much more than that. I love the intention behind why something is made, how it’s made and the skill that goes behind that. I take the greatest joy and pleasure in finding the bridge between the artist and the collector. It brings me such delight. I love what I do.
Sharon: That’s a great way to say it. What trends or changes have you seen in the market? What’s of interest to people today versus five years ago or 10 years ago? What are you seeing?
Allison: That is a great question and I would say—boy, how do I answer that? We’ve been open since 1999. Certainly 2008 hit us hard, as it did many businesses, and we hunkered down, leaned in and did the work. We’re still here, which we’re so happy about. The jewelry in the gallery helped us forge ahead. We’ve always had other works in the gallery, in clay and wood and sculpture and painting, but the jewelry really helped us at that time. The amount of jewelry and the works we have in the gallery has grown since that time. For us, I would say the trend is that for the collectors who are still out there—and there are many of them—there’s always a place for jewelry. You don’t have to make room in your home for more jewelry. Women love to keep collecting jewelry and there’s always a place for it. To me, that’s the trend I’ve noticed in our business. That’s what propelled me every day to keep looking for different and unusual works. No matter their price, the clients understand the work. They’re willing to pay for it, so the price of something doesn’t hold me back. I am just interested in great beauty and something that’s different and skillfully made. Our clients will keep coming back for it and they have, which has been marvelous.
Sharon: Yes, that’s quite a long run. It is easier to find space for jewelry. It’s harder to find space for another pair of shoes, even though you manage to do it.
Allison: Right, exactly.
Sharon: Even if they have to go into the dryer.
Allison: Right, we just have to have it.
Sharon: Allison, thank you so much for being here. To everybody listening, we’ll have the gallery’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com. 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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