Jewelry Journey Podcast

Sharon: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Susan Beech, a longtime art jewelry collector and the sponsor of Art Jewelry Forum’s Susan Beech Mid-Career Artist Grant. The submission period for grant applications opens on November 1 and closes in early January 2021. We’ll hear more about the grant program today as well as how it all came about. Susan, welcome to the program.

Susan: Sharon, thanks so much for having me today.

Sharon: Delighted to have you. Susan, tell us about your jewelry journey. Did you always like jewelry?

Susan: My jewelry journey might be a little different than some people. What I’ve always loved is collecting. From the time I was a kid, I would have doll collections, this collection, that collection. Then, I got into various Art Deco collections; vintage handbag collections, vintage scarf collections. I like to collect. I didn’t care that much about jewelry. My mother died when I was young and I inherited very nice traditional jewelry, so I thought, “I have all the jewelry I need.” I didn’t really think about it until I went to Susan Cummins’ gallery. In 1988 or 1989, we moved out to the Bay Area and I saw contemporary art jewelry for the first time. Of course, Susan is so charming, and I met her and got to know some of the other people that bought jewelry from her. We formed a small group before the Art Jewelry Forum, and it was fun. Susan would have a jewelry exhibition every month—they were all American jewelers—and we got to meet the jewelers and buy jewelry. It was really fun. I didn’t think of myself as a collector at all at first. I enjoyed buying jewelry, and it was different-looking jewelry; it was one-of-a-kind pieces. It could be made from unusual material, but it was something I was rather fascinated with.

Sharon: That’s interesting, because I don’t know many people who started with art jewelry. Most people came to it through antique or estate jewelry, or retro jewelry or something else.

Susan: Like I said, because I had jewelry, I didn’t think about jewelry. I could open up my jewelry box and there were pearls; there were rings; there were basic things to put on. I liked that this was such original jewelry. I’ve always had this collecting fascination, and anything I collected I wanted to learn more about the subject. But back in the late 80s, you couldn’t go online and look up a million pieces of jewelry and look up every artist, and there were very few books on the subject. You really had to go to a gallery to meet the artist and to learn about things. At some point, I started going to SOFA in the early 90s—Sculptural Objects Functional Art—and that was the first time I saw international jewelry. It had a lot of international jewelry, which had a different look to it, and it was new jewelry for me to look at and I could buy more things. So, it became even more fun.

Sharon: How did you become involved in the launch of Art Jewelry Forum? Can you tell us a little about it?

Susan: Sure. Art Jewelry Forum was started in 1997 by Susan Cummins. She’d had a gallery for quite a while and she would show at SOFA, so she knew collectors from New York, Chicago, different parts of the United States. It was her idea to get these various enthusiasts together and form a group. There would be a nice newsletter every month, and we could meet at SOFA and share ideas and learn more. I do give Susan the credit for putting all this together. Slowly, it developed into national trips, and then international trips, and then international collectors, international board members, and it’s become the wonderful thing it is today.

Sharon: It’s been interesting to see the whole development of it.

Susan: It has been. You didn’t think there was so much in this art jewelry world at the beginning, and then as the years went by, you could start looking at things online. I always liked to travel to Europe, and then I learned about European galleries, so if I’d go to London, if I’d go to Paris, if I’d go to Amsterdam, I could look up all these different galleries and expand my jewelry world even more.

Sharon: It’s such a force today, with book publishing and grants and awards. How did you come up with the idea for the Susan Beech Mid-Career Grant Award? Why this particular group?

Susan: Between children and stepchildren, I have five children that were in that age range, and I’ve watched them get to their forties. A lot of it was full surprises, not all of them great, and their path wasn’t always smooth. There were setbacks and I watched them deal with them. During this time, I got to know a number of younger jewelers, jewelers that were the age of my children, and I saw the same thing happening to them, too. They weren’t the fresh, young, new jewelers who got a lot of attention and grants. I wouldn’t say they were middle-aged, necessarily. They might be represented by a gallery; they might be in a group museum show. They might have some following, but it wasn’t always smooth. Making art jewelry is not a way to get rich, as we know, especially in the United States, because artists aren’t subsidized by the country they’re in. Some places like Germany or the Netherlands, they’re subsidized a lot, but not in the United States. It’s hard as you reach fortyish or so, to have all these hopes and dreams when you’re also getting married, you’re thinking about family or have a family, you have a house, and you’re making jewelry, but you’re not making that much money. You might have these wonderful, wonderful ideas, but you just don’t have the resources to fulfill that dream. That’s how it got started.

Sharon: Mid-career, how is that defined?

Susan: It’s kind of arbitrary, but I picked the years from maybe 35 to 55. It could have been a little different, but I wanted to have a long enough time span, so I just chose these years. The first year—we’re going into our third round—we had over 100 applications in that age range with wonderful ideas, so this age range seemed to work.

Sharon: Tell us about some of the winners and what kinds of projects they’ve proposed. This grant is not so much for a piece of art, right? It’s more for something having to do with the art world.

Susan: It’s loosely defined as “in the jewelry world.” I didn’t want the grant to be so specific. I wanted it to be a publication; it could be something like a performance; it could be a video; it could be whatever the jeweler came up with. We have some wonderful people on the board—Bonnie Levine especially— who are very good at going through all the applications, over 100 the first time, and making sure the person fits all the qualifications. Then, they would be submitted to the three jurors. Every year we’ve had three jurors. It could be a jeweler; it could be an academic; it could be a curator, and then me. The first year, in 2017, you really didn’t know what to expect. You don’t know how many people will apply.

In that first year, we had this application from Portugal, Cristina Filipe. I didn’t know about Portuguese jewelry. There weren’t any books on Portuguese jewelry. It just wasn’t on the map very much, so it was such an interesting proposal. This was to write the very first book on contemporary Portuguese jewelry. Portugal had been under a dictatorship for almost 40 years. A lot of the early jewelers had studied abroad, but there wasn’t much money, so Portuguese jewelers hadn’t had that much recognition. I thought, “Boy, is this ever wonderful, to be able to open up Portuguese contemporary jewelry to the larger jewelry world,” and it proved to be that wonderful. The Art Jewelry Forum went to Lisbon and Porto last year, and Cristina and so many people were wonderful. We had a week of wonderful things to do, meeting all these jewelers, going to these great places and museums. The largest museum in Lisbon, the Gulbenkian—the most beautiful museum of art—had work displayed from years of contemporary Portuguese jewelry, with a lot of the early jewelers there. There’s even a wonderful older woman, Kukas.  She had been around, started making jewelry in Paris in the 50s, and I got to meet her and we all had the opportunity to buy her jewelry. It was so nice that these early jewelers were alive. We could meet them; we could talk to them; we could learn from them. Christina did such a wonderful job putting this all together. This has been an absolutely wonderful treat for so many of us. Her book has been selling in Europe and the United States, and I feel so good that there is more exposure for this wonderful jewelry.

Sharon: That was a worthy project, a very worthy project.

Susan: It was so much work on her part to get this together in two years. She’s such a perfectionist. To have the book come out in Portuguese and then be translated into English and have this beautiful exhibition, it was a dream come true for me, that this was the first year. It was so exciting.

Sharon: You’re right about the Portuguese jewelers. They did so much around it, the exhibits and the presentations and everything, so it was much more than the grant itself.

Susan: It did. We all went to Marta’s house—well, it wasn’t even a house; she owned an old convent. Convents were sold off at some period in time and she lived in this beautiful convent, so we got to know this magical place. The Portuguese jewelers were there.  They had that wonderful, soulful Portuguese singing—what is it? Fado?

Sharon: Yes, I know that music.

Susan: We got to listen to that, and it was an evening none of us will forget, right, Sharon?

Sharon: Right. It was beautiful, yes.

Susan: It was absolutely beautiful. I think these are wonderful shared memories for all of us.

Sharon: What other awards have there been, Susan?

Susan: There was the 2019 award, and that was really interesting, too. The winner was an American, Tiff Massey.

Sharon: Tiff, right.

Susan: She’s from Detroit. She was at the lower end of the age group for this, and she was influenced by hip hop, by bling. She has a master’s degree from Cranbrook Academy, and I believe she was the first Black person to have a master’s degree from Cranbrook in metalsmithing. Her jewelry is unlike anything you would ever see, and she won the second award. Unfortunately this year, with Covid, none of us were able to travel, so we haven’t had a chance to see her presentation and spend time in Detroit and at Cranbrook. I hope we can do this next year, because Tiff is a beautiful woman and an absolute force of nature, and she is really trying to promote Black jewelry art, Black curators, Black academics, with a whole different kind look to contemporary jewelry, which I think is great.

Sharon: Yes, that’s what art jewelry is all about.

Susan: It is. It’s new experiences and new things, new ways of looking at things and opening the world so there is more to see. Coming up this fall, we’ll start to get the applications in. The first year we had a hundred, less the second time. I don’t know how many there will be this time. As you know, Sharon, this year’s been chaos. This year has been hell, and I think the stress level for almost everyone has been horrendous. A lot of times, jewelers, especially American jewelers, need to have second jobs. With the economy, I don’t know what to expect at all this time or how the applications will reflect what’s going on this year.

Sharon: In general, do you and the committee plan to present this in Munich at SHMUCK during Munich Jewelry Week?

Susan: We’ve always done that, but I don’t know if the world will be open. I don’t know if this pandemic will get worse this fall and winter. It’s all playing it by ear. We hope that things will calm down and that we will be able to do this for Jewelry Week, but it might go into next fall. It’s hard to plan very much right now.

Sharon: Right, we’re all just waiting and saying, “O.K.”

Susan: Yes, we’re all hunkered down and waiting, I think, for this year to be over for so many reasons and hoping we’ll have a brighter future next year. I know you’re in California, too, and there have been horrific fires; there’s been the heat; there’s the horrible smoke. I think a lot of people here in California feel like we’re living in hell, right?

Sharon: Well, you’ve been closer to fire.

Susan: Yes.

Sharon: There’s been smoke here, but not like where you are.

Susan: Yes, the fires have been horrible. I think all of us up here know friends who have been burned out. We’ve had, in the last few years, a lot of horrible fires, so hopefully we’ll get some rain. Hopefully things will get better, but we are getting into fire season, so it could get worse.

Sharon: Well, hopefully not. Susan, before we end, tell us a little bit about the satisfaction you get from making the award possible. It’s a $20,000 grant. It’s very generous.

Susan: It’s a huge satisfaction for me. Reading all the applications, reading the wonderful ideas that jewelers come up with, that’s exciting. Then I work with other judges to narrow it down, which can be tough, and then choose a winner, which can be tough because it always ends up with a number of people who certainly have wonderful ideas; they could be winners. Of course, everyone’s really a winner, but we have to choose one person to win this award. It’s very exciting, and then we see where we could go next time to see those wonderful ideas opening up. I think I’m repeating myself a little bit, but it’s very exciting for me, and it makes me feel very good to do this. I wish I could do it for more people, but this is what I’m able to do.

Sharon: It’s fabulous and it makes such a difference to people, even just to complete the application. I haven’t looked at it, but I know these things usually take a lot of thought and reasoning. That’s a good exercise for anybody.

Susan: Absolutely, and there’s a timetable for everything. Everything has to be submitted a certain way and on certain dates. I don’t know if you’ll talk to Bonnie Levine, but we could not do this without Bonnie’s help. Believe me, she is wonderful and organized, and she keeps this ball rolling.

Sharon: Yes, we will be talking with her, but I’m glad we’ve had a chance to talk to you. Thank you so much, Susan. I really appreciated the conversation. To everybody listening, that’s all for today’s Jewelry Journey. Please join us next time, when our guest will be another jewelry-related individual. You can find the podcast wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us.  Thank you so much for listening.