In the jewelry world, Arts and Crafts makers have historically (and wrongfully) been overlooked. Elyse Zorn Karlin, co-director of the Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts and an authority on Arts and Crafts jewelry, joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about this lesser-known movement and its relationship to Art Nouveau. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today my guest is someone many of you may be familiar with, Elyse Zorn Karlin. Elyse is an authority on Arts and Crafts jewelry and antique jewelry in general, and she’s written several books on the subject. She’s also curated museum exhibits and she is the co-director of the Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts. If you haven’t attended any of their study days or conferences, I can tell you from personal experience that they’re very worthwhile. Elyse, welcome to the Jewelry Journey.
Elyse: Thanks for your kind words.
Sharon: I’m so glad to have you. Tell me, what got you on this path? When did you start liking jewelry? Did you start with antique jewelry? How did you get here?
Elyse: It goes back a long way. I would say I was about 12 or 13 years old, and my aunt who wore antique jewelry and was also an interior decorator would take me to antique shops with her. There was a magical draw when I saw the antique jewelry, and I started buying Victorian trinkets that I could afford. That’s how it started, and I just kept asking dealers questions. In those days, there weren’t any seminars you could go to or classes you could take. You had to learn on your own and that’s what I did.
Sharon: From there, how did you get into Arts and Crafts?
Elyse: I didn’t know a whole lot about Arts and Crafts. I had a vague idea of what it was about, but most people, including myself, knew there was mission furniture and ceramics. The jewelry was not that well known. A publisher asked me if I wanted to write a book on American Arts and Crafts jewelry, and I knew that somebody else was working on a book, which is probably going to get published this year, 30 years later.
Sharon: It takes time.
Elyse: I said I would do European Arts and Crafts if they were interested, because there was so little on the subject. They said fine, and that’s when I started my research and fell in love with it.
Sharon: It’s great that you’ve focused on it, because you’ve opened up that world to other people.
Elyse: I did price myself out of the market by doing that, but that’s the nature of exploring a new area, and more people get to know it. My world has expanded since I focused on British Arts and Crafts. Now, I am totally in love with American Arts and Crafts. The cousin of Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, also has become very important to my interests.
Sharon: How is it the cousin? It’s always so confusing to me.
Elyse: It is confusing. There were Art Nouveau movements all over Europe. Art Nouveau was centered in France and Belgium, and there was some Art Nouveau jewelry made in the United States, but Arts and Crafts was more prevalent here. The reason they’re cousins is because they were both alternative art movements that were focused on going back to beautiful handmade things, instead of the jewelry that was starting to be mass produced in factories after the Industrial Revolution. However, the impetus for the design and theory behind them was different.
In England, it was very much focused on anti-Industrial Revolution. You had William Morris and John Ruskin, who were against people working in factories because the conditions were awful. They believed design had gotten unattractive towards the end of the British half-century, and they wanted to go back to Medieval times, when they felt things were more beautiful. There was an art movement, the Pre-Raphaelites, who espoused the same thing. Ruskin and Morris both believed that everything should be based on nature, and that they should be simple but beautiful and accessible to everyone. That’s what the Arts and Crafts movement was, and that came to the United States, although in the United States, sometimes machines were used to make things, which was never acceptable in Great Britain.
In France, however, there were different reasons why they were looking for a new design style. Part of the reason was because France had lost the Franco-Prussian War. They were humiliated, and the birth rate was down, and they were worried if there was another war, there wouldn’t be enough people to fight it. Women were starting to go to college to get jobs and doing things outside the home, and the French were worried about this because if women were at work, they weren’t going to be having as many babies. Frenchmen had also put women up on a pedestal, and it changed the way they were looking at them. So, when you look at Art Nouveau jewelry, you see two views of women: sometimes they’re beautiful with long, flowing hair, and sometimes they’re frightening like Medusa and Salome. That’s because there was this split personality way of looking at women. In addition, France was no longer a leader in manufacturing. It was surpassed by Germany, England, and the United States. France wasn’t going to catch up, so they decided they would be the leader in luxury goods, and Art Nouveau Jewelry is a luxury good. It was expensive. It wasn’t accessible to everyone, unlike Arts and Crafts jewelry. There were other things as well, the symbolist movement, art and literature, and music, that affected Art Nouveau design.
They came from very different places, but they were both made of alternative materials. They were artistic, mostly one of a kind, and almost in the same timeframe, although I would say Art Nouveau ended earlier than Arts and Crafts because it was so non-mainstream. It couldn’t survive for as long.
Sharon: I think of Art Nouveau lasting a little longer than Arts and Crafts, not that I know anything about it.
Elyse: There was a revival in the 60s. I actually remember this. I was in high school. All of a sudden, there was all this Art Nouveau jewelry, but the handmade, early stuff burned out within 10 to 15 years. Arts and Crafts, some of those jewelers worked into the 50s and 60s even.
Elyse: Yeah, nobody thinks that. Everybody thinks World War I came and Arts and Crafts stopped. It’s not true. Kalo is a perfect example. Kalo was the biggest Chicago firm. They stayed in business until the 1970s and only went out of business because the last silversmiths retired, and they couldn’t find anybody to replace them. There was still a desire for the handmade things that Kalo was making.
Sharon: You say that Art Nouveau used alternative materials, but it was a luxury good and I’ve seen some gold pieces.
Elyse: Oh no, there’s definitely gold, and you will find diamonds and other precious stones in Art Nouveau, but it’s not the prevalent use of material. It used a lot of plique-à-jour enamel, which is an enamel where the backing is removed after it’s fired so light passes through it. That’s very impractical; it breaks so easily. That’s one reason it didn’t survive. Lalique used horn; his pieces were very expensive. They used a lot of ivory, because ivory was coming from the Belgian Congo, and other materials that were unusual. There was a technique — I don’t know if more than one jeweler did it — called cabochon enamel, which was taking enamel and mounting it up until it looked like a cabochon gemstone.
Those kinds of alternative materials were used, but many of the pieces were still quite expensive. Whereas with Arts and Crafts, I’ve only seen one or two pieces with diamonds, and I’m sure those were commissioned pieces where a client brought in a diamond and said, “Can you add this to it whatever you’re making for me?”
Sharon: You and I have talked about the fact that I belong to an organization, Art Jewelry Forum. Art jewelry, even though the definition is so vague, is totally different than what you’re talking about.
Elyse: I think it’s a continuation. I think if the jewelers of the Arts and Crafts movement did not go into the studio and start making handmade things, the studio jewelers of today would not be working, particularly because in the Arts and Crafts movement, women got to make jewelry under their own name for the first time. Before that, it was considered an improper thing for a woman to do. It changed partly because the mores were changing, and partly because more women were not getting married and they needed to support themselves. There were more educational facilities for women to learn how to make crafts, but it was also associated with home, because you can make jewelry in the home. You didn’t have to go to a studio, although many women did.
Sharon: I know you curated a fabulous exhibit at the Driehaus Museum.
Elyse: Yes, it was called “Maker and Muse: Women in Early 20th Century Art Jewelry.” We focused on the art movements women moved forward in and had a large part of. Many makers were women, and then you look at a place like France. I’m going to give you some breakthrough information. I just found this out the other day. In France, there were no women making jewelry except for one person, Elizabeth Bunté. She made horn jewelry with little glass cabochons in it. I called it the poor man’s Lalique, and today these pieces sell for thousands of dollars. They’re very beautiful, but it was just horn that was heated and bent into a shape.
Other than that, we don’t know any women’s names, but the woman was often the subject of the jewelry. She was depicted as a fairy or a half-insect, sometimes just as a woman in very diaphanous clothing. I was recently looking through some books. I found an old portfolio of Art Nouveau jewelry drawings from about 1903, and I found drawings by several women in there. Whether any of the jewelry was ever executed, we don’t know, and we don’t know their names today, but it’s proof to me that they were at least trying to become jewelers. That hasn’t been published anywhere. I’m sure at some point I’ll put it into a lecture, but that was interesting for me. Overall, you don’t see any women makers in Art Nouveau, so that’s a big difference between the two movements.
Sharon: How interesting! Was there Art Nouveau in the states?
Elyse: Yes, but it was a little more manufactured. Some of the Newark jewelers and other companies that manufactured silver jewelry made it, and there’s some gold, too. It’s much more sedate. It’s mostly not plique-à-jour enamel and a lot of it was mass marketed. Multiple pieces were made. It’s a commercial version, I would say.
Sharon: I’ll be looking at Art Nouveau in a totally different way when I see a piece now.
Elyse: It’s really fascinating if you delve into it. Look at some of the symbolist paintings from that time and you’ll get an idea of where they were getting their ideas from.
Sharon: You called your organization the Association of Jewelry and Related Arts. You said “related arts” because jewelry isn’t in a vacuum, and I think that’s so important for people to think about.
Elyse: It’s always been a concern of mine that jewelry is looked at as something unto itself with no relationship. We look at historic clothing; we look at objects made of precious materials; we look at hairstyles, things that affect what the jewelry looks like. Jewelry has multiple meanings. We can’t just look at it as a piece of art. That’s what we try to do; we try to include a lot of other things.
Sharon: When people ask what I’m interested in and I say jewelry, I think they think I’m only looking at big diamonds. There’s nothing wrong with diamonds, but I’m talking about the history, the culture, the context. There’s so much more. You’re curating an exhibit that’s going to open next year. Do you want to tell us a bit about that?
Elyse: Sure. It’s going to be on American Arts and Crafts Jewelry. I believe it’s the first on just Arts and Crafts Jewelry, but certainly the first on American. It’s going to have a little metalwork in it, too, because many of the artists did metalwork. They made little boxes. They made cups. They made bowls. Once you had the skills to work metal, you often went back and forth. Some of the metalworkers never made jewelry, but most of the jewelers made small metalwork. The name of the exhibition is “Forging an American Style: Jewelry and Metalwork of the Arts and Crafts Movement.” It’s going to be at a brand new museum that’s being built as we’re speaking, called the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts movement, which will be the first-ever museum dedicated to this area. It’s very exciting.
Sharon: It is. Where is the museum?
Elyse: St. Petersburg, Florida. There’s the Salvador Dali Museum and the Dale Chihuly Museum, and they’re all going to be in the same geographic area.
Sharon: It’s a destination.
Elyse: Yes, and there’s another art museum there, so you could easily spend several days there.
Sharon: Wow, sounds fabulous! To add another hat to the many hats you wear, you’re producing a movie.
Elyse: We’re trying to raise the money. It’s called “A Story to Wear.” We’re trying to make a half-hour movie that will talk about why jewelry is important in our lives and why we should study it, that it’s not just a pretty thing to look at. We have a trailer on StorytoWear.com. If anybody wants to have a look and give some money to make the movie, we’d love it. We hope it’ll come to fruition. The point of the movie is to share with groups that want to view it to explain why we study jewelry.
Sharon: We’ll have a link to the trailer in the show notes. I was looking at it the other day, and it makes a good case for why people should to pay attention to jewelry besides what it’s made of and how much it costs. Elyse, thank you so much. I really appreciate you and your contributions to antique jewelry. To the audience, if you haven’t looked into the Association of Jewelry and Related Arts, we’ll have a link in the show notes. It’s a fabulous organization. In addition to the very worthwhile conferences and study days, there’s a well-researched publication called Adornment. How often does it come out, twice a year?
Elyse: Adornment comes out three times a year. We also put out a 60-page electronic newsletter. It comes out six times a year, so it’s a total of nine publications a year. I’d like to add one thing, too.
Elyse: Our association is very interested in promoting students to study jewelry history, so we’ll do anything we can to help students. If they contact us, we’ll have them speak at our conferences. We’ll publish their articles. There aren’t a lot of places you can do that if you’re a student or a graduate student, but one of our goals is to help promote the scholarship of jewelry.
Sharon: That’s really great. Elyse, thank you so much, and to everybody, that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thanks so much for listening.
Elyse: Thank you for having me on.
Sharon: So glad you’re here.
END OF AUDIO