Once considered cheap and unseemly, jewelry from the 1960s has come back into fashion and is now highly collectible. Amanda Triossi, an expert on jewelry from this era, joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about the interesting techniques and designs jewelers used during this decade. Read her conversation with host Sharon Berman below.
Sharon: Hello everybody, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to be talking with Amanda Triossi, an independent jewelry specialist, author, lecturer and luxury brand advisor. She specializes in high-end jewelry from the 60s and 70s in addition to having a world-class collection of her own. She’s also probably the most knowledgeable person on the planet when it comes to Bulgari, having curated the Bulgari Heritage Collection. She’s talking with us today from Rome and will be sharing some of her experience and knowledge. Amanda, thanks so much for being here.
Amanda: It’s a great pleasure.
Sharon: Glad to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. It seems you’ve traveled the world as a jewelry specialist. What led you to delve so deeply into this world?
Amanda: It all started by accident. When I was a little girl, my mother bought me a magazine, and in this magazine, there was a feature on the coronation of the Shah of Persia. Seeing Farah Diba in her finery and bling was really a revelation for me, and ever since then, I always wanted to be involved in jewelry. So, that was the starting point because my parents, neither of them was at all interested in jewelry. They always thought my interest in jewelry was a great eccentricity.
I was at school in Italy and then I went to university in England. I was at Cambridge and while I was there, speaking about jewelry was absolutely not accepted. Anything decorative arts was considered something that one shouldn’t even discuss. It only came when I started writing my dissertation, when I asked my tutor whether I could write a dissertation on jewelry and Renaissance paintings. That kind of work was accepted. So, that was my beginning of writing about jewelry and studying it more seriously from an academic point of view.
Following my degree, I arrived at Sotheby’s in London in the jewelry department, where I was an intern. I was very frustrated because all my peers coming from Cambridge in the mid-80s were all in the city earning a vast amount of money in banks and finance, and I was sticking stamps on invitations in the jewelry department at Sotheby’s. But it was a fantastic way to begin a great opportunity, and that’s really how I started being involved in the jewelry trade. Then I began to be exposed to all sorts of jewels.
Sharon: And you spent a long time at Sotheby’s, didn’t you?
Amanda: I spent 14 years there, so I did progress from stamps to jewels. I always loved jewelry, but of course, I couldn’t afford any. But what was coming on the market and what nobody particularly liked at the time—and I’m talkin’87, ’88, the second half of the 80s—were jewels of the 60s, which were selling at auction for break, which in jewelry terms means for their gold value or for even less than their gold value. They were really the only jewels I could possibly even think to afford, and so by accident, I started buying one or two pieces, and everybody thought I was completely mad and they were absolutely revolted by the pieces. Then, when I wore them, people started saying, “Oh, that’s quite cool. Oh, that’s rather nice.” That encouraged me, and I started buying a few more, and when one has the collecting and buying habit, it’s difficult to contain.
Sharon: Yes, I think a lot of us would agree with that.
Amanda: And so gradually I started with a 300-pound mark, which is probably about $400, and then I got to 1,000, and I had to work a bit harder and then all my savings went to another piece. That’s really how I started collecting myself, but I was always interested in the history of jewelry design and understanding why a certain piece looks or was created in a certain manner at a given time. So, my artist historian training met my interest, my passion for jewels. Then I started teaching a course in London at Sotheby’s called “Understanding Jewelry with Amanda Triossi,” and I began lecturing and speaking about jewelry. It was a very successful course, which I held for about eight years, twice a year for a month.
Sharon: Wow, I’m sorry I missed that one. It sounds like it would have been fabulous. So, you started collecting 60s jewelry. It was affordable, but you were also attracted to it. What do you find attractive about it and why is it becoming so popular now?
Amanda: I find it attractive because it’s very experimental. Everything of the 60s—I mean, the whole 60s spirit—is breaking with tradition in all spheres, whether the arts, morals, fashion. It’s very interesting how jewelers—and I’m talking not costume jewelry, but jewelers that are using conventional materials and traditional precious gemstones– how they break tradition. They break tradition in quite an interesting way, by using traditional materials in a completely unconventional manner. For example, the gold looks like it’s molten metal and it’s just frozen. There is a great interest in texture and sort of shapeless forms. Jewels are not really designed as a flower; they’re kind of organic somethings, so they’re quite interesting. The gemstones are uncut, unpolished gemstones that are just crystal aggregates, so they’re unusual and, of course, they’re not super-precious, so they’re very wearable. I thought they were quite fun. They’re bold. I like big and bold, so they interested me. I also found them affordable.
Now, there’s a greater interest and a much more scholarly approach to a greater understanding of what 60s design is all about, and jewelry of the 60s and of the early 70s is becoming highly collectible. I think the reason it’s being collected now and appreciated again is because it is fun. You can wear it casually. You don’t have to worry about intrinsic value, so it’s very easy to wear and at the same time, it’s fun and decorative. This is a great asset when it comes to jewelry because you can really enjoy it.
Sharon: That’s very important when it comes to jewelry, being able to enjoy it and wear it and not feel tense about it. How were the major jewelry houses influenced by 60s and 70s design?
Amanda: It’s surprising that the word or the spirit spread quite rapidly. It started in the very, very early 60s, probably—there’s never a precise starting point—but there was a groundbreaking exhibition in London in 1961, where independent jewelers were called to present modern contemporary jewelry. At the same time, artists were invited to contribute, and some of the jewelers cast and made the pieces that had been molded by the artists, and it was a very influential exhibition held at the Goldsmiths’ Hall. That was 1961 and it attracted a phenomenal amount of people, and the exhibit subsequently traveled around the world. That is, let’s say, the formal starting point of this movement, but shortly after one sees that established houses such as Cartier, Van Cleef and Chaumet started using very textured gold, jewels that are abstract and a bit brutalist in spirit, very much in line with the brutalist architecture of the time. That is quite interesting. Very rapidly, watch houses, for example Omega and Piaget, were also producing very avant-garde watches and working with individual designers, for example Andrew Grima. He was a very important jeweler at the time who was Italian by birth but lived in Britain most of his life and had a Maltese father, so let’s say he was international, but British with a more exotic background. He created very avant-garde but high-end jewels that reflected the spirit of the time. Before he opened his shop in 1966, he was selling some of his pieces to Cartier, so he was retailed by Cartier and other jewelers in Europe. So that is very interesting, and it is really this aspect that I’m trying to explore more, because there’s going to be a very interesting exhibition in 2020 in Cincinnati at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Sharon: And you’ve been working with the curators there. I know that you are very involved with it, yes?
Amanda: I’m very involved with it. I’m writing an essay for the catalogue and I inspired the collector, who is going to be exhibiting her collection for the first time in public at the museum. It’s a very important collection of jewelry of this period, which is being assembled from the past 20 years in the United States. It’s an American collection that will be featuring American jewelers of this period as well as European. I think it’s going to be sort of a landmark, because for the first time, we’ll be seeing a collection of great caliber that is going to be exhibited in a major museum, so I’m very honored to be part of this exhibition. I inspired the collector because she was one of my students, and at the time in London in the early 90s, she saw some of my pieces and she was amazed, and that set her off collecting. I must say I think it’s a great satisfaction for a teacher that the student surpasses the teacher. So, my student has done something much greater and much better than I have done.
Sharon: Wow, looking forward to that. I think you had mentioned June 2020.
Amanda: Exactly, it’s June 2020 or it might be slightly later, because there are a number of museums that are fighting for it, so it might open as we speak. I’m not sure if it will open in Cincinnati or in the Diamond Museum in Antwerp because they’ve all got slots and it depends which slot is available first. It will definitely be at the Diamond Museum in Antwerp, the Pforzheim Jewellery Museum in Germany and then at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Sharon: I’m curious about Grima because Grima has become so collectible. The pieces that were retailed through Cartier, were they also marked Grima or were they only marked Cartier?
Amanda: Actually, I was just speaking to Andrew Grima’s daughter and she pointed out that there is one that came up at auction that had both—not Grima, but the hallmark for the company that he owned, so it is marked with Grima and Cartier. So, you can recognize it’s a Grima piece, HB Jewelry Co. and Cartier.
Sharon: How interesting. It’s become so collectible. Talking about jewelry of the 60s and 70s, what is it that collectors or jewelry aficionados should be looking for? Can you build a collection on a budget? Was some of it done in silver or base metals, or is it mostly higher-end?
Amanda: Definitely, it’s also done in base metal, in the same spirit. You can find it in base metal, silver and with crystal aggregates. My area of expertise and collection is in fine metals and precious gemstones with unusual crystals, so I’m not so knowledgeable of the lower end, but you can find interesting pieces, especially if they’re unsigned. You can find very representative pieces that are not signed on a budget. They’re not exorbitant. Obviously, signed pieces command a much higher value. That is the case of any signed jewelry versus unsigned, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not as good. The features we should be looking for—the quality, the design—are the same. Some are maybe chunky and frumpy; the designs are not elegant. One has to look at the quality of the design, the quality of the workmanship and if it’s a pleasing jewel. If it has all those aspects and it’s in good condition, it is a great piece of jewelry, whether it’s signed or it isn’t.
Sharon: Right, very important to be looking at those attributes, whether it’s signed or not. You also mentioned that you are an expert on JAR jewelry. For those who might not know who or what this is, can you explain it? Why is his work so admired and what should we know about it?
Amanda: Expert is a bit of a big word. I’m an admirer of JAR. JAR is an acronym for Joel Arthur Rosenthal, an American-born, Paris-based jeweler. He did not set off wanting to create jewelry. He began in 1985. He and his partner had an antique shop where they were selling petit-pois embroidery, and I think that is very interesting, because petit-pois is based on little stitches, and one of the hallmarks of JAR jewelry is introducing high jewelry micropavé, paving the surface of a jewel with very small gemstones. I’m sure that the idea of doing so stems from the petit-pois. It also shades it in a very naturalistic way, recreating the shades that maybe one finds in a leaf or flora. If one were to list the features that are distinctive of typical JAR jewelry, it’s that the designs are naturalistic. There tend to be big flowers, bouquets of flowers, butterflies. Those are one of the reoccurring themes in his jewels. They’re very bold, very large and with micropavé, and they are shaded in a very naturalistic way. For example, if it’s red, you would have rubies, then pink sapphires, red spinels, pink spinels and maybe red garnets. All different gemstones, regardless of their individual intrinsic value, are used to create a beautiful paint brush stroke of color, and this is one of his features. He is able to do very large-scale, naturalistic jewels because he uses unconventional metals. Quite often, for example, the base is aluminum or titanium, so not conventional precious metals, but metals that are very strong and light, so you can use very large-scale jewels that are not too heavy.
Another feature of JAR is making them look sort of old with an antique patina. He uses a lot of oxidized silver, black and silver, so they have this 19th century feel, but they are completely 20th if not 21st century creations. It’s not surprising because he was exposed to 19th century naturalistic French jewelry. It was very fashionable in the second half of the 19th century. In Paris, the jewelers used to create wonderful corsage jewels that were roses with diamonds or sprays of flowers, cascading flowers on the corsage. JAR obviously familiarized himself with these pieces in Paris, where he has been based most of his adult life, and he interpreted them in a much more contemporary style and used the very masterful micropavé, sometimes with very unusual gemstones. What is interesting about JAR is that he’s been groundbreaking inasmuch that a lot of jewelers have imitated him or have been inspired by him. In high jewelry, we see worldwide, whether in the United States, in Europe, or in Asia, jewelers creating contemporary designs with these features. This micropavé is very present in high jewelry of the moment. Titanium is also very present in high jewelry of nowadays, and it all stems from the work of JAR.
Sharon: His work is fabulous. Was he the first jeweler to have an exhibit at The Met?
Amanda: I believe he was. It was in 2013. It was a very important exhibition and a wonderful occasion to see his pieces because JAR does not advertise. He is very reserved and very picky in terms of who he sells his jewelry to, so it was a great privilege to be able to see a large quantity of his pieces at The Met. He had another major exhibition at Somerset House in London in 2002, about ten years before.
Sharon: His jewelry is just flabbergasting, but besides that, it’s this persona he’s created around himself, with good reason. I think people think about that too, along with his jewelry. Reserved is probably a bit of an understatement.
Amanda: Very much so and if he doesn’t like you, he’s known to have thrown out people from his shop in Paris. Besides being able to see them in these two major exhibitions, they do come up at auction now and again, so people who were not able to acquire them firsthand have an opportunity to acquire them on the secondary market. But definitely, anyone who is anyone knows who JAR is, and if you own a JAR piece, you’re very much part of an elite club of people who know what’s going on in the high-jewelry world. And you have to watch out for the pink box that all of his jewels come in. It’s quite a strong pink, a nearly fuchsia pink box, so if you are the lucky recipient of a little or big pink box, it’s good news.
Sharon: That trumps the little blue box from Tiffany, I suppose.
Amanda: Exactly, it’s a variation.
Sharon: So, you are going to be giving talks on both these subjects, jewelry of the 60s and 70s and on JAR, at the Northwest Jewelry Conference in August in Bellevue, Washington. Tell us a little bit about that.
Amanda: It’s a very interesting conference, very intimate, held just outside Seattle, for I believe an audience of approximately 40 jewelry aficionados. I think it’s quite elitist because there’s a waiting list to be able to attend, if I’m not mistaken, given that it’s gained such a reputation and such popularity over the past six years. The atmosphere is very relaxed, but at the same time the caliber of the attendees and of the speakers is very high, and everybody is completely passionate about jewels. One can spend two-and-a-half days in very pleasant surroundings, surrounded by jewelry junkies, and have a feast for the eyes, gain more knowledge and make new friends in this very, very enjoyable environment.
Sharon: We will have a link to the conference in the show notes. Yes, it is a very well-done conference and you spoke last year. It’s just great to be around people who don’t think you’re as nutty about jewels as the rest of the world might think.
Sharon: That’s probably one of the nicest things about going to some of these conferences. Amanda, thank you so much for being here. To everyone listening, we’ll have Amanda’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com. That wraps up another episode. 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.
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