The roots of contemporary American jewelry design can be traced directly back to the 1920s, when Alexander Calder and the Bauhaus emerged as two of the major influencers of the century. Each is huge when taken individually, but together they make up the foundation for much of what is happening today in jewelry design.
Contrary to what you might expect, the line between you or me and Alexander Calder and the Bauhaus is surprisingly direct. Let me explain: When I was a student in the 1960s, my teachers included talented jewelry professors, such as Ramona Solberg, who were the product of the jewelry studio movement of the WWII era. (Being a studio jeweler exclusively was a challenging way to make a living and support a family in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so many of these artists taught in universities to supplement their incomes.) Ramona and her colleagues learned their art/craft from practicing artists and traditional jewelers of the pre-WWII period. And these older jewelers, in many cases, had direct links to emigrants from the post-WWI Bauhaus movement, as well as American sculptors such as Alexander Calder.
When it came time for me to join the work force in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there was a huge influx of people graduating from college with degrees in art, and we all had to figure out quickly how to make a living at our art or find another profession. Thus began what I call the “American Jewelry Design Movement”. In many cases, we chose to create jewelry that we could sell or to become a gemstone dealer, bench jeweler, appraiser, stone setter, caster, jewelry photographer, stone cutter, polisher, designer—you name it. The first craft shows, such as the Rhinebeck show, were only a few years away, and Mort Abelson’s Jewelers of America, Designer Section was created just a couple years after that. Suddenly new opportunities and venues began to spring up and have a life of their own. (Ask almost anyone of the baby boomer generation—regardless of their career—and you will see a similar professional pattern.) However, almost all of us in the jewelry industry can trace our roots back (whether we know it or not) to the incredible influence of world-renowned sculptor Alexander Calder and the German Bauhaus movement.
The focus of the Bauhaus movement was on architectural and industrial design in all mediums. Its credo was “dedication to the unity of the arts with the crafts.” Though it was only in existence from 1919 to 1933, the Bauhaus School, started by Walter Gropius, had a huge impact on the art world. It had among its extraordinary staff members such luminaries in the contemporary art and design world as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Mies van der Rohe. Many of these influencers left Germany when the school closed its doors in 1933 (due to increasing political attacks and harassment from the Nazis and other groups) and sought asylum in other European countries and in the United States, where they spread their credo of “less is more.” They were setting the stage for a century of clean-lined, geometric, contemporary design and art.
American-born sculptor Alexander Calder is best known for his wonderfully colorful mobiles. He is less well-known as one of the most influential studio jewelers of the early part of the 20th century. It is estimated that he created 1,800 individual jewelry pieces, most of which were gifts to friends and colleagues. Although there is no one “father” of contemporary jewelry, he is as close as we get. Calder was not a trained jeweler, and he took pride in the fact that his work, which incorporated lots of twisted wire with no solder, had that hammered, handmade look about it. That was what distinguished his jewelry from the traditional jewelry of the time. Looking at it, you immediately can see the connection to his sculptures: they all move and flow with graceful kinetic energy. To get a glimpse of Calder’s distinctive and charming jewelry design, go to Calder Foundation—they feature an extensive gallery of his works.
It is with a sense of great pride that I trace my professional, artistic and design roots back to a time and a philosophy that I deeply admire. It is remarkable that events which unfolded nearly a hundred years ago could have such an impact on my life and the lives of so many others.
Do you see the influence of Calder and the Bauhaus artists in your work? Did you have a mentor or professor whose was also influenced by these artists? Tell us your story. What aspect of the contributions made by these influencers remains timeless and prevalent in contemporary jewelry design? I’d love to hear from you—join in the discussion!