Writer. Editor. Gallery owner. Evangelist. Without ever picking up a jewelry tool or designing a piece, Marthe Le Van has become one of the most influential people in the contemporary jewelry design movement. During more than a decade at Lark Books, she used her keen eye and sharp instincts to launch the company’s jewelry imprint. The 500 series collection of books she helped to edit and publish elevated the jewelry design movement to a broad national audience. As the owner of Mora, a well-known retail jewelry store in Asheville, North Carolina, she works with contemporary jewelry designers from across the country.
I sat down with Marthe to learn a little more about her career and her place in the jewelry world.
How did you get interested in jewelry?
It was my very good fortune to grow up in South Louisiana, where collecting beaded necklaces thrown from Mardi Gras parade floats was serious business.
It is also my very good fortune to have a mother who is an artist, a watercolor painter. The gallery where she exhibited also showed handmade, one-of-a-kind jewelry, which intrigued me.
It was also my very good fortune to be a punk-rock teenager in the 1980s, scouring thrift stores, vintage markets and garage sales for cheap accessories I could pile on to dress like Madonna.
How did you get your start in jewelry?
Sometime in the early 2000s, Lark Crafts sent me to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to scout for book ideas and authors at the summer craft fairs. My big takeaway from this trip was the extraordinary number of jewelry artists showing there. I wondered who was publishing books for them. A little research showed that no publisher was specializing in this field, so I proposed to Lark that we create an imprint to serve these makers.
Tell us a little about your professional background.
I studied arts administration and art history at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. This is a progressive institution—no tests, no grades, no majors—where writing is a major part of the curriculum.
My work experience is a series of divine stumbles. After graduating from college, I moved to Manhattan and worked in theater and television production. In 1993, I moved from Soho to Spruce Pine, North Carolina (population 6,000) to be Harvey Littleton’s curator. Then I went to work for John Cram at Blue Spiral 1, a prominent Asheville art gallery. My stint at Lark Books began in 2000 as a general crafts editor. For the first two or three years, I wrote and edited books on whatever topic was thrown at me—cocktails, crochet, interior decorating. Once I got the go-ahead to develop a Lark jewelry list, however, it was all jewelry books all the time. In 2012, jeweler Joanna Gollberg and I opened Mora—a retail store for contemporary jewelry. I’m now the owner of the gallery and love every minute of it!
You have definitely been the voice of the art jewelry movement here in the United States and overseas. How did this all evolve? Where?
(Blushing.) I’m totally flattered that you think so, but there are many, many passionate advocates and organizations doing really important work to advance the art jewelry field. I’m just happy to be in the mix.
Without Robert Ebendorf, I would have never even known the art jewelry world existed. One of my first jewelry books was 1000 Rings, and I invited Bob to jury it. Little did I know how enthusiastically he would accept my invitation and how huge his Rolodex was! Bob contacted every art jeweler he knew and encouraged them to submit. I think we received 7,000 entries for that first book! That’s a lot of contemporary jewelry to look at, and that enlightening experience sealed the deal for me!
Did you have any special criteria for picking pieces, artists, subjects that you showcased in the Lark Books?
There were two main types of jewelry books Lark published—gallery books and instructional books. The best known gallery books were the “500” series. I hired jurors for each of these books, and they were responsible for selecting the pieces included. I provided editorial oversight to make sure the images were print quality, but the jurors themselves picked the pieces. And it was a blind jury, meaning the artists were unknown to the juror during deliberation.
Two of the books in the series I juried myself—500 Wedding Rings and 21st Century Jewelry: The Best of the 500 Series. For these I relied on my perception of what was an engaging piece and a dynamic image. Selecting jewelry to appear in print, in two-dimensions, is a very different process than jurying it into a show or a gallery.
For the instructional, “how-to” books, I looked for experts in a particular technique with clear communication skills. The best authors were often very good teachers before writing a book.
Do you have a favorite book that you just loved working on? Why?
I don’t have a favorite book, but I do have one that was the most satisfying—The Penland Book of Jewelry. This book features 10 different jewelry authors with wildly different writing styles, 10 different gallery sections, and 10 different how-to sections, each photographed in different parts of the country. Just imagine the logistics of keeping all of this on track! When the book was delivered, my senior editor said, “Congratulations on your masters’ thesis.”
What do you hope or feel your contribution to the jewelry world has been?
“Wow! I’ve never seen jewelry like this before.”
How have you translated your knowledge and experiences in the book world to your gallery?
Editing instructional books allowed me to absorb a great deal of technical information about how jewelry is made. This knowledge allows me to speak with our customers with authority. Since education is a bit part of selling handmade jewelry, this really comes in handy.
Editing gallery books gave me the experience of seeing and judging an unbelievable amount of jewelry. Over time, I developed an appreciation of the history and breadth of the field and refined my eye and taste.
Presentation is critical to success in both publishing and retail. I love arranging the displays at Mora and take as much care as I did arranging pages in a book.
What do you look for in the designs you carry in your gallery?
Above all, the jewelry must show originality, quality construction, and be considerate of the wearer.