For People Who Are Slightly Mad: American Modernist Jewelry

By United States

This essay was first delivered as a talk at SOFA NY in May 2011.

The Museum of Art and Design’s exhibition, Crafting Modernism: Midcentury Art and Design (opening in October 2011) features over 20 jewelers. Some are well known, such as Alexander Calder, while others have been resurrected from obscurity and brought forward for re-evaluation. Those represented in the show reveal that jewelers, like many artists in the exhibition, came from a range of disciplines. Some were trained in an academic setting; some, such as Sam Kramer, were largely self-taught; others hailed from the world of painting, sculpture and design.

The title of this talk was taken from the irrepressible Sam Kramer. His early Greenwich Village gallery was the center of activities both surrealistic and fun and he advertised his work as suitable for people who are ‘slightly mad.’ Kramer briefly studied jewelry with Glen Lukens in California. After a few years of travel, when he learned about gemology and Navajo culture, Kramer opened his gallery on Eighth Street in New York. From the start he worked with such unconventional materials as geodes and taxidermy eyes, used silver in a drip fashion and favored oddly compelling anthropomorphic and erotic shapes. All were calculated to startle and attract customers.

Sam Kramer
Sam Kramer (1913–1964), Roc Pendant, 1958, sterling silver, 14-karat gold, ivory, horn, taxidermy eye, coral, tourmaline and garnet, Museum of Arts and Design, Purchased by the American Craft Council, 1967

In the vanguard of studio jewelers, Kramer opened his gallery in 1939 and his work reflected the surrealistic developments then pursued by Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy. All employed elements of surprise and unexpected juxtapositions in their work. Kramer grasped the wider implications for jewelry from an early date, creating wall mounts so that his jewelry could be enjoyed, whether worn or not.

Other well-known pioneers included Ed Wiener and Art Smith. Wiener, a butcher’s son who discovered jewelry after taking a general crafts class at Columbia University, launched a highly successful business in New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts. Smith, another Greenwich Village artist, was involved with the world of dance. This gave him the profound insight that the body is an armature for ornament. His large, sensuous, form-fitting shapes were all about line and the human body. As a recent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum has demonstrated, Smith’s work is more desirable today than ever before.

Harry Bertoia
Harry (Arieto) Bertoia (1915-1978), Tree Ornament, Kenneth Dukoff Collection

In the world of design, Harry Bertoia is best known for his Knoll designs such as the Bird ottoman and chair of 1952, included in Crafting Modernism. Bertoia explored aspects of the grid motif in furniture, sculpture, and jewelry, as seen in an early hair ornament.

Enamel became a significant method of ornamenting jewelry by the 1950s, thanks to technical advances in the field (chiefly owing to new, inexpensive kilns) and a renewed interest in historic works. The Museum of Contemporary Craft (later the American Craft Museum and today’s Museum of Arts and Design) mounted an important enamel exhibition in 1959. A select group of artists were invited to create works for this special occasion. John Paul Miller, master of granulation – where fine granules of gold are adhered to a surface without solder – emerged as an enamelist of great promise. Silversmith and jeweler Margret Craver participated in the exhibition, offering her first reinterpretation of an ancient technique called en résille. Craver had experimented for years to develop enamel that was free of the metal substrate typically required in the firing process and in which colored and metallic elements could freely float. The jewel-like centerpiece of Craver’s hair ornament was the first proof of her hard-won success.

Margret Craver
Margret Craver (1907-2010), Hair ornament, 1959, gold, en résille enamel, Museum of Arts and Design, Commissioned by the American Craft Council, 1959

From the postwar years through the 1960s, the most avant-garde jewelry was notable for its freedom of expression, relation to international artistic developments and experimental nature.  Today, we recognize this marvelous efflorescence as the first flowering of the studio-craft movement.


  • Jeannine Falino

    Jeannine Falino is an independent curator and museum consultant working at the intersection of craft, design, and American culture. Her wide-ranging publications and exhibitions explore the colonial era, the gilded age, arts and crafts, and art deco, as well as modern craft and design. Formerly curator of American decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Jeannine now develops exhibitions, catalogues, and books for museums, art organizations, and collectors. She directed the major survey exhibition and catalogue Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design (Museum of Arts and Design 2011), and What Would Mrs. Webb Do? A Founder’s Vision (MAD, 2014), an exhibition on the role of advocacy and philanthropy in American craft. At the Museum of the City of New York, she co-curated Gilded New York: Design, Fashion & Society (MCNY, 2013–17) that featured jewelry, personal accessories, paintings, and costumes belonging to the city’s wealthiest citizens. New York, New York Silver, Then & Now engaged contemporary artists and designers to create new works born of their encounter with historic silver (MCNY, 2017). Her exhibition and catalogue entitled Betty Cooke: The Circle and the Line, on the iconic Baltimore jeweler, was held at the Walters Art Museum in fall 2021.

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