In 2009 Susan Beech attended SOFA NY wearing a necklace by Ruudt Peters called Lingam. A sexually provocative piece and a show-stopper, it drew many responses from those around her. And Susan loved every minute of it. 'I did enjoy people’s expressions, not wanting to stare but unable to help themselves.'
That experience is a long way from Susan’s early years growing up in Los Angeles within a family of very serious Midwestern protestants. Combined with her exposure to movie-industry people and a love of old Hollywood glamour and film noir, this may help explain the resulting duality of Susan’s conservative yet glamorous exterior and the wild, naughty personality that emerged over time.
She inherited her mother’s traditional jewelry when she was fairly young, but wasn’t actually interested in it at the time. Her first view of studio jewelry was at Susan Cummins Gallery in 1989. Little did she know at that first meeting that it would be the beginning of a wonderful friendship and a passion for studio jewelry. They are referred to as 'The two Susans' in jewelry circles where they repeatedly show up together. They have hunted far and wide in each other’s company to find the right pieces for their collections and luckily there is very little competition.
Says Susan, 'In the first few of years of buying jewelry my taste was still fairly traditional and I bought pieces made of gold, silver and semi-precious stones. I purchased several brooches and necklaces by Margaret Barnaby and Judith Kaufman. I didn’t consider myself a collector at all, but soon found more challenging work and started acquiring pieces by Kiff Slemmons, Keith Lewis, Myra Mimlitsch Gray and Mariko Kusimoto. Even then, I still didn’t consider myself a collector. In 1997, I was on one of the first AJF trips to Seattle. In our trip packet, I saw an image of a large necklace by Nancy Worden adorning a partially naked man. The neckpiece consisted of quarters in which the word "swine" was cut out, with cast bronze Barbie doll arms holding pearls in their hands and the title Casting Swine before Pearls. I couldn’t get this image out of my mind. I went down to Traver Gallery and bought the piece on the spot. It didn’t matter if I would ever wear it. It was a wakeup call; jewelry didn’t need to have boundaries and it didn’t even have to be wearable.'
So how does one go from non-collector status to being instrumental in the development of an international jewelry collection at a prestigious museum? Susan just jumped in, expanding her horizons by travelling to shows, meeting more artists and reading. 'That same year I attended SOFA for the first time and had my initial glimpse of European jewelry,' says Susan. 'I remember being taken with the Italian jewelers Giovani Corvaja and Anna Maria Zanella and Dutch jewelers Ruudt Peters and Gijs Bakker. I also started subscribing to Metalsmith and collecting books on jewelry. Charon Kransen sent me important books, one of the many ways in which he contributed to my jewelry education. Now I’m open to almost anything innovative, with an original voice and well made. I wear jewelry everyday and love it.'
Today, Susan is particularly interested in the work of jewelers: Ruudt Peters, Terhi Tolvanen, Kiff Slemmons, Jamie Bennett, Tina Rath, Christoph Zellweger, Evert Nyland, Heather White and Gerd Rothmann.
Susan has some great stories about collecting trips and adventures, which helped to educate her along the way. She had gone to her first European fair called COLLECT in 2004 and she has gone to every subsequent one since. She loved the way European galleries like Marzee displayed their work on open tables available for immediate access. The next year, Susan and a couple of other friends – Susan Cummins, Sharon Campbell and Donna Briskin – planned a trip to Amsterdam and Munich to see European jewelry and to attend the famous Schmuck exhibition. On that trip, the group asked jewelers Tina Rath and Sondra Sherman to introduce them to the major European jewelers whom they had only read about.
It was a seminal trip for everyone, but Susan tells the story about a piece she purchased from Ted Noten as an example of how far she was willing to go to get something she wanted. 'We went to his studio and had so much fun drinking cocktails and watching Ted light his cigarettes with a large torch while discussing his work. There I saw the “dead bird bag." The bird had a missing wing and was encased in clear resin with a handle on the top. Ted had just purchased a gold fish to keep the bird company, which I thought was very considerate of him. I decided that I needed to have the piece but Ted only wanted cash. We left Amsterdam that day. Everyday for a week in Munich, I used my two debit cards to get my limit of cash in small bills. By the next week, and with a little help from my friends, I had a very large envelope of cash. We flew back to Amsterdam and checked our bags. Ted phoned and I met him outside of airport security where I handed over a big wad of bills and he handed me a large, wrapped package. I felt like I was doing something illegal and so I told Ted not to count the cash in case someone was looking or a security camera was on us. I tried to go back through security but the line was extremely long, so I went to another area thinking the line would be shorter but it wasn’t. Now I was totally panicked. I had visions of missing the plane with some illegal, dead-bird object in my possession and so I pushed my way to the front of the line and ran to get back to the gate just in time to catch the plane. I have to say that was the most effort I have ever made to acquire a piece of art jewelry.'
In the course of trips to SOFA, Susan met Mark Leach the former director of the Mint Museum and they formed a friendship which grew over time. The Mint had collections of glass, wood, ceramics but virtually no jewelry. Susan took it upon herself to start the ball rolling for the acquisition of an international jewelry collection for them. The first piece she gave to them is the Tina Rath fur necklace called Purple Mink Hanging Wrap Necklace from 2001. That was followed by other donations and substantial gifts to allow the museum to purchase pieces themselves. In the process Mark and Susan learned from each other.
According to Susan, 'I taught Mark about the artists that I thought were the most important based on their history, where they went to school, who their teachers were, what series they had done before. One of the most important things I learned from Mark was composition. Mark has extensive education in all craft media, along with fine art expertise. He showed me a new way of looking at pieces, how the different elements worked together, or didn’t. How some piece might look interesting at the moment but wouldn’t stand the test of time. It was very valuable to me to get his feedback on pieces I was interested in purchasing for both my collection and for the Mint.'
The results of this collaboration can be seen in the permanent collection of the Mint. Susan is being honored for her role in setting the museum on the path towards having a great international jewelry collection. The 2008 McColl Award, which recognizes the gifted vision, extraordinary generosity as well as endless energy that are pivotal forces in assuring the success of the museum, is being presented to her on September 27, 2009.