United States

In Conversation with Mark McDonald

Curator for the Structure & Ornament Auction


Structure & Ornament: Studio Jewelry 1900 to the Present, curated by Mark McDonald and presented by auction house Rago/Wright, will take place February 12, 2020. It expands upon Structure and Ornament: Studio Jewelry 1940–1960, a 1984 exhibition of modernist studio jewelry held at Fifty/50 Gallery, which McDonald, an authority on 20th- and 21st-century applied art, owned from 1980 to 1993. The sale will include works by revolutionary goldsmiths Giampaolo Babetto and John Paul Miller, mid-century icons Margaret De Patta and Art Smith, contemporary masters such as Lisa Gralnick and Peter Chang, and works from some of the 20th century’s most pivotal artists—Claire Falkenstein, Harry Bertoia, and Arnaldo Pomodoro among them. The photos in this article show some of the pieces available for purchase.

Cecile zu Hohenlohe, double ring
Cecile zu Hohenlohe, double ring, circa 2015, 22-karat gold, pyrite, gemstone, 32 x 76 mm, photo courtesy of Wright

In the introduction she wrote for the catalog, Toni Greenbaum calls this “a landmark event, as it is the first exhibition and sale organized by an American auction house to be dedicated solely to studio jewelry on an international scale.” The auction will be held at Rago Auctions, in New Jersey. AJF checked in with the auction’s curator to learn a little more.

Giampaolo Babetto, brooch
Giampaolo Babetto, brooch, 1983/2010, 18-karat gold, 25 x 44 mm, photo courtesy of Wright

Please describe some of the pieces that will be on the block.

Mark McDonald: All of the jewelry is studio, except for two pieces. We have a rare, iconic Fibula brooch by Phillip Fike, an American jeweler and metalsmithing professor who was very influential. We have a giant brooch by the esteemed American sculptor, Albert Paley, who studied with Fike. We have a rare pendant/locket in gold and silver by Christian Schmidt, and a silver and gold “spider” pin by John Prip. We have six amazing pieces by Lisa Gralnick, in acrylic and gold; two beautiful recent brooches by Eleanor Moty; and two early pieces by Arline Fisch, who studied with Earl Pardon; plus several great examples of Pardon’s work spanning the 50s to the 80s.

Albert Paley, brooch
Albert Paley, brooch, 1971, forged, fabricated, and oxidized sterling silver, gold inlay, 14-karat gold, labradorite, sapphire, pearl, 146 x 38 x 216 mm, photo courtesy of Wright

Why do you feel the time has come for an auction like this one?

Mark McDonald: Usually this work is sold within the context of a fine jewelry auction and is often overshadowed by the glitz (and the prices) of traditional jewelry with diamonds, gold, and platinum. Rarely has recent contemporary work been sold at auction. By putting a large group together that shows the continuum of the studio movement for 100 years, we hope to develop a forum for satisfying both buyers and sellers.

William Harper, Shiva's Night Sword II
William Harper, Shiva’s Night Sword II, 1989, brooch, tooled gold, cloisonné inlay, shell, aquamarine, 19 x 146 mm, photo courtesy of Wright

What kinds of things are you doing to make this appeal to a broader audience?

Mark McDonald: I hope to introduce vintage buyers to contemporary work and vice versa. A number of my clients/collectors have begun as mid-century enthusiasts and moved into collecting recent work, pieces that reflect their tastes and focus. I hope to introduce mid-century jewelry to contemporary collectors who have only focused on recent new work … helping all participants to view this as one large, related movement.

Promotional image for Structure & Ornament
Promotional image for Structure & Ornament, photo courtesy of Wright

Can you talk about the secondary market as it pertains to this auction?

Mark McDonald: The secondary market for mid-century jewelry is already somewhat developed, but that isn’t true for recent contemporary pieces. I hope to show good examples by good craftspeople with the aim of developing a reliable track record of what a newer piece can bring in the public market in a well curated, beautifully presented auction.

Wendy Ramshaw, Orbit
Wendy Ramshaw, Orbit, 1988, necklace, nickel alloy, resin, 229 mm diameter, photo courtesy of Wright

What are the possible outcomes of the auction?

Mark McDonald: I hope we can educate, illuminate, and, above all else, reach new buyers who can appreciate these things we love to wear.

One of my goals for this sale is that it, too, will establish a viable and healthy marketplace for studio jewelry from 1900 to the present, with the informative catalog serving as a guide and reference—a lasting document—like our original Structure and Ornament catalog.

Joseph Hoffmann, hair comb
Joseph Hoffmann, hair comb, 1909, gilt silver, mother-of-pearl, cultured pearls, tortoiseshell, 64 x 127 x 25 mm, photo courtesy of Wright

Note: The auction catalog is available online.


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