Meet the Heavy Hitters of Contemporary Jewelry Design

An exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt explores the evolution and explosive creativity of an often-overlooked field.

A bangle bracelet by Torun Bülow Hübe.

Before founding her eponymous New York communications firm more than two decades ago, Susan Grant Lewin worked as a design journalist, making regular pilgrimages to trade shows such as Copenhagen’s erstwhile Scandinavian Furniture Fair. One year during her visit, she came across Vivianna Torun Bülow-Hübe, a Swedish silversmith who created jewelry for Georg Jensen, and fell madly in love with her personal ornaments of the hand-crafted variety. “Vivianna’s work is so beautiful, it makes you weep. You look at it and you just have to have it,” Lewin says, with a hearty laugh.

Upon returning home, she immersed herself in the field and wrote a book titled One of a Kind: American Art Jewelry Today (Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1994). Soon after, her late friend Mildred Friedman, a curator at the Walker Art Center, hired Lewin to build a jewelry collection for the organization, while Lewin concurrently grew her own; it eventually totaled some 300 pieces. Originality is the primary criterion for any piece she purchases. “You don’t want to own something and say, ‘Well, someone else made it first and did it better,’” Lewin explains. “You want something that is really innovative and explores material, concepts, and ideas. I only collect work that the artists make themselves.”

A tiara from Daniel Jocz's Candy Wear series.

Around 150 pieces from her cache are on view through May 28 at New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in the exhibition, “Jewelry of Ideas: Gifts from the Susan Grant Lewin Collection.” “Contemporary jewelry is often overlooked in design. It doesn’t fit neatly into a category,” Lewin says, noting the ongoing debate about whether to categorize the domain as fashion or design. (“It truly is art, if you want to know what I think,” she says.) To bring public attention to contemporary jewelry as such, and because she didn’t want her collection sitting in a drawer, Lewin donated each piece in the show to the New York design institution.

Curated by Ursula Ilse-Neuman, “Jewelry of Ideas” features work by some of the discipline’s most experimental players, including Joyce Scott, Friedrich Becker, Arline Fisch, Thomas Gentille, and Jamie Bennett. Taken together, the works trace the history of contemporary jewelry, which, according to Lewin, began right after World War II, when American studio jewelers including Art Smith, Ed Wiener, and Claire Falkenstein—who were influenced by Alexander Calder’s handmade, one-of-a-kind jewelry—elevated their craft to a whole new level.

Now, with newfound space to fill, Lewin remains a dedicated collector—a pursuit she describes as something of an illness: “On my deathbed, I’m going to be calling my go-to galleries—Ornamentum, Gallery Loupe, and Sienna Contemporary—to ask if they have anything new!”

A necklace by Joyce Scott and a brooch by Giampaolo Babetto.
(Clockwise from left) A necklace by Attai Chen, a fish design invitation by Gaetano Pesce, and a ring by Nora Fok.
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