A piece of jewelry is in a sense an object that is not complete in itself. Jewelry is a “what is it?” until you relate it to the body. The body is a component in design just as air and space are. Like line, form, and color, the body is a material to work with. Art Smith, 1969
Despite Art Smith’s philosophy that jewelry was incomplete unless used to adorn the human form, fans of the modernist jeweler saw his surrealist, biomorphic designs as stand-alone works of art.
“So many jewelers of Smith’s time were doing pretty stuff,” recalls Michael Malcé of Kelter Malcé, an antiques and vintage shop in Bridgehampton, New York, “but he was right up there with the abstract expressionists doing modern things.
“If Art’s jewelry had a sound, it would be Miles Davis. If it were a painting, it would be a [Joan] Miró. And if it were sculpture, it would be a [Alexander] Calder.”
Calder’s mobiles, in fact, inspired the late artist’s most famous necklace, Patina, (c. 1959), one of 20 designs featured in From the Village to Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith at the High Museum through September 13. It is an abridged version of the eponymous 2008 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum organized by Barry Harwood, curator of decorative arts.
The exhibition includes such signature pieces as the silver Lava bracelet (c. 1946), which covers the entire lower arm in undulating and overlapping forms, and the Cluster Knuckles ring (c. 1968), a large ring of oval-shaped, semi-precious cabochon stones that spans three fingers.
The exhibition also encompasses archival material from the artist’s estate: sketches, the original shop sign, tools, unfinished prototypes and period photographs of models.
Smith worked with affordable materials such as copper and brass until articles in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and The New Yorker in the early 1950s attracted the attention of well-heeled clients who commissioned jewelry in silver, gold and other precious metals.
Harwood describes the typical Art Smith client in mid-century Manhattan as “a woman who came to maturity in the post-war years, who considered herself modern and who did not want her mother’s platinum and diamond Tiffany jewelry…She wanted jewelry that expressed the modern age in which she was living.”
Commissions to design a brooch for Eleanor Roosevelt, cuff links for Duke Ellington and a one-man exhibition at New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the Museum of Art and Design) followed in the ’60s. Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin were early friends and patrons, as was Margot Gayle, the urban preservationist who saved the Victorian cast-iron buildings of New York City’s SoHo district.
Given the mores of the period, Smith’s ascendancy and prominence were remarkable. “This was a young, gay, black man operating in a world that was somewhat hostile to him, but he had incredible success,” says Harwood.
His success was due, in part, to Smith’s own efforts. “Art did not just sit and wait for people to come to him,” Harwood says. “He was very industrious.”
Born to Jamaican parents in Cuba in 1917 and raised in Brooklyn, Smith opened his first shop on Cornelia Street in 1946. Hostility from some neighbors, including racial violence and a smashed store window on one occasion, prompted the Cooper Union graduate to decamp to West 4th Street, where he remained until three years before his death in 1982.
Malcé, who opened his first shop on West 8th Street in 1958, remembers his then-neighbor’s studio in Greenwich Village as a gathering place for avant-garde musicians, beat poets, actors and artists. The jazz and modern dance aficionado’s friendship with Talley Beatty, a young dancer and choreographer, led to his customizing pieces for modern dance troupes formed by Pearl Primus and Claude Marchant as well as Beatty’s company.
Harwood believes that these collaborations “account for the aggressive scale of some of his pieces, which were intended for stage performances.”
His Autumn Leaves Brooch (c. 1974), which is rare for its scale and material, demonstrates his facility for crafting understated pieces as well. Even those with theatrical appeal were lightweight and wearable.
Though Smith is not a household name, his work is highly sought-after. “Pretty much every museum that collects modernist jewelry has an Art Smith piece,” says Harwood, citing the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
The resale market is so robust, the curator says, that a modest pair of earrings which once cost three to five dollars, would now command $1,500 to $2,000 and important necklaces would cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Smith’s work has survived changing times and tastes because, as Harwood says, “it’s a great artistic accomplishment.”