Terminology in the jewelry realms

Artwear Gallery. Foto Robert Lee Morris

Artwear Gallery. Foto Robert Lee Morris

    Artwear Gallery. Foto met dank aan Robert Lee Morris©

Door Robert Lee Morris

Dear Esther,

Here is my attempt to add to your conversation about terminology in the jewelry realms.

Artist jewelry
From my own perspective, I call what I do Artist Jewelry. When I look back on my life and personal development, I realize that I was exhibiting artistic talent from an early age. I excelled in high school at art, painting drawing and artistic projects, and for that I was ostracized by the butch sporty guys, and adored by the girls.

Being adept at artistic expression, I nevertheless decided to pursue a career in medicine feeling that that was a more grounded and practical approach to a career in college. But it was in college that I came to the existential conclusion that I was indeed an artist, and not a left brained scientist. Once I declared my major to be Art, I felt settled and secure in my decision. I excelled in every classification of studio art, sculpture, drawing, painting and filmmaking and loved the art making process.

Inspired by George Garner
I was deeply inspired by my sculpture professor, George Garner; he was my mentor because, like Alexander Calder, George had a signature style that defined every piece of art that he made. His DNA was evident in his 2-D and 3-D work. So it happened, while trying to find a way to make some sort of living on the hippy commune I formed after college graduation in 1969, that I turned to try my hand at jewelry. George used to make little sculptural forms and jewelry using his oxygen-acetylene torch in his office during his spare time, and I would hang out with him watching for hours intrigued with his deft technique with brazing rods and flame.

My point of this story is to establish that I started making jewelry as an artist, and I brought to this craft, my knowledge of everything I had absorbed in academia: anthropology, sociology, biology, philosophy, history and the rest. I began making jewelry with a strong internal driving force; the desire to meld together my entire being, my life up to then.

Moved around the globe
Born into a military family and had moved around the globe 23 times by the time I turned 18 years old, I developed a strong personal worldview that I was able to use as a backbone of my jewelry work. Because the jewelry actually began to sell well, I shifted all my artistic impulses into the one art form that was paying my rent. In 1973 I was discovered by Joan Sonnabend and my career exploded. But what was I making? What was the term for it? People did not know what to call it. Jewelry seemed somewhat wrong as there were no jewels involved. I was creating “props” for a film that was brewing in my mind. I actually hated regular jewelry, diamond necklaces, jeweled rings and bracelets being no life force in them.

Certainly not jewelry
Upon moving to NYC in 1974, the brutality of the city, and the architecture and energy that I felt drove me to respond by making jewelry that was certainly NOT JEWELRY. Even though the movie Mad Max had yet to be filmed and released, I was already making strong fierce and challenging metal pieces for wearing on the body that could have been used in that movie! Cuffs with spear tips running through, massive belts that looked like backbones or vertebrae that wrapped around the hips, collars that were massive and painted blood red, rods sticking out as if the wearer had been shot in the neck with arrows, still sticking into the collar. This was the kind of work that woke up the editors and brought me instant recognition as a new force in the art/fashion world of New York City. Making bold, big, and rich 24k gold plated brass forms that shook up the sleepy pearl adorned customer I was catapulted into mainstream consciousness when I started. I was a ground breaker, and caught the attention of Andy Warhol and the entire insiders community.

Artwear Gallery
When I was forced to open ARTWEAR, in 1977, (due to my gallery Sculpture to Wear being closed), the terminology of what I was making became a constant hassle. Was I making art or craft? Was the gallery promoting commercial jewelry or non commercial art to wear? I was interviewed constantly to help define the new trends in jewelry that I was behind. My gallery became extremely influential globally due to the incessant editorial coverage we got.

I argued that craft is the process of making stuff by hand, but not necessarily by artists. Chinese basket weavers or Balinese chain makers were craftspeople. They carried on national traditions that are indications of the various nations that they came from, but making crafts can be done by anyone who is trained in the specific process. Artists who made crafts were different as they can transform a basket or a ceramic coffee cup into a sculpture.

As valuable as any painting
The mission statement behind ARTWEAR was that I would represent and promote artists who made jewelry as their main focus, and were ground breaking. One could not get into the gallery unless one had a recognizable personal style, an iconic DNA signature that revealed the same genius that Calder and George Garner had. The ability to infuse ones soul into each thing that they made, and thereby making art, creating an object that caused emotional reaction. Many jewelers wanted to get into my gallery but I was not at all interested in jewelers or jewels, or even commerciality of work. I represented to the world through years of careful editing and curating the work that was shown, that what I was showing was true art, as valuable as any painting or sculpture, song or poem.

Artwear was ground breaking
I called ARTWEAR a ground breaking gallery of ground breaking artist jewelry. Academic jewelry often came through my exhibition doors, but only if the maker had an iconic style and a visible world view. I often was asked to give lectures and presentations to university jewelry departments throughout the USA, and was always appalled at how the instructors were only interested in teaching techniques without any concern for teaching how to be creative. The Academic drive to teach as many techniques as possible was a sore spot with me, since the students that graduated from many of these schools tried to get into my gallery and I always told them to go home and come back after they found their soul in their technical work.

One student had graduated from Rhode Island School of Design after she completed post graduate work in jewelry from that esteemed college, and she came to me in tears because after all those years of learning every technique that was possible, she had no idea what to make in the real world. I felt so bad for her and also angry with the academic viewpoint of over-teaching useless techniques that destroyed her self confidence in the end.

Art jewelry as wearable work
So I call what we do Art Jewelry, as it is wearable work that conveys the essence of the artists soul. It can be made of gold or plastic, but it has to evoke an emotional response and be as powerful and personal as any other work of art. I hope this helps with the terminology issue.

The fashion aspect
One other thing, is the fashion aspect. Yes, I am a fashion jewelry designer and an artist. The fact that the editors of fashion magazines and stylists for celebrities and news anchors, swarmed me and the gallery to borrow and photograph the jewelry every day. So yes, the art jewelry became fashion jewelry. I was asked to collaborate with fashion designers from the moment I moved into the Big Apple. Word of mouth was how that happened, as soon as I worked with one designer another one would appear. I became the first (fashion) jewelry designer (since I am a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America) to win three CFDA awards including the lifetime achievement award.

Leading fashion designers in America and Europe
But just because I made masses of jewelry to adorn and accessorize the clothing presentations of the leading fashion designers in America and Europe, does not mean that my art took a back seat to the needs of fashion. In fact the more cutting edge artistic the jewelry, the more the fashiondesigners and editors embraced it! Wearabilty was foremost of course, ease of wear, chic looking jewelry that would show up easily on the runway, or the pages of Vogue as one thumbed through the pages at a fast click. So Fashion jewelry is a huge term that can include both the iconic art jewelry of people like Ted Muehling, Cara Croninger, Patricia Von Muslin, as well as the edgy work by Tom Binns, or the opulent goldsmithing of Barry Keiselstein Cord.

Costume jewelry is not art jewelry
Then there is Costume jewelry which is NOT art jewelry at all, but simply cheaply made junky jewelry made to last a few seasons and simply be fun to wear. It has a function of providing cash flow for department stores in a gift category. The fact that plastics, resins, wood, aluminum nickel, brass or copper are not fine materials with any intrinsic value, does not mean they are only costume jewelry materials, since a true artist can turn anything into real art. Cara Croninger revealed her core soul through her resin and acrylic work. She was able to develop deeply moving and hauntingly beautiful work by color, shape, form and sculpturality. Not costume jewelry at all!

Robert Lee Morris

Doornbusch, E. (5 november 2021) Overzicht gastcolumns eerste jubileum 2021. hedendaagsesieraden.nl.

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