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home | Feature Articles | Designers, Popularity and Eternity

Designers, Popularity and Eternity
Cindy Edelstein

There is something special about the last decade of a century. It often becomes a creative era, a time when both artists and patrons are suffused with a spirit of daring, an ever-widening interest in the new, the different and the non-conformist.

The turn of this century, for example, saw a rebirth of design. Craftsmen around the globe of all types were shedding the cloak of traditional style that had governed decorative arts for so long. In its place they created a new mantle of design which we now call Art Nouveau. This in turn inspired other artists to explore Cubism, Art Deco, Arts & Crafts and other "modern" forms.

As we turn from this century into the next, we can already see the sparks of creativity in the design of jewelry. And just as important, we can see a rising tide of acceptance among those that ultimately support the future of design, the consumers.

Yet no one can say for sure what exactly has caused this change. The designer message seems to be finally seeping into the collective consciousness, probably helped along by such factors as a strong economy, an overall acceptance of name-branded goods and a growing sophistication among jewelry consumers. It may be that what we have here is another round of turn-of-the-century creative ferment.

One of the key differences between designer jewelry and it's more generic mass counterpart is that there is a common design thread throughout the entire inventory of goods. While styles evolve and collections grow, a designer will stay true to his own personal design ethic. A true artist can't help but stay true to that which he holds as beautiful or worth doing again and again.

Commercial jewelry manufacturers most often will make whatever is popular at the moment, following trends set by others rather than creating ones themselves. They follow market leads, past success and forecasted trends. If you look at a manufacturer's entire line, you'd see a bit of this look and a bit of that look and a bunch of items that don't have any relation, designwise, to any other.

If a manufacturer is led by the laws of commerce then the designer is drawn by the illogic of love. It's a difference in intent, not quality or appeal. Designers pay great attention to the details that distinguish their work from others rather than try to blend in with the current trends. Often they're willing to sit on a style or a look for quite some time until the marketplace catches up, taking the risk that it may never catch up at all. Richard Kimball has been making jewelry for most of his life. His designs are individual pieces of art that combine gold and platinum with unique colored stones and rarely used goldsmithing techniques like chasing, repousse, granulation and reticulation. His work is a hard sell from the point of view that X grams of gold and Y carats of gems has a market price of Z dollars. But since his work, which is mostly one-of-a-kinds, is collected by people who often consider themselves art collectors his jewelry continues to flourish regardless of the current "mood."

Designers are entrepreneurs as well as artists. Not many could see themselves in the corporate world or even working for someone else. To create they must be free. And as corny as that may sound, freedom is the key to their designs. They may use gems that aren't popular or techniques that aren't commonly understood. They have a passion for exploring the boundaries of the metal, the design and/or the artform itself. This passion makes them different from mass manufacturers who are in business to be in business. If designers were in it for the business many of them would have folded their tents a long time ago. In fact, a lack of business sense is often their downfall. There are more than a few designers who say they were doing business before they decided to BE in business. It's the passion that keeps them going. For many designers there's a direct line drawn from their hearts to their work. "Even though the path we choose to follow is different, the work is the same for every artist," said designer Michael Good. "Over time, the work is symbolic of one's life, one's entire experience. That's what keeps me interested. While I'm doing it it's my art but once it's finished, whatever it is, it becomes a product. The person on the other end buys it for their own reasons and it may have nothing to do with my reasons. It becomes art, or not, in their experience."

It's the bond to their medium that sees many designers through the rough patches. Every time they sit at the bench or the drawing board they can forget that there's a bottom line. They're willing to put in more, may expect to get out less (particularly in the beginning) and many even feel lucky that they can continue to do what they love and not have to get "a real job." While the work is not idyllic by any definition, most designers are happy with it.

Good, along with many of his fellow jewelry designers, feels that he's an artist or designer first and jewelry just happens to be the medium of choice. "If I could say what I wanted to say with clay or glass than that's what I would use. But metal is the best for me."

"[As an artist] if your idea demands a technical skill you must have total command of your technique to carry out your idea. If a pianist has to think about her hands as she's playing, she can't create music. A jeweler can't truly create if he has to pay attention to the technique."

And ultimately it is their technique that saves them. When looking at a piece of jewelry the first thing you appreciate is it's design, the second is the craftsmanship. Many industry reports, including surveys in JCK magazine, have stated that the number one criterion for retailers buying new merchandise is quality. Quality of workmanship and quality of design beat out price as a motivating factor. And if retailers insist on it their customers do, too. Today more than ever, consumers want to connect with the people that make the goods. More and more manufacturers and retailers, are using themselves or their staff in their advertisements. Paloma Picasso, Bijan, Bennetton, Mario Buotta, Martha Stewart, Mrs. Fields and legions of fashion and accessories designers have used their faces and philosophies as a selling tool. Jewelry customers can quickly become jewelry collectors when that personal connection is made. When a woman feels sympatico with a particular designer's style she'll come back to it time and time again. She'll want to learn more about the person who made the jewelry, what their design motivation and inspiration is and best of all, she'll want to see what's new from them time and time again.

Many companies try to position themselves as a "designer-like" product which is akin to an "artist-like" painting. It may sound good in the generic marketplace where the customer doesn't really get too close to the product, but fine jewelry is a more personal item than such things as shoes, scarves or pillowcases.

It is often said that jewelry is one of the only true "happy" purchases. There's no real reason to buy jewelry; it has no real use except to bring joy and amusement to the wearer and the giver. You receive jewelry to mark the important and the memorable and it continues to say "I Love You" better than any other romantic token ever could. It gets passed down generations and so does it's "story."

It's for these reasons that women gravitate to designer jewelry. Knowing who made the jewel and why adds to the story and the romance. It makes the piece seem even more valuable. And so the customer becomes personally connected to the piece, just like the designer.


One of the best indicators that designer jewelry is growing in acceptance is that the number of designers is growing. While there aren't any statistics on this, one just has to look at the number of designers seen in the trade press and exhibiting at the various trade shows to see the increase. More schools are graduating more designers each year and more of them are choosing to go it on their own rather than take a job with a bigger design firm or a mass manufacturer.

The American Craft Council has continued to grow along with the swelling ranks of designers; the Council's annual craft fairs have become the place where the non-traditional jeweler shops and where artisans of all media are supported.

And in between trying to design and produce their collections many more designers are working on special pieces to wow the judges at industry design competitions.

The Spectrum Award just celebrated its 13th anniversary. When the American Gem Trade Association first conceived of the idea to award designers for their unique work with colored stones there were 35 entries. This year there were more than 370. [ In 2001 there were over 500 entries]. The Spectrum Award Collection and it's cousins Diamonds Today, Diamonds International and Cultured Pearl Design Competition travel around the country to retailers to garner publicity and traffic, building attention at the retail level for designer jewelry.

When you see it as an artform rather than just merchandise, jewelry takes on a life of its own.

What's kept people interested in jewelry over the centuries is usually not the weight, size, price or saleability but rather the jewel's unique qualities and distinct beauty and all the emotions we invest in tokens of love.

This article was written by the Jewelers Resource Bureau's Cindy Edelstein in July 1998.

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·  A Brief History of American Jewelry Design (from 1997)