Reviews Gems & Gemology, Spring 2018, Vol. 54, No. 2

Book Review: Women Jewellery Designers

Book Review: Women Jewellery Designers
By Juliet Weir-de La Rochefoucauld, hardcover, 360 pp., illus., publ. by ACC Art Books Ltd., Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK, 2017, US$95.00.

This is a beautiful book—from the protective slipcover to the lush photography, it is a high-quality production.

The subject matter is most interesting as well. This massive volume is devoted exclusively to women designers who have made names for themselves through their vision, creativity, and pioneering of techniques and designs. The number of artists whose work is covered in the book is quite impressive—it’s a virtual “who’s who” of most of the important women in the world of jewelry design from the early 20th century through today. The book includes well-known artists along with designers that may not be familiar to everyone. Certainly a number of them were new to me.

The book begins with a very brief discussion of women jewelers of the Arts & Crafts movement. This was a period in time (at the turn of the 20th century) when women were “allowed” to make jewelry under their own names. As the curator of an exhibition on this very subject (Maker and Muse: Women and Twentieth Century Art Jewelry) I have mixed feelings about seeing such a brief section on these pioneering jewelers. I understand that the author did not want to leave them out of the book altogether because the women she does write about at length stood on the shoulders of the Arts & Crafts jewelers. But by writing such a brief section on them (only four pages of a 358-page book) versus the lengthy descriptions of later women, it seems that somehow the contribution of Arts & Crafts artisans to jewelry history is diminished. It seemed as if this early chapter was an afterthought, not a beginning.

However, this is a minor complaint. The book covers the work of an amazing number of mostly “high” jewelry designers ranging from Coco Chanel, Suzanne Belperron, and Jeanne Toussaint—who designed for Cartier in the early to mid-period of the 20th century—to contemporary jewelers including Paula Crevoshay, Anna Hu, and Elsa Peretti. Most of the artists whose work is featured in Women Jewellery Designers have (or are) creating luxury jewels. Their pieces can take your breath away with their beauty. But they also possess the opulence of jewelry laden with precious stones and precious materials that few of us will ever be able to afford. It’s a somewhat curious but interesting mix of artists whose work is discussed in the various sections of the book: “Between the Wars: The Awakening;” “Post-War to 1980s: Full Steam Ahead—The Search for the Perfect Design;” “What Is Happening Now in the Field of Jewelry Design;” and three appendices in the back, “The Designers” (additional information), “Toussaint,” and “L’Affaire Chanel.”

Several others that are included were modernist artists like Vivianna Torun Bulow-Hube and Nanna Ditzel, who designed pared-down, minimally ornamented pieces for the firm of Georg Jensen in the 1950s and 1960s. Their work was more commercially available at affordable prices. The work of Tiffany & Co., with designers like Angela Cummings, Elsa Peretti, and Paloma Picasso, were designed for the upscale mass market. To me, these women are in a totally different arena than the work of Cindy Chao, Alexandra Mor, Marilyn Cooperman, and Victoire de Castellane, to name a few covered in this book. Artists like Margaret De Patta, Margaret Craver, Wendy Ramshaw, and Gerda Flöckinger are what I would designate “studio jewelers”—artists who created one-of-a-kind handmade pieces without help from model makers, gemstone cutters, and other assistants. Craver was also well-known as an educator and for training World War II veterans in metalsmithing techniques. Line Vautrin, who made jewelry highly prized by collectors today, is perhaps best known for the bronze objects she created, especially her coveted mirrors.

All of the women included in this book produced groundbreaking work in their time or are currently making spectacular jewelry. However, if this was a book about male and female jewelers, it is unlikely the mix of artists with very different oeuvres would be included in the same book. Despite the disparate categories in which they worked the jewelers here are united by virtue of their gender and talent rather than the genres in which we normally think of their work. What does bring these artists into the same circle of importance is the quality and originality of their output. The photography—of multiple pieces by each artist—well illustrates each artist’s capabilities and dazzles the eye.

I found of particular interest the stories of the women who designed for the big houses such as Jeanne Toussaint for Cartier and Renee Puissant at Van Cleef & Arpels, who are somewhat unsung heroes of jewelry. Apparently the author was also fascinated by these women, providing additional information about Cartier’s Jeanne Toussaint in an appendix. She reproduces a recently found letter proving Toussaint become involved with Cartier at a much earlier date than previously thought. I’m sure the discovery of this letter was one of those wonderful moments that writer/researchers live for uncovering.

If you are interested in the incredible body of work by important women jewelers, whether they worked on their own or designed for important firms, this is the book for you. Even if you just love beautiful jewelry, you won’t be disappointed in this absorbing and impressive book.

Elyse Zorn Karlin is a journalist, jewelry historian, and freelance curator. She is co-director of the Association for the Study of Jewelry & Related Arts, editor-in-chief of Adornment magazine, and the author of several jewelry books and exhibition catalogs.