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Jewellery has played a small role in the Cooper Hewitt design museum’s previous triennials, but in this year’s show it is assuming a new importance. The theme for the international survey of contemporary design is Beauty and its ethereal, transgressive and extravagant facets, across fields from product design and architecture to game design and TV credits. Jewellery fits in neatly.
Ellen Lupton, senior curator at the Cooper Hewitt, a Manhattan branch of the Smithsonian museum, says the museum made a decision to feature six jewellers, including Israeli Noa Zilberman with her conceptual “Wrinkles” collection and German-Dutch Jantje Fleischhut’s plastic and precious post-industrial sculptures.
“We believe jewellery is an important part of design,” says Ms Lupton. “Everyone adorns themselves in some way or other. It’s a global, universal part of being human.”
Hemmerle, the German high-end art jeweller, is one of the designers featured in the Extravagant section, alongside couturier Giambattista Valli and make-up artist Pat McGrath. The fourth generation, family-owned business is known by jewellery aficionados for its bold aesthetic and its mix of gemstones with unexpected materials, including concrete, iron and copper. The exhibition features a pair of snail brooches that incorporate actual snail shells with gold and diamonds.
Christian Hemmerle, its director, says that with one store in Munich and a limited number of pieces available for purchase, an exhibition like Beauty is an opportunity for the company’s work to be appreciated by visitors who may never own a piece or otherwise even see it. “That’s the beauty of a museum,” he says.
Viren Bhagat, another high-end jewellery designer, agrees. He says that museums taking contemporary jewellery design seriously is a relatively recent phenomenon. “It’s a big change and jewellers deserve that space,” says the Mumbai-based designer.
Mr Bhagat’s work is being exhibited as part of the Bejewelled Treasures exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (until April 10). Has being part of a museum show, however, led to actual sales?
“Of course it has. It’s happened at the recent exhibit and when we were exhibiting at the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] and at the Kremlin,” he says. “It’s a great way for contemporary jewellery to be recognised and it gives you wonderful exposure. Collectors see you as having more serious appeal, in line with other forms of art.”
Valery Demure, owner of a jewellery showroom that represents Delfina Delettrez, one of the Cooper Hewitt triennial designers, agrees about brand, if not about sales. “It gives designers legitimacy,” she says. “I’m not sure it has a direct impact on their business or on sales. It’s more of a brand exercise than about providing financial benefit.”
Ms Delettrez is one of the world’s best known contemporary jewellers, in part thanks to her status as a fourth-generation member of the Fendi family, as well as her celebrity following.
The French-Italian designer’s surrealist jewels, like her diamond-encrusted moustache septum ring, are featured in the show’s “Transgressive” section and reflect what she describes as her “schizophrenic idea of beauty”, where opposites attract and ugliness is seen as beautiful.
She is pleased with the curators’ selection since they incorporate diverse elements of her work: her commercial collection, limited edition higher-priced pieces and some that have never been available to buy. This mixture “gives me more credibility in the art and jewellery design worlds,” she says.
One piece in the exhibition, her gold bee ring, was shared by the singer Beyoncé with her Instagram followers (current count 62.2m) in an experience that the designer describes as giving her “an amazing commercial reward”, presumably one with far greater reach and influence than any museum exhibition ever could bestow.
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum presents “Beauty — Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial”, until August 21