Modernist Jewelers of the 20th & 21st centuries

Modernist jewelry had its roots in post-World-War II New York, downtown on the West side of Manhattan, in the artists' lair, Greenwich Village, where you'd find Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Dave van Ronk and the New York School artists, notably Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Bill & Elaine de Kooning and others.

Drawing of Greenwich Village Craft Center

It was a confused time. World War II had uprooted millions, killed millions more and caused an irreversible cultural upheaval that still reverberates today.

Women were now well-placed in the industrial world -- they had replaced men in many jobs when the men went off to war. Oppressed masses of African-Americans had served in military duty and had a somewhat larger place in New York life than before the war. There were all sorts of immigrants from Europe who had come to escape the hell of Hitler and Mussolini.

Among all this upheaval, the Greenwich Village art scene flourished. It was anti-establishment and terribly avant-garde. Tract homes for the returning GIs and American Dream houses out in the suburbs were beginning to appear; plastics were the latest thing, and nylon stockings replaced the pre-war silk, which had been donated to the war effort to make parachutes and cannon stuffings.

Rosie the Riveter had taken her rightful place in American Society, and the woman now had a chance to join the urban work force in offices, although the Glass Ceiling was very much in place in terms of higher advancement in most firms.

Greenwich Village was not only an artist's hangout with its low rents and arty environment, tolerance of gays and exotic shops and restaurants such as Alex's Borscht Bowl, coffee houses like the Cafe Rienzi, the Playhouse, Gaslight Cafe, White Horse Tavern, Cedar Bar and other artist-run establishments, it was also the home of NYU and the Whitney Museum of American Art and countless very avant-garde galleries such as Third Street Gallery. It was also the home of the 10th Street Club, inhabited by most of the modern artists of the period.

Art Smith, Frank Rebajes, Paul Lobel, Bill Tendler and Eve Paige operated on West Fourth Street, although early on in the 40s Rebajes had moved up to midtown.

Sam Kramer, who had inherited tens of thousands of taxidermy eyes and used them in his intricate silver mountings, was on West Eighth Street, with a huge eye hanging as a sign outside his shop, reachable by a high stone stoop.

Jules Brenner was located on MacDougal Street not far from the coffee houses between Third and Eighth Streets.

The other major center of Modernist activity in Manhattan was uptown in the midtown district around the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, both on 53rd Street between 5th & 6th Avenues.

The Solomon Guggenheim Museum was then known as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, and was located nearby at 54th between Madison and 5th Avenue, near the fashionable galleries operated by Leo Castelli and his peers.

Ed Wiener operated both in Greenwich Village and midtown Manhattan in the 1940s, but then closed his Village shop and concentrated on the very wealthy patrons midtown -- the diamond district was just around the corner. Irena Brenner had stores near the Museum of Modern Art, although today that would be financially impossible. Henry Steig was forced by circumstances to locate much further east.

There was an enclave of Modernist jewelers in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where one would find Hans and Maria Hoffman, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Chaim Gross, Larry Rivers and Ward Bennett. Wiener, Steig and Brenner operated very informal summer shops in beachfront homes, enabling them to escape the sweltering city and to service the very wealthy who patronized the quaint shops at Cape Cod.

On the West Coast, Margaret De Patta was considered the Modernist jewelry guru of the Bay Area until the early 1950s. She founded the MAG -- Metal Arts Guild of San Francisco, along with Merry Rank, Irena Brenner, Bob Winston and Peter Macciarini. The Studio Jewelry Movement of the 1940s sprang from the larger American Craft Movement in which artists worked in exciting new art materials -- wood, glass, fibers, ceramics, metal and plastics.

Many of the members of the Modernist Jewelry Movement were also painters, sculptors and poets. Alexander Calder, Steig and Freund were well-known fine artists who had exhibitions and were published in the art periodicals of the period.

Sam Kramer was without a doubt the leader in Avant-Garde Modernist jewelry. He was a character, sporting a bushy beard and waggy moustache. He'd sleep in a cot and wait for customers to shake him awake. His advertisements read, "Fantastic Jewelry for People Who Are Slightly Mad" (meaning insane, not angry).

Bob Winston, on the West Coast, was the Sam Kramer of California. He wore earrings, bracelets, pins, rings, toe-rings and necklaces to everything from political rallies to scout meetings. His outfit included a workman's belt with metalsmithing tools and a Prestolite gas torch, making jewelry whereever he found a crowd. At this time, metal working skills were hard to acquire and tools were often handmade or adapted from other uses.

The jewelry items we take so much for granted today had their origins in this brazen and adventurous movement of the 1940s and 50s, at a time when strange jewelry was not accepted by any except the very brave.