Hanging a masterpiece has never been a small matter; it requires wide walls, high ceilings and just the right amount of light. Or perhaps not. Nowadays, thanks to the skill of world-class jewellers, it’s possible to showcase a jaw-dropping (albeit teeny) artwork on the body itself.
Artists have long explored the medium of wearability – everyone from Salvador Dalí to Grayson Perry and Anish Kapoor has tried their hand at jewelery – and art jeweler Cora Sheibani has for some years played with the concept of framing to highlight the natural beauty of stones and other precious materials. Lately, however, the big draw is jewelers’ own diminutive takes on landscapes, portraits, abstract expressions and still lifes – presented exquisitely framed and mounted as pendants, earrings, brooches or rings. And unlike art miniatures themselves, which were historically given as love tokens and secreted on the person for their private viewing pleasure, there’s nothing covered about these modern-day canvases: when a goldsmith is the picture framer, they’re destined for big love.
São Paulo-based Silvia Furmanovich has explored artistic traditions from all over the world for more than two decades, creating vivid jewels from teeny tableaux inspired by her travels. She believes the concept of wearing artworks resonates right now because art invites intimacy. “A miniature work of art always has a story waiting to be told,” she explains. “It’s natural to want to lean in to it.”
Some of Furmanovich’s scenes are handpainted by Rajasthani artists on canvas or papyrus; trompe l’oeil earrings depict faceted gems – or op-art paintings, depending on how you look; and there are figurative compositions in marquetry using salvaged wood from the Amazon. Her new collection Silk Road (which will be exhibited through Valery Demure’s platform Objet d’Emotion at PAD London next month) is the result of an odyssey in Uzbekistan where she worked with silk weavers to “convert” detailed silk carpets into a never-before -attempted miniature form, where each framed earring is composed of 1,600 tiny silken knots.
“There’s a move into the softer part of our feelings when it comes to jewellery,” says Louisa Guinness, who collaborates with contemporary artists to create wearable works for her London gallery, and is a global authority on the relationship between art and jewelry. “People were very big and bold there for a while, but perhaps we’re ready for something gentler, smaller; pieces that demonstrate a high level of artistry. Detail and narrative makes them more personal and special.”
“I grew up in the jewelery world and it was not perceived as something artistic, which was very upsetting,” says Christian Hemmerle of the fourth-generation German jeweler, a bastion of excellent – and distinctive – taste. “But we are not limited by the boundaries set by our craft 100 or so years ago; we’ve broken out of ‘absolutes’ and rules, so if a jeweler’s craft is well executed and they have given their soul to a piece, they have created an artwork.”
So much of the personal response to art is rooted in its subjective nature – and Hemmerle delights in the fact that while his team “works with materials that speak to us, for whatever reason, and often we don’t know their ‘destiny’ when we choose them”, clients bring their own eye and imagination to bear on the experience. An outstanding natural opal or agate enhanced by the right treatment has all the magnetism of a painterly landscape or an abstract shoreline, while petrified colla wood is a doppelgänger for an energetically worked Expressionist canvas.
Romantic landscapes – or more accurately, dreamscapes – are a signature of Eugenie Niarchos’s brand Venyx, which she founded a decade ago, combining her passions for antique jewelery and the natural world into an aesthetic that sits somewhere between fashion and art. “I remember being inspired years back by a pair of Peggy Guggenheim’s earrings, made from tiny paintings by Yves Tanguy,” Niarchos explains. (Guggenheim wore one with another earring by Alexander Calder to the 1942 opening of her New York museum-gallery The Art of This Century.)
While there are several irons in the fire with living artists, Venyx is also launching a limited-edition, nine-piece collection in collaboration with the estate of Man Ray, who exhibited his first jewelery design at the International Exhibition of Modern Jewelery in London in 1961. The enamel-on-gold necklaces, available from December, include an homage to Man Ray’s surrealist 1934 oil landscape, Observatory Time – The Lovers.
Niarchos’s own Dryada landscapes and majestic skies are conjured from gold and semi-precious stones, some framed with earthy or rose-tinted diamonds. They’re all part of Venyx’s projection of an imaginary universe – one rooted in experience but infused with mysticism and fantasy. In one scene, she recreates the memory of the first full moon of the year rising behind an Indian rosewood tree using dendritic agate with branch-like inclusions, backed by a hand-carved gold moon. The pieces are spirited, soulful – and unapologetically sentimental.
Gucci’s new high jewellery, which is also rooted in a sentimental journey, takes the wearable-art concept to perhaps its most ornate, fantastical and eccentric conclusion. With Alessandro Michele acting as “mythographer”, necklaces, rings and cuffs incorporate antique micro-mosaic cameos of Roman ruins and landscapes. There’s a palpable creative tension as the historic gravitas of the mosaics clashes provocatively with a paintbox of exuberant gems.
Whichever art school you subscribe to, small is definitely getting interesting – making jewelery the must-see exhibit in any room.