The high prices of gold and silver have tempted many to store their gold in vaults and hide their silver in freezers and other unlikely places. For jewelry craftsmen, high prices have prompted the use of every available material in their work.
Contemporary jewelry of more than 90 American artists who work in everything from handmade paper to niobium and titanium make up a new exhibit, "Good as Gold: Alternative Materials in American Jewelry," that opens today at the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art.
Like art-to-wear clothing, the appeal of such jewelry is its attractiveness, its non-commercial quality and its uniqueness. And for those who need the snob appeal of high price, art-to-wear jewelry or clothing often accommodates in that department as well.
Lloyd Herman, director of the Renwick, was prompted to do such a show after attending the World Crafts Council meeting and exhibit in Vienna last year. "In every craft medium, the Americans are always more adventuresome," says Herman, acting curator for this show.
The gallery received some of the items over the transom. Marc David Levine, who works in Ceconite plastic fabric and acrylic lacquer, dropped off slides at the gallery while he was attending a model-airplane workshop at the Air and Space Museum. His bracelet in the show incorporates materials he also uses for planes. Herman found other items while scouting local galleries and craft fairs around the country.
The result is a vast range, from masterful high-tech art to the funky: from the handsome bandoleer necklace of Robert Lee Morris in nickel and copper; the silver, gold and lacquered-copper magnetic wire neckpiece by Mary Lee Hu; and copper painted necklace with molten gold by Susan Tamulevich, worthy of a Tiffany showcase; to Debby Doolittle's pieces in surplus tubing and electrical parts that look right out of Fiorucci.
The various media are treated far less reverently than gold ever was. There is, for example, considerable inventiveness with such metals as titanium, a hard, brittle substance with the strength of steel and weight of aluminum which is used for airplanes and spacecraft. Edward de Large does a handsome brooch with the abstract design made by anodizing the surface with an electrical charge that takes full advantage of the refractory possibilities of titanium. Ivy Ross' ebony link bracelet uses bands of anodized titanium for a contrast of textures and color, and Helen Shirk's corrugated titanium strips look like carnival pieces.
Some of the jewelry made from found pieces looks like a throwback to the 1970s and has a place more as souvenir jewelry than craft pieces. But other assemblages, such as Ramona Solberg's combination of buttonhole caliper and buttons, bronze, brass and leather, form fascinating pieces.
Are they as good as gold? Says Herman: "Nothing is as good as gold or diamonds for investment. But there are other yellow metals and other materials that provide interesting colors and textures."
Are they serious jewelry? Many are more to be looked at than worn. With few exceptions, these are not pieces to be worn with ruffles and flounces, but are real attention-getters demanding a plain backdrop such as strict architectural clothing or just a T-shirt. And some raise doubts about being wearable at all. A few seem as hazardous as overly long sleeves that dip into the soup or too-long necklaces or other unwieldy creations. In fact, Herman selected a bracelet machined and fabricated from titanium by Stephan Charles Allendorf believing it to be a hairpick. The rather flat cases, which will also be used for packing the show for travel, limit the perspective on how some of the pieces relate to the body.
The show will close March 28 and travel to other cities as one of the Smithsonian's circulating exhibits.