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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Jewelry Art

Elizabeth Taylor's collection of jewelry designs recently went for $156,756,576.
Sometimes they're referred to as "applied arts." Included are various areas of artistic expertise such as quilting, lapidary, fashion design, interior design, architecture, and at least a dozen more. It's not a term I'm fond of. It's derogatory. It implies a lower tier of creative endeavor simply because the work is in some way practical (as if paintings aren't sometimes used to cover up cracks in the wall). To me, any designer may rise to the level of "fine" art (that art presumably having no practical purpose), just as any painter or sculptor can sink to the level of imitative hack. Over the last one-thousand plus postings here I've dealt with several design disciplines. Today it's the art of making gems and precious metals look presentable--jewelry design.

Liz as Cleopatra. The outfit is
said to have weighed more than
seventy-five pounds.
No, the late actress Elizabeth Taylor (top) was not a jewelry designer, though she could have been. The CEO of her House of Taylor jewelry line, Peter Sedghi, admitted she knew more about jewelry than he did. It's likely no one in history epitomized fine jewelry design more than the beautiful recipient of so much of it from her seven husbands, who knew what she liked (particularly Mike Todd and Richard Burton). It's quite appropriate that Liz should have become such a jewelry icon inasmuch as she played the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra in the 1963 MGM movie likely laden with more gold and jewelry than any other film in history (left). Though, of course, it was all costume jewelry, that didn't make the designs themselves any less striking. Irene Sharaff and Renie Conley did their research into ancient Egyptian garb and jewelry, but that didn't stand in their way in bedecking their star with over-the-top sparkling stuff the real Cleopatra would have died for. In return, they each got a sparkling gold statue for their mantels.

Phoenician bracelet, 10th century BC
--hammered gold. (Sorry, no picture
of Liz wearing it.)
Though it's difficult to place archaeological jewelry precisely, little seems to have survived from before the 13th and 12th centuries BC. Most of it is 24-carat gold and virtually none of it involved gemstones. The Phoenicians were adept (right), and may have passed the art to the Egyptians who, long before Cleopatra donned her first set of gold earrings, turned out such jewelry masterpieces as Tutankhamun's funeral mask from around 1323 BC (bottom). Recent archaeological finds in Israel indicate the Jews knew how to turn out a few gold trinkets as well.
Cleopatra the numismatist

It would seem that the art of jewelry design proceeded through history parallel with that of coinage, a fact not lost on MGM's Sharaff in depicting her Cleopatra wearing a necklace made entirely of gold coins (left) bearing the likeness of Julius Caesar, hoping to make Mark Anthony (Richard Burton) jealous. When pursuing the history of jewelry design, very often the major emphasis often strays to the stars of the show, the gems. Even Liz's $150-million collection was more about the stones than what held them all together. However that's like saying that the movie stars are more important than the movies in which they display their talents. That's where the art of the jewelry designer becomes paramount (pun intended). The designer writes the script. Like a scriptwriter, the jewelry designer needs a broad range of knowledge--metallurgy, art, history, gemology--and often possesses the technical skills to make up his or her designs into models for others to reproduce or for the making of molds used in casting precious metals.
The Bulgari emerald ensemble,
a gift in 1962 from Burton.
Jewelry design has come a long way since the Egyptians used it to dress up their mummies. Silver became popular as a less expensive substitute for gold (though it's said by some to be more difficult to work with). During the Renaissance, the goldsmith's workshop was often the doorway through which young would-be artist first apprenticed. Alchemy, if nothing else, taught jewelers how to gold plate. From Faberge to Tiffany, to Harry Winston, the jewelry artists of the past are nearly as well-known as painters, sculptors, and other "fine" artists. Today, there are so many outstanding artists turning out so much outstanding art that few jewelry designers, as well as painters, are in any danger of becoming household names. Thus we need legendary jewelry experts such as Elizabeth Taylor to serve as figureheads for this ancient art form in guaranteeing it a place of equal importance to that art which serves no practical purpose.
King Tut's taste in jewelry ran toward enameled gold and semi-precious stones.

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