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Lapidary Journal "Art and Jewelry Bloom" by Cathleen McCarthy, August 2004

Modern jewelry designers set up for a new, floral themed show at the home of one of the country's leading permanent jewelry collections. Jesters, jugglers, knights in armor, and Medieval ladies-in-waiting wander through the black-tie crowd gathered in the Walters Art Museum lobby, nibbling on canapés and chatting over glasses of chardonnay. They're here for the $150-a-head April gala to celebrate the museum's 15th annual Art Blooms exhibit. Some 30 floral arrangements have been set up in the museum's Medieval galleries, created by local garden clubs who each chose a piece in the collection as inspiration. This year to spice things up- and raise some money- an adjunct exhibit has been added and the women in their designer gowns soon head for the elevators, trailed by their tuxedoed partners. Word is out: there's jewelry for sale upstairs. Sixteen designers are set up in the backrooms of the Medieval galleries, a replica of a wealthy 16th century knight's reception hall. (Tonight's gala has been appropriately titled Jewels of the Knight.) At the entrance to the jewelry fair, a quartet plays Medieval music on period instruments.

 

What looked like a modest craft show a few hours earlier has transformed into a red-carpet shopping parade. Women step over each other's trains and peer around feathered hats to lean into the glittering cases. I recognize the museum's director of conservation, Terry Drayman-Weisser, from her lecture this morning on seemingly Renaissance jewelry in various museums (Walters included) that has turned out to be 19th century fakes. Dressed to the nines, she peers intently at three pairs of earrings laid out on a velvet pillow at Claire Bersani's booth.

One by one, she tries them on, holding up a mirror to see how they fare beneath her mane of silvery curls. Standing beside her is a tuxedoed man whom I assume, by the wrinkled brow and clasped hands, is her husband. Bersani's jewelry is not cheap. She uses fine colored stones, mainly cabochons, set in high-karat gold she fabricates herself, including labor-intensive granulation. It's easy to see why it would appeal to an aficionado of antique jewelry. Bersani and her husband, Mahmoud Muhawish, as well as Whitney Abrams and Barbara Heinrich, were obviously chosen to reflect the treasures in the rooms beyond.


All made their reputations updating ancient classics using time-honored fabrication techniques. Others here- Jaclyn Davidson and Emma Villedrouin, for example- were chosen more for their botanical look, to reflect the "blooms" part of the event. Still others seem to be here to inspire the impulse purchase: lots of lavishly strung freshwater pearls and red coral at bargain prices. But even these have a direct tie to the galleries beyond. As Griffith Mann, the museum's curator of medieval art, said in the lecture this morning, red coral was seen as a powerful amulet in the Middle Ages, believed to be sticks that turned to red stone on contact with the head of Medusa (after she was killed and buried), then taken to the sea by nymphs. Picking the Jewelers. All the jewelers were personally selected by Savilla Rohde who, as chair of the jewelry fair, cruises through the crowd, alighting at various booths. She wears a splashy coral neck piece by one of the vendors, ViVi Designs. Earlier in the day she had on a choker of marcasite beads with a carved red coral rose and before that, a chain of clear quartz disks from Paula Rome that looked like acrylic. "I need to give everyone equal time, " she tells me, sorting through necklaces at another booth. She's only half-joking. Rohde has her hands full but is clearly enjoying herself.

Tall, slender, and sunburned from playing tennis, she strikes me as someone who doesn't believe in all work and no play. " Have you bought anything?" she keeps asking. "I have my eye on something but I just haven't had time." Rohde started hunting down designers in September. All paid for their booths upfront. (When the American Craft Museum in Manhattan held a craft show a few years ago, they offered free booths but demanded 50 percent of sales, then watched vendors closely, creating what some describe as an "atmosphere of mistrust.") She found the jewelers mainly by asking friends whose taste she admired. "I wanted a very broad price range- from $50 to the thousands- and no duplications. And I wanted every one to be of the same caliber as the jewelry collection at the Walters." Given the world-class jewelry in the museum's collection, this seems an almost absurd ambition. In a country where jewelry generally plays am inor role in museums, the Walters is a notable exception.

During his extensive world travels, Henry Walters (1848-1931) assembled an important jewelry collection ranging from ancient Greek and Roman treasures to some of the most stunning Art Nouveau ornaments, then brand-new and cutting edge. His foresight in this and many other areas of art has to be appreciated first hand. More than 90 percent of the roughly 30,000 objects in the museum were selected and purchased by the Walters family (mainly Henry), who opened their collection to the public in 1874 for a 50-cent admission price. I'm disappointed to hear the gallery with the Lalique jewelry, which I glimpsed through the crowds at the traveling The Jewels of Lalique exhibit in 1998, is closed for renovation.

Just just beyond these rooms are the gem-studded ornaments of Medieval Europe, the collection behind the weekend's theme. "The Medieval era was a language of jewelry," Barbara Simmons explains, after Rohde introduces her co-hair, also blond but shorter and more erudite. Having served as a docent at the museum for a decade, Simmons knows the jewelry intimately. "In the Middle Ages, jewelry was intrinsic to people's lives. It represented the booty from other kingdoms.

In the midst of this dark, dingy world, a great stone told of travel and excitement." Artistic Ambience. When Simmons offers a tour, Barbara Heinrich eagerly excuses herself from her booth and joins us. Along with the gem-ladden booty, we examine the floral arrangements created by 30 or so regional garden clubs. I don't know about Heinrich, but I was expecting something dowdier. Baltimore is where my grandmother and great aunts all lived- big gardeners, all. I guess I was expecting Aunt Irma's bouquets, but these are contemporary organic sculptures, sophisticated interpretations of form and color. One group of twisted pussy willows in imitation of the curved head of a 13th century carved ivory crosier (a bishop's staff). Another arrangement seems to sprout blood red carnations. Heinrich stops to examine this. "Foam!" she announces triumphantly. "They put foam inside to hold up the flowers. I'm stealing this idea. "Next time, you should ask the designers to do the same thing, " Heinrich urges Simmons. "It would be so much fun to create something like this in jewelry and it would take the whole show to another level." Simmons promises to pass her idea onto the Women's Committee. Apparently, Whitney Abrams had already thought of it, even offered to produce something on short notice.

Rhode faxed her 20 pages of descriptions of the objects the garden clubs were working with, but no visuals. Nothing more was said. Heinrich has to leave a day early to get ready for the Smithsonian Craft Show (another museum fund raiser neither exclusive to jewelry nor held in the main museum).

"The women who have come through here are educated and well-traveled, people who appreciate quality, " Barbara Heinrich reports. "I am excited that they opened up the Walters to contemporary jewelry designers. They have such a fabulous collection- one of the five premiere museums in the country. Just being here is an honor." Virginie Corm, who designs for Pierre Balmain's Paris fashion shows, agreed: "You feel elevated with al the art surrounding you." Unfortunately for the Walters and the designers, the Art Blooms show came on the very first warm spring weekends of a long winter. The opening night party, aimed at the young patrons, was poorly attended. "That crowd usually shows up 300 to 350 people strong, and they would have spent money, " Rohde says. "But it was the first beautiful day of the season and if I was young, I doubt I would have gone to the Walters either. I would have been at the inner Harbor enjoying the glorious weather." "They'll come," Simmons says confidently. "Women love jewelry. All they need is an hour to do serious damage." Saturday afternoon, Rohde gives me her prediction: "They will come tonight and return tomorrow.

Some will not buy in front of their friends but in the weeks that follow, they may decide to contact the jewelers directly." She is dead on. Shoppers trickle in all day Saturday. Despite the lovely weather, do their serious perusing during the gala, then return in droves on Sunday when the museum is open free to the public and family-style events are offered. Three vendors report in the following week that attendees ordered from them after the show. Despite leaving early, Barbara Heinrich sold several pieces from home on Sunday, the fair's final day. Paula Rome had what Rohde called "a banner show." Like most of the designers there, Rome is a long-time Baltimore resident. Though her foray into jewelry making is fairly recent, she is well known around Baltimore after a long career with local museum public relations. “I was extremely pleased with the show,” she says. “Aside from the fact that I did very well and acquired many new customers, the show in itself was of remarkably high quality for a first-time effort. I don’t know too much about the marketing of the show but, for whatever reason, people came prepared to buy.” Tom Herman is not surprised. A veteran of the craft-show circuit who does the prestigious juried shows like Baltimore ACC and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, Herman had to pass on the Walters invitation due to previous commitment but checked in with Heinrich and Abrams afterward. Although the Philadelphia show is far more established, attracting 195 high-end craftspeople, Herman says the Walters show is a far more alluring offer.

“There’s a huge difference in that the Walters show is exclusively jewelry and it’s inside the museum. The Philadelphia show is held at the convention center. Even though it benefits the art museum, the people who actually come are quite a different lot than the people who show up at a museum gala, many of whom would not go to a craft show no matter what it benefits. From a designers’ point of view, being inside a museum feels completely different. Inside the Walters’ Medieval galleries, the ceilings are as tall as they are wide and the walls are covered in damascene silk. It’s a gorgeous space with a presence you can’t compare to any convention center.” The Art Blooms exhibit also produced a catalog sent directly to the museum patrons who attended the gala. “Add magazine promotion, a diamond raffle and the family event on Sunday- you can’t get a better-targeted market than that, “ Herman says. Setting a Trend? Designers are buzzing about the Walters jewelry fair, Herman adds, and hoping it sets a trend other Art Blooms exhibits might follow. “It’s a great opportunity for jewelry artists to get recognition in a museum and for the patrons to see a broader range of the jewelry being designed today. The Walters has an incredible jewelry collection and a show like this helps show that off.” Like Abrams and Heinrich, he has suggested the idea of a jewelry-design version of Art Blooms. A few years ago, he recalls, the Boston Museum of Art proposed that jewelers design a companion piece to something in their silver collection. “A great idea but it never happened,” Herman says. “I think should make jewelry to go with the same pieces set aside for Art Blooms. We’re going to be making jewelry anyway.” He suggests that the museums adopt a jury system. Perhaps made of board members, ask for slides from designers and choose a highly selective, exclusive group that would truly reflect the museum’s own collection. “Some 35 to 40 museums are doing this Art Blooms thing around the country.

If more of them began doing an adjunct jewelry fair., it could be great for the museums and the designers.” Jewelry doesn’t get enough respect in this country, he complains. “Look at the Art of Gold Show organized by the Society of American Goldsmiths. When they conceived of it, they were picturing the Victoria & Albert and the Renwick Gallery. Instead it’s at the Charlotte Mint and a tiny museum in Anchorage, Richmond and Kansas. This is an incredible show of contemporary working jewelers in the United States. Why isn’t it coming to major museum? American jewelry buyers are locked into a very small parameter. They want to find something different and when they do it’s a three stone ring by Harry Winston- how original. They just need to be exposed.” Savilla Rohde may have no idea what she’s gotten herself into.


Cathleen McCarthy is a journalist based in Philadelphia who writes about jewelry, art and travel for such publications as Art & Antiques, Elle Décor, and The Washington Post. She has been a regular contributor to Lapidary Journal since 1992.