Does jewelry belong to the realm of art?
The art world’s traditional gatekeepers have long said no, citing the intrinsic value of materials such as gold and diamonds as reasons to consider jewelry a subset of design or craft, but not art. (The ingrained notion of the artist as garret-dweller, someone who has struggled to acquire even inexpensive materials such as canvas or clay, persists to this day.)
But over the past year, the topic has inspired fresh debate among jewelry’s leading tastemakers, chief among them Melanie C. Grant, an editor, stylist and author, whose book, Coveted: Art and Innovation in High Jewelry, published by Phaidon last October, makes the case that contemporary high jewelry deserves the art label.
“I’m trying to disassemble the barriers between fine art and jewelry,” Grant tells Robb Report.
On November 18, Grant will get one step closer to her goal. That’s when she and her collaborator, the London-based art jewelry gallerist Elisabetta Cipriani, plan to unveil “Force of Nature,” a selling exhibition at Cipriani’s eponymous gallery in Mayfair featuring nearly 40 bejeweled works of art that express a connection to nature and chart the evolution of humankind’s relationship with the outside world.
The exhibition, which runs through November 27 and is by appointment only, is supported by Serpentine Galleries, a contemporary art mecca in London’s Kensington Gardens that’s invited its patrons to the opening night festivities.
Jewelers have paid homage to nature since at least the mid-19th century, when the naturalism movement inspired makers to create jewels that represented nature in more realistic terms than the classical representations of previous generations. Then came the stylized version of nature as depicted by the turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau movement. In the decades since, jewelers have continuously turned to nature as a limitless source of inspiration.
In the midst of the pandemic, however, natural themes took on new resonance. “We were knocked down for about nine months here in London with Covid,” says Grant. “I went for a walk every day with my mother who lives around the corner—we would have gone mad without that. Nature and naturalism are the biggest influence jewelry has. Let’s talk about how it saved us at our lowest point.”
“Force of Nature” collects the work of 18 contemporary artists from different backgrounds and in different stages of their careers, including Ai Weiwei, Bibi van der Velden, Fabio Salini, Frank Stella, Giorgio Vigna, Grima, Jacqueline Rabun, James de Givenchy, John Moore, Joy BC, Liv Luttrell, Lydia Courteille, Melanie Eddy, Melanie Grant, Satta Matturi, Ute Decker and Wallace Chan.
The list includes artists who’ve come up through the jewelry industry (Wallace Chan, for example, who created a spectacular butterfly brooch expressly for the exhibition), as well as three visual artists—Ai Weiwei, Giorgio Vigna and Giuseppe Penone—for whom jewelry is a fairly new medium.
A Foglia (Leaf) necklace by Giuseppe Penone is part of a sold-out edition of 10 pieces the artist created in 2011 (one of the necklaces now belongs to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris). The piece in the exhibition is from Cipriani’s personal collection and is available for purchase for the first time.
Ai Weiwei’s 24-karat gold W and M rings reflect the Chinese contemporary artist’s concerns about the human condition, and the awareness of what it means to be trapped, bound and deprived of the freedom to travel and to determine one’s own existence. “Inspired by ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and the processing of gold in ancient Greece, the rings continue the artist’s research on human migration,” according to the exhibition’s press material.
Grant herself contributed a cuff bracelet that combines bronze, steel, sapphires and diamonds in a bold, striking design highlighted by a high-polish circle of bronze that creates a central, mirror-like effect. Available in a series of eight, the cuff is called “Self.”
“It’s about self-reflection, having that time in lockdown of doing nothing,” Grant says. “And at the beginning of it feeling really scared to be quiet, and then looking at who you were, and deciding to change things. It’s about that moment when you’re forced to look in the mirror and ask if you even want what you’re doing.”