This week, Macklowe Gallery opened its new flagship on the corner of East 57th Street and Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. For nearly 50 years, Macklowe has offered a broad collection of art-nouveau jewelry and furniture, building a strong reputation among collectors and design buffs the world over.
After several decades on Madison Avenue, the gallery’s expansive new two-level, 6,250-square-foot location has debuted in an energetic part of Midtown, near the Philips and Heritage auction houses. “This area is becoming an art and antiques nexus, which makes me very excited,” says Ben Macklowe, who took over the role of gallery president from his parents (and founders), Barbara and Lloyd Macklowe, in 2012. Macklowe notes that there was no love lost over the move. “I’m thrilled. I was literally hopscotching out the door.”
As the gallery celebrates its new home, Ben Macklowe shared crucial collecting tips, two ways to spot a great piece of art-nouveau jewelry, what women are wearing right now, and more.
What kind of jewelry is garnering more interest with collectors at the moment?
There’s jewelry for collecting, and then there’s jewelry for wearing. Art-nouveau jewelry has always been jewelry for collecting. It was made as an artistic expression of humanity rather than as a projection of wealth, even though the things were not inexpensive. [The designs] were made for people who were choosing to buy jewelry that could just as easily have been a sculpture or a painting. Art-nouveau jewelry has always been popular because there are people who collect it the way other people collect paintings or sculpture.
And in terms of “jewelry for wearing”?
In terms of jewelry for wearing, we’re finding that women live a more casual lifestyle now. Big, bold, gold jewelry has been very successful for us. Whether it’s a 1940s-retro tank bracelet or a series of 1970s chains that might have color, colorful stones, but, as soon as it starts to get too diamond-y and too gem-y, then it’s no longer something a woman feels she can wear anytime.
My clients want casual, easy-to-wear jewelry that nobody else has. They don’t want to see their girlfriend wearing the same jewelry that they have, which is why we’ve been so successful over the years, because we don’t carry what everybody else has.
What pieces of jewelry are clients buying right now? Rings? Earrings?
We still have a lot of women buying pins to put on their suits or their outerwear jackets because it’s cold here in New York. I find the things that we sell the most of now are bracelets and earrings. A woman can wear a strong bracelet day-into-evening very easily. And I have found that women can’t have enough earrings.
Is that a big change in taste?
When my mother and father started [Macklowe Gallery] 50 years ago, women couldn’t have enough rings. We had clients who literally would wear three or four stacked on each finger because that was in style. Now, I find that I’ll have a client who will come in three or four times over the course of a year to buy earrings. That’s definitely for us a different trend from what it was a number of years ago.
Any tips for spotting a great art-nouveau design?
The most coveted pieces of art-nouveau jewelry are going to be ones that have a sculptural and painterly effect. The gold work should be three-dimensional, and the painterly effects are usually achieved using enamel and semi-precious gemstones like freshwater pearls and moonstones and opal.
There’s two ways of judging art-nouveau jewelry: One, when you hold it in your hand, how good does it look as a sculpture? Would you think that, if it was on a larger scale, it was a beautiful sculpture?
Two, how well does it wear on the body? Is it flattering to the owner? Of course, this is a good rule to apply to all jewelry, but when you get to more artistic jewelry, this is often a deficiency. The design has to skirt that fine line of sculptural quality that is still wearable.
What piece of jewelry are you excited for people to see in this new space?
An art-nouveau pendant of a bat woman. There’s a certain amount of aesthetic and historical education that you need to truly appreciate the piece—that’s what makes it kind of fun. [At that time], women’s roles in society were changing, and so a lot of the art-nouveau jewelry and sculpture creates a transmogrification of women. You’ll see a woman represented as a dragonfly or a butterfly or, in this case, as a bat.
It has to do with how male jewelers and sculptors were mediating the changing role of women in society. She’s big. It’s not like an itsy bitsy little piece with tiny little wings and a little pixie smile. She’s tough.
We haven’t figured out who made this piece, but they were clearly celebrating a powerful woman rather than being threatened by her.
Is there a general rule you share with clients when they’re looking at collectable jewelry?
Buy with your eyes and not with your ears. Nothing makes me more unhappy than when somebody buys something because somebody has told them to or they think they’re supposed to. You should never be buying because your eyes are saying to you, “Eh,” but somebody is saying to you, “This is an important artist.” The ultimate utility of jewelry is the way it makes you feel. If you’re buying with your eyes, you’re experiencing its beauty, and it’s touching you in a personal way.