This 18 karat yellow gold, diamond and moonstone pendant is a stunning example of Modernist jewelry. The combination of textured metal with an interesting, but low value moonstone provides maximum visual impact and is typical of Modernist work. This pendant was made in Europe, probably in the 1960s or 1970s, but possibly as late as the 1980s.
It can be argued rather convincingly that contemporary art as a movement has failed miserably. Whether it takes the form of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism or Post Minimalism, contemporary art is often unattractive, if not downright ugly. These aesthetic shortcomings, combined with the movement's intellectual inaccessibility, make contemporary art both an elitist's dream and a practical failure.
However, in one of those little ironies of life, the principles of contemporary art which fail so miserably when applied to large works like paintings and sculptures succeed rather brilliantly when applied to miniature works like jewelry. Modernist jewelry is one of the very few places that the ideas of contemporary art found fertile ground, blooming into an effusion of exquisite, unrivaled beauty.
Modernist jewelry stands alone as an island of elegance in a sea of humdrum contemporary art. To say it embodies many of our modern concepts of beauty, while true, doesn't really do Modernist jewelry justice. Glittering precious metals gracefully fuse with countless different varieties of bewitching gemstones into a glittering mass of avant-garde style.
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One piece of Modernist jewelry may have sensuously organic forms seamlessly melt into heavily textured yellow gold while another hand-wrought specimen may have gracefully sweeping lines simultaneously vie with outrageously angular spikes for visual dominance. Modernist jewelry happily abandons all convention; the results are often breathtaking.
The Modernist movement in jewelry had its origins in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. At that time, Victorian, Art Nouveau and Art Deco had all been popular jewelry styles within the past 50 years. However, some cutting-edge artists found these established traditions unreasonably constricting. In the end, they repudiated Victorian style as being needlessly ornamental, Art Nouveau as too rigidly naturalistic and Art Deco as excessively uncompromising and austere.
Instead, Modernist jewelers envisioned themselves as peers to the great painters and sculptors of the age like Salvador Dali, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, among others. As a result, the radically new form of jewelry known as Modernism was born.
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Throwing convention to the wind, bold founding artists Sam Kramer and Art Smith fearlessly experimented with the new, unbounded Modernist ethos in their Greenwich Village studios. Andrew Grima, another famous Modernist jeweler, created such alluring, innovative work that he was appointed Crown Jeweller to the British Royal Family in 1970.
Once Modernism gained mainstream popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, even illustrious luxury houses like Tiffany, Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron produced compelling, high quality Modernist pieces. With its broad appeal, bold look and eclectic styling, Modernist jewelry is still widely hand crafted by fine artists all over the world today.
The Modernist style is incredibly broad and flexible, but is generally characterized by a dizzying variety of textures, shapes and colors. One piece may show nothing but sharp angles and straight lines while another may be exclusively composed of rounded, highly organic shapes. In any case, abstraction and asymmetry are the norm for Modernist jewelry, with the interest flowing from the juxtaposition of disparate forms, colors and finishes.
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Little thought is given to the intrinsic value of items incorporated into a design. Instead, elements are chosen based on the visual effect they will have within the overall composition of the piece. It is not unusual to find a piece of Modernist jewelry with a simple amber cabochon next to fine diamonds or with humble mother of pearl nestled within impressively heavy 18 karat gold. In fact, even nontraditional materials like wood and fabric are occasionally incorporated into these unique works of art.
Modernist jewelry often displays chunky, heavy forms with large expanses of gold or silver. The use of mixed metals is also a hallmark of Modernism, with platinum, gold, silver and copper freely and commonly intermingled. Obscure or unusual gemstones are frequently used in the pursuit of experimental, avant-garde color combinations. Unconventionally shaped gemstones like trillion, cabochon or custom cut stones are sometimes found in Modernist pieces. Occasionally stones are even carved or left as rough crystals for greater effect.
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One offshoot of Modernism is known as Brutalism. The term Brutalism originally applied to a type of roughly finished, monolithic architecture originating in the mid 20th century, but has since been applied to jewelry as well. This radical style of jewelry is typified by massive, jagged and highly abstract designs that are at once intriguing and perhaps slightly disquieting. In a sense Brutalism is the more uncompromising, extreme little brother of Modernism.
When buying Modernist or Brutalist jewelry, the single most important element is the overall stylistic impact of the piece. A well designed example will captivate and dazzle the observer with compellingly tactile surfaces, explosions of contrasting colors and provocative shapes. The hallmark of Modernism is uniqueness; most exceptional pieces of Modernist jewelry are one-of-a-kind creations. Look for pieces that feel solid, substantial and heavy. Signed pieces will always command a premium over similar but unsigned examples.
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As mentioned before, Modernist and Brutalist jewelry commonly uses a wide range of materials, including some that do not possess much intrinsic value. However, this doesn't mean that poor quality or shoddy materials are acceptable. To the contrary, quality is still vitally important.
For example, if wood is incorporated into the design it should be an immaculately finished, exotic hardwood like ebony, rosewood or walnut. If gold is used, it should be 14 karat (58.3%) gold or better. Likewise, any precious or semi-precious stones employed should be considered good quality within their respective variety. And while not strictly necessary, only considering examples with at least one intrinsically valuable element - either precious metals or gems - will help ensure good investment returns.
Modernism as a stylistic movement is a bit of a Rorschach test. On the one hand, this means that a wide variety of interesting and varied looks fall within its boundaries. However, it also means that some pieces of jewelry are peddled as Modernist when they don't actually conform to any of the style's characteristics.
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Some mass produced jewelry from the 1960s through the present has attempted to imitate the Modernist look. But these cheap pieces lack any notable presence and only vaguely resemble true Modernist work. Avoiding these flimsy and mundane pseudo-Modernist specimens is paramount in order to achieve acceptable future investment performance. In any case, jewelry that is boring, clumsy or poorly executed should be rejected outright, regardless of whether it was mass produced or not.
Modernist jewelry is a garden of earthly delights for the savvy investor. Because it is not as well known as some of the other, older jewelry movements like Art Deco or Edwardian, prices are often still surprisingly affordable. This effect is enhanced by the fact that some materials used in the movement have modest intrinsic value. Simple, but still desirable investment grade examples of Modernist jewelry start at around $400 each. However, truly breathtaking specimens that incorporate large, expensive gemstones or extensive amounts of heavy, high karat gold can easily exceed several thousand dollars. Pieces by well known artists are also, predictably, rather expensive.
For decades Modernist artists have striven to create a style of jewelry that is both cutting edge and completely new. Luckily for both investors and collectors alike, they not only succeeded, but did so magnificently.