FGI Frontliners: “Jewelry, Rich &, Rare

Photo: Laurel Marcus

Last night I attended the FGI Frontliner event  “Jewelry, Rich & Rare: International Museum Exhibits Offer Collectors and Connoisseurs a Fresh Look at Precious, Vintage Pieces” at Bonhams Auction House (580 Madison Avenue). With a name like that I had no idea what to expect nor it seemed did anyone else around me but since three of the most iconic jewelry houses of our time were referenced in the press release and I was quite familiar with two of the three (see past article about Christies), my interest was piqued. As we sipped champagne at the Preciosa underwritten event, we speculated amongst ourselves. (Yes, it was a thirsty, friendly, albeit jewelry hungry, predominately female crowd).

Left to right: Margaret Hayes; Sarah Coffin; Mark Emanuel; 
Jane Adlin & Susan Abeles
(Photo: Courtesy FGI)

Since there was a moderator (Susan Abeles, VP, Bonhams Jewelry US Director) as well as some esteemed panelists (Jane Adlin, curator, Jewels by JAR, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sarah Coffin, Curator, Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels, at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and Mark Emanuel (Co-owner of David Webb) it would obviously be a discussion of some sort. Would they show actual jewelry? While no actual jewelry was on display, there was a slide show running in the
reception area. Audience members who were there to see heavy metal and sparklers would have to content themselves with the few audience members (myself and Mark Emanuel’s girlfriend Robin Katz among them) to satisfy their jewelry craving for the evening. For the record, I trotted out a few of my amazing recently inherited David Webb pieces and barely escaped unscathed as several women practically ripped the vintage necklace off of my neck.

Laurel wearing her David Webb pieces

According to FGI literature the name “Frontliners” describes” industry leaders discussing topics that move the industry forward in an intimate, interactive panel setting.” Ms. Abeles had a number of questions which the panelists took turns answering and applying specific knowledge culled from their varied experiences either with the curation process of the above mentioned exhibits or by being an owner of a jewelry brand. First off, the panelists were asked about where the inspiration for an exhibit comes from. Ms. Adlin remarked that “Every show starts with an idea and the idea can come from walking down Madison Avenue. Something catches my eye and I take it to the next level.” In terms of the JAR (renowned jewelry designer Joel A. Rosenthal) exhibit (November 20, 2013-March 9, 2014) a friend of Mr. Rosenthal’s approached curator-in-charge of The Costume Institute Harold Koda who referred him to Adlin. Upon receiving the opportunity to display these “elusive and hard to find gems” Adlin admits “we just said yes and then had to backtrack and figure out if we could do it or not.” Sarah Coffin spoke of her experience with the 2011 VCA show (“they were very cooperative in allowing me access to their archives and also their drawings”) but the exhibit and companion book had to be cobbled together in a little over a year due to the Museum’s current renovation (it’s scheduled for a grand re-opening this December).

Audience at event

Emanuel was asked if he had witnessed a surge in sales after Webb jewelry was featured in a museum exhibit. An interesting discussion of how museums influence commerce ensued: “a buzz follows museum shows” is how he put it. After an exhibit you could see a considerable “bump” but added that speaking from his position as an owner for approximately three years (since 2010 when a partnership to purchase the company was formed) Webb jewelry experiences “a great deal of commerce before, during and after the show.” He spoke of a 1962 Herald Tribune article in which the designer wrote “why not hang gems in a museum” and it became a “Cri de coeur” lifting the stigma related to a jewelry exhibition. Jewels started to become known as another form of the decorative arts rather than being thought of as just an embellishment. Consequently there have been more jewelry exhibitions in the last 10 years than ever before which has created a “snowballing effect.” “The MFA in Boston is one of the few museums to have a dedicated curator for jewelry,” he added and mentioned that Europe now has the most jewelry curators due to the more intense focus on royal jewels. He mentioned the Munich Museum, Dresden Museum and British Museum as having the most jewels handed down by royalty.

Panel discussion

Another question was asked about whether a museum targets a specific customer when considering a particular exhibit. Adlin remarked that there is “Not a target demographic but will it draw people in?” Then perhaps defending herself against some of the particularly scathing press reviews of the exhibit she added, “I knew the JAR show would not be critically acclaimed but would be a success.” She recounted how she has to do a whole thesis on why she’s doing a show which goes to committee three times. “I want to open up the eyes of the general public from the hip hop types to the Exchequer of Britain that I’m taking on private tours.” Emanuel also came to her defense, “The exhibit was extraordinary in every sense. We’d rather have Beethoven’s own works than interpretations, ” he said alluding to the criticism that the exhibit was totally driven by Mr. Rosenthal himself. “An opportunity for the museum to have an artist like JAR to supervise and make an imprint on his own exhibit is just extraordinary and unique.”

How does the advent of financial downturn and our more casual lifestyle affect the jewelry business? Emanuel recalled the early ’90s when David Dinkins was mayor and the city was in trouble. He mentioned that the company tried to “reduce in scale” but soon gave up on that idea because it “ran against his nature.” David Webb himself died in 1975 at only 50 years old of pancreatic cancer so obviously Emanuel was referring to the company not the individual. He adds that the company “figured out adaptations” while “staying true to one’s DNA. If it is beautiful and extraordinary work, people will buy it.” Emanuel also spoke of the sociological effect of jewelry as an “ode to women” since women wear it as they reach their peak economically. “Women and their daughters are the ones who ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ at the exhibits and they are a force to be reckoned with,” he adds.

When an audience member asked a question about who lends jewelry to various exhibits, Coffin mentioned that she had three male lenders who collected jewelry that their wives either seldom or never wore. She spoke of women who collect it for themselves including Elizabeth Taylor, although some of her jewels were gifts from Richard Burton, and the Duchess of Windsor; both women had strong viewpoints when it came to their jewelry. The subject of the IRS also reared its ugly head as Coffin mentioned that jewelry on loan will often not carry the name of the lender but will say courtesy of a “private collector.” Some are so concerned about Uncle Sam that they do not allow their names to appear even in the museum’s database and are referred to with a number instead; quite Orwellian.

As for what’s next in museum exhibits Adlin spoke of the Met’s 17 different curatorial departments and “how they want to grow their jewelry department or not is up to them.” She mentioned that she’s “very excited” for an upcoming Met exhibit encompassing a look at the history of jewelry including five curators. Coffin mentioned that when Cooper Hewitt reopens they will have jewelry mixed in with other design objects. Emanuel spoke of a recent exhibit at the Norton Museum in Palm Beach “a historic place for the brand” adding that “David Webb is a small organization and it took quite a bit out of our assets so we’re taking a breather” however he did promise a show in New York.

Lastly, they spoke of jewelry as an art form as compared to traditional art on canvas. Emanuel said that an art sale could bring in as much as a half a billion dollars whereas a jewelry sale would top out at about $60 million. “People try to estimate the intrinsic value of jewelry (they like to figure out how much the stone is worth and the gold etc.) whereas there is no restriction on canvas. Clearly design adds to the value and the substance of the whole.”

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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