Estate jewelry from the ’60s and ’70s is bold, colorful and experimental, just like the era that created it.
This is not your grandmother’s estate jewelry, but it could be your mother’s. Forget dainty brooches and bracelets of clear precious gemstones, the estate jewelry of the 1960s and ’70s is bold, organic, experimental, truly modern. Responding to the era’s hip fashions, mod interiors and increasingly progressive lifestyles, jewelry designers found themselves rejecting many of the longtime dictates of the grand old jewelry houses, creating pieces in unexpected forms with untraditional materials. “It had to be something that we hadn’t seen before,” says Clive Kandel, a jewelry historian and the director of fine jewelry and silver for 1stdibs.com, the online art and antiques marketplace. “We had the swirls and the japonisme of Art Nouveau. Art Deco was geometric. The 1950s were sprays and floral influences. In the early 1960s young jewelers were coming out of training and focusing on sculpture and texture.”
The ’60s and ’70s saw large gemstones taking center stage; the return of yellow gold with a worked finish; a preference for oversized scale and amorphous shapes; and the bold colors of semi-precious stones such as amethyst, malachite, coral, onyx and turquoise, often combined with clear precious gems such as diamonds or emeralds—a practice that was then unheard-of. When exploring the jewels of these decades, it’s interesting to see how trends played out all across jewelry-making: in artisanal goldsmiths’ workshops; among the haute joaillerie houses as they attempted to keep pace with fashion; and with individual tastemaker jewelers such as David Webb or Andrew Grima, who created iconic looks.
Dealers, collectors and auction specialists agree that estate jewelry from the 1960s and ’70s is highly desirable these days. “This is the kind of jewelry we are seeing come onto the market right now,” says Daphne Lingon, senior vice president of jewelry at Christie’s New York. “It has an international appeal across many age groups.”
“The 1960s and 70s had a lot of exciting design,” says Greg Kwiat, CEO of Fred Leighton in New York. “At the time, they looked avant-garde, but today the bold styling and large gemstones look modern—especially since many of today’s jewelry designers are looking to that era for inspiration.”
“Modernist estate jewelry is very wearable,” says John Bonifas, proprietor of Fourtané jewelers in Carmel, Calif. “It doesn’t look pretentious or ostentatious. It’s not as precious-looking as jewelry from other eras, and the colors make it fun to wear.” Jewelry experts say the wearability of these pieces has something to do with the socioeconomics of the period in which they were made. A strong middle class helped create a steady demand for jewelry, and the movement of women into the workplace sparked a need for pieces that transitioned easily from day to night. “All of a sudden we’re seeing gold being worn after 5 p.m.—those chains and bracelets that looked right with the trousers that women were now wearing,” says Kimberly Klosterman, a Cincinnati-based dealer who specializes in this era.
One of the pioneers of the modernist look in jewels was Andrew Grima, a jeweler in London who opted not to buy the sapphires and rubies that most jewelers coveted but instead looked for moonstones, agates, amethysts and citrine crystals. The unusual shape of the stone would dictate the one-of-a-kind piece, whether or not it was meant to be a pendant or a cuff. Beautifully made and incredibly stylish, Grima creations quickly found their way into the jewelry boxes of Princess Margaret, Jackie Kennedy and much of the international jet-set. Today, the late jeweler’s wife Jo-Jo, and daughter Francesca continue the trade selling original Grima jewels and contemporary pieces that Francesca designs with a younger client in mind. “My father’s most popular pieces are anything that is really unusual, such as pieces made with uncut tourmaline crystal,” says Francesca. “People love the pendants, rings and bangles. The value often has much to do with who owned the piece before.” Grima has gone more public of late, opening a new by-appointment gallery in London and showing at Art Antiques London and the International Art & Antique Show in New York, returning to both in 2013.
Klosterman, who recently lectured on modernist jewelers for the American Society of Jewelry Historians, says it wasn’t just Grima who was an artisan and “jeweler to the jet set” but other goldsmiths whose names might be less familiar and are now being discovered. Many of them participated in annual design competitions sponsored by De Beers, in exhibitions with the British jewelers’ guild the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, or were part of a seminal 1961 museum exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Names like Albert King, a New York goldsmith who nestled gorgeous pearls and gems in entwined wild vines of gold; Gilbert Albert, a Swiss jeweler whose magnificent naturalistic creations might suggest a butterfly’s wing or a branch wrapped with jewels; and Cesare De Vecchi, an Italian jeweler whose work was so irresistible that Cartier and H. Stern would buy his pieces at international fairs and then add their own stamp and sell them from their boutiques. Klosterman has a stunning De Vecchi/H.Stern brooch crafted of amethyst and gold.
Henry Dunay was another jeweler who always let the natural shape of the stone inform the piece, surrounding it with his signature grooved gold. At age 77, the American maker has had a long, award-winning career. M.S. Rau Antiques in New Orleans has a handful of Dunay pieces including 32-carat opal necklace snuggled with a ring of diamonds, as well as a carved 46-carat coral pendant that hangs from a chain of gold and diamonds.
Some of the fun of this category is discovery and Lisa Cliff, a Los Angeles dealer, is another source of interesting pieces by modernist makers whose names are not widely known. “I’ve been collecting for 26 years. As taste started to shift towards mid-century things and modern homes, I really saw interest snowball,” says Cliff. Among the American jewelers Cliff offers are two New Yorkers: Ed Weiner, whose silver pieces were favorites of Martha Graham and Louise Nevelson; and Sam Kramer, whose Surrealist creations might include fossilized insects or hardwoods. Cliff also has a handful of Scandinavian jewelers, who, she says, are popular with their native markets. While Georg Jensen is widely recognized, the enameled pieces of Greta Prytz Kittelsen, a Norwegian artist jeweler, and the bold silver of Swede Rey Urban are less so. One particularly interesting jeweler Cliff sells is Pal Kepenyes, a Hungarian émigré who settled in Mexico and is known for his “brutalist” style of imperfection. (Both Cliff and Klosterman deal privately and sell their jewels on 1stdibs.com.)
At the other end of the spectrum of the modernist estate jewelry world was the activity at the grand jewelry houses. “The styles at Cartier, Bulgari and Van Cleef & Arpels all changed,” says Patricia De Wit, one of the proprietors of Epoque Fine Jewels, a second-generation family jeweler in Brussels. “You started to see lapis and coral, and the gold was worked.” Van Cleef & Chaumet even opened separate boutiques to appeal to the younger buyer. “Van Cleef’s jewelry is the most popular from this period, “ says De Wit. “The pieces are feminine and easy to wear and so chic. The reason all of these makers’ pieces are in vogue today is because of the multiple colors that go with today’s fashions. They are antique pieces a young woman can wear, but still look modern.” Epoque is exhibiting next month at TEFAF in Maastricht (March 15–24), as well as at Masterpiece London (June 27–July 3).
And then, of course, there is David Webb, perhaps the most famous maker of this era, whose pieces are as popular now as they were when they were made and celebrities and socialites snapped them up. “David Webb is highly collectable with 20- to-70-year-olds,” says Lingon. “The workmanship is incredible. The designs are striking. When you’re wearing a piece of David Webb, you know it’s David Webb. It’s easily recognizable.” Webb was said to have worked on his own, not really influenced by other jewelers, but prolifically creating the colorful pieces we know today.
“We sell a ton of David Webb jewelry,” says Tobina Kahn, vice president of House of Kahn Estate Jewelers of Palm Beach and Chicago. “People want a big, bold look today. They also want the biggest bang for their buck. David Webb is that.” One of Webb’s most memorable pieces was offered in the Elizabeth Taylor sale at Christies in December 2011. A magnificent lioness bangle bracelet crafted in 1967 from coral, diamonds, and emeralds, it was estimated at $10,000–20,000 and sold for $218,500. The first monograph on David Webb will be published later this year.
Overall, the market for this jewelry appears to be healthy.
“I really think that as the price of gold has climbed 1960s and ’70s jewelry is becoming more popular,” says Kahn, whose family has been in the jewelry business for 50 years. “People are buying a few pieces at a time; they are stockpiling these pieces. The small pieces are not moving, but the large ones are.”
“There are investors who are advised that this is the thing to invest in right now,” says Francesca Grima. “Personally, I think that is quite sad. That is not why you buy jewelry.” Christie’s notes that they’ve seen heated competition for Bulgari pieces from the 1970s that “would have been challenging to sell a few years ago,” says Lingon. And Devlin Dolan, vice president of jewelry sales for M.S. Rau, says there’s been an increased interest in Buccellati’s four-inch brushed gold cuffs from the 1970s that are studded with stones.
Penny Boylan, the archivist of Hancocks jewelers in London, notes that consistently, the most desirable pieces are those that “are signed, distinctive and unusual or a particularly good example of a style or maker. People want pieces that have the promise of being the antique of the future.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Jet-Set Gems”