Visual Culture

From Frank Stella to Louise Bourgeois, 9 Artists Who Designed Stunning Jewelry

Sarah Bochicchio
Feb 5, 2018 8:55PM

Is jewelry art? These wearable works bridge the museum gallery and the runway, the art collector and the fashion plate. Some are one-off collaborations with legendary goldsmiths, while others reveal a lifelong dedication to the form—but all of these artist-designed baubles glitter with creativity (and, more often than not, gold). From Niki de Saint Phalle’s miniature monuments to Frank Stella’s nebulous neckpieces, here are 10 artists who created show-stopping jewelry.

May Ray, Optic-Topic. Courtesy of GianCarlo Montebello.

Before the dawn of windshields, Man Ray sought out durable lenses to wear while driving. (Diane Venet, a jewelry collector who guest curated a 2011 show at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, says he was “always breaking his glasses and he loved to drive fast.”) Man Ray and his collaborator, the Italian goldsmith GianCarlo Montebello, spent months in the early 1970s perfecting a design: the Optic-Topic gold mask, which features a dense network of pinholes where one would expect to find cutouts for eyes. Although a few small dots wouldn’t seem to do the trick, Venet, who owns the gold mask, has revealed, “You see through them as well as with glasses.”

Another GEM Montebello collaboration, Pendants Pending (1970) are more fondly remembered as “the lampshade earrings” because they allude to Man Ray’s 1919 spiral lampshade. Forever immortalized by French actress Catherine Deneuve, the artist designed them to be placed over the ears, so as not to weigh down the wearer’s lobes with five-and-a-half-inch spirals.

Frank Stella
Ring, 2008
Elisabetta Cipriani

Venet reportedly begged Stella for months to create something for her collection. She asked him herself. Then her husband, sculptor Bernar Venet, asked. No matter how she implored (or whom she employed to plead), Stella declined. Finally, one day in 2008 when the Venets were visiting, Stella dug into a nearby drawer and pulled out a neckpiece for Diane. She was delighted by the wiry, spiraling, 11-inch-wide structure. He went on to collaborate with Ernest Mourmans and Marc Benda to incorporate his signature tangles into a limited-edition ring. Consisting of 28 parts painstakingly welded together, the piece took six months to develop. “You wear nothing else,” Venet later said of the ring. “Maybe just a simple black dress.”

The forward-thinking de Saint Phalle was a multifaceted artist with a feminist agenda. “I’m following a course that was chosen for me,” she explained of her enormous, ebullient, cartoonish sculptures of women, “following a pressing need to show that a woman can work on a monumental scale.”

But she didn’t shy away from the small, either. As one of GEM Montebello’s more prolific collaborators, de Saint Phalle scaled down her massive work without nullifying its message. A one-time model for LIFE and Vogue, de Saint Phalle struggled with her own relationship to her body. Her bright, enameled jewelry—featuring joyfully dismembered bodies strung on necklaces or bulbous pendant figures—slyly subverts the fashion industry that may have contributed to her nervous breakdown at age 23.

Yves Klein
Petite Vénus Bleue, 1956/7
Artware Editions

In 1956, one year before he would trademark International Klein Blue, the artist began producing Petite Vénus Bleue in an edition of 500. Each version is mounted within a Plexiglas box outfitted in gold leaf, a miniature addition to his brilliantly hued oeuvre. Klein often appropriated classical symbols, like the Venus torso, in order to strip them of their academic connotations. Whether worn as a brooch or strung as a pendant, the small Venus takes on new meaning, providing something secularly sacred to wear.

Meret Oppenheim
Fur Bracelet , 2014

In the spring of 1936, Oppenheim proposed the idea of a fur bracelet to fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli (rival to Coco Chanel and frequent artist collaborator). Schiaparelli signed off; the bracelet, a furry metal cuff, appeared that year’s winter collection.

Sporting her new accessory, Oppenheim ran into Pablo Picasso and his then-lover Dora Maar at the artist haunt Café de Flore. They were enthralled by the design, which must have stood out even on the modish Boulevard Saint-Germain. Picasso remarked that fur could transform any object. “Even this cup and saucer,” Oppenheim famously replied. From there, she hit the department store, purchased a cup, saucer, and spoon, and wrapped them in a pelt. The final work, Object (1936), became an emblem of Surrealism—and the first work by a woman artist acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.

Venezuelan painter and Kinetic artist Cruz-Diez focuses on line, color, and perception. In 2013 and 2014, Familia Cruz-Diez and Elisabetta Cipriani crafted these limited-edition earrings, necklaces, and rings to reflect two types of Op Art categories: Physichromie and Chromointerférence.

Did you catch that? Despite their complicated monikers—both coined by Cruz-Diez—the pieces are viscerally fascinating. With a series of porcelain or acrylic panels arranged in an accordion-like fashion, the jewelry (like his paintings) changes according to the position of the viewer. The Physichromie pieces trap light to produce a range of color that varies according to the wearer’s environment. The Chromointerférence designs, on the other hand, produce patterns and waves of color based on the wearer’s movement.

To the untrained eye, a brooch in the shape of an arachnid might appear eerie—but for Bourgeois, the spider was a loving tribute to her mother, a tapestry restorer. In her 1995 text Ode to My Mother, the artist explained her fascination: “The friend (the spider—why the spider?) because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.” From monumental sculptures to this miniature golden pin, the spider served as a recurring motif throughout the French-American sculptor’s long and influential career.

Max Ernst
Grand Tête , 1974
Louisa Guinness Gallery
Max Ernst
Oiseau Perché (P.H. 1746)
Louisa Guinness Gallery

It was 1959 when Ernst sculpted his first piece of jewelry out of plasticine. Back in France following the end of World War II, he struck up a collaboration with his old friend, goldsmith François Hugo (also the great-grandson of Les Misérables novelist Victor Hugo). Wary of the blazing summer heat of Aix-en-Provence, which threatened to melt his models, the artist handed over his work to Hugo at the eleventh hour. The goldsmith managed to translate the Ernst-invented techniques of frottage (rubbing) and grattage (scraping) into an entirely new medium. Copied in gold, the 34 brooches and pendants were collectively called “masks” for their resemblance to geometric faces.

One of the most acclaimed conceptual artists in the United States, Holzer uses language to provoke viewers, disturb complacency, and initiate reflection. Her maxims (including “Let your hand wander on flesh to make possibility multiply” and “Protect me from what I want”) have appeared on posters, marble benches, condom wrappers, LED displays—and this limited-edition sterling-silver ring. For With you inside me comes the knowledge of my death (1994), Holzer collaborated with Munich-based jeweler Patrik Muff to create a message all the more potent when actually worn.

Sarah Bochicchio