“Modernist Jewelry” refers to jewelry produced by studio jewelers of the mid-20th century who were influenced by modern art movements; these jewelers were consciously breaking away from prevailing notions of “fine” and “costume” jewelry, intent on creating pieces that were miniature works of art. The books below focus mostly, but not exclusively, on work produced by studio jewelers in the United States. However, it is important to remember that modernist jewelry was also produced in Scandinavia, Mexico, and other parts of the world and that manufacturers of both costume and fine jewelry were influenced by the studio jewelry movement and created pieces in the modernist style.
Form and Function, American Modernist Jewelry, 1940-1970 and Modernist Jewelry 1930-1960, The Wearable Art Movement, both by Marbeth Schon, are the standard reference books for the subject. Lavishly illustrated and containing clear, useful information like photos of maker’s marks, these books are indispensible sources of information. They are organized in slightly different manners with “Form and Function” beginning with essays on jewelry design, techniques, and materials, followed by alphabetically organized artist biographies while “Modernist Jewelry” is organized chronologically, with chapters on influences and pioneers, followed by the major mid-20th century exhibits that exposed the world to this jewelry. Schon is also the editor of the online magazine Modern Silver which is another great reference source.
Much of the current interest in modernist jewelry began with the Messengers of Modernism exhibit and book in 1996. This exhibit traveled to several museums in the United States, Canada, and Europe and the resulting book is a beautifully produced, small tome. Written by Toni Greenbaum, the book is out of print and quite expensive on the secondary market (it’s become a modernist collectible in its own right) but if you come across it at a reasonable price it’s worth scooping up to add to your library.
Two wonderful books about modernist jewelry are contemporaneous with its production: Modern Jewelry, An International Survey, 1890-1967 (or 1963, depending on the edition) by Graham Hughes and Modern Jewelry, Design and Techniques by Irena Brynner were written by two people working in the field at that time. Graham was art director of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London and Brynner was a noted studio jeweler and it is interesting to see their perspectives on jewelry. Both books have great photos with Hughes’s book covering more of the makers and their works, while Brynner’s focuses more on construction techniques. Both of these books are available on the secondary market for reasonable prices.
Space, Light, Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta by Ursula Ilse-Neuman and Julie Muniz is the book that was produced in conjunction with the seminal exhibit of De Patta’s work held at the Museum of Art and Design and and Oakland Museum in 2012. For lover’s of this pioneer of modernist jewelry it is an essential reference.