Sunday, August 10, 2008

Modern Masters; Tomorrow's Heirlooms

I enjoy these occasional run-ups in precious metal prices. Despite the odd foul-up, such as the time a Paul Revere spoon was sold for scrap, high metals prices help to clear away the detritus. Just as record high oil prices stimulate conservation and research into sustainable energy, high gold, silver and platinum prices also serve the public good.

Ninety Five percent of the "fine" jewelry sold in this country is junk and I consider tossing it into the melting pot to be a public service.

Faced with a world full of overly hyped, boring designs and poorly crafted jewelry, what's a consumer to do? Happily, there are a number of designer-goldsmiths who are carefully crafting tomorrow's heirlooms, but how to find them? The book reviewed below provides a list of some of the best American craftsmen. Read on:

Book Review:
Alan Revere, curator
Masters: Gemstones
ISBN: 13 978-1-57990-832-4
Lark Books, $24.95

Looking for beautifully made, artfully designed jewelry made with high quality materials? Historically, a few big name retailers have provided leadership, but over the past couple of decades, the 5th Avenue jewelers that used to be the go-to stores have grown tired and complacent, their goods have evolved from innovative and exciting to safe and boring and the low and mid-range jewelers have followed their lead. The giants who built those legendary retail establishments are long gone and most of the famous names have been sold off to conglomerates who grow fat off their fading reputations. In short, they are no longer a solution, they have have become part of the problem.

The good news is that there are a small number of American designer-goldsmiths and jewelers working today that are producing tomorrow's heirlooms. They are the Rene Lalique's, the Pierre Cartier's of the late 20th, early 21st Century. Unfortunately few are well enough capitalized to stand against the hot wind of hyper-babble that hammers the consumer with the dubious virtues of such artistic nonentities as Paloma Picasso, JAR and David Yurman.

A new book, published by Lark Books and entitled: Masters-Gemstones, Major Works by leading jewelers curated by Alan Revere will provide you with an acetylene torch to to cut your way through the junkyard.

Unfortunately, the book presents its own design problems. The title is unfortunate and the cover is a mess.--so poorly designed that it becomes impossible to tell what the title is, what the book is about and who wrote it. Well Alan Revere is listed as "curator" which means he wrote it, I guess, Lark prefers publishing books without authors, that way they retain the copyright and most of the profits.

Revere has made an excellent selection. He picked 39 contemporary jewelers and each one is a master. The common denominator, they all work with gemstones---a practice considered very un-chic in university jewelry arts programs where most of our creative artists are trained (another component of the problem, but I digress). What I found most exciting was that after thirty years of looking around there were a good number of artist-jewelers that I had never heard of.

I know and carry the work of several; Bernd and Tom Munsteiner, Michael Zobel, Michael Sugarman, Zoltan David and Stephen Webster but artists like Klaus Spies, Gregore Morin and Bayot Heer were completely new to me. What is really surprising, with perhaps two exceptions I like them all. I was pleased to see the work of Pat Flynn, an early partisan of non-traditional materials, whose work we carried in the gallery twenty years ago, before clients began to appreciate diamonds set into old iron nails.

Revere's commentary is adequate but oh the pictures! Really its all about the pictures. Masters: Gemstones is a breath of fresh air blowing through the mundane world of American retail jewelry. The book provides a visual stroll through some of the best of the best jewelry being made today. Revere has performed his curator role to perfection. Some of the artists use traditional materials, some add the non-traditional, but all put their pieces together with sensitivity and panache.

So buy the book! Save the wear and tear on your clicking finger or your shoe leather, Alan Revere has done all the work for you. Lets just cross our fingers and hope that some jewelry store owners will buy it and read it too...enjoy!

Modern Heirlooms:

Perhaps the most important of the modern masters included in Masters: Gemstones (see foregoing book review) is Bernd Munsteiner. What better tribute to his pervasive influence on contemporary jewelry than the fact that no less than half a dozen of the book's designer's show pieces set with his and his son Tom's gem sculptures. It seems unnecessary to add that Tom's greatest influence is this father. (images: above right, 18k carved agate & pearl pendant made in the 1990s. Below left, #8790LPS, contemporary 18k gold agate brooch by Bernd Munsteiner from our collection)

"I come from the agate."

This was how Bernd Munsteiner put it during a guided tour of his atelier in the early 1990s. In those days, most progressive American jewelers were familiar with his gem sculpture done in transparent gemstones such as aquamarine, tourmaline and quartz. Few were familiar with his carved agate pieces, many resembling abstract paintings, that covered the walls of his beautifully designed showroom.

Fact is the history of the adjacent German towns of Idar and Oberstein is all about agate.
Agate or chalcedony, scientifically crypto-crystalline quartz, has been mined in the hillsides overlooking the towns since the Sixteenth Century. Agates often occur in layers each of a different color (image left). For this reason they are a favorite with cameo cutters---a traditional art practiced with great skill by the cutters of Idar Oberstein.

Bernd was born in 1943 and is a third generation gem cutter. He went through the traditional German apprenticeship as an agate cutter with his father's company in the years
1957-1962. He then went on to study crafts and sculpture at Pforzheim. Before completing his studies at that institution he began experimenting with unusual techniques. On a trip to an international exhibit in Jalonek in the former Czechoslovakia he discovered sandblasting on glass. On his return to school he tested this method on agate eventually substituting corundum powder for sand, an innovation that allowed him to selectively grind away and explore the many layers of agate shape and and create soft sculptural effects.

In the 1990s Munsteiner tried his hand at designing reproducible gemstone designs.
He has always been interested in the natural shapes of gem crystals. The natural diamond octahedron provided the inspiration for the Context Cut. Another innovative cut, the Spirit Sun received international recognition in 1998.

When the Mad Men have moved on
and the girl with the famous name and the big lips has been forgotten, the work of Bernd Munsteiner will remain. (image: left: #8297RCS: 18k Jade Ring set with Context Cut green tourmaline by Bernd Munsteiner, from our collection.)

Like Father, Like Son:

Tom Munsteiner has followed in his father's footsteps making him the 4th generation in a family of gem cutters.
Tom's work differs from his father's. Bernd excels in creating gems with unusual
faceting patterns but rarely abandons the traditional gem cutter's pursuit of refraction. Tom, on the other hand, seems drawn back to the ancient form of the cabochon, but it is a cabochon with a twist. Tom uses a more or less traditional technique known as negative faceting---this is a takeoff on the same technique as that used by artisans who create reverse painting on rock crystal, horses jockeys. Cutting into the reverse of the stone, making patterns more akin to the mass-less shapes of
the Constructivist artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946)
and the contemporary environments of installation artist: Jesus Rafael Soto (1923-2005). (image: right, #8296RPS, 18k Fire Opal ring by Tom Munsteiner from our collection.)

Take a boat ride across an exotic lagoon. Visit Burma's Valley of the Serpents and learn how rubies are mined and graded.

Follow me on gem buying adventures in the pearl farms of Tahiti. Visit the gem fields of Australia and Brazil. 120 carefully selected photographs showing examples of the highest quality gems to educate the eye, including the Rockefeller Sapphire and many more of the world's most famous gems. Consider my book: Secrets Of The Gem Trade, The Connoisseur's Guide To Precious Gemstones.

“Wise is a renowned author... He’s done a marvelous job of this first book, monumental work, a tour de force...My recommendation: Buy this book”.

Charles Lewton-Brain, Orchid

whether you like to know what the best colour is in Tanzanite, or how to grade a Diamond, you will find it in this book. No other book I read before dealt with this topic is such detail as Richard Wise's masterpiece."

A. Van Acker, FGA
Amazon June 2005

"Secrets Of The Gem Trade: The Connoisseurs Guide To Precious Gemstones by Richard W. Wise is an impressive new reference for dedicated dealers and collectors of gems, gemstones, and ... pearls. Introducing and descriptively exploring each and every gem covered in the easy-to-use reference, Secrets Of The Gem Trade contains an illustrated summary of each stone inclusive of its history and general information, hue and tone, saturation, which may be noticed as the finest, an understanding of the particular gems rarity, and the caution for synthetics and how to depict them, however depending upon the stone there may be description of clarity, color fading, multi-color effect, etc. Secrets Of The Gem Trade is very highly recommended to anyone interested in gemology as a superbly organized, authoritative, comprehensive, and easy-to-follow reference."

Midwest Book Review
April 2006

Only $35.95. Read a couple of chapters online:

Buy it on Amazon:


Anonymous said...

Last year 14kt gold was worth 850 pesos per gram but it is now worth 1,500 pesos!

A Fly On The Wall said...

I have to agree with you Richard - Tom Munsteiner is definately a Master cutter and ANY Munsteiner will become tomorrow's heirloom!

I had the opportunity to see the Bernd Munsteiner Exhibit at the Carldbad Hdqrtrs of GIA a couple years ago - at the same time the "Be Born To Tanzanite" Exhibit was was an inspiring and jaw-dropping day!

Thanks for your wonder insight!

Robyn Hawk
Tucson Gem Show - Live
Jewelry & Gem Artists