Jewelry Without the Jewels

Article from the New York Times May 30, 2004 | by MARIANNE ROHRLICH

DIAMONDS may be a girl’s best friend, but some women are leaving behind gold chains and precious gems and draping themselves in far humbler materials: rubber bands, industrial springs and paper tags.

While it might cost a fortune to make a statement with gemstones and gold or silver, a necklace of rainbow-colored rubber bands in the $125 range can attract just as much admiration. Certainly stores are paying attention. Artistic jewelry of unexpected materials is increasingly available in shops like the Museum of Modern Art’s store, and also on some street vendors’ tables.

“Women are more confident now,” said Toni Greenbaum, the author of a book about art jewelry, “Messengers of Modernism: American Studio Jewelry 1940-1960” (Flammarion, 1996). “Wearing unusual jewelry invites a dialogue” with those one meets, she said. “Big, bold jewelry is attention-getting.”

Suzanne Ramljak, the editor of Metalsmith magazine, a quarterly about jewelry and the metal arts, said the climate surrounding fashion and accessories has changed. Jewelry used to be bought for the inherent value of its materials, “and it always had a message associated with it — `I’m married, or my boyfriend loves me,’ ” she said. But as the price of gold went down, it became accessible to more people and lost some of its status. And recently, there has been a rising design consciousness among jewelry customers, one that converges with fashion. “Everyone wants to be design-savvy,” Ms. Ramljak explained.

Even the American designer Joel Rosenthal, whose one-of-a-kind French-made pieces under the JAR name are as collectible and precious as any made, sees the value in everyday materials. “Not everything has to sparkle,” he said. Mr. Rosenthal’s jewelry is usually encrusted in precious gems, but he also works with aluminum, pewter and wood. “An artist transforms his imagination into something real,” he said. “You can make reality out of anything — rubies, rubber or paint. It’s the artist’s imagination that makes it beauty.”

Ursula Ilse-Neuman, the curator of the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, agreed, saying, “Ideas are always more precious than gold and silver.”

But aren’t diamonds forever? “You don’t keep your clothes forever,” said Inger Cleasson Wastberg, a Swede who has adopted the New York all-black uniform. With her simple clothes she wears a bracelet of transparent flexible plastic held together with a 14-karat gold magnet or a cuff woven of cotton and silver threads.

“Why should your jewelry have to last forever?” she said. “For those of us who wear black all the time it’s a lot of fun to add something interesting and personal. And it gives you joy to see that someone has transformed something ordinary into something fabulous.”

Photographs by Colin Johnston for The New York Times; far left: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

A necklace of gold-colored silk threads by Stacy Westcarr is $250. To order custom-made pieces, (718) 823-4868. 2. La Mollla is made of springs stretched over square frames by Tiziana Redavid. It is $135 at MoMA Design Store, 81 Spring Street (Crosby Street) or or (800) 447-6662. 3. A rubber brooch from Perfectos Dragones is $40 at M at Mercer, 49 Mercer Street (Broome Street), (212) 966-2830. 4. Disks of laminated paper, $175, from Sharon Rosenthal, a designer in Philadelphia. Similar pieces can be ordered from (215) 924-6155. 5. Rattle Tags, made of multicolor paper key-tags by Kiff Slemmons, an artist in Chicago, is $350 at Julie: Artisans’ Gallery, 762 Madison Avenue (65th Street), (212) 717-5959. Also in yellow, black or white. 6. Strings of beads covered in fabric scraps are $135 to $385 from Prada. For store locations and information, (888) 977-1900. 7. A necklace made of rubber bands and red glass beads by Paola Volpi, a designer in Rome, is $125 at MoMA Design Store.

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