The International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery, 1890 – 1961

Goldsmiths’ Hall, Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, London
October 26 - December 2, 1961

As published in Art Jewelry Forum "Shows and Tales – On Jewelry Exhibition-Making: March 2015

In February 1961, Carol Hogben, assistant keeper in the circulation department at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), was hard at work preparing for the opening of a major jewelry exhibition. Hogben had thought of a novel way to present innovative jewelry to the museum-going public, inviting contemporary artists working in an array of disciplines to create works in wax for the show, which would then be fabricated by British goldsmiths. These would be presented alongside more traditional, virtuoso pieces by the likes of Georg Jensen and Fabergé.

From the beginning, this exhibition was to be international in scope. Hogben envisioned displaying approximately 100 pieces of contemporary jewelry from Europe and the United States, and perhaps 20 to 30 historical English works, and then commissioning young designer-craftsmen in Great Britain to create works for the show. Surely the British public, weary from years of postwar austerity, and the creative community would all benefit from this refreshing display of ingenuity and high style.

But with only eight months before the show was set to open, disaster struck: The museum informed Hogben that the exhibition was off. Though it is unclear precisely why this decision was made, notes suggest that the exhibition was perceived as a risky, expensive and complicated venture. Disappointed but unbowed, Hogben and Senior Research Assistant Shirley Bury approached Graham Hughes, then the art director of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. They had approached Hughes and the Goldsmiths’ Company in 1959 as a possible supporter of the exhibition. Now they needed a venue and collaborator, and Hughes agreed.

Audiences in 2015 might find it difficult to fathom why a major museum would shelve an exhibition that seemed to have all the makings of a path-blazing blockbuster: a new way of presenting the best examples of a dynamic discipline with deep historic roots, to which visitors could relate on a personal level. The multidisciplinary approach and ultimate success of this exhibition, which nearly never was, is partly responsible for contemporary jewelry’s increasingly secure foothold in museums all over the world.

For Great Britain, the country that in the early 19th century had virtually invented industrialization as we know it, the material scarcity inflicted by World War II and post-war rationing was a cruelly specific blow to its national identity. Yet the later 1950s and 1960s were a time of prosperity for the UK; although it was no longer a superpower, with the process of decolonization having drastically reduced its global footprint, Britain’s own middle class had never fared better. Unemployment was low, new government programs and benefits supported young families and the standard of living—the proliferation of “mod cons” like dishwashers and washer/dryers—increased dramatically. As in the United States, the mass consumer culture of Britain favored a middlebrow aesthetic at a reasonable price point.

A decade and a half of austerity followed by an unprecedented flourishing of mass-market goods left British luxury production gathering cobwebs. The gnawing concern that gave rise to this exhibition would be familiar to decorative arts curators in any time period: During initial conversations in 1959, the curators in the circulation department declared the jewelry for sale in the museum’s gift shop “appalling.” 1 Surely there must be a way to show visitors what the new designer-craftsmen were creating, in the spirit of the museum’s founding mission of schooling taste.

If the V&A curators turned up their noses at the middlebrow baubles for sale in the gift shop, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths tended, somewhat surprisingly, to be dismissive of jewelry altogether. As Muriel Wilson notes, the Company was “maledominated since its beginnings,” and had “regarded jewellery simply as frivolous trinkets for the ladies, bless ’em, and not to be taken as seriously as plate.” 2 Founded in 1180 and given its royal charter in 1327, the Company was originally the trade guild for goldsmiths, and eventually came to include silversmiths and jewelers. The Company was almost closer in spirit to commodities traders, but Graham Hughes took a longer view of jewelry’s importance, later describing the 1961 exhibition as “an art exhibition of a high order, intended to raise the standing of jewellery so that it becomes a valid interest both for discerning patrons and, as during the [R]enaissance, for leading artists of all sorts.” 3 Hughes’s nod to Renaissance metalsmithing and the cross-pollination of the plastic arts—what we might call a “multidisciplinary practice,” was key to the approach of this exhibition, which effectively used the example of a single object type to show visitors how many ways there are to approach the creation and fabrication of small, wearable works of art.

Once Hughes and the Goldsmiths’ Company had agreed to provide support and their venue to the exhibition, the wax models created by some of the sculptors and painters selected by Hogben started to arrive, and Hughes began to seek additional works for the show. The original goal of securing roughly 125 works blossomed to nearly 1,000 objects. The exhibition was built around four categories: Historical Work, Foreign Metalwork, British Modern Work and British Professionals. This classification system tells us much about the way in which studio jewelry was understood in 1961. The “Historical” category included masterworks by Tiffany, Fouquet and Templier, much of it Art Nouveau, opalescent, curvilinear and eminently wearable. For the contemporary British work, the types of makers included was split into two categories: “British Modern Work” and “British Professionals,” or, stated more plainly, “artists” and “makers,” suggesting that the phenomenon of wearable sculpture by artists untrained in jewelry making was recognized as a new thing in the world, and as a desirable thing at that. Hughes was under no illusions that this would be a seamless process, however, noting worries early on that the “British Modern” category would be beset by technical problems: “The trouble is,” Hughes said, “that these people tend to be incredibly unpractical. When selecting names it is necessary to bear this aspect of their talent in mind; otherwise the organisers will get into terrible difficulty trying to get designs cast or made up which are, in fact, unmakeable or which fall to pieces in the showcase.” 4

Impractical though these idiosyncratic works may have been, Hughes and Hogben seemed set on the idea of including them because British jewelry needed a jolt of creativity. Simply revitalizing the luxury trade as it had existed would not suffice. The economy had changed, but perhaps more crucially, fashion, design and art had changed: Modernism had permanently altered the way that consumers understood ornament. Though a few artists eventually gave up in frustration (Henry Moore among them), models from Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Bernard Meadows, F.E. McWilliam and Elisabeth Frink arrived intact. Hughes tasked master goldsmith David Thomas with casting the artists’ wax models into a variety of metals, including gold, silver and bronze. Thomas’s labor in the fabrication of works in the British Modern category reinforces the split between “designer” and “craftsman” that the designer-craftsmen of the post-war era had sought to eliminate. Not everyone was beguiled by the British Modern jewelry: One writer described the gold bracelets designed by F.E. McWilliam as “heavy as prisoners’ manacles.” 5 And indeed, Hughes himself expressed concern that works by artists like Henry Moore would be “monstrous and unwearable.” 6

For the exhibition installation, architect Alan Irvine devised an ingenious system of 32 pyramidal glass cases that subtly resembled faceted jewels, and 17 additional glass wall cases complemented the ornate interior of Goldsmiths’ Hall. Thirty-three countries participated in the exhibition, and 901 works were on view. The Historical section, which comprised works from 1890 – 1914, was rich in French jewelry and featured 27 pieces by René Lalique. The Interwar period, 1919 – 1939, included many spare, luxurious, geometric Art Deco pieces from the houses of Cartier and Boucheron. The section devoted to the period of 1945 – 1961 was the only one to be split in two, and featured half the works on view. The exhibition ultimately came to include recent works by Picasso, Alexander Calder, Giorgio de Chirico, Jean Arp, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti and Yves Tanguy, borrowed from an array of collectors. Alongside these masters were examples of modern diamond jewelry by Patek Philippe and Harry Winston, reflecting Hughes’s smart decision to enlist the major jewelry houses, thereby ensuring that the exhibition’s glamour index was high enough for the pages of Vogue.

In his short essay for the exhibition’s catalog, Hughes writes that the Modern British works “proved, if proof be needed, that cheap materials need not mean artistic insignificance, and that creative imagination shown with one visual art can very often be diverted to another.” 7 For a man whose life’s work had been with the company responsible for the purity of precious metals, this view—that artistic merit in jewelry is a moving target, not wedded to material value—is astonishingly broad-minded. The studio jewelry movement that flourished after World War II perhaps falls somewhere between the two poles of the “monstrous and unwearable” and the undisguised luxury jewels by the likes of Cartier. Makers including John Donald, Gerda Flöckinger and E.R. Nele had works on view in the 1961 exhibition, and their careers flourished in the decades that followed. These artists are keenly aware of the body and of wearablility, but their understanding of “preciousness” is complex, nuanced and only partly guided by the market value of their raw materials. Over 28,000 visitors saw the exhibition in its two-month run, and it is acknowledged today by curators and jewelry historians as a pivotal event in the history of studio jewelry. Perhaps because it did not just present the work of designer-craftsmen on their own, but placed these objects in a constellation of superb wearable works, the exhibition helped legitimize jewelry that was neither wedded to precious materials nor crafted under the imprimatur of a luxury brand name.

  1. Muriel Wilson, “Revitalising Jewellery Design: The International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery, 1890–1961,” The Journal of Decorative Arts Society 1850–the Present, no. 33: 55.
  2. Ibid, 60.
  3. As quoted by Joanna Hardy, “New Gold Dream,” The Telegraph, April 20, 2014, ( jewellery/30864/new-gold-dream.html).
  4. Wilson, “Revitalising Jewellery Design,” 56.
  5. As quoted by Hardy
  6. Wilson, “Revitalising Jewellery Design,” 60.
  7. Graham Hughes, International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery, 1890–1961. (London: The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, 1961), 10.

Bibliography Hughes, Graham. Modern Jewelry: An International Survey, 1890–1964. London: Studio Vista, 1964.

View the original article in Art Jewelry Forum "Shows and Tales – On Jewelry Exhibition-Making"