Sotheby’s Opens First-Ever Exhibition of Black Jewelry Designers: The showcase precedes an historic sale of works by 21 artists who have been left out of the high jewelry arena until now.
On Sept. 17, Sotheby’s premieres the first exhibition exclusively featuring Black jewelry designers, followed by a sale that runs in person and online until Oct. 10. The sale will be a watershed—and many would say long-overdue—moment for the industry, elevating 21 Black jewelry designers to a global stage for the first time. “Brilliant & Black: A Jewelry Renaissance” features 63 works, including both designers’ signature pieces and custom creations for the exhibition, that showcase their different styles and techniques.
The exhibition is the brainchild of Black jewelry author, editor, and stylist Melanie Grant, who was galvanized by the Black Lives Matter movement to find a way to make a difference in the jewelry world. Grant has worked at The Economist and its sister publication 1843 for 15 years and authored the coffee-table book Coveted: Art and Innovation in High Jewelry (2020).
Last year, during her conversations with Black jewelry designers, many expressed a sense of sadness that despite the social and political changes happening in the world, nothing would change in the jewelry industry. Doors would stay closed, it would be difficult for them to progress financially, and the top level of collectors would remain out of reach.
“There’s an extra level of challenge, I think, especially as a Black designer at the high level of the industry,” Grant says in a phone interview. “When you’re a designer in the fashion or fine jewelry space, it’s one thing, but if you’re trying to get into high jewelry, it’s a pretty impenetrable space from the outside.”
The barrier of entry is much lower in fashion jewelry, where pieces are typically made of brass or aluminum and feature synthetic stones instead of precious metals and natural gemstones. Fine jewelry, crafted from 14K or 18K gold and a variety of natural and synthetic gemstones, is where a lot of these Black designers operate. The pinnacle of the jewelry industry is high jewelry. These one-of-a-kind pieces are rendered in 18K gold or platinum and feature massive and ultra-rare natural gemstones. They seldom hit stores. Instead, they’re shown in a rarefied, secret world in private rooms to a brand’s top collectors, or in extravagant parties.
The names of high jewelry houses are old and mainly French, such as Boucheron, Cartier, Piaget, and Van Cleef & Arpels. It’s a very difficult and expensive world to break into regardless of talent, because designing high jewelry requires a lot of capital. Designers must first purchase these gemstones, which can run from five to six figures for a single stone, and those funds remain tied up until a piece sells. Only the major houses, which are frequently backed by luxury conglomerates, can afford to have millions of dollars of merchandise locked in vaults, awaiting the perfect client.
Grant decided that she would use her reputation and contacts to break open these closed doors and introduce the best Black jewelry designers to the world’s top-level jewelry collectors. This access would allow them to flex their creative muscle and design expensive pieces of high jewelry knowing they would be connected with the clients who actually purchase six-figure pieces. And what better way than a dedicated exhibit at one of the most prestigious and powerful auction houses?
She approached Frank Everett, Sotheby’s director of jewelry, initially thinking that Sotheby’s would “laugh me out of the conversation.” But Everett was instantly on board, and they began to mount the first-ever sale dedicated to Black jewelry designers. Not only is it the first exhibition of its kind, but it’s also the first time that any of these designers have has their pieces sold at a top auction house, Grant says.
The exhibiting designers include the top Black jewelry makers working today, as well as historic jewelers Art Smith and Winifred Mason Chenet. (Chenet is thought to be the first commercial Black jeweler in the U.S. She crafted one-of-a-kind pieces in New York. Smith worked under Chenet before launching his own modernist jewelry collection.)
Written by Kristen Shirley on 15th September 2021.