This week, I will continue with my series that has been looking at icons of the fashion industry, both past and present. Today I’ll be focusing on Art Smith, a modernist jeweler from the mid-20th century, and one of the first Afro-Caribbean jewelers to achieve international success.
Arthur “Art” Smith was born in Cuba in 1917 before immigrating to New York with his family at the age of three. He lived in Greenwich Village for most of his life, where he ran his own jewelry shop featuring his handmade designs. When Smith was starting his career, fine jewelry placed a large focus on shining, precious gemstones and diamonds. Smith’s work took a different approach when he utilized simple gold, silver, and copper, which was sometimes accented with semiprecious stones. Smith also drew inspiration from surrealism, primitivism, and avant-garde dancers to create wearable art. His large pieces were statement-making, but also well-crafted to be lightweight and functional as well. They’re displayed in museums across the world today, works of art all on their own, but they could still be comfortably worn. He uses surrealist shapes in his jewelry, which is particularly apparent in this Abstract Collar.
Art Smith was known in the world of jazz music in New York City as well, which was another place he found inspiration for his work. He was a friend of Duke Ellington’s, even creating jewelry for him to wear. Another famous figure who owned Smith’s work was Eleanor Roosevelt, who was given a brooch of his design by the NAACP of Peekskill, NY.
When Art Smith was asked about his work he said; “A piece of jewelry is in a sense an object that is not complete in itself. Jewelry is a ‘what is it?’ until you relate it to the body. The body is a component in design just as air and space are. Like line, form, and color, the body is a material to work with. It is one of the basic inspirations in creating form.”
Many of his pieces were timeless enough that they would not look out of place today, from a large necklace that would make an impact on the runway to earrings that could still be worn in an everyday look. I think the thought process of looking at jewelry in relation to the wearer is a very unique take in the world of jewelry. I make and sell my own jewelry, so I definitely found this idea very inspiring. It’s a different way of looking at the art, and one that is still relevant now.
One example of an artist currently using these techniques is Anne-Marie Chagnon. She’s a jeweler from Montreal, who also utilizes abstract shapes in large yet wearable jewelry. For twenty years, she’s made a new collection annually, and even worked with Le Cirque du Soleil to make exclusive jewelry for ten.
Her Rhea necklace in particular reminded me of how Art Smith designed his jewelry. They both used inspiration of abstract shapes to make wearable jewelry that also wouldn’t look out of place in a museum.
Art Smith was also both Black and openly gay at a time when there were not many people like him in the public eye, and he was a pioneer not only for his unique take on jewelry and art, but for his identity as well. Smith was known as one of the first Black jewelers in the United States, and his vision still impacts the world of jewelry today.
Smith’s legacy lives on with the newly-founded Art Smith Memorial Scholarship Fund, which was created by 50 jewelers and offers $50,000 in scholarship money to support Black students studying jewelry design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. This scholarship will provide opportunities for Black artists who have been underrepresented in the jewelry industry to have the opportunity to study at one of the best fashion schools in the world. For the upcoming school year, the scholarship will award one student with full enrollment in the school’s two-year Jewelry Design program. This is an open endowment, which means it can be donated to by anyone to keep this program running for years to come!
To learn more about the Art Smith Memorial Scholarship fund, or to make a contribution, click the link below.