By Deloris Tarzan Ament

Thirty years ago, pioneering Seattle jewelry artist Joseph Nolen loaded the pockets of his sports jacket with imposing, one-of-a-kind rings and unusual gems-in-waiting, and headed for the bar of Rosellini's Four-Ten Restaurant.

There, for want of any other venue, he sold his ceremonial-sized jewelry out of his pockets to a wide coterie of friends, and fans who learned about him by word of mouth.

Joseph's pockets were as renowned as his acerbic wit. If he were still in Seattle (he long ago fled south to Laguna Beach), Joseph's pockets would be obsolete. In the past decade, galleries have awakened to the creativity of artists' jewelry. Today, they would vie for his work.

Jewelry has become one of the hottest collectibles on the gallery scene. Pieces such as Flora Book's constructions of multiple layers of looped silver wire that come alive with the movement of the wearer's body are nothing short of wearable sculpture. That's just one of the ways in which new works stretch the traditional understanding of jewelry. Artists' jewelry is as varied and unique as paintings. It can be outrageous, funky, funny, or sublime, depending on its creator's frame of mind.

Precious gems are the exception. You're at least as likely to discover jewelry made of paper, bright colored Fimo clay, neoprene rubber, fragments of antique ethnic jewelry, and found objects as of gold or silver.

The surface qualities, the workability, and the durability of new materials has expanded design possibilities, and the range of expressive shapes. Zack Peabody's stainless steel and niobium brooches and bracelets look like engineering constructions, secured by rivets. Wearing a Peabody brooch is a statement of finding beauty in industrial materials and methods. That's no small thing. Because now, as always, jewelry sends important signals about its wearer's identity and degree of sophistication. As surely as a phoenix design identified a Chinese Mandarin's office, or a cross says "I'm Christian," artists' jewelry makes silent but unmistakable statements such as, "I'm Rich," "I'm Witty," "I'm Creative," and "I have quiet good taste."

All of them, whether precious or funky, qualify as urban ethnic. If you think contemporary urban America is too diverse to have a collective identity, think of the environment that shapes us. Think of automobiles, television, fast food, paved streets, and the ever present possibility of violence. We have a conglomerate ethnic identity, one that is inclusive rather than exclusive. Contemporary jewelry is one of the ways it is expressed.

Freelance Seattle curator Lloyd Herman brought that urban aesthetic into sharp focus in 1997 with "Trashures," an exhibition of artists' jewelry made from improbable found objects, such as the stubs of pencils, bottle caps, and fragments of broken rulers. "Trashures" was exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery, and later in Seattle at Facere Jewelry Art, in City Centre, 1420 Fifth Avenue.

Facere owner Karen Lorene first brought jewelry by nationally known artists to the attention of the Seattle art world a dozen years ago. Each year, she hires a curator to organize a fresh and special jewelry exhibition. Herman brought a wide range of brash new ideas with "Trashures." In March, 1998, London gallery owner Lezley Craze will curate a show of jewelry art from England for Facere.

Facere always has work available by some of the Northwest's best-known jewelry artists. One of the most distinguished is Mary Lee Hu, head of the jewelry program at the University of Washington, who fabricates intricate woven-gold bracelets and necklaces that have won national acclaim. More Facere standouts are Cynthia Toops, who is carving out fresh territory with micro-mosaics made of Fimo clay, and Lee Phillips, whose brooches -- faces shaped of repousse silver -- come with presentation boxes that frame the pieces for display when they're not being worn.

Artists' jewelry can show up in special exhibitions in nearly any art gallery. But some places, such as The Legacy, The Stonington Gallery, and Traditions and Beyond, which specialize in Northwest Coast Native American art, always have original jewelry on display. For Southwest Native Indian jewelry, Bailey Nelson Gallery is the place to go. Ancestral Spirits in Port Townsend and Northwest Native Expressions in Sequim also represent native artists who specialize in jewelry.

Ragazzi's Flying Shuttle in Pioneer Square, founded 15 years ago to showcase handwoven wearables, has become equally noteworthy for one-of-a-kind jewelry. At least half of the 150 artists whose work the gallery represents are contemporary jewelers, from across the nation. The materials can be unexpected. Jocelyn Chateauvert embosses handmade abaca paper cut into crisp, translucent shapes, massed together for elegant effect. Erica Zap's airy bracelets are formed of machine-knit metal. Terri Roberts sets river rocks in silver.

Gallery Mack represents San Franciscan Masha Archer who creates necklaces so big and dramatic they're sometimes picked up for onstage work in operas.

Montana artist Lilly Barrack fabricates rings of silver and untreated natural stones. And from Santa Fe, Mary and Doug Hancock fashion traffic-stopping one-of-a-kind necklaces using weathered beads, replicas of ancient artifacts, and shells. They call their work "The Mummy's Bundle."

The broad range of jewelry at Phoenix Rising is equal to the gallery's offerings of glass art and fine crafts. Twice a year, Phoenix Rising mounts special jewelry exhibitions: A Collectors' Show in May, and a Holiday Show highlighting big, spectacular pieces, Thanksgiving through Christmas. In addition, three jewelry artists are featured each month. At any given time, Phoenix Rising has jewelry by upwards of 100 designers, each piece original, and crafted by the artist. Look for vivid cloisonne pieces by Ricky Frank, and inlaid black jade and opal jewelry by Oregon designer and lapidary worker Peter Jon. Texas designer Charlene Biesele gives an organic, contemporary flair to heavy, cast-silver pieces that hark back to the 1930s.

This is a prime place to find small, precious earrings. Custom wedding bands and unusual "partner rings" are also a specialty, by Los Angeles artist Dennis Lingo, and Northwest designer craftsman Peter Jon. Not only does Phoenix Rising provide a unique ring, but gallery owner Maureen Pierre often makes romantic arrangements for the ring to appear, and banners to unfurl, to make the occasion as unique as the ring.

When collectors with growing stashes of unique jewelry complained of finding nothing better than run-of-the-mill jewelry boxes to house them, Pierre put two craftsmen on the job. Phoenix Rising now carries some special designs in jewelry boxes made with precious display in mind, by Michael Hamilton and by Mike Mikutowski.

Fireworks Gallery located in Pioneer Square and three other locations in Seattle and Bellevue, has a huge array of art jewelry including works by Lisa Kinoshita, Laura Cosse and Thomas Mann.

Folk Art Gallery in the University District focuses on unusual one-of-a-kind jewelry from artists in Central and South America. Further to the west in the old Wallingford schoolhouse on 45th., Crackerjack Contemporary Crafts shows an exceptional and eclectic variety of works. Located near the Pike Place Market, Mesolini & Amici Glass has distinctive glass jewelry created in the Northwest. Also look for work of the precious variety at Goldman's Jewelers, who have been carrying outstanding pieces by Northwest jewelry designers since before the art world caught on. Nearby, Alfino Gallery, though fairly new on the art scene, represents several talented jewelry artists.

East of Lake Washington residents will find that Elements Gallery and Northwest Discovery in Bellevue have an extensive selection of jewelry in gold, mixed metals, sterling and precious and semi-precious gems. Their newest find, Jayne Redman, works in three-dimensional, mixed metal with unique floral impressions. Deborah Richardson, John Bagley, Thomas Kuhner and Mary Jane Doubleday are some of their other artists. Lakeshore Gallery, the oldest gallery in Kirkland, recognized the need for jewelry art long before anyone else and has a large selection of special and unusual pieces. Up in Anacortes Serendipity Gallery, who also has a location in La Conner, is the place to go for art jewelry. Earthenworks, with stores in LaConner and Pt. Townsend, is another gallery with a good selection of jewelry.

Artists' jewelry hits peak visibility in galleries in November and December. Proximity to Christmas isn't accidental. Giving is definitely in mind, since no one ever has a complete collection of contemporary jewelry. Innovations come too fast. Fortunately, the "where will I find space for it" problem that hounds collectors who fall in love with a new painting or large sculpture, doesn't arise with artists' jewelry.

The best part of collecting jewelry? You don't have to invite people home to show off your new art. Just put it on and go. And be prepared for conversations with complete strangers, who will want to know more about you and what you're wearing.

What other kind of art gains a collector instant recognition as a more interesting person?

DELORIS TARZAN AMENT, is a freelance writer about art, design, restaurants, and travel. She was Art Critic for the Seattle Times for over twenty years.

Cloisonne pin by Rickey Frank
from Phoenix Rising

Brooch 534, by Zack Peabody from
Facere Jewelry.

Circle Pin, by Carol Webb
from Ragazzi's Flying Shuttle

China Bib, necklace by Masha Archer
from Gallery Mack.

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