March 5, 2013
Cindy Chao knew, with more than 2,300 gems of diamonds, rubies and tsavorite garnets, her butterfly brooch was masterpiece of craftsmanship. Made in 2009, the brooch found its way to the cover of Women’s Wear Daily–the first piece of jewelry ever to do so in 100 years. Known for her wearable works of art, Chao had made a name for herself as the first Taiwanese jeweler included at a Christie’s auction in 2007, and her work even debuted on the Hollywood red carpet.
Now her butterfly brooch comes to the Natural History Museum’s Gems and Minerals collection as the first piece designed by a Taiwanese artist. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and brilliant enough to illuminate a room. The brooch packs a punch. But it also packs a surprise.
Curator Jeffrey Post says he was compelled by his ongoing interest in the optical behaviors of diamonds to put the piece under ultraviolet light, and the ensuing light show was nothing short of spectacular. The diamonds and sapphires fluoresced, glowing neon in the dark. “When we saw all these fluorescing diamonds, all these different colors, it was just the whipped cream on top of the cake,” says Post, “It was just the most wonderful surprise.”
Chao, meanwhile, had never seen this phenomenon. “When Dr. Post showed it to me under the ultraviolet light, I was shocked because he thought I did it on purpose.” An artist influenced by her father’s career as both an architect and sculptor, Chao cares about the craft of jewelry-making and working with unique materials. She calls the fluorescent reaction a natural miracle. Now, she says, “I check everything under the ultraviolet light.”
A symbol of metamorphosis, the butterfly speaks to Chao’s own transformation from jeweler to artist. While she’s had great success in the market (her pieces command any where from $15,000 for a ring and nearly $1 million for a brooch), she says earning a spot in the Smithsonian was a great honor as an artist. She hopes to pass on her lessons to students who share her passion for the craft of jewelry-making.
The brooch also speaks to the natural metamorphosis each gemstone undergoes. “Every gemstone,” says Post, “including this butterfly, starts out as a mineral crystal that forms, and only the best and most perfect of those mineral crystals are transformed into gemstones.” Post says that the incredibly detailed design of the brooch, which mimics the microstructure and scale of a living butterfly’s wings, speaks to the piece’s rarified quality. “The other side of the butterfly is just as beautiful as the front and that’s how you know, this is really a masterpiece creation,” he says.
Joining the recent Dom Pedro donation, as well as the famed Hope Diamond, the piece will brooch in the Hall of Gems and Minerals. Its donation also marks the fifth anniversary of the museum’s Butterfly Pavilion.
October 11, 2012
Friday, October 12: Design Craft: DreamHome
For everyone who loves art, design and endlessly watching HGTV: Design Craft at the Renwick brings together the Washington Design Center and the Gallery’s “40 Under 40″ exhibition of craft artists. Eight designers took specific pieces from the show to help inspire individual rooms in this year’s DreamHome. Two of the designers will be paired with the artist who inspired them in this discussion of inspiration and design. More than just an illuminating look at how the two fields often intersect, the insight into the creative process will allow the audience to watch how one object can create an entire room. So turn off the House Hunters for one night and head to the Renwick for a real-life dissection of a DreamHome. Free. 12 p.m. Renwick Gallery.
Saturday, October 13: All That Glitters: The Allure of Classic Jewelry
Emeralds, rubies and diamonds: in short, something for everyone. Royalty and commoners alike will enjoy this all-day discussion of the ways in which our preference for precious stones have changed over time. From the Victorian Age to the Art Nouveau era up into the Modern glamour of Art Deco and beyond. Stefanie Walker, a lecturer for the Smithsonian-Mason MA Program in the History of Decorative Arts, will lead the audience through a dazzling history. Wear your best gems and jewels and prepare for an educational day of eye candy. Tickets $85-$120. Ripley Center.
Sunday, October 14: Printmaking workshop with artist Jorge Porrata
Cuban poet and artist Jorge Luis Porrata has illustrated six books for the Miami-based publisher Homago. Sunday he joins the American Indian Museum to help the whole family craft a work of art. Though his work, both as an illustrator and widely published poet, emphasizes the interconnected nature of man across cultural traditions, Sunday’s workshop will focus on the Taino people. The Taino are native to the Caribbean islands including the Bahamas, and words from their language permeate the Spanish spoken in Cuba, as well as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Educational and arty, the workshop is open to all ages. Free. 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Repeats at 2 p.m. American Indian Museum.
October 20, 2011
Alabama-based artist Kathleen Nowak Tucci takes rubber bicycle and motorcycle inner tubes and turns them into couture necklaces, bracelets and earrings. This coming weekend, she will be among 40 artists from around the country in Washington, D.C., to show, and sell, their clothes, jewelry and accessories at Craft2Wear, an event organized by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee. I recently interviewed the eco-artist by email:
How did you first get involved with making jewelry from recycled rubber?
I have been a gallery artist for over 25 years and have worked in many mediums including ceramics, silversmithing and painting in watercolor and acrylics. I had been experimenting using industrial rubber products such as o-rings to make jewelry. Then I got an idea that needed thin rubber. I ended up with two boxes of bicycle inner tubes, but my original idea did not work. So after sitting in my studio for several months, I started to just play with the rubber inner tubes and realized that it was a really interesting material for jewelry. It is lightweight, flexible and easy to manipulate.
Where do you get the rubber?
I get the rubber from bicycle shops in Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama. The motorcycle inner tubes come from a Harley-Davidson shop in Pensacola. At first, they would forget and throw them away. Then my mother started to make cookies for the bike shops, and they saved them all for me. They are so happy to see me with the cookies that they even carry the tubes out to the car for me. I think that they are also happy to not have to discard them and to know that they will be recycled.
In what ways do you find rubber to be an interesting medium to work in?
It is readily available, flexible, malleable and easy to cut. The inner tubes go through a washing process that removes all the “old inner tube smell.” Most people have a hard time guessing that my jewelry is made of recycled inner tubes. I purposely have stayed with just the black of the tubes because I love design and it is hard to get away with bad design using just black. After design, construction is really important to me. I spend a lot of time engineering my work to be comfortable and durable. I have found that the qualities of the rubber determine many of my designs and not what is trendy or in fashion at the moment.
You live in Atmore, Alabama, a small town that was affected by the Gulf Oil Spill. How has the spill affected your vision as an artist?
The Gulf Oil Spill was such a tragedy for the wildlife, ecosystem and economy of the Gulf Coast area. This area has some of the most beautiful white sand beaches in the world. Seeing them covered with oil was heartbreaking. Much of our economy in this area, from tourism to seafood, depends on the Gulf. We all realize how fragile this ecosystem is and how close we came to losing it.
Our small town was already affected by the recession when the Gulf Oil Spill occurred. My sister’s coffee shop, Annie’s Community Cup, was on Main Street, which is a shortcut to the beaches in Florida for anyone driving from the Midwest. The coffee shop depended on tourist stopping on the way to the beach. When all tourism stopped because of the oil spill, she had no choice but to close.
The coffee shop was in a beautiful historic building with wood floors and brick walls. I decided to rent the building from her to be able to store the inner tubes and to have a larger space to work. My studio at home had begun to look like a tire blowout. We now use the “Rubber Factory” to produce and distribute the jewelry. My jewelry was featured on the August 2010 cover of the controversial “Water and Oil Issue” of Vogue Italia.
I have come to realize how much is thrown away and ends up in landfills and can actually be recycled. Though it was not my first intention, I am proud to call myself an eco-artist.
Craft2Wear will be held this Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the National Building Museum. Admission is $5.
June 14, 2011
I started work as an intern at Smithsonian magazine last week. My first assignment was to write a blog post on ballooning. My second was to dress myself up in designer jewelry. I think, so far, that I like this job.
The only downside is that the jewelry was of the digital variety. A new Facebook application from Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City was created in honor of the museum’s exhibition, “Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels,” which explores 20th century jewelry design. It features about 350 breathtaking pieces of Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry, ranging from watches to tiaras. The app allows users to choose photos from their profiles and virtually add a little (or a lot) of sparkle.
The first order of business was to try the app out for myself. Now, I’m normally not a big jewelry person. I don’t like shiny. I prefer woven bracelets to diamonds and I would choose a wooden charm over one of those Tiffany & Co. hearts any day. But I’m not going to say no when someone offers to let me try on a tiara.
So I did. I (virtually) tried on the tiara (formerly of the Princess Grace of Monaco, now of Intern Julie of Smithsonian.com), a gold necklace, some diamond earrings, a ruby brooch. Let’s be honest—I tried on almost every one of the 28 pieces of jewelry offered in my digital jewelry box. (They paid me to do this!) I didn’t take an official picture wearing any of it because I suspected the app would then post it to my wall and I would have died of embarrassment.
I did, however, consider subjecting some of my friends to such ridicule, since the app allowed me to adorn their photos with some pretty ostentatious bling. I resisted, but just barely.
My second task (even though that first one was so exhausting) was to call up the Cooper-Hewitt and interview the people who came up with the idea for the app.
“There are a lot of people nationwide who have been blogging about this show. and reading the press about it, and wanting to know more, but have not been able to visit,” said Caroline Baumann, associate director of the museum. “So this is a wonderful opportunity for those people to experience the show and have a little bit of play as well.”
Jennifer Northrop, director of communications and marketing at Cooper-Hewitt, was actually the one who came up with the idea for the app. She said that as you walk through the exhibition, you immediately want to try on every piece, and she wanted to somehow find a way to allow people to do that.
“Of course there’s no way we’re going to let people try on a Van Cleef & Arpels tiara,” Northrop said. “So the next step was really, how can we do this virtually? How can we have this experience shared by tons of people?”
By the way, Northrop said the tiara was her favorite piece too, match only by her affection for a gold and ruby necklace that resembles a very glamorous and very expensive zipper.
So although my vanity is denying you what I’m sure would be a very amusing official photo of me decked out in Van Cleef & Arpels, I will leave you with an awkward screenshot, with my poor younger brother in it because I couldn’t crop him out. Do you think the tiara’s too big? I’m not worried. I’m sure I’ll grow into it.
The “Set in Style: the Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels” exhibition is currently open and will be at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum through July 4.
May 17, 2011
Many a museum-goer has fantasized about the Hope Diamond. How would it feel to have the cool weight of that walnut-sized blue pool of a diamond dangling at your neck?
But not many people have gotten to wear the famous jewel. So when Smithsonian reader John Langlois sent us this 1944 image of his mother, Ethel Galagan, with it around her neck, we were intrigued.
Galagan was an employee of the Government Printing Office during World War II. For some reason, and Langlois isn’t sure why, but Galagan was invited to a party at the Washington, D.C. home of the wealthy socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, the owner of the Hope Diamond at the time.
McLean’s parties were legendary. According to Richard Kurin, in his book, Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem, McLean spared no expense and the guest list included “diplomats and dignitaries, royalty and national leaders, New Dealers and Republicans, scholars and entertainers.” Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture.
According to Langlois, his mother always maintained that General Omar Bradley, who at that time had achieved three stars out of his eventual five star ranking, and the influential Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Hugo Black were among the elite attendees that night.
Despite Galagan’s non-A-lister status, McLean asked her new friend to stand in the receiving line and greet guests as they entered.
Later that evening, McLean found Galagan and complained, “This thing is so damn heavy–you wear it for awhile!” And draped the necklace around Galagan’s neck. A friend had a camera, so her encounter with the Hope Diamond was captured on film for posterity.
And how did such a huge rock come to be in the possession of such a party girl like Evalyn McLean, you might ask? “Unconventional, young, rich, and spoiled” were the words Kurin used to describe the McLeans—Evalyn and her then-husband, Edward Beale McLean–at the time of their purchase of the gem in 1911.
The two had had more money than either knew what do with, and prior to their marriage Evalyn wrote that her fiance “had never been other than rich.” After joining their inherited mining and publishing fortunes in 1908 through marriage, they agreed to buy the stone from jeweler Pierre Cartier for a cool $180,000 in January of 1911. Aware of the supposed curse, as well as her inner desire for the gem, Evalyn wrote in her autobiography, “Then I put the chain around my neck and hooked my life to its destiny for good or evil.”
By the time of McLean’s death in 1947 at age 60, she had experienced a string of misfortunes that included her alcoholic husband running off with another woman, the bankruptcy of the family business and the early deaths of two of her children. All of these events added to the Hope Diamond’s reputation. McLean herself may not have bought into the mystique, however. “What tragedies have befallen me,” she wrote in 1936, “might have occurred had I never seen or touched the Hope Diamond. My observations have persuaded me that tragedies, for anyone who lives, are not escapable.”
After her death, the gem was sold to settle debts in McLean’s estate, to diamond merchant Harry Winston in 1949. In 1958, Winston donated it to the Smithsonian Institution. With a weight of 45.52 carats and an estimated value of more than $200 million, the infamous Hope Diamond remains one of the Smithsonian’s most popular and most iconic items.