It was the ultimate romantic gesture – spontaneously coiling a bar of silver around a finger as an engagement ring. That day in 1985 remains etched in Diane Venet’s memory as it was the day her husband-to-be, world-renowned French artist Bernar Venet, proposed to her with the first jewel he ever made, in a style characteristic of his art – an act that triggered her enduring love affair with artist jewellery. He went on to gift her pieces made by his own hand when developing a new concept for a sculpture or those created especially for her by his artist friends Arman and César, which led her to research the little-known world of these objets d’art.
Acquiring only jewellery by painters and sculptors – never photographers, designers or architects – she has amassed a blue-chip collection of approximately 200 pieces by 152 of the world’s greatest artists of the 20th and 21st centuries whom she admires, such as Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Claude Lalanne, Niki de Saint Phalle, Takis, François Morellet, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Louise Bourgeois, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Miguel Chevalier, Jacques Villeglè and Orlan.
Telling an intimate, personal story each time, artist-made jewellery’s raison d’être is sentimental, created almost always out of love or friendship rather than for profit or to be sold by a gallery, and intended to be worn and sublimate the body. “I found the subject fascinating because of the relationship between the artist and the person for whom the piece was made,” Venet states. “The artists never made jewellery for commercial reasons. They took up the challenge in their career just to make someone they love happy. This is very touching and what I particularly like. Alexander Calder started making pieces for his younger sister; Picasso did it for Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar; Giorgio de Chirico made pieces for his wife… there are lots of examples.”
While Venet considers artist jewels to be miniature artworks with profound meaning rather than jewellery, as you can recognise an artist’s signature style, it isn’t simply about shrinking a large-scale art piece, since wearability has to be considered as well. Echoing the same formal language, and sometimes humour, of an artist’s oeuvre, it allows the confrontation of new constraints in terms of size, weight or material. In a class of its own, it questions the meaning and function of jewellery and cannot be qualified as haute joaillerie, contemporary jewellery by an independent creator, costume jewellery or a mere accessory. Defying the conventional rules of jewellery, value is derived not from the use of expensive precious stones or the carat size, but from the reputation of the artists and their concepts, the rarity, originality, craftsmanship and provenance.
Prices can range anywhere from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands. It is only in recent years that these tiny marvels, formerly in the hands of their original owners, have been appearing at auction houses, galleries and fairs. The advantage is that they are more affordable than a painting or sculpture and present the perfect opportunity to acquire a piece by a master at a lower price. You can find, for example, a Claude Lalanne butterfly brooch for an estimated €1,500 to €2,000, a Salvador Dalí pendant for €4,000 to €5,000, and a César compression for €6,400.
“Diamonds are beautiful, but everybody can have a diamond – it’s a money thing,” Venet notes. “If the artist did very large editions, prices are reasonable. So you can start a collection with not-very-expensive pieces by important names such as Arman. I could never have hoped to have one-tenth of my current collection as big works by the artists.”
Born in Paris, Venet is a former radio and television journalist whose family, originally from northern France, was in the wool trade business and were avid art collectors. Her parents collected modern art, including those by Picasso and Fernand Léger; she sold the artworks she inherited to invest in artist jewellery. She explains: “I wanted to create something and not just put on the walls things that were given to me by my parents.”
Dedicated Collector on a Mission
Instrumental in raising the profile of artist jewels and creating a market for it, she is on a mission to share her passion internationally, having exhibited her collection since 2008 in Roubaix, New York, Athens, Valencia, Miami, Seoul, Venice, Riga and, most recently, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The last, titled From Calder to Koons, Jewelery by Artists, showcased 260 works (80 percent from her collection and the rest on loan) and was the largest show of its kind.
Karine Lacquemant, Assistant Curator of the museum’s modern and contemporary department, cites Venet as one of the world’s greatest collectors of artist jewellery, alongside Clo Fleiss and Diana Küppers, who have kindled global interest in the field. Laurianne Simonin, Editor and Content Manager at Barnebys, a search engine for art, antiques and collectibles, adds: “Diane Venet’s collection has been built over decades and is the result of a dedicated search for the best pieces in the market. Her exhibitions displaying her extensive collection have started to shed light on the practice of artist jewellery and helped give it the status of ‘artwork’. She has definitely contributed to making the public more aware of the existence and value of these jewels.”
Venet sources her collection at auctions and a handful of galleries, such as Elisabetta Cipriani and Louisa Guinness in London, which released the book Art as Jewellery: From Calder to Kapoor last year. She has also bought pieces by artists such as Jean-Luc Moulène, Claude Lévêque and Phillip King from Galerie MiniMasterpiece in Paris, which was opened by her eldest daughter Esther de Beaucé in 2012, and is dedicated to limited-edition artist and designer jewellery, some of which are commissioned, that range in price from €350 to €35,000.
From Friendships Forged
Although artist jewellery remains a niche market, attracting connoisseur collectors, it has come to the forefront also thanks to blockbuster exhibitions such as Medusa. Presented by the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, it united over 400 jewels by artists, designers, contemporary jewellery-makers and high-end jewellery brands, and anonymous, ancient or non-Western pieces.
Helping to raise the profile, too, are specialised sales such as Christie’s 2017 Art As Jewellery online auction. Top figures achieved at auction in recent years include US$1.985 million for a 1940 silver necklace by Calder, US$1.055 million for Dalí’s The Eye Of Time brooch and £584,750 for Picasso’s Portrait de Dora Maar ring.
Venet often collects one-off or highly limited-edition pieces, sometimes created by the artists themselves and other times, by jewellery-makers based on the artists’ sketches. The Hera brooch, for instance, was the first in an edition of eight designed by Georges Braque, who in the last two years of his life designed jewellery and had more than 110 gouaches transformed into jewels. The gold brooch embellished with blue sapphires and diamonds was produced by famous jeweller and lapidarist Heger de Loewenfeld.
The Pol Bury gold bracelet manufactured by Italian jeweller GianCarlo Montebello, too, was realised in an edition of 25, while the Optic Topic domino mask in perforated gold conceived by Man Ray – incidentally also fashioned by Montebello – is one of only 100 pieces produced at the time. Venet also has in her possession the Madame pendant by Jean Cocteau, numbered 18 out of 50 and depicting the contours of a human face in fine lines of gold set with rubies and diamonds, and a unique piece by Wim Delvoye, comprising eight gold ring-pendants and a chain, that illustrates eight versions of Christ on a crucifix. From Calder, the most prolific creator of artist jewellery who made over 1,800 jewels himself, Venet owns a one-off gilded bronze belt buckle-pendant he crafted.
These conversation pieces reveal the wearer’s desire for singularity, with Venet asserting that “they’re for women with a strong character who dare, in the way that they don’t think that a diamond will help them be someone. They prefer to wear art because they think it might add something to their personality. I wear artist jewellery all the time – sometimes two or three pieces, depending on my mood, the climate, where I’m going, who I’m meeting. When I wear one of these pieces, I’m wearing art, not jewellery. I feel close to the artist. I knew César quite well and when I wear a pendant of his, I think of him and I’m with him even though he’s up there. And it’s the same for many artists who are not around anymore.”
In a way, her collection constitutes a diary of her life and friendships in the art world. Her first purchase before officially starting her collection was a Roy Lichtenstein pin she bought as a student in 1968 for US$3. Her oversized Elisse Concetto Spaziale lacquer bracelet pierced with tiny holes by Fontana, which resembles his Spatial paintings, was a birthday present from her husband.
She also recalls how she obtained a Frank Stella gold ring with curved forms. A dear friend, Stella had at first refused to make her a jewel even after Bernar had attempted several times to persuade him, repeatedly saying: “I’m not interested. I do big things. Jewellery is not at all my thing.” Then, at a dinner in his New York studio in 2009, he pulled out from a drawer a necklace inspired by his relief sculptures, badly wrapped in a page torn from an old magazine, and offered it to her. She then went on to convince him to work on a small edition of jewellery and helped him settle on the design of his ring.
Her latest acquisitions are a bracelet by Pablo Reinoso and a gold-plated dried sprouted potato necklace by Jacqueline de Jong. One of her most prized possessions, which she had spent years searching for, is Dalí’s Montre Petite Cuillère, a surrealist enamel hair brooch that’s at once a spoon, comb and watch. It was conceived as an edition of six, although she knows of only three pieces.
Never selling the pieces she has acquired, Venet has a zeal for artist jewellery that remains palpable even after three decades of collecting; she’s obsessed with the thrill of the hunt for an artwork handmade by a master and the chance to wear it. The ultimate collector, she talks excitedly about her holy grails: “I found a picture of a necklace worn by Vincent van Gogh’s Dutch wife before he left for Tahiti. I looked for it, but couldn’t find it. Also, imagine having a piece of jewellery by Constantin Brâncuşi. If he were alive, I’d have slept outside his studio to ask him for a piece, but I don’t think he ever made jewellery.”
She hopes to eventually exhibit in Brazil, China and Singapore. “When you build up a collection through passion and love, but you keep it in a safe and don’t share it, it has no meaning. I want to show it so people see what an artist is capable of, which I think is very important. Bringing it worldwide is really about teaching others, not to satisfy a personal ego.”