A Return to Legacy: Exploring African American Jewelry Heritage
“Scholarship in the history of jewelry making in the 20th Century has often focused on a very narrow discourse based on primarily white European and American designers, and has often overlooked the creative contributions of other diverse voices, such as the African American community. Many of these designers coming from this community have helped develop contemporary jewelry, providing superb artistic craft to the worlds of fashion, performance, fine art, and art jewelry. Yet these contributions have largely gone unnoticed, as only few Black artists have achieved prominent exhibition and research on their efforts in jewelry making.”
And so we welcome to this space, led by the words above from Sebastian Grant, Legacy: Jewelry making and building African American Communities, preserving heritage, and pushing creativity.
“As America continues to develop a better understanding of its vast and multiplicitous history, continuously incorporating the diverse figures that have previously been forgotten, jewelry scholarship needs to accomplish the same task. Legacy is part of the ongoing effort to capture the many stories of influential black makers of jewelry, and to let their artistic merits be given the credit that has been long due.” – Sebastian Grant.
Grant, a curator, art historian, and professor at Parsons School of Design, released the initial incarnation of his project, Legacy, in the fall of 2020 at NYC Jewelry Week. The virtual program provides an overview of African American contributions to the jewelry field. Some well known, some all but forgotten, the enlightening project sparked investigation into the featured jewelers by individuals and organizations across the country and resulted in a widespread desire for Grant’s continuation of the project. Fueled by this support and his own desire to uncover the history of these incredibly important jewelers, the work on the project continues.
We reached out to Grant to see how it’s going, how he feels about it all and to learn more about the future of Legacy. We welcome you to watch Grant’s initial presentation of Legacy here as an addendum to this article.
FUTURE HEIRLOOM: Can you tell us a bit more about how the Legacy project started, and why it was important to you to create?
SEBASTIAN GRANT: This project started as part of a collaboration between myself and The Jewelry Library to examine the following questions: 1) Why have so few African American jewelry artists been discussed within the main canon of Art Jewelry discourse?, and 2) Were there any stories in existence which documented the lives and contributions of these artists? After the harrowing events of the death of George Floyd, and the following summer of protest, America had a moment of reckoning surrounding the questions of representation, especially for the African American community. Following this important moment for true conversation, I knew how essential it was to ask these same questions of representation when it comes to Art Jewelry.
Grant offers an overview of what the project includes:
“Legacy covers some of the many contributions of African American jewelers, from the Modernist jewelry practices of the 1940’s to the powerful political statements made in jewelry more recently. We look at the various fields that benefited from black creative talent, looking at scenes from fashion and performance, to arts and design. In addition, we explore not only the creative works themselves, but also the communities that developed around the enthusiastic exchanges of creative thought.
“Faced with the constant threat of racism and oppression that plagues America, communities of color formed artistic circles as a means of survival and a preservation of heritage, passing on techniques and traditions in Mid-20th Century jewelry centers as Greenwich Village, to wider artistic circles in Los Angeles and Chicago. Lastly, we introduce various designers, from widely known names to lesser known contributors, in the hope of increasing wider acknowledgement of these important African American artists, and their great influence and impact on the history of modern jewelry.”
FH: What do you hope Legacy’s impact will be?
SG: As I continue this project, I hope that it will have the sole purpose of starting important conversations in the jewelry community, especially with the goal in mind that we can start finding more names of black individuals in the past who played an important role in the art of metal smithing during the 20th Century, but whose stories have been forgotten in the past.
FH: What are your next steps in expanding the project?
SG: The next steps so far have been documenting these stories about the lives of these great black artists into writing, which have been discussed in recent articles for Metalsmith and an upcoming article for Art Jewelry Forum. In addition, I am continuing to look for new names that could be added to a growing list, and I hope to learn more about their stories as I continue exploring my research.
As Grant’s research and development of Legacy continues, we look forward to sharing new insights into the history of Black American jewelers soon. In the meantime, we asked Grant to share some highlights on a selection of the jewelers and artists featured in Legacy. Read on to learn more about the work of Vaughn Stubbs, Patrick Kelly, Carolee Prince, Curtis Tann and Betye Saar.
Working as a legendary multidisciplinary artist of the Philadelphia Community, Vaughn Stubbs explored creative excellence through found objects, mixing sophistication and kitsch to make fine art and jewelry. Born in 1946, Stubbs was interested in art from a young age, but his pursuit in the creative field was delayed when he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. He participated in the campaign as a field artist, and left the army in 1970 to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1972.
As an artist, Stubbs participated in many fields, from painting and sculpting, to quilting and jewelry making. His work mainly consisted of utilizing common everyday objects, such as plastic beads, feathers, and children’s toys, and transforming them into stylish works of art which explored erudite subjects such as Greek Mythology, European Art History, and Pop Art aesthetic. Stubbs would often incorporate these features into jewelry, creating brooches that truly exhibit the opulent tastes of the eighties. In addition to creating beautiful pieces, Stubbs served as a figure who always gave back to his city of Philadelphia, teaching art to blind students at the Philadelphia Museum of art until 2000. Although passing away in 2016, his memory has been held in a prominent place by the people of Philadelphia, with a legacy that can never be forgotten.
Most famous for his work as a fashion designer in the 1980’s, Patrick Kelly was also well known for creating bold and grandiose pins that were closely linked to his signature overall aesthetic. After rising to fame in Paris, in part due to magazine attention from the likes of Vogue, he was picked up by world famous stores like Bloomingdales and Bergdorf Goodman and garnered many famous clients including Naomi Campbell, Grace Jones, Madonna, Isabella Rossellini, Princess Diana and more.
He used much of the same symbolism in his jewelry that he used in his fashions including oversized buttons, bows and figures which really adopted the 80’s aesthetic of “bold & beautiful,” as shown below.
Kelly’s work also explored issues of segregation and racism through historical and ironic references in his jewelry. Using a golliwog image as his logo (shown below), for instance, or blackamoor figures allowed him to subvert the narrative and take power back from negative anti-black imagery – reclaiming the symbols of hate to confront racism in America.
Carolee Prince was a NYC based jeweler and artist whose work was prominent in the mid 1950’s to late 1960’s. Prince worked in connection with the African Jazz-Art Studio Scene (AJASS) in Harlem which was part of the Black is Beautiful pride movement of the 1960’s. Carolee often collaborated with photographer Kwame Brathwaite, a founding member of AJASS who used his work to promote the Black is Beautiful movement by focusing on and celebrating Black identity without the influence of European based culture. Carolee often contributed her work to Brathwaite for his photos, most prominently string beaded pieces, as shown here, in line with African traditional beadwork.
Kwame along with his brother, activist Elombe Brath (the other founding member of AJASS) would gather Black models from across Harlem, the “Grandassa Models” (shown above), a group of models promoting natural hairstyles at a time when natural hairstyles were not well regarded.
Carolee also made many of the headpieces worn by legend Nina Simone in her live concerts, shown below.
Curtis Tann and Betye Saar
More recently known as one of the most influential African American conceptual artists, Betye Saar (née Brown) has a long and flourishing career that had its origins in jewelry making. Originally working as a social worker in the late 1940’s, Saar’s life changed for the better through the special friendship she developed with Curtis Tann. Tann was an enamel artist who recently moved to Pasadena after learning his craft at the black owned art school Karamu House in Cleveland, Ohio. In their meeting, Tann was able to introduce Saar to enamel arts, and through his connections, introduced her to the local art scene in Los Angeles, introducing her to important artists such as Charles White and William Pajaud.
By the early 1950’s, the friends formed the company with the tongue-in-cheek name Brown & Tann, and created works of enamel on copper, from ashtrays to bowls, and of course, jewelry. These enamel works gained quite some renown for the team, even leading to a feature in Ebony Magazine, yet the company dissolved as Saar developed new interests in printmaking and eventually assemblage. While Tann continued to develop his enamel jewelry design working for Renoir/Matisse, Saar continued to revisit jewelry through different points in her career, including the Mojo series in the early 1970’s. Yet, their friendship continued to be strong throughout the years, with the pair known to keep in touch up to Tann’s death in 1991.
We invite you to watch Grant’s full presentation of Legacy here.
Thank you to Sebastian Grant for sharing some of his favorite selections from Legacy with us.
Research by Sebastian Grant. Select images provided by Sebastian Grant. Introduced by JB Jones and edited by JB Jones and Jackie Andrews.