LUXURYCULTURE.COM - Judith Price: Gem Leader


President of the National Jewelry Institute, Judith Price is on a mission to share the beauty of fine jewelry with more than the privileged few.

Taking some of the world's finest jewelry out of vault and into the public, President of the National Jewelry Institute, Judith Price, is raising fine jewelry to an accessible art.

Diamonds may set most women's hearts aflutter, but when it comes to bijoux, it's design over dazzle for jewelry connoisseur Judith Price. Even as President and founder of the legendary NYC society & style scribe, Avenue Magazine, she privileged the power of line and form over detail by publishing all of the magazine's photos in black and white.

After leaving Avenue, the outspoken visionary applied her keen eye for design to the phenomenal realm of fine jewelry by establishing the National Jewelry Institute in 2002. Elevating jewelry to the realm of fine art by designing spectacular traveling exhibitions that explore the medium's great beauty, history and craftsmanship, the non-profit Institute has single-handedly triggered a new era of appreciation for the overlooked art form. The Institute's two widely successful shows thus far, Masterpieces of American Jewelry and Masterpieces of French Jewelry (for with Price has penned two insightful accompanying coffee table catalogues) have traveled extensively throughout the world, chronicling, through luster, carats, humor and design, the great emotional, cultural and creative dimensions to jewelry design in the United States and France over the past 100 years.

Testament to her conviction that jewelry is as deserving of museum space as sculpture or painting, Paris' mayor recently awarded her the prestigious Médaille de Vermeil for her great cultural contribution to the city after the stand-out success of her exhibition's Parisian stopover.

My definition of luxury:
"Luxury is very simply bliss — it is not a thing but a beautiful emotion."

If luxury were...
An object.
I'm beyond objects, but if I had to choose something outstanding and important to me it would be my Jean Dunand gong.

A person.
Since luxury for me is about feeling good I would have to say my husband because I still love playing with him in the sandbox.

A moment.
My birthday. I look at it as a moment of renewal, rediscovery and reflection.

A place.
Paris, it's the most romantic. It's where I honeymooned. Every time I'm there I remember that experience as a 23-year-old young woman.

You founded Avenue Magazine, an important style scribe in NYC. Was it there that you discovered your love for jewelry?
For me it's not about a love for jewelry, but a love for great design. That's really what we're really talking about. Good design can translate into so many different things, from furniture and silverware to bijoux. In that sense, I first found my love for great design on my honeymoon when I bought my first piece of African art from Charles Ratton. It was a Tschokwe statue and the design was fluid and very geometric. If you were to condense it down it could become a piece of Calder sculpture, or a fabulous necklace. I think if you just say that jewelry is here and everything is elsewhere, you're finished.

Who and what inspired you to create the National Jewelry Institute?
First, I like to do things that nobody has ever done. Secondly, there's no question that the decorative arts are becoming more important. Several years ago I went to Ashton Hawkins, who basically created the Costume Institute at the Met, and asked him, "Why has there never been a jewelry institute like the Costume Institute?" And he said, "It's simple. It's the museum's little secret. They don't want a jewelry institute because frankly the public would rather look at jewelry than Old Masters." I asked Ashton if he would become involved if I did this and he said yes. Then Ralph Esmerian, who's been a private collector of masterpieces, said yes as well. I knew that I wanted to assemble a small board that had nothing to do with jewelry but everything to do with design and so I invited Yvonne Brunhammer, who was the head of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Christopher Forbes, who loves anything Napoleon III, and Hervé Aaron, and expert in 18th-century French. And then I wanted someone who was a female philanthropist, and that's how I called on Chantal Miller.

Where do most of the pieces exhibited in your shows come from?
Private collectors. The interesting thing is that 60-70% of the objects belong to men, 80% of whom are art collectors. About one month ago Souren Melikian of the International Herald Tribune wrote about the results of the JAR sale at Christies. He said that there was no surprise that two of the most important pieces from the sale went to collectors of contemporary art, because for the first time jewelry is becoming more than an accessory, it is becoming art. So if you follow the art you know who's buying jewelry.

What are the Institute's objectives?
Ideally, we would like to build up a collection. If we're true to our mission —the education and preservation of fine jewelry— then we can only accept pieces that are really unique. In reality we're only two years old. We established the Institute in 2002, and our first show was not until 2004, so I think in two years we've come a long way. There's real momentum picking up. I would rather someone wear costume jewelry, although that's not our mission, and have fun with it than to buy something just because one of their friends has it. You can buy really interesting jewelry without spending too much money for it. It's certainly less than a sable coat or an haute couture ensemble.

Is your mission then to train people's eye?
Yes, it's the same way I feel about going to Paris Photo. You don't have to buy, but you do have to look. It's like going to a museum. Seeing is education, and that's everything.

What impact does great jewelry design have on its wearer?
I have to say I never realized the impact that jewelry can have until my birthday this past October when I wore a necklace that my husband had just bought me to an event. It was an incredible 18th-century French necklace in turquoise and diamonds that was set in silver. I wore it and people kept coming up to me saying, "We must get together." I realized for the first time what really extraordinary jewelry does: it surpasses everything and really takes you into a dream.

What are some of your favorite designs from the show 'Masterpieces of French Jewelry'?
I like pieces with stories. Although I'm not crazy for the Art Nouveau period, we have two incredible anthropomorphic bat sculptures designed by René Lalique that were displayed at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris. They each weigh about 300 kilos. We have three pieces in the show from Elizabeth Taylor, including a necklace that Richard Burton gave to her for her 40th birthday. Burton bought an original diamond that once belonged to the Shah Jhan, who created the Taj Mahal, and brought it to Cartier and designed this necklace for her. I also love the invisibly set Emerald bracelet and earrings by Van Cleef and Arpels that B. Gerald Cantor, the number one collector of Rodin in the world, purchased for his wife, Iris. Another favorite of mine is the Art Deco necklace and bracelet set by Jean Fouquet that demonstrates the influence of African Art on design at that time. It is so gorgeous. A major art collector lent us an incredible bracelet designed by the silversmith Jean Puiforcat in 1930. What's incredible to me about this bracelet is that you could wear it with jeans, or a black gown, it's so understated and yet extraordinary.

How do you feel about costume jewelry?
I think the difference is that real jewelry has memories. That's why Ellen Barkin sold all of her jewelry. It was memories. You have no memories with costume jewelry. It has nothing to do with the money. I think it has to do with where you were when you purchased it. In terms of Ellen Barkin, her jewels were souvenirs of where she was, what she was doing, and whom she was with.

Who are your favorite designers of all time?
For me I like the Art Deco period and I like Van Cleef and Cartier. I'm more romantic when it comes to the past. But on the other hand, I do think that Boucheron's black gold and sapphire earrings from 2002 are incredible.

The Institute fosters the training and support of new designers. Who are some of the up-and-coming designers that we should keep an eye on?
Our next show is going to be devoted to Lorenz Baumer, who has two pieces in this show. He is very little known in the States. He began as a costume jewelry designer. After that show we're going to have an amusing show called Olympic Gold where we'll exhibit the gold medals received by Olympic winners as well as other important pieces from their collections. We're also going to be doing a show in April 2008 of young designers, but we haven't chosen them yet. I will say, however, that Harold Koda will suggest several of the designers.

How does jewelry reflect the tastes of a culture?
I think as a rule certain cultures buy different pieces. For example, the 'parure' from the 50s in the exhibition book, though owned by an American collector, reflects the style of collectors from the Middle East. The French would be more inclined to mix and match, never wear a combination of necklace, bracelet, and ring of the same design. The other day I met with someone from a jeweler firm who showed me a large diamond ring. I immediately said that it would never sell in the US because it was too big. Cut it in half, and it would. In Japan you'd have to divide it in eight. You may see rings that are made by Boucheron and Van Cleef & Arpels and they'll look totally different in Japan, China, Russia, and the US.

But the jewelry houses are now making larger and larger pieces...
Yes, but they're not selling them to American clients. Ten to fifteen years ago women would spend $1.5 million for one piece of jewelry. Today women are dressing a lot sportier, so they're buying 10 pieces at $50,000 each instead. So the big pieces that used to sell no longer do, and the brands are adjusting the size in order to make their numbers in the US market. The people who are buying the masterpieces, again, are those who are buying amazing art. They don't care what they pay for it; it's not about the stone but the craftsmanship, beauty and story behind it.

What do you think of the wave of new jewelry designers flooding the market?
Ten years ago rich girls became fashion editors, then when the style changed they became press officers, then they became clothing designers à la Tory Burch, and now they're jewelry designers. So will it last? Will those designs last? Who knows?

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