Wear A Sculpture

Rappers and aristocrats share an affinity for bling—the more flash on a jewel, the better. Indeed, gemstones are cut so as to appear as brilliant as possible, even when that requires losing a chunk of semi-precious stone.

Gemstone cutting is a meticulous process with high stakes. Lapidaries first grind away the rock that encases a raw gemstone, and then carve the stone with a series of tiny, precise, geometrical incisions. The cuts create dozens of flat reflective surfaces called facets.

When the stone catches a ray of light, the facets send it ricocheting around the gem's interior. The light released by the gem is brighter than the light that entered; it sparkles.

Before CAD computer programs allowed lapidaries to more easily design cuts of their own invention, the gem industry kept to a prescribed number of patterns, each with a prescribed number of facets: princess, baguette, antique cushion, and round brilliant are a few terms familiar to jewelry aficionados. It follows that materials with no glitz factor—pebbles, clay, wood—were deemed unsuitable for high-end jewelry design.

Margaret De Patta (1903-1964) changed all that. De Patta was an artisan jeweler working in the inspired crafts community of Northern California in the 1930s and 40s. She was pivotal in creating what's known as contemporary jewelry design, which is based on the idea, now commonplace, that jewelry can represent the artistic vision of its creator, rather than simply showcase precious stones. De Patta coined the term "wearable sculpture."

De Patta suspected bling needn't be the raison d'‪ê‬tre of jewelry design, and chose instead to accentuate the intrinsic and subtle properties of her stones.

Collaborating with a lapidary named Francis Sperisen, she created facet designs unique to each stone she was working with. She called these designs "opticuts."

The result was stones that bent or distorted rays of light, created pockets of transparency, or even illuminated the gem's internal flaws. Traditional faceting hides the metalwork behind the jewel, but De Patta emphasized the metalwork, or gave it the illusion of movement.

Opticuts were only one instance of De Patta rejecting the dogmas of traditional jewelry. Equally unorthodox, she produced designs that mixed posh and everyday materials, setting pearls and gold alongside pebbles she'd collected at the beach. And rather than photograph her jewelry as worn by a pretty model, she adopted the conventions of art photography, using austere backgrounds and neutral lighting.

The artist's biographical factoids are equally intriguing: She was blacklisted for her Communist bent. She spent a year studying with Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy. She committed suicide at age sixty-one. And most poignant of all, she earnestly believed there was a mainstream American market for her avant-garde designs. To her profound and lasting disappointment, she was proven wrong.

Read more in Space, Light, and Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta, co-authored by OMCA's Julie M. Muñiz. Or better, come visit the exhibition. It'll be up through May 13, 2012 at OMCA and then travel to the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City.