Looking for a Jewelry History Loving Tribe?

Elyse Karlin and Yvonne Markowitz are co-founders of ASJRA, an incredible organization that caters to jewelry collectors, industry insiders, historians, and those who want to learn more about gems in fun, interactive, and educational environments. We sat down with Elyse to get the scoop on all things ASJRA: how it began, the benefits of membership, and upcoming events.

ASJRA stands for the Association for the Study of Jewelry and the Related Arts. How did your association form and what inspired it? How does it differentiate itself from other organizations in the trade?

It started with our magazine, Adornment Magazine, about 14 years ago. I watched a number of jewelry magazines start up and last only one or two issues, which was very frustrating because I felt there was a real need for them. There was one that lasted for a few years, which I wrote articles for, yet at some point it started getting smaller and then just sort of faded away. So with a journalism background and a love of jewelry, I decided to start my own magazine. I would say that we are probably the longest surviving magazine dedicated to jewelry in the world (aside from trade and retail industry magazines).

One day, I was chatting with Yvonne Markowitz (the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry Emerita, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and we lamented that there were very few places people interested in the study of jewelry that could learn from experts, so we decided to have our first annual conference, which we held at FIT. We used to have them every Columbus Day Weekend, but now we usually pick a date in the spring. It just made sense to us to create an umbrella organization for the conference and magazine to come under, and we announced the formation of ASJRA at that first conference.

Can you tell me about some of your ASJRA flagship events each year? What are some of the opportunities for members to learn about the history of jewelry in-person?

Well, we have our annual conference that is usually centered around a theme, for example “The Decorative Arts and Jewelry.” Our speakers are academics and experts in their fields, not individuals promoting their businesses. As much as possible we try to present new material, and have always welcomed graduate students to speak about their research, as well as write for our magazine. We’ve held the conferences in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Washington D.C.
ASJRA often has additional special events, or study days, during the year when there are exhibitions or events we feel our members will be interested in, from Baltimore to Richmond, VA for example. A few weeks ago, we had a curated tour of “The Body Transformed,” a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition, we always go to a nice restaurant for lunch so people have a chance to talk to each other in a relaxed atmosphere. During the afternoon on that day, we also went to the Aaron Faber Gallery and heard Peter Schmid, who had flown in from Germany, speak about his work with Atelier Zobel.

Aside from incredible events, ASJRA also has a magazine and newsletters. How do you choose what to focus on for these, and are there certain kinds of topics or sections that most appeal to your members?

Our newsletter comes out bi-monthly and is sent to members electronically; it generally runs about 50 pages. It contains all the news we can find about what is happening in the jewelry world in the preceding two months to its publication, including: information upcoming events, auction news, a very extensive (the largest we know of published by any organization) calendar of exhibitions, lectures and conferences around the world, news about what our members are doing, book reviews, and sometimes original articles. It has a lighter tone than our magazine, which someone once described as “The People Magazine of jewelry,” which I love!

Our magazine comes out three times a year and runs about 70 pages generally. It has very eclectic articles about jewelry subjects that are more scholarly than our newsletter, but are written in straightforward language about all kinds of jewelry subjects. We have a few international writers. Yvonne and I write some of the articles, and we are pleased to say that historians are always contacting us regarding submitting articles. For example, our last issue had these articles in it:

How does one become a member, and who should consider becoming a member?
Anyone who has ANY interest in jewelry should become a member! 🙂 It’s easy…just go to www.asjra.net and join. Other benefits include a discount on the fee for our annual conference, a special gift once a year for members, use of our logo for business purposes, one free ad in our newsletter upon joining, and invitations to events and free tickets to events as they come up. It is also a wonderful chance to network…we’ve been surprised and delighted at how many friendships have formed from people attending our events.

In addition to co-founding ASJRA, you are renowned for curating exceptional jewelry exhibitions nationally. Can you tell me about one or two of your favorite/most recent projects, and maybe hint at any future ones for us to look forward to?

Well, I love them all. I loved “Out of this World! Jewelry in the Space Age which was at The Forbes Galleries and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The concept for it was my own and The Forbes let me run with it. I was recently privileged to lecture at the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University on this subject. I was terrified because their normal speakers are physicists and high-level military people, but it was very well received as they put the satellite that sailed past Pluto up there!

Maker and Muse: Women and 20th Century Art Jewelry looked wonderful in the beautiful Richard H. Driehaus Museum in Chicago, and now it’s travelling to a number of venues for the next two years.

My current project is “Forging an American Style: Jewelry and Metalwork of the Arts & Crafts Movement” which will open at the new Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement in St. Petersburg, FL. It will be the first ever comprehensive exhibition on American Arts & Crafts jewelry with works by approximately 100 artists and firms, and is scheduled to open December 7, 2019.

Also coming up is the Sixth Annual Jewelry History Series—a two-day seminar sponsored by US Antique Shows in conjunction with the Original Miami Beach Antiques Show. The Series, which I run with Gail Brett Levine, will be on January 25th and 26th this year—and registration is now open through the show’s website.

On December 5th, you and Gail Brett Levine are speaking for the GIA Alumni in New York on what you have learned in 80 years of studying jewelry. Can you share one of the nuggets of wisdom, or a story from your journey?

Essentially, we are going through the alphabet and speaking about a style of jewelry or a technique for each letter. Let’s see…”N” is for negligee necklace. I learned it’s not a necklace you wear with a nightgown…it’s a necklace with two asymmetrical drops—of two different lengths.

As someone who has studied jewelry and knows it inside and out, I have to ask—is there a favorite period of jewelry you are drawn to, and if so who are some of your designer inspirations from that time?

Well clearly Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau are my favorite periods, I love jewelry that speaks about the maker by being handmade.

But I also love modernist jewelry which is so different than Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau—I love the simplicity, and sometimes it’s audacity.

If you could sit down for a dinner with anyone regarding their influence and perspective in the jewelry industry, what would you wear and what would you want to ask her or him?

That’s a pretty tough question. But I think I would want to meet Fred Partridge, an important English Arts & Crafts jeweler and enameler. He created among other things, carved horn jewelry with moonstones that is amazingly beautiful. He also had a personal history that was interesting and I’d like to know more about that…someday if I ever retire I want to write a mystery novel that he would figure prominently into.

But meeting René Lalique would be pretty amazing too, and I’d get a lovely dinner in France! Or Louis Comfort Tiffany would be great too!

In your opinion, why is jewelry important? Why should it be studied and documented, and what does it really mean to future generations researching what you and others have cataloged along the way?

The best way I can explain this is to suggest that people look at the trailer we’ve made for a movie we hope to produce some day on why we need to study jewelry history. We are still looking for a sponsor to help us underwrite it and then we would make it available everywhere. But jewelry is the most personal thing you can own and an expression of who you are. It can be handed down in your family, it can signify very important events in one’s life, it can identify personal beliefs, and it’s worn next to your skin…little else is that intimate. I always tell people that the language of jewelry transcends how people feel about speaking to strangers. It allows a complete stranger to come up to you and tell you they like what you are wearing!

You can see our trailer at: www.storytowear.com. Make sure to go to the home page to see the trailer.

Best piece of advice for someone considering a path like yours, of becoming a jewelry historian?
I didn’t take the path most people would need to make a living as a historian. I started collecting jewelry when I was about 13 years old; I was audacious and asked dealer’s questions. I was lucky to get to curate without a degree in decorative arts or museum studies. It doesn’t hurt to have studied gemology either. I have taken a few courses but I’m not a graduate gemologist. Apprenticing to antique jewelry firms, auction houses, or working as an unpaid assistant in a museum would all be helpful.

Thank you so much for your time, Elyse! For those interested in learning more about ASJRA or in membership, visit http://asjra.net/.

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