Senior Editor Brecken Branstrator chooses the pieces she’d most want to see in person.
Jewels from Modernist Designer Art Smith, Sammy Davis Jr. Head to Auction
“California Jewels” will feature six of Smith’s pieces, bought at his Greenwich Village store by a friend and collector.
Smith (1917–1982) was known for making jewelry influenced by biomorphism—design meant to evoke nature and living organisms—and Surrealism, creating pieces dynamic in both style and form.
He typically worked in brass and copper and sometimes sterling silver, but rarely worked in gold.
Smith trained at Cooper Union in New York City and sold his jewels at his store in Greenwich Village from 1946 to 1979.
His work was featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and museums around the world have also collected Smith’s jewels, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Newark Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
The Brooklyn Museum’s 2008 exhibition, “From the Village to Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith,” helped bring interest in the Afro-Cuban artist back to the fore.
Smith is also the namesake for the endowment fund created in 2020 for Black students enrolled in, or looking to enroll in, the Fashion Institute of Technology’s jewelry design program.
See: The Art Smith Pieces Up for Auction
The six Art Smith pieces on the block during the L.A. sale—three of which are unsigned—come from a collector who said her mother became friends with Smith in the late 1940s and bought several pieces at his Greenwich Village store.
“My sister and I grew up hearing stories of Art Smith, who was a larger-than-life character from Greenwich Village. In the late 1940s, my parents lived in New York City and became friends with (him),” she said.
“Mom’s memory of him was that of a tall (to her) openly gay Black man with a shaved head wearing an earring. He made an impression on her, selling his designs from his own shop on Cornelia Street. She explained to us what a rarity this was in the 1940s, and how much courage it took for him to live his life.”
The jewels in the auction are sculptural pieces of art.
There’s a sterling silver and moonstone necklace circa 1950; a sterling silver collar and bangle circa 1950; and a pair of sterling silver ear clips attributed to Smith circa 1950.
There will also be an 18-karat gold and opal bead ring circa 1950 designed by Smith, a sterling silver cuff bracelet circa 1950, and a pair of sterling silver earclips circa 1950.
Bonhams’ upcoming L.A. jewelry auction will also feature jewelry once owned by none other than Sammy Davis Jr.
Born in Harlem to Afro-Cuban vaudeville dancers, Davis spent his life in showbusiness, performing for the first time at the age of 3.
He broke down myriad racial barriers to become a successful comedian, actor, dancer, and singer.
See: Sammy Davis Jr.’s Jewelry
After starring as the lead in “Mr. Wonderful” on Broadway, Davis became friends with Frank Sinatra, forming the “Rat Pack” with Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford, and appearing in movies like the original “Ocean’s 11” (1960) and “Sergeants 3” with them.
The Tony-nominated performer also had a flair for style from the get-go, always seen wearing a suit and donning at least one big gold ring.
In 1967, he was the first Black man to be featured on the cover of GQ, sporting that signature look.
Now, five pieces once in his collection will be up for auction at the Bonhams L.A. sale.
They include an 18-karat bicolor gold, diamond, and enamel monogram ring, and an 18-karat bicolor gold, diamond, and enamel monogram necklace.
The other three of his pieces in the jewelry auction are a Bueche Girod 18-karat gold bracelet watch; a gold and diamond solitaire ring; and an 18-karat gold fancy brown diamond and white diamond ring.
To view all the lots in the July 20 “California Jewels” auction, visit Bonhams.com.
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