Ornament as Art Avant-Garde Jewelry 
from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection, 
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Review by Mary Sue Packer, 
a collector living in Munich, is co-author of ‘Strass’.


  I confess to being stunned and daunted when I first broached ‘Ornament as Art’, and thought, what am I doing here? Intimidated by minimalist anything, deconstructed design elements re-aligned, design enigmas I couldn’t fathom….I had blundered into uncharted territory, fraught with unaccustomed unconventional and weird juxtapositions, newly defined classics (the proud Squash Blossom necklace), continually defied conventions, jewelry re-interpreted as architecture…

I also confess to luxuriating for months in this phenomenal catalog of Helen Drutt’s collection ensconced in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, steeping myself in the heady – yea, intoxicating – presentation of the unique objects in this stupendous volume, letting them just work on me… For absent here is the comfort of the traditional, subverted by extraordinary vision into unexpected handicraft. 

Elegant whimsical creations and deceptively simple concepts delude us into thinking ‘I could do that!’ (I’m especially enchanted by the ‘Air Neckpiece’, a freefall into a design vision untrammelled by conventional design formulas…) 

The idea of combining diverse elements into a gratifying entity has immense appeal ( - to wit, the ‘Serpent Brooch’). I’m captivated by the concept of incorporating disparate found objects into a working (in the eye of the beholder) entity (also subjective) which bespeaks a primordial urge to hunt, gather, and assemble.

A subtle communion is thereby engendered between the beholder and the pieces, whether worn or contemplated. The spontaneous pleasure in dealing with objects of such uniqueness defies articulate expression, virtually implying an awareness latent within the jewel, and achieved perhaps through the creative process, as if individual elements have gravitated toward an improvised whole. These are objects conceived not necessarily to adorn or enhance, but to ‘be’ - ‘non-social jewelry whose intrinsic worth is in its uniqueness and ingenuity of design concept’.
Via exhaustive research and extensive documentation, Cindi Strauss, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, has introduced the prodigious collection assembled by the remarkable personality whose life work and dedication have brought together objects of historical significance from five continents. Reproduced are ca. 800 objects and drawings by 175 internationally renowned artists from 1963 to the present, whose craft has embraced new materials and design concepts parallel to the wider contexts of movement in contemporary painting, sculpture and architecture. 

Invaluable information is to be gleaned from the essays preceding the ‘Featured Works’, which include an insightful interview with Helen W. Drutt English, and a ‘brief’ ‘History of Contemporary Jewelry’, as well as a detailed historical chronology. Biographies of the artists presented initiate and sustain the magic of their esoteric and enigmatic variations throughout this memorable work. 

Helen Williams Drutt English is a force, a Maecenas whose particular vision and obsession as a private collector is our gain. Catalytic in her generous patronage of artists, many of whom might otherwise have been doomed to obscurity, with their creations transitory and waning into oblivion, she has garnered innovative and experimental works, inspiring as prototypes which defy and transcend traditional classification and categories, thereby establishing an international forum for contemporary jewelry designers and artisans. 

The rather grand book format suits the impressive scope of the collection; over a thousand color illustrations document the evolution of this global discourse with the perfect flawless presentation of a definitive work we take for granted from the Arnoldsche. More than a monumental catalog to the Houston exhibit, this is a superb testimonial to the tireless efforts of Helen Williams Drutt to maintain the dialogue begun over 40 years ago among five continents, and ensure that contemporary jewelry remains in the worldwide mainstream of culture and the decorative arts. 

The range of this work and the thoroughness with which it has addressed all aspects of avant-garde jewelry constitute a standard work indispensable for design enthusiasts regardless of their focus in and collecting orientation.


Ornament as Art Avant-Garde Jewelry 
from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection, 
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

By Cindi Strauss. Arnoldsche Art Publishers, Stuttgart, Germany. 
528 pages, 1073 Illustrations in color

Hardcover, text in English. 
Available for $125 from the Antique Collectors Club, Easthampton, Mass. 

Photo Gallery of Avant-Garde Jewelry 


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