Louisa Guinness, a Life in Art Jewelry

ABIGAIL R. ESMAN, The New York Times, November 21, 2016

Louisa Guinness, wearing a one-of-a-kind Alexander Calder silver wire necklace from 1940 and a limited-edition Disc Ring in 18-karat white gold by Anish Kapoor. Credit: Andrew Testa for The New York Times; the painting behind Ms. Guinness © Candida Höfer, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2016. Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, London.


It started almost as a whimsy. Then it took over her life.


For Louisa Guinness, jewelry made by artists is more than just adornment. Her gallery in the Mayfair district of London is a mecca for those who love such style. She frequently commissions pieces from contemporary artists such as Anish Kapoor, Claude LaLanne, Marc Quinn and Ron Arad and works closely with them on the designs. She has curated art jewelry exhibitions for Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery in London and is curating another for Jacob Rothschild, to open at his Waddesdon Manor museum, in Buckinghamshire, in March.


But her life didn’t start this way. Ms. Guinness, who was born in Ireland, spent nearly 20 years in the finance world, first in London and then in Hong Kong and New York, before returning to Britain in 2000. “I needed a break,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what it was I wanted to do, but I knew somehow it should be with art, or jewelry and art.”


In 2003, she and her husband, the art dealer Ben Brown, came up with the idea to organize an exhibition of artist-designed outdoor furniture. Soon after, inspired by her mother-in-law’s Calder necklace, Ms. Guinness organized a Christmas-season sales exhibition of jewelry by artists.


“I wanted to put together all the artist jewelry I could get my hands on,” Ms. Guinness recounted, “because the more I discovered and the more others discovered it, I just wanted more and more.”

That first exhibition focused on Picasso and Max Ernst and included a gold Picasso pendant with carved bulls’ heads, as well as several pendants by Niki de Saint Phalle — all art jewelry classics. In addition, she approached Mr. Kapoor, who produced a special Water Ring for the occasion.

From there, she quickly expanded to include well-known artists like Lucio Fontana and contemporary names such as Damien Hirst, both for her exhibitions and her personal collection. And she bought her own Calder necklace, which she still considers among her favorites in her own collection, now totaling about 100 pieces.


Artist-designed jewelry is frequently referred to as wearable art: essentially, each piece is a tiny sculpture. Its primary appeal is form, not glitter; with rare exceptions, pieces do not include large or flashy gems. Rather, its appeal lies in its design, often in the context of the artist’s larger oeuvre. The fashion editor Amanda Ross, for example, recalled that when she visited Ms. Guinness’s gallery for the first time, “she had this one Picasso choker that was extraordinary — but many thousands of dollars. I asked her why it cost so much, and she said, ‘Well, just think: it’s the most affordable Picasso.’ ”


The same could be said of many of Ms. Guinness’s own pieces: a 1967 silver and lacquer bracelet by Mr. Fontana, for instance, could easily stand alone as one of his typical “concetto spaziale,” complete with perforations.

Earrings by Ron Arad. Credit: Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Collecting such jewelry poses unique challenges, however: Coveted pieces are specific, and examples are scarce. Salvador Dalí’s 1949 ruby-and-pearl “lips” brooch, for instance, was produced in an edition of only eight, and “there are only two I know of in the world,” Ms. Guinness said. She does not own one, but she includes the design in her ideal “perfect collection of artist’s jewelry.” (Also on her list: “a fantabulous, amazing Calder necklace” that is “too difficult to wear, to sit on a bust, to have in my bedroom. That would make me really happy,” she said.)


As important works appear only rarely on the market, the hunt can be that much more thrilling — and fiercely competitive, especially as interest in artist-made jewelry is rising. On one occasion, Mr. Brown said, his wife asked him to visit a shop in New York where she had seen a pair of Dalí earrings for $9,000. He forgot — and by the next day, they were sold. “She has never forgiven me for that,” he said.

Still, Ms. Guinness prides herself on having what she called a “fairly comprehensive collection” of the “Old Masters of modern jewelry.” Alongside these pieces, she has begun assembling a special collection of the designs she has commissioned, all of which are sold in her gallery — but their commercial aspect is secondary, she said.


“I don’t compromise the artists. I don’t steer them and say, ‘This won’t sell,’ ” she explained. “I may warn them and say, ‘If you make it like that, it might not sell,’ but if they say ‘I don’t care,’ I let them do it. I don’t care, either, because what I really want is a great piece of art that you can wear.”


The Water Ring she commissioned from Mr. Kapoor is one piece that succeeded commercially, and it remains among her favorites. (“Kapoor will always have a special place in my heart, as he was one of the first collaborations I ever worked on,” she said. “So wearing this ring — a very early piece — reminds me of our journey together.”)


Although she is sentimental about some pieces, Ms. Guinness curates her collection much as art collectors do, “finding what I like and what I think is important and will sit well with the rest of the collection.”


And it isn’t only artist jewelry that attracts her. She has a penchant for fine detail, and anything that shows “the skill of a worker,” like the paper jewelry she picked up in Japan. “I also love lapis and gold,” she said. “I have a beautiful pair of ’60s earrings — not important, but whenever I wear them I get so many compliments. ”


Despite all the collecting, selling, designing and curating, Ms. Guinness still is thrilled by art jewelry. “Really, I’ve found that the more you get to know about something, the more you become passionate about it,” she said. “I’ve become passionate about the whole thing. It’s not that I stood up and said I’m going to enter the jewelry world. I entered the jewelry world and now I love it.”


And while that love came to her later in life, she observed, she always had an interest in art: “Jewelry is more a medium. It’s the way we tell the story. Through the jewelry.”