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Jazz and Jewelry: The Life of Art Smith

Art Smith was an influential American jewelry designer who gained popularity in the mid-20th century for his bold and abstract designs. At his studio in Greenwich Village, Smith created unique theatrical pieces, inspired by surrealism and biomorphism. His jewelry was meant for everyday wear, designed to be comfortable enough for daily use but suitably eye-catching for his clientele of dancers, actors, and musicians. Influenced by the jazz and art scene in which he immersed himself, Smith’s jewelry style embodied the experimental spirit of jazz and adopted the unconventional stylings of modern art.

Art Smith holding “Spiral Necklace,” ca. 1958. From the Estate of Art Smith

Art Smith was born in 1917 in Cuba to Jamaican parents. His family moved to Brooklyn when he was three years old. For college, he attended Cooper Union, where he initially studied architecture, but soon switched to sculpture when he realized he didn’t have the aptitude for math. He first became interested in jewelry making while working as a crafts assistant for the Children’s Aid Society.

To strengthen his metalworking skills, he took night courses on jewelry making at NYU, where he met his mentor, Winnifred Mason, a notable designer believed to be the first commercial black jeweler in the United States. Mason employed Smith at her studio in Greenwich Village, even trusting him to run the shop for months when she was away. At Mason’s studio, Smith cultivated his personal style. Alexander Calder was a major influence for Smith, adopting a similar sense of dynamism and fondness for rounded forms. He was also heavily inspired by African jewelry, studying photos of traditional African fashion from art and geography periodicals at the public library. Smith also rented an apartment in the neighborhood and moved out of his family home in Brooklyn. Living alone for the first time was a refreshing experience, as Smith no longer had to hide his sexuality and relished being part of the welcoming gay community in the village. 

Model wearing “Patina” necklace, ca. 1959.

In 1949, the young jewelry designer was faced with a difficult choice. A disgruntled supplier of his mentor was determined to seek revenge. Scheming to cripple her business, he offered her prized second in command, Smith, a no-interest loan plus six months of rent and living expenses to open up his own studio. Smith felt conflicted, but the deal was too good to pass up. He opened up his first studio on Cornelia Street and said goodbye to Mason. 

Galaxy Necklace, ca. 1962, from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

At this first studio, he was subjected to frequent racist and homophobic harassments, even requiring the police to put his shop under 24 hour surveillance. He quickly relocated to 140 West 4th Street, half a block from Washington Square Park, which became his home base for decades. At this location, he mingled with artists and musicians also living in Greenwich Village. 

Model wearing “Modern Cuff” bracelet, ca. 1948, from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.
The flattened ends of the brass rods recall the brass keys of a saxophone or trumpet.

He first met Talley Beatty, a modern dancer, who introduced him to black artists like writer James Baldwin, painter Charles Sebree, and singer Lena Horne, among many others. He had always been a jazz fanatic, amassing a sizable collection of records while at Cooper Union. Now, he was hobnobbing with popular musicians, like Harry Belafonte and Duke Ellington. He would often create jewelry for musicians and dancers that he admired. Through these connections, he started to get attention from high fashion magazines, and was commissioned to create pieces for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and the New Yorker. His most famous commissions were a brooch designed for Eleanor Roosevelt and a pair of cufflinks for Duke Ellington (which incorporated the initial notes of Ellington’s renowned track “Mood Indigo” into the design).

Ellington Necklace, ca. 1962, from the Estate of Art Smith.

In the 1970’s, Smith’s health started to deteriorate and he closed his studio in 1979. Smith died only a few years later in 1982. At the height of his career, Smith had become one of the most highly regarded modernist jewelers of the mid-century. After his passing, three significant exhibitions were arranged to commemorate his legacy and accomplishments: Arthur Smith: A Jeweler’s Retrospective at the Jamaica Arts Center in Queens in 1990, Sculpture to Wear: Art Smith and His Contemporaries at the Gansevoort Gallery in 1998, and From the Village to Vogue at the Brooklyn Museum in 2008.

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