The Seed of Sculpture
Bertoia's Jewelry Design
Bertoia had a natural talent for working in metal. At Cranbrook he ran the metal studio and often created jewelry for his colleagues and classmates.
Harry Bertoia had a natural talent for working in metal. He was first taken by the material as a child in Italy when he encountered a group of gypsies hammering copper bowls. He learned the craft of metalsmithing while attending Detroit’s Cass Technical High School and by the young age of twenty-two was invited by Eliel Saarinen to oversee the metalworking studio at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Bertoia’s experience at Cranbrook was his artistic awakening. From 1937-1943 he was an integral part of the artistic ferment of the famed school. As Eliel Saarinen commented in an address to the American Institute of Architects in 1931, “Cranbrook is not an art school… it is a working place for creative art.” And Bertoia worked: he ran the metal studio, learned printmaking and developed his monoprint technique that he would explore throughout his life. Throughout this time, he made jewelry, often for fellow colleagues and Cranbrook alumni. Loja Saarinen, wife of Eero Saarinen, commissioned Bertoia to create a ring for her. He later designed a wedding band for Ray Eames for her marriage to Charles, as well as a ring for the wife of classmate and architect Edmund Bacon. Even after the metal shop was closed due to war restrictions, he would salvage and make jewelry from scrap. When Bertoia left Cranbrook to move to Los Angeles to help create the Eames Office, he held a sale of jewelry to raise money for his travels.
Bertoia was always influenced by nature. His famed Dandelion and Bush Form sculptures pay direct homage to the natural world. In his jewelry, Bertoia often took an almost microscopic perspective with the anthropomorphic forms of amoebas and insects. The early examples offered here, created around his time at Cranbrook, express a dynamic spontaneity found only in nature. His brooch the early 1940s, a spider web of silver woven rhythmically around an ebony center, is evocative of primitive art while displaying sophisticated, modern lines. Bertoia’s fishbone pendant appears almost as if it were an ink drawing pulled from the page, and his brooch from 1943 recalls a cellular organism as seen through the lens of a microscope.
His jewelry exists almost as scaled-down sculpture.
His later jewelry works draw from nature in less obvious ways by implying energy and life through surface and line. As he grew more successful as a sculptor, Bertoia’s production of jewelry slowed, occasionally making pieces as gifts for friends. His jewelry from the 1970s exists almost as scaled-down sculpture, and suggests the forces of nature rather than elements of it. The bracelet offered here is a feat of craftsmanship, consisting of a continuous coil attached with a single weld. The tension is palpable, as if the pent-up energy of the tightly wound bronze thread should spring open at any moment. Bertoia’s Gong pendant exudes energy from its surface, the hammered silver reflecting light and absorbing shadow, mimicking how sound waves would ripple across one of the artist’s full-sized gongs.
For Bertoia, the relative ease of making jewelry during his time at Cranbrook was akin to sketching, a place to try new ideas and explore. It is here where he began to examine the building blocks of nature on a microcosmic level and where his art takes full form, leading to his breakthrough work as a sculptor. Later in life, Bertoia’s his jewelry reflects his understanding of the natural world on a much larger scale, harnessing energy, light and form to create the dynamic works for which he is most well-known.
One prevailing characteristic of sculpture is the interplay of void and matter. The void being of it is no exaggeration to say, the reality of sculpture is to be found in the void. Matter simply being an introductory device to the essential.