Rapaport Magazine

Dynamic Design

Jean Després was one of the pioneering artist-jewelers who helped create a new artistic aesthetic for the machine age.

By Phyllis Schiller

18-karat gold bracelet with hammered gold links decorated with alternating geometric motifs by Jean Després, circa 1935. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.
French jewelry designer Jean Després (1889-1980) was born in the town of Avallon, in Burgundy, where his parents owned a small jewelry and gift shop. When he was in his teens, Després went to Paris, apprenticing with a silversmith and studying drawing. But it was the avant-garde artists of the day, especially Georges Braque, who provided the “education” that would inform his designs of jewelry, silver tableware and decorative objects.
   “Jean Després’ early life formed the basis for his artistic legacy,” explains Stephen Kelly, founder and chairman of the Kelly Gallery in New York City. Meeting Braque in Montmartre and becoming good friends with the artist who, along with Picasso, co-founded cubism, “was a significant influence on Després’ work,” says Kelly. In 1914, when World War I broke out, Després served his country by working on the design of aircraft parts. The images of gears and cogs added another layer to his developing artistic vision, creating a fascination for the smooth, polished metallic surfaces of machinery.

A New Design Vocabulary
   Following the war, Després joined like-minded bijoutiers-artistes — artist jewelers — such as Jean Fouquet and Raymond Templier, in the Union des Artistes Modernes (UAM). Founded in Paris in 1929, its members actively sought to create something new, says Audrey Friedman, co-owner with husband Haim Manishevitz of Primavera Gallery in New York City. These designers eschewed the ornamentation of traditional jewelry in favor of the geometrical purism of the Cubism art movement, adding the inherently sculptural qualities of machine images.
   The proportions of these geometrical designs, says Friedman, were very important. “They didn’t have curlicues or diamonds to hide behind. They had to be very pure.” The basic shapes — circles, domes, squares and triangles — juxtaposed to create “strikingly powerful and original jewelry designs unlike anything previously seen.”

Machine-Age Aesthetics
   “Després was very interested in, and inspired by, the idea of the modern age,” says Carol Elkins, senior vice president, Sotheby’s jewelry department, “and a sort of peeling back to the bare essentials. His pieces have an architectural element in them. He was fascinated by the movement toward the future with cars and factories. All the trappings of modern civilization really had an influence on his works.”
   This underlying industrial influence, agrees Leah Gordon, owner of Leah Gordon Antiques in New York City, “was long before it was adopted by many more contemporary artists. This was really quite new back then.”
   Després worked primarily in silver and the white metals that became popular during the Art Deco period, says Kelly. “He didn’t use precious stones, but chose non-precious materials like onyx, lapis lazuli, bloodstone, agate, quartz, ivory and coral” to complete his designs.
   According to Friedman, who has an extensive private collection of Després jewelry, his earlier pieces, made in the 1920s and 1930s, were more complex designs that he hand-fabricated with enamels and stones. His rings were like tiny sculptures, she says. “They’re very complete and very unique. They have either juxtaposed geometric elements or some touches of red or black enamel.” He liked black lacquer a lot, Friedman says, adding that he would sometimes apply “a very thin layer of gold on silver to provide a bit of contrast.”
   “Després was a premier silversmith,” says Elkins, “although he did do specific commissions in gold.” Adds Kelly, “like all great artists, his designs are instantly recognizable. They were very avant-garde and reflected his time. He also did a small number of pieces of jewelry with a glass design by Etienne Cournault, and some that included a ceramic design by Jean Mayodon. These pieces with glass or ceramic are particularly unique as his.”
   Gordon points to the hand-hammering on his silver pieces as a hallmark. She says you can see the industrial aspect in his silverwork, “such as a coiled-wire design around the base of a bowl or a handle.”

   Després jewelry doesn’t show up frequently in the market, says Kelly, turning up occasionally in important jewelry or twentieth-century decorative arts auctions. “What you will see much more frequently are Després coupes, candelabra, vases, tea pots, flatware, etc.”
   There are people who specifically collect his work, says Elkins, “since he was one of the top artisans of the period.” Gordon points out that Després jewelry has maintained its value and will bring “good prices when it shows up.” In fact, at a recent sale at Sotheby’s, a Després bracelet, shown above, sold for $125,000, well over its high estimate.
   “It’s really very hard for those of us living now to take a step back and look at Després designs through the eyes of someone from the period,” says Elkins. “People were not accustomed to these modern age jewelry designs. When this jewelry first appeared at the high levels that it did, it was revolutionary.”
   A very desirable artist/jeweler, always sought after and purchased by cognoscenti, says Gordon, “Després was in the forefront. There’s a strength in his work, a dynamic.”
   “Després transcends popular contemporary notions of jewelry,” sums up Friedman. “Precious materials were of no interest to him. It was about the design and doing something original that was striking and represented the period that he was working in. His jewelry is very powerful. You don’t mistake a piece of Després jewelry for the work of anybody else.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - July 2015. To subscribe click here.

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