Artists: Jewel purpose

Some of our greatest artists have switched to working with diamonds and gold – and the results are wearable masterpieces
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If you can't afford a fabulous masterpiece on your wall, at least you can wear one. How about an Antony Gormley necklace? A Dinos Chapman choker? Or a Sam Taylor-Wood ring? Costing £10,000, the 18-carat white-gold diamond piece has a hollow in the top to catch your tears and comes with a presentation box containing five vials in which to decant these tears. More lavish still, how about a Picasso necklace with a gold faun's head, at a cost of £85,000?

You may chuckle, but artists' jewellery can turn you into a walking work of art. And if you don't fancy putting on your wearable sculpture one day, you can always plonk it on your coffee table and enjoy it as a miniature work of art in itself. Anish Kapoor has designed a special-edition ring for Bulgari's B.Zero1 collection. Made of reflective steel set between two pink-gold rims, it's a bite-sized version of the Turner Prize-winning sculptor's most famous concave works – and at £630, far more affordable. Yinka Shonibare, too, has branched out into jewellery, offering fans of his ship-in-a-bottle on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth a chance to wear it around their neck in a pendant. But is the trend for artists designing jewellery merely gold digging? Or is it worth its weight in gold?

The British sculptor Anthony Caro has just unveiled his second jewellery collection at the New Art Centre in Salisbury, the delicate dangling earrings and finely wrought pendants a far cry from his monumental steel sculptures, including Millbank Steps, standing in the grounds outside. Caro, like many other artists, came to designing jewellery later in his career, attracted by the challenge of showcasing his artistic principles on a miniature scale. Each item of his jewellery is unique, made for Grassy jewellers in Madrid, and is marked in gold plate with his signature (AC). Prices start at £13,000.

"I enjoyed the challenge of what for me is tiny scale," Caro tells me. "It was intense work. I approached the process from a sculptor's point of view – not a jeweller's. I started with the piece itself and then saw where it would work as jewellery. I used materials I had in the studio and the piece was then fabricated in Madrid in either gold or silver." When he embarked on the first collection in 2006, he feared he lacked the patience needed for such fiddly work.

While Caro creates one-off pieces of jewellery and treats them as works of art, are some contemporary artists merely cashing in – like pop stars with trashy perfume lines – or is this a true representation of their work? And who buys it?

Louisa Guinness is the leading dealer of contemporary artists' jewellery in the UK, from her gallery on London's Cork Street. She first approached Kapoor, Gormley, Taylor-Wood and Gavin Turk in 2003, and commissioned them to make some pieces. This was, she says, "the beginning of a new era". "I was already collecting and selling jewellery by Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso. But nobody was making anything new. That's what I tried to change," says Guinness. "When I approached the artists they were enthusiastic. For them, it is just another medium to express themselves."

Her collection includes Turk's earrings with jewels that look like pearls, but are actually moulded out of masticated chewing gum, priced at £3,000. Marc Quinn's diamond pendant, Frozen Strawberry, is more garish – and more expensive, at £28,000. But then it did involve removing every single pip from a real strawberry, counting them and replacing them with 561 diamonds. She also has some new Kapoor works, priced from £4,000 to £20,000, including his hollowed-out Water Earrings, Water Cufflinks and Water Rings, sold in limited editions of 10 or 100 and costing about £10,000. "The questions that Kapoor poses about space and form in his large-scale sculptures are also evident in his miniaturised gold and enamel rings," says Guinness.

How is the jewellery made? The artists first come up with the concept, then Guinness takes it to a goldsmith and interprets it for them. "You can't just scale down existing works – that's where I help. I show them the prototypes and they do the tweaking," she says.

Guinness's current group show includes work by Shonibare and a one-off Damien Hirst silver pill bracelet. "95 per cent of the people we are selling to are art collectors," says Guinness. "This is like buying a mini sculpture to wear."

It's not just for women, either: men particularly like Tim Noble and Sue Webster's Fucking Beautiful necklace. "I only make jewellery that I would actually wear myself and most of the designs are based around some of the bigger artworks we have made," says Webster. "For instance, the Fucking Beautiful necklace and bracelet was based on a very successful neon work using my own script that was translated into individual handmade letters then cast in both white and yellow gold. I wanted the jewellery to look quite dangerous to wear. As I'm not used to adorning my body in expensive jewels, afraid that I might lose it, I opted to have Fucking Beautiful tattooed around my wrist instead."

Sales of jewellery by postwar artists is also big business. Didier Haspeslagh first started dealing in the 1980s and launched a gallery on Kensington Church Street in 2005 with his wife, Martine, to specialise in jewellery by master painters and sculptors such as Picasso, Georges Braque, Man Ray, Lucio Fontana, Salvador Dali and Roy Lichtenstein. "A famous artist's jewellery is instantly recognisable, like a Burberry coat," says Haspeslagh. "Big jewellery can hide bad surgery or a sagging neck. Most of our clients are 40 to 60-year-old, wealthy, cultured women."

But will you have to re-mortgage your property to buy it? Lichtenstein's 1968 metal and enamel pendant/ brooch Modern Head, complete with his iconic Ben-Day dots, costs £8,500. Meanwhile, Dali's Eye of Time brooch, made by the artist in 1946 as payment for his bill at the St Regis Hotel, New York, recently sold for £20,000. Further up the scale, Man Ray's La Jolie necklace, with its profile of a woman's face made in pure 24-carat gold, set with a cabochon lapis lazuli eye, costs £100,000. Originally designed by Man Ray in 1961, it was executed by his close friend, the Milanese jeweller GianCarlo Montebello, in 1971, in a limited edition of 12.

And the market remains buoyant around pieces by the sculptor Alexander Calder; one of his gold necklaces recently reached $500,000 in a private sale in New York. Calder was unusual, says Guinness, for hammering out 1,800 pieces of jewellery with his own bare hand. Most artists employ a goldsmith.

The time to buy jewellery by artists is now, according to Joanna Hardy, former head of the jewellery department at Sotheby's, who now runs masterclasses at her own Jewellery School of Excellence, for connoisseurs. "In today's climate, people are more discerning with money. You can still collect an artist, but artists' jewellery costs a lot less," she says.

"The perfect formula is for an artist to enlist the help of a goldsmith. It's very clever to do something so small that is instantly recognisable and then have it beautifully made."

Newer jewellery by contemporary artists is only just beginning to trickle on to the art market. "People just haven't had our jewellery long enough to want to sell it. You only tend to sell jewellery through death, divorce or bankruptcy and it hasn't been around for that long. People don't buy it to sell it later, they buy it to wear it," says Guinness.

Bonhams December sale catalogue has dedicated a whole page to Kapoor's limited edition 2007 Water Ring, made of 22-carat yellow gold. It comes with an estimate of £6,000 to £8,000. "It shows that the art market is recognising these pieces as important works. This is the start of things to come," says Hardy. "In time they will appear on the art market. It is a good investment as long as they remain one-offs or limited editions. If they become one of millions – then obviously not."



Anthony Caro: Jewellery, New Art Centre, Salisbury (www.sculpture.uk.com) to 30 January 2011; Artists Jewellery 2010, Ben Brown Fine Arts, London W1 (www.louisaguinnessgallery.com) to 21 December

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