Mahnaz Collection Jewelry Exhibition Will Feature London Artists Of The ’60s and ’70s
Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos began collecting vintage jewels during her career as a foreign policy and international security professional. She especially took to mid-to-late 20th Century artists and designers that reflect both her cross-cultural background (Mughal, Persian and western) and her international travels.
What began as a passion for Mahnaz is now her second career as founder of the “Mahnaz Collection,” housed in a well-lit Manhattan space sprinkled with comfortable antique furnishings and an outdoor balcony with an enviable sky high view of city’s landscape.
What makes her appointment-only gallery worthwhile is the diversity of the jewels and eclectic nature of her collection. Yes, there are many big names, such as Tiffany, Boucheron and Bulgari, but there also are less familiar designers whose impact on the artistry and craftsmanship of jewels is both significant and often little-known. She tries to collect a number of pieces from a particular artist or a period to bring context to the work.
“We focus on a period, or a maker, and then we really pursue the work very determinedly,” she said. “We research everything. We try to document it and then, only when we feel ready that there’s a body of work that we can show that tells a story, we show it. We feel we can be good advocates of the work.”
Her latest story is complete and ready to be shown in a public exhibition. “London Originals: The Jeweler’s Art in Radical Times,” will be held April 11 – 20 at the Wright Gallery in New York and continue at the Mahnaz Collection gallery on East 57th Street until May 11. The show will total 150 jewels by London jewelry designers of the 1960s and ’70s, a time of great creativity and radicalism.
Mahnaz says the 1960s was a time of great change in London as it was just fully coming out of the cloud of post World War II and the conservative jewelry of the time.
“These jewelers that popped up in the early 1960s in England were coming out of a very dismal period of jewelry design. London had been bombed. It was a very depressing place and jewelry design had pretty much been stagnant for 20 years,” she said. “These people had nothing to make reference to but they knew they wanted to approach jewelry in a different way. Architecture was changing, art was changing and there was the youth movement. The sixties were all about saying yes, things can be new again. These jewelers were very interested in nature and they were especially interested in saying the value of jewels must take into greater consideration the designing hand of the jeweler.”
The star of the show is Andrew Grima, the creative and popular jeweler who is hot among collectors right now, as proven by Bonhams London auction in September, 2017, where 55 of his jewels were sold for more than $1.1 million. More than 40 pieces by the Anglo-Italian designer will be part of the exhibition. Mahnaz says she believes it is the largest collection of Grima jewels in the U.S.
“He was central and so pivotal to the idea that jewelry should be design-led,” she said. “He had royal patrons and he had new kinds of patrons.”
However, Mahnaz stresses that many other artists and designers of the period being featured in the exhibition also had a strong impact on the design and techniques that have stood the test of time. They include John Donald, George Weil, Charles de Temple, Gerda Flockinger, Tom Scott, Kutchinsky, Barbara Cartlidge, David Thomas, Wendy Ramshaw and David Watkins.
“John Donald was Princess Margaret’s favorite jeweler. The queen mother collected him,” Mahnaz said. “Many of them were very small jewelers who worked out of small workshops. We have a really interesting selection of Georges Weil’s work. He was Sammy Davis Jr.’s favorite jeweler. He made jewelry for him over 20 years and he’s been almost forgotten.”
However, Mahnaz points out that that Weil went on to become one of the most important foreign Japanese netsuke artists in the world.
Unlike most of the other designers, the family owned jewelry firm, Kutchinsky, had a history dating back to the late 19th Century. The jewels were purposefully ostentatious, combining high design and masterful craftsmanship with layers of precious materials.
Mahnaz says that while many of these designers were a product of the times, they’ve all developed different designs and jewelry making techniques. For example, Kutchinsky had an expertise for stone carving. Donald created a textured gold called “nugget flake” by placing the molten precious metal into cold water shocking it.
“It gave it this kind of wild texture,” she said. “No one had done this before and instead of seeing this as an imperfection he highlighted it and made it a central part of his design. They were all experimenting in different ways and using new materials and using conventional materials in unconventional ways.”
Mahnaz showed a necklace by Charles de Temple in which small individual pearls were wrapped in thin strands of gold. “Just the time and effort it takes to make a piece like this is so enormous that very few people would do this today and if they did the price would be astonishing.”
Mahnaz says as the 1970s approached, things changed culturally, from a time to where anything was possible to a time of economic hardship and conflicts between England and Northern Ireland. Mahnaz lived in London during the ’70s but she said she wished she lived there during the ’60s.
“It was a very tough time but as a result jewelry took on the difficulties,” she said. “Ok, women are going to wear semi-precious stones and are not going to wear big diamonds, but we can make something fabulously dramatic and elegant with semi-precious stones.”
Several of the jewelers are still alive and Mahnaz tracked some of them down and interviewed them for a catalog to go along with the collection. She said she found most of them to be quite modest, except for Weil, “who had a lot to say.”
The Bonhams Grima auction thrilled Mahnaz because it gave people a chance to see the important contribution he and others made during the 1960s and ’70s, and how their influence continues today, even though their names are mostly unrecognizable to almost anyone who isn’t highly skilled in art or jewelry history.
“One of the things about all of these jewelers was that they were supported by an important group of curators, museums, modernist galleries,” she said. “People who responded to their work and gave them shows and commissions. They were really well known. That’s the other thing about their story when you see those 150 pieces together is that they all kind of disappeared.”
She continued, “So much of this jewelry feels so familiar to us because it influenced so much contemporary jewelry.”