Art Smith & Sam Kramer: heyday of Modernist jewelry

Lovers Brooch by Sam Kramer of sterling, turquoise and garnet (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

While musicians and poets were rebelling against the status quo in Greenwich Village in the mid-20th century, metalsmiths like Art Smith and Sam Kramer were setting up studios there and reinventing modern jewelry.

Many people picture Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac or Bob Dylan when they think of Greenwich Village in its artistic heyday. Mad Men fans got a peek at that bohemian scene, circa 1960s, through Midge, Donald Draper’s beatnik lover.

Jewelry artist Sam Kramer (1913-1964) fit right in. Setting up shop in Greenwich Village in 1939, Kramer epitomized the eccentric artist, sometimes opening his store in the morning still wearing his pajamas.

Sam Kramer working in his Greenwhich Village studio

Kramer’s shop was itself a study in Surrealism, from a hand-shaped front door handle customers had to “shake” to enter, to oversized jewelry with hallucinogenic figures and Dali-esque body parts.

Sam Kramer described himself as a rock hound and was known to incorporate fossils, meteorites, coral, rhinoceros tusks, even glass taxidermy eyes in his jewelry. He once attempted to make a bracelet from his wife’s recently-removed gallstones.

Sam Kramer earrings, 1948

Earrings of silver with taxidermy eyes by Sam Kramer, 1948 (collection of Kenneth Dukoff)

Sam Kramer's maker's mark

Sam Kramer’s mark

Audrey Friedman, owner of the Primavera Gallery, remembers exploring these shops in the 1950s, when flower and animal motifs were all the rage in fine jewelry. “I used to hang around down in the Village and I remember a lot of jewelers making things with glass eyeballs, things that were kind of surreal,” Friedman says. “You figure, if the style was birds and flowers, than to do something with eyeballs and lips would have been really different, very countercultural.”

Cuff bracelet of copper and brass by Art Smith, c. 1948 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

“A lot of studio jewelers had their studios in the Village then,” she recalls. “One place on MacDougal street – I forget who the guy was – had a doorknob with a big glass eyeball. I remember buying a piece of jewelry there and after I got it home, I decided it was godawful ugly and tried to rework it, unsuccessfully.”

It was easy to get caught up in the creative spirit though. “There was the idea then of doing something that was a little bit outrageous,” Friedman says. Those early forays into the Village left her with a taste for wearable surrealism and led to her own collection of Salvador Dali jewels, including the famous Ruby Lips brooch, which has been exhibited in museums around the world.

Not far from Kramer’s shop was the studio of Art Smith (1917-1982), another important jewelry artist of the forties. Smith’s jewelry also ran large but where Kramer’s was figural and humorous, Smith’s was abstract and dramatic. Daphne Farago was obviously enamored with Smith’s jewelry. There are 15 works by him in the 650-piece collection she donated to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2005.

Necklace of sterling and semi-precious stones by Art Smith, c. 1958 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

An African American who grew up in New York City, Smith took his inspiration from African tribal art and costume. He worked as a costume designer for several black dance companies in New York, which allowed him to experiment with his favorite theme: movement.

“His work was very large and sculptural but designed to sit well and move with the body,” says Kelly L’Ecuyer, curator of decorative arts and sculpture at Boston MFA, who helped organize an exhibit of Farago’s collection in 2007. “His primary concern was the relationship with the body.”

“Work by Art Smith and Sam Kramer have, at times, a raw appearance, but in terms of the art world, they were at the cutting edge—the equivalent of a painter or sculptor,” says Yvonne Markowitz, the museum’s curator of jewelry.

Art Smith

Catalog from 1990 exhibition at the Jamaica Arts Center in NYC

Art Smith maker's mark

Art Smith maker’s mark

Part of the raw quality of this early work came from lack of available jewelry training in the U.S. at the time. Kramer took a jewelry-making course in southern California taught by a ceramicist and Smith apprenticed with a jeweler. Other jewelry artists of their day learned casting from dentists and forging by hanging out at dockyards.

While Smith’s jewelry was more graceful in form, Kramer did a lot to promote the use of found objects in jewelry. When Farago’s collection was exhibited in 2007, you could see the evolution from Sam Kramer’s 1950 cuff bracelet set with taxidermy eyeball to necklaces made a half century later from wooden rulers (by Kiff Slemmons) and crack viles (by Jan Yeager).

Jewelry by contemporary jewelry artist Bruce Metcalf was also shown, looking every bit as trippy and Surrealistic as the early work of Sam Kramer. Kramer would have appreciated the zany direction studio jewelry took after his death in 1964.

For more on this era, I recommend these books: Messengers of Modernism: American Studio Jewelry 1940-1960 or Form & Function: American Modernist Jewelry, 1940-1970

Maker’s marks courtesy of Modern Silver’s excellent index of maker’s marks used by mid-century American jewelers

For more work by Sam Kramer, Art Smith, and other mid-century modernist studio jewelers, visit The Dukoff Collection

Related posts:

Jewelry by famous artists

Salvador Dali: bejeweled surrealism

Alexander Calder’s jewelry: going mobile

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27 comments for “Art Smith & Sam Kramer: heyday of Modernist jewelry

  1. January 31, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    Hello, I just discovered your site- truly amazing. Thank you. We have an Art Smith necklace and am wondering if there is a source to check on the hallmark or how he signed his fabulous work. Agani thank you for your time and your site. Dawn

  2. Cathleen McCarthy
    January 31, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    Thanks, Dawn. This site shows a maker’s mark that looks like an actual signature: http://www.925-1000.com/amx_smithA.html. Good luck and let us know what you discover! Cathleen

  3. Sarah M
    March 13, 2011 at 2:35 am

    I just found this article while looking up Sam Kramer. This is a really nice article. My mother moved around the corner from his studio in 1952 and bought her first Kramer item in 1954 when she was 13 years old. She remembers the hand door handle, saying that he used to put a glove on it during the winter. He also used to employ models to pass out flyers for his shop. They would be dressed as martians, wearing unitards, green makeup and fish bowls on their heads. His place was a popular hangout with the neighborhood kids and her dachshund was always welcome and Kramer gave him treats. Mom would go there every week, with a dollar more in allowance money, to check out the less expensive jewelry (he would say to her every week “You here again?” It was a running joke with him) and finally, with the choice narrowed down to three eye pins, Kramer helped her finally pick the one she bought, probably because he was sick of her indecision according to her. It was $25 and is unsigned. (She actually found $5 on the street, brought it to the police station, and they gave it back to her a week later so that saved her 5 weeks,lol.) She says he was very nice, but had the saddest eyes. I still have the pin of course. It was always my favorite piece of jewelry of hers though she never wore it that I can remember.

    When she was 14 she got a perfect Ceylon star sapphire from him (he sold loose stones) which he set in a traditional yellow gold, 4-prong setting that he had. She looked all over uptown jewelry stores and finally got what she was looking for from him. She had the stone reset (it was too heavy for the setting), but I still have the setting, which is only interesting because it came from him.

    Art Smith didn’t seem to be on her family’s flight path, but I do have my mom’s cousin’s wedding band which came from Paul Lobel. Her second wedding band, which she still has, was made for her by Phyllis, who worked with Ed Wiener.

    Sorry this is so long. I love my mom’s reminiscences.

    Sarah

  4. Cathleen McCarthy
    March 13, 2011 at 5:16 am

    Wow! This is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing this, Sarah.

    Cathleen

  5. Cindy Kramer
    March 17, 2011 at 4:47 am

    Sam Kramer is my Great-Uncle…I would love to find more of his work. My Grandmother was married to his brother Jack Kramer, my Grandfather. Sam made my Grandmothers wedding ring set. I have the wedding band, and the engagement ring was buried with her when she died. I remember how eccentric it looked, with different kinds, and colors of semi-precious stones. I wish I could have met him…he died 10 yrs before i was born. we have some really awesome pictures of him back in his heydays.

  6. Cathleen McCarthy
    March 17, 2011 at 5:08 am

    Cindy, any pics you can share of the ring or Sam in his heyday?

  7. April 3, 2011 at 6:26 am

    thedukoffcollection.com is a top site buying sam kramer and other top jewelers

  8. Daniel Enners
    August 12, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    Does anyone know if Carol, Sams ex wife is still alive?.

  9. September 21, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    I represent the estate of Art Smith and I work closely with the surviving members of Sam Kramer’s family. I collect, appraise, repair, and sell on a commission basis artist/studio jewelry by Smith, Kramer, Calder, Bertoia, DeRivera, George Rickey, Claire Falkenstein, and Margaret DePatta. The 2 Art Smith pieces and the Kramer in your article came from me; I sold them to Daphne Farago who donated her entire 700 piece collection to the Boston Museum of Art, many currently on display in their new wing.

    Mark McDonald, Hudson NY

  10. Cynthia Kramer
    September 25, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Dear Mark,
    As you may have read, My Grandfather was Jack Kramer, Sams’ brother. If you wouldnt mind passing on the info to the rest of the Kramers, incase they wish to contact? My father is Tim Kramer, and is cousins with Sams son Keiron. They just lost touch for a real long time. Thx Cindy Kramer

  11. Gary Kilgore
    May 25, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Cathleen,
    I just ran across your site, very nice! I just finished writing an obituary for Peggy Ackerly, who was one of Sam’s apprentices from 1943 – 1964. The piece is running in The Epoch Times and can be googled. I apprenticed to Peggy in the early 1970’s. To answer Daniel Enners question question, Carol Kramer passed away in the 1980’s.

  12. Esther U'ren
    July 21, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Can you put me in touch w Cindy Kramer.
    Sam Kramer was my 1st cousin and Cindy’s dad Tim is my 2nd cousin.
    I live in Southern California & Cindy will know the part of the family that I belong to.
    Thanx,
    Esther

  13. Pamela Ann Martin
    August 6, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    My parents married in 1950. When I was very small, I recall my Mother telling someone that her wedding ring was made by a jeweler named Kramer whose studio was in NYC. I am assuming it was Sam Kramer. It is a gold cigar band shape and width with diamonds completely circling around in the middle. It is possible that she designed it. Could there possibly still be records of his sales from 1950? Or would someone be able to tell if this is his work? There is no 14k stamp inside, and the finising is not completely smooth on the inside, leading me to believe that it was not purchased from a commercial jewelery store. Thanks for any comments.

  14. Cathleen McCarthy
    August 7, 2012 at 12:07 am

    Emailing you now.

  15. mark mcdonald
    August 7, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    Dear Cynthia,
    sorry for the delay in reply, email me directly and I can give you John Kramer’s contact info.

    Mark McDonald

  16. mark mcdonald
    August 7, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    Cynthia, my email is “330@markmcdonald.biz”. I should not post John’s contact info. without his permission.

    mark

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  18. Brentyn Zernechel
    January 5, 2014 at 4:07 am

    I was wondering if someone can help with a little knowledge about Peggy’s work? I recently came across what I’m assuming is one of her pieces of work. Its a fairly heavy candle stick with very intricate detail to it I’m only assuming it’s one of her pieces with the hallmark on the bottom. It looks like a triangle pointing to the right with a diamond in the middle then another triangle shape pointing to the left and they are touching each other. There looks to be markings in each shape but can only make out the last letter and I want to say its a F. I am really interested in Peggy’s art and can’t seem to find anything besides a pair of earnings in Boston museum of fine arts. I would love if someone would be willing to e-mail me and I could send pictures. I have my heartset on finding the date this silver/gold candlestick. It would be greatly appreciated if someone could provide some information on it. Anything at all would be wonderful. Here is my email if someone would be so kind to help. brentynzernechel39@gmail.com Thank You

  19. Nat
    September 15, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    I would like to know Sam Kramer’s mark on his various pieces of jewelry?

    Thank you

  20. Tammy Tiziano
    November 9, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    I have a question about a Sam Kramer ring. Did he ever place his hallmark on the OUTSIDE of a ring band?? I know he was a fan of the shroom, so I suppose it is possible….though I feel not probable. Anyone else ever seen a Kramer piece with the hallmark on the bottom outside of a ring?

  21. Linda
    March 27, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    Hello. I have a Kramer bracelet I am interested in selling. If anyone is interested please send me a email

  22. Pam
    August 12, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    Hi, just curious if you sold your Sam Kramer bracelet….Thanks?

  23. Linda
    August 13, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    Hi Pam. No I still have it. If you email me I will send you a picture of it. LibraLind2@aol.com

  24. Nat
    August 13, 2016 at 3:13 pm

    To whom it may concern: What about Ed Weiner jewelry? In New York
    located on 26th street & 6th avenue was once a great place to buy
    wonderful jewelry by Sam,Art Paul and Ed W.etc. I was set up for many years. signed Nat

  25. August 13, 2016 at 11:30 pm

    Nat, yes! Ed Weiner was another modernist jeweler very much of this time and place. He would have fit right in to this story. Maybe a follow-up is in order.
    Regarding Kramer’s marks, if anyone has a piece of his jewelry and can photograph the mark (with magnification), I’d be happy to add to this post.
    Thank you to everyone who’s contributing to this discussion!

  26. August 14, 2016 at 7:19 pm

    Many thanks to Esther Schwartz for providing a source for the maker’s mark Sam Kramer used. Anyone collecting American mid-century Modernist jewelry should check out the index of maker’s marks on the Modern Silver website, which includes Art Smith and many others. I’ve posted a link to that index at the bottom of the article (above).

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