Man Ray’s jewelry by Gem Montebello

Among the rash of artist/goldsmith collaborations that came out in the sixties and seventies, Man Ray’s jewelry truly stands out. To see what I mean, visit the Picasso to Koons: The Artist as Jeweler exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design and compare Man Ray’s dramatic sculptural designs to the wall of flat, stamped gold plaques produced at the same time by François Hugo from drawings by Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst. No comparison.

Man Ray’s most famous pieces look a little challenging to wear, but they are superb pieces of craftsmanship – thanks to Gem Montebello, the Italian firm who produced them – and more functional than they appear. His Optic-Topic gold mask, for example, would appear to completely blind the wearer, but if you look closely, you can see a network of tiny drilled holes forming a spiral pattern.

Optic-Topic gold mask designed by Man Ray, 1974, 79/100 edition, produced by Gem Montebello (Diane Venet collection)

“You see through them as well as with glasses. It’s interesting,” says Diane Venet, who owns this gold mask, one of 100 produced, along with most of the jewelry on display. “Man Ray was always breaking his glasses and he loved to drive fast. So he had a discussion the Giancarlo Montebello about glasses and finally, after a few months, they came up with this.”

Pendantif-Pendant earrings of 18kt red gold by Man Ray, 1970, edition of 12, Gem Montebello

I’m not sure if she was implying he wore this while driving fast. If so, he was crazier than we thought. Man Ray was born in Philadelphia in 1890, which means by the time he designed the mask, he was 84. He died in Paris, his adopted home, two years later.

The spiral gold earrings (right) recall the spiral shapes in Man Ray’s work during the early years of the Dada movement and the title, Pendantif-Pendant, reflects his obsession with puns and alliteration. But most people refer to these as “the lampshade earrings,” because the design stemmed from a lampshade Man Ray designed in 1919.

The earrings shown have a conventional post but the originals are 5 1/2 inches long and hung from a wide curve of wire. They weren’t designed to hang directly from the lobe but to loop over the top of the ear. Clever. Man Ray’s idea – or GianCarlo Montebello’s?

Montebello produced this gold and platinum ring, signed and dated by Man Ray, in 1970, around the same time as the earrings. Venet proudly owns one of an edition of twelve.

LeTrou ring of 24kt gold and platinum by Man Ray, edition of 12, Gem Montebello (Diane Venet collection)

Man Ray had a couple things going for him that Picasso and Ernst lacked: an extensive background in fashion photography and a genuine interest in creating unique, high-quality, wearable sculpture. He also had Montebello producing his jewelry.

Giancarlo Montebello set up his workshop of highly-skilled craftsmen in Milan, in 1967, inviting a select group of internationally-known artists to contribute designs. Montebello’s team collaborated closely with the artists. Not all artists are household names, at least not in the U.S., but their jewelry definitely stands out above the rest.

You can find other results of these collaborations at the MAD exhibit, including some gorgeous geometric gold pieces designed by sculptor Pol Bury and several whimsical figurative pieces designed by sculptor/painter Niki de Saint-Phalle and executed in colorful enamel by Montebello.

Montebello is still producing artist-made jewelry, evidenced in the exhibit by a lethal-looking spiky gold ring designed by German artist Günther Uecker dated 2011. It was inspired by his Chair with Nails sculpture. (Ouch.)

Montebello, now in his nineties, was planning to attend the exhibition in NYC when I spoke to Venet earlier this month. “I want him to see all this,” she said, waving a hand around the exhibition. “He worked so hard.”

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5 comments for “Man Ray’s jewelry by Gem Montebello

  1. Camilla England
    December 11, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    I saw he Man Ray/Lee Miller exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts last month and asked in their shop if there was a pin of the big red lips and was told they had sold out and would get more. Do you have any knowledge of that piece?

  2. July 24, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    We are trying to track down one of Man Ray’s pinhole masks for a pinhole photography exhibit title Poetics of Light: Contemporary Pinhole Photography. This exhibit will draw on the 6,000+ images Pinhole Resource Collection in our Photo Archives. The curators would very much like to include one of these masks in the exhibition. Any assistance you could lend in tracking one down for loan we would greatly appreciate.

  3. Cathleen McCarthy
    July 24, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    I assume you’ve checked with Diane Venet, whose mask is pictured here? You can reach her through her husband’s studio in NYC. Picasso to Koons exhibit closed at the Bass Museum on July 21, but may be headed to its next venue (along with the mask).

  4. Donna Harrell
    June 19, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    I found a sterling brooch by Man Ray. It is a fly on a round fan grate or spiderweb. Any one have info?

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