Susan Grant Lewin seeks jewellery that is both beautifully made and “intellectually challenging”. The corporate communications professional says: “I believe that [it] can decorate the mind in the same way it can decorate the body.” She is drawn to abstract designs and collects unique pieces by artist jewellers.

As a child, she would follow her mother around antique stores in Philadelphia, where she grew up, and was “fascinated” by the jewellery she saw. Her interest in contemporary pieces was piqued when, working as a journalist, she visited Copenhagen in the late 1960s to cover a furniture fair. There, she fell for the work of the Swedish silversmith and jeweller Vivianna Torun Bülow-Hübe, who created some of the best-known designs by the Danish brand Georg Jensen.

However, it was being commissioned to write the 1994 book One of a Kind: American Art Jewelry Today that kick-started Lewin’s collecting. She used her advance to travel round the US and visit jewellers. “Needless to say, as I went to each studio I would buy a piece and . . . I woke up one day and said, ‘I’m a collector’,” explains Lewin, now president of Susan Grant Lewin Associates, the New York-based architecture, art and design communications consultancy that she founded in 1996.

She has since accumulated hundreds of jewels — and is “still shopping”. Eighty-four of her pieces form the exhibition A Collector’s Journey: Susan Grant Lewin and the Art Jewelry World at the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum (June 21-September 14).

Claire Falkenstein pendant (early 1960s)

A copper and Murano glass pendant
© Emily Andrews

A copper and Murano glass pendant by Falkenstein is among the oldest jewels in Lewin’s collection. The American sculptor and painter created it while working on one of her best-known pieces, the metal and glass New Gates of Paradise for Peggy Guggenheim’s home-turned-museum on Venice’s Grand Canal.

“She was absolutely a relentless experimenter . . . and her work is beautiful,” says Lewin, who recently bought three other Falkenstein pieces at auction. She is driven to collect by the “excitement of discovery”.

Kiff Slemmons beetle (2003)

A brooch that comprises a metal beetle, a wooden ruler and a small magnifying glass
© Emily Andrews

This unusual Slemmons piece is “symbolic” of Lewin’s friendship with the Chicago-based metalsmith. “I don’t see her very often, but we get along tremendously well and she’s one of the most important jewellers in America,” says Lewin, who plans to return the jewel to Slemmons at some point as she knows it “is magical to her as well”.

The brooch comprises a metal beetle, a wooden ruler and a small magnifying glass. “Kiff uses what are now called ‘alternative’ materials,” says Lewin. “It is to ask a question about the preciousness of these materials, because jewellery has unexpected potential for beauty.”

Thomas Gentille brooch (21st century)

a wooden rectangular brooch with eggshell inlay
© Emily Andrews

The collector is “excited by the exploration of materials” in jewellery. “I’m absolutely not interested in precious gems,” she says. “They detract from the artistry of the piece.”

Her wooden brooch is decorated with Gentille’s signature eggshell inlay, a technique the American artist jeweller invented after becoming enamoured with the beauty of traditional Japanese lacquerware.

While Lewin does “pepper” her collection with work by younger makers, she says it is “centred on the leaders” in the field, including Gentille, whose work is owned by museums including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “With Thomas, the beauty and perfection of his work put him in my mind as the number one jeweller in America,” she says.

Petra Zimmermann cuff (2009)

a cuff made from acrylic covered in gold leaf, set with historic costume jewellery findings, rhinestones and obsidian
© Emily Andrews

Lewin was drawn to this bracelet by Vienna-based jewellery artist Zimmermann even though it is “much more ornamental” than the pieces she generally buys. It is made from acrylic covered in gold leaf, set with historic costume jewellery findings, rhinestones and obsidian.

“Maybe, somewhere deep down inside, I’m interested in a little glitz and a little bling,” says Lewin. “Everyone has a little weakness.”

Warwick Freeman pendant (2004)

a pendant inspired by gannets diving into the sea
© Emily Andrews

Many of Lewin’s purchases are now made on her travels outside the US. During her first trip to New Zealand earlier this year, she visited Freeman in his studio and bought White Bird, a pendant made from Corian, a material better known for its use in kitchen countertops.

The jeweller’s design is inspired by gannets diving into the sea at Muriwai, on the coast west of Auckland. “I’m not usually attracted by objects from the natural world [but] this is very abstract and dynamic, and beautifully sculpted and carved,” says Lewin.

While her daughter has first choice on pieces in her collection, Lewin has given jewellery to various institutions. Her gifts to the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, Yale University Art Gallery, and Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art, plus her planned donation to the Lowe Art Museum after the upcoming show, total more than 250 pieces. “Contemporary jewellery I consider as important an art form as painting and sculpture, but it’s slow to catch on,” says Lewin. “By donating and having museum shows, the public sees it and gets interested and, maybe, people start buying it and collecting it.”

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