PENDANT of Pinctada maxima (oyster shell) white nacre square on black rubber tube; 10 x 10 centimeters, 2000. Photograph by Ronald O’Donel.
Sylvia Gottwald

Rococo Minimalism





Have you ever found a shell on the beach, and felt, in a moment of stillness and contemplation, a strong urge to hold on to that shell, even if it is not spectacularly beautiful? Where does this desire come from? Perhaps it is from seeing the fragility of a shell against the infinite, powerful sea. Or maybe because it just feels good in the palm of your hand. Mystery connects the finite to the infinite, and that washed-up shell seems to embody this intuition. But then, you think, what am I going to do with this shell? So you leave it behind, and this desire fades into an inchoate memory.

Well, if you were Sylvia Gottwald, you would not let go of that shell. You would study its structure and qualities—color, shape and texture. Then you might transform it into a wearable work of art. In a mysterious way, wearing one of Gottwald’s creations is as if you were wearing the ocean. Or, perhaps as if you were becoming the living organism the shell protects, and it feels good against your skin.

Born in Zagreb, Croatia, Sylvia Gottwald studied in Rome and Canada before arriving in the United States to earn a master’s degree in architecture from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. Later in her professional career, bolstered by studies in urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she concentrated on historic preservation and the rebuilding of urban infrastructures—reviving their original beauty—while addressing contemporary functionality. Perhaps this is why she can move so freely between man-made materials and the wondrous structures of the sea.

Gottwald first gained her appreciation for the opulent on the beautiful Dalmatian coast of Croatia, together with visits to nearby Venice, with its iridescence of light and water, sky and sea. In addition to a certain feeling for Venetian baroque, Gottwald’s design sensibility for her jewelry is rooted in her Harvard years, where the pared-down modernist aesthetic and Bauhaus training of Walter Gropius still reigned. The Bauhaus, founded in 1919 in Germany, emphasized that a profound understanding of materials is the foundation for great design. Its teachings were based on experimental approaches to both traditional and new industrial building materials, testing them alone and in combination to determine their aesthetic, expressive and functional properties. The Bauhaus emphasized the importance of the human scale of buildings and spaces, and paired the industrial, mass-produced with the handmade object. Beauty was not a bad word, and truth to materials was a freeing concept.  

In the 1970s and 1980s, during professional and personal travel in Asia, Gottwald began her obsession with collecting mother-of-pearl shells and decorative objects—inlaid furniture, lamps, boxes, and picture frames. Nacre is formed when freshwater or some saltwater mollusks lay down alternate layers of calcium carbonate and conchiolin—its signature iridescence results from the differing refraction angles formed by uneven layering. Mother of pearl is most readily found in the pearl oyster that lives in tropical seas, primarily in Asia, and freshwater pearl mussels found in rivers in the United States, Europe, Asia, and other Pacific regions.  

Gottwald says, “The best habitat ever created is the shell.” And, with her training, it is hardly surprising that she made the transition from architect of spaces to architect of jewelry—the shells of the sea creatures become the structures that adorn the body. In the 1990s, while living in Paris and Prague, she added to her preservationist work by starting the Save Dalmatia Foundation to preserve both the historic structures of the cities and the ecosystems of its waterways.  

SYLVIA GOTTWALD, in Dubrovnik, Croatia, 2012. Photograph by Domagoj Blazevic.

I met Sylvia in 2008 at an event at the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where I was chief curator. She was wearing a luminous necklace of mother of pearl, cut into a stark square. The design and combination of materials reminded me of Bauhaus designs and Art Nouveau opulence, but was unlike anything I had seen before. When I asked who the artist was, she laughed and said “me!” This led to an invitation to her Washington, D.C. studio—and then to her studio in Korcula, an island off the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.  

In 2011, she was preparing for a retrospective exhibition, “Sylvia Gottwald: Cultured Designs,” at the Art Academy Museum, in Easton, Maryland, featuring her jewelry and historical nacre objects from her own collection. I was intrigued to learn that her interest in showing there was due not only to the museum’s proximity to Washington, D.C. It also allowed her shell jewelry to be in dialogue with the work of scientists at the nearby Horn Point Laboratory, Center for Environmental Studies, University of Maryland, which is re-seeding oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Gottwald points out that her principal materials, pearls and pearl producing shells, are threatened by the increased acidification of seawater, which eats the calcium that forms their shells. This is a double loss for ocean ecology, because oysters are very efficient filters of water, clearing it to allow sunlight to penetrate and food for fish and other sea creatures to flourish.  

This art and science dialogue was very exciting to me because I had just co-curated the “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project” for the National Museum of Natural History. This project, with its “Smithsonian Community Reef” made by eight hundred contributors of four thousand crocheted “coral reef” elements, brought together art, craft, physics, mathematics, and ocean conservation. Many of its viewers were moved by what art projects can bring to the public discourse around science discoveries. Gottwald blogs regularly on ocean conservation, particularly the disappearance of shells she herself has witnessed over the last twenty years.  

In a series of conversations, we discussed how she came to design and make jewelry, her inspirational sources, why she uses pearls and shells, and the necessity of preserving their habitats. Her wearable works from the ocean can open people’s eyes to the interconnectedness of life, beauty and the fragility of the sea.  

JM How did you transition from your career as an architect working on cultural and historic preservation projects, with the likes of the World Bank and the World Monuments Fund, to become an artist and designer who makes one-of-a-kind art jewelry?  

SG If I had not absolutely fallen in love with mother of pearl, I would never have started making jewelry. My ‘journey to jewelry’ dates back to a few key trips and events—I travelled a lot to South and Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s for my work and because my former husband’s family were Indian; and it was there I was first mesmerized by seventeenth-century Indo-Portuguese objects fashioned from nacre. Since then, I have hunted for nacre in Bali, Tahiti, Vietnam, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, and China.  

In 1999, my work as an architect for historic preservation projects stopped, because of political conflicts in the Balkans. In my newly-free time, I combed many of the flea and antique markets that Paris is famous for, and discovered ‘Eastern’ nacre in a ‘Western’ form—vintage, manufactured objects made in France, sourced from its Polynesian colonies, and used primarily by the fashion industry.  

BELT of Pinctada maxima (oyster shell) white nacre buckle with black resin on stainless steel mesh belt; belt 120 x 6 centimeters, buckle 15 x 10 centimeters, 2009. Photograph by Herbert Becker.

A turning point in my career came on a sojourn in Cochin. There, after coming across a huge warehouse containing an amazing collection of nacre shells—and buying most of it—I thought, ‘someday I want to make beautiful objects from nacre myself.’ When I returned to Paris, with time on my hands and plenty of nacre, I thought, ‘why not now?’ I tried to find other designers of jewelry who were working with mother of pearl, but to my great surprise—after discovering so many wonderful vintage works—I found none—not even from a visit to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and meeting with curators there. In fact, they encouraged me to work with the material, and introduced me to the people at the Musée de la Nacré in Meru, about an hour from Paris. On my visits there, I met the last living craftsman who could cut raw shells according to my drawings on those shells, so I used those too.  

JM Weren’t you a little intimidated to begin making jewelry without any formal training or the traditional studio tools and skills it would require? I mean, why did you not think about just designing and then turning the design over to some master jeweler to make, since you were living in a city with a great history and tradition of collaborations between designers and craftsmen?

SG I guess it is because I trained as an architect at a time when there were still very few women in the field, so what I don’t know (or what hasn’t been done before) has never been an obstacle for me. Plus, I really wanted to work with my hands, with materials again. So I began to experiment with my collection of vintage nacre objects together with some rubber tubing I had recently bought from my neighborhood hardware store.  

This first collection had great success and I got on the covers of French Elle Décor and the Italian magazine Ornamenta, and was featured in German Vogue. Between 1999 and 2002 I had thirteen shows, including the Musée de la Nacré, the Kampa Museum of Contemporary Art in Prague, and at Moda Milano. MoMA and Takashimaya in New York, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and Christie’s Bangkok all sold my jewelry.  

JM It’s not a surprise to me that your luxurious jewelry, with its minimalist rococo style, was a great success in the European fashion world. But it was out of sync with contemporary American jewelry trends of the last forty years, which tended to de-emphasize beauty, using re-cycled materials to make statements about current social issues. But come to think of it, you did that too. Your shells came from flea markets, and they were not ‘valuable.’ But with their disappearance, due to unsustainable ecological practices, they are now ‘precious.’ Did your interest in ocean conservation start at the same time as you were working on your jewelry or did it come later?  

SG As I worked with these shells, my fascination with the natural habitats made by marine animals could only increase, and I began earnestly to study these creatures and their environments. Not long after I returned to the United States in 2001, the Museum of Natural History in New York had an exhibition on pearls, and I was interested to learn that the US once had an extensive nacre production from oysters in the Mississippi River. In fact, the US was the world’s leading manufacturer of mother-of-pearl buttons during the early 1900s, but that was all over by the 1940s. Over the last fifty years, of the three hundred species of pearl mussels here in North America, half are gone or are threatened. In 2002 I did manage to find a company in New Jersey that was still in business, and they cut my shells until they went out of business too. About this time, I saw the supply of my ‘raw material’—nacre from other parts of the world—disappearing, especially after the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004.  

JM That is a good example of the interconnectedness of artmaking and enviromental issues. So now tell me about how you make your jewelry. Does your architectural training come into play here?  

PENDANT of Pinctada margaritifera (oyster shell)black nacre, solid and carved (Croatian sacral motif) on rubber tube; 10 x 10 centimeters, 2009. Photograph by Kristina Fazinic.

SG Architects design forms and specify materials with which to construct the building. With jewelry, the intellectual exercise is the same, but I also make the final product. I source new, rough shells from sustainable pearl farms, both in the US and abroad. I cannot do production work, because each shell has its individual peculiarities, and I take my cues from them when I draw my designs on it, using as much of the shell’s innate shape as possible. Then I have them cut and polished according to my drawings, and use the pieces to make necklaces, brooches, belt buckles, and earrings.  

I arrange these forms until I find compositions that combine my precious shells with industrial or manmade materials like stainless steel, resin, glass, and plastic, as well as rubber, wood and copper. I rely on rubber tubing, which is flexible and lightweight, to bring the natural shell into direct contact with skin. Each piece is constructed like a miniature sculpture, and I use silver encasement, electroplating, ebony, and resin to connect and protect the delicate edges of the shells. I often use high tech adhesives to secure various elements so that I can change the composition if I need to recycle the valuable shell parts, like I did with the Deco pieces.  

How it is attached to and hangs on the body are also important design considerations for me. My jewelry moves with the body, and adjusts with the wearers’ movements, so it fits different body types. Some of the pieces are two-sided—they invite the wearer to discover how to wear them. For example, my stainless steel mesh belts really hold to the body, like contemporary chain mail except they wrap and tie to the body—and can do it in different ways. I first used this mesh to make a curtain on an architecture project, and I loved its shimmery movement, which works so well with the iridescence of mother of pearl. Other pieces are breastplates, resting on the chest in a way that seems protective, like luxurious armor, like the shells themselves, which are really armor for the sea creatures who build them.  

JM So Sylvia, you now have ten collections defined by the types of shells you use in each. You’ve recently shifted to smaller shells, because you wanted to draw attention to the less-valued shells which are disappearing without anyone’s notice. Your most recent collection features conch from the Bahamas. How did you come to conch?  

SG In 2013 I was in the Exumas, helping to organize Earth Day—which includes oceans, by the way—and the Bahamian Minister of the Interior saw my work and invited me to design a collection using conch. They have millions of shells (it’s a four to five million dollar industry), because conch is a principal source of food on the islands, and the shell is the byproduct of the food. Conch fisheries in other parts of the Caribbean have collapsed, mainly due to overfishing. But the Bahamas still has a lot—it is a sustainable resource, if properly managed.  

And conch is a beautiful pink color, with a very different structure than the shells I have been working with—it’s much harder, and has a porcelain-like surface. Every time I change the species of shell I’m working with, I find a new design challenge, which I love. I have made a conch collection, and I hope that my jewelry will inspire young Bahamian designers and craftsmen to become entrepreneurs, to design and sell their own work. I am also working with The Bahamas Conchservation Campaign.

JM This intersection of art and ocean conservation awareness is powerful, because people are drawn by the beauty of the work. They want to know where this beauty comes from, and you are ready to tell them, in as much detail as they can take in. You direct our attention to the diversity and beauty of shells and their habitats, from the dramatic Pinctada margaritifera to the humble conch. Your wearable shells remind us of jewelry’s capacity to do many things at once, and it strengthens our awareness that we are creatures connected with other creatures, even ones we can’t see.  





Jane C. Milosch
Jane C. Milosch currently directs the Provenance Research Initiative in the Office of the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution, where she was previously Senior Program Officer for Art, directing pan-institutional art programs and new interdisciplinary initiatives. Previously she was chief curator at the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Before joining the Smithsonian, she worked at museums and cultural organizations in the United States and abroad, including the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, The Detroit Institute of Arts, and Prestel Art Publishing. A former Fulbright Scholar to Munich, Germany, she is a graduate of Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, and The Getty Leadership Institute, Los Angeles. Her research interests include modern and contemporary art, craft and design.




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