Joanne Gollberg image 1
FIST FULL OF RINGS of semiprecious stones and sterling silver, 2008. Photograph by Stewart O’Shields.
Joanna Gollberg

An Unsentimental View of Jewelry




Regardless of the terminology, she follows these criteria: she wants her jewelry to be well crafted, well designed, interesting, and wearable.

Joanna Gollberg loves being a maker. She works quickly and efficiently to create colorful, light-hearted jewelry that is contemporary in design, but her dedication to technique and craft recalls a traditional mode. One can easily imagine her happily making a living crafting silver spoons, cups and teapots in early nineteenth-century America. However, Gollberg was born not only well after such ancestral craftsmen, but after the pioneering mid-twentieth-century studio jewelers; she was a child when the renegade artists of the 1970s and the post modernists of the 1980s were active, and started her career in the late 1990s as a mature art jewelry field was on the verge of major market changes brought on by the internet, indie craft fairs and a stressed economy. Today she works in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina, in her hometown of Asheville, crafting distinctive high-prong jewelry remarkable for its dynamic interplay of informality and luxury. For much of the past year, she has spent her time addressing the business aspects of being a maker.

Joanne Gollberg image 2
REDS TO YELLOWS BROOCH of semiprecious stones and sterling silver, 8.9 x 8.9 x 3.8 centimeters, 2009. Photographs by the artist, except where noted.

Gollberg’s interest in craft goes back to her teenage years, when she often worked with her grandmother, Eva Lundgren, an enamelist who passed away in 2010. Lundgren decorated preformed bowls and ashtrays, taking the hobby quite seriously. She also worked with watercolor and embroidery, sometimes combining the two by painting designs on plastic needlework canvas then stitching them. Gollberg describes her grandmother as “really creative” and “pretty kooky,” recalling, “once she ordered Penthouse magazine thinking it was about apartments, but she loved it!” When Gollberg was nineteen, Lundgren gave Gollberg her kilns and enamels. She then enrolled in a summer course at Penland School of Crafts to learn how to use them.

Gollberg’s decision to go to Penland was guided more by proximity than any particular awareness of the school’s importance, but she flourished in the creative setting and immediately realized that she wanted to work with metal and make jewelry. “That was all I wanted to do. I loved it so much!” After the course, she returned for her third year at Warren Wilson College, just outside of Asheville, set up a beginner studio in the basement of the English building, and has been making jewelry ever since. Even today, watching Gollberg move amongst her tools and materials gives the viewer a sense of satisfaction at seeing someone who clearly has found her calling.

Joanne Gollberg image 3
THREE-ROW BRACELET of semiprecious stones and sterling silver; 0.6 x 6.4 x 17.8 centimeters, 2011.

After college Gollberg went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York to pursue an associate’s degree in jewelry design. The program’s practical emphasis was a good match for Gollberg, who enjoyed it “because it was technical, it was not art.” Her desire is to make, and this program helped her develop the skills she needed to be a maker. While in New York she worked as a bench jeweler for Kiwon Wang (Ornament Vol. 33, No. 1, 2009), doing production jewelry, a task for which Gollberg is well suited, given the speed and precision with which she works.

She then returned to Asheville and founded Joanna Gollberg Jewelry in 1997. She enjoys interacting with people, so finding a studio in the heart of the city’s thriving downtown was appealing. “I’m not isolated somewhere. It’s good to be able to go out and look at people.” She also enjoys her proximity to the book publishers Lark Crafts, which produces innumerable how-to craft books as well as the popular 500 series. Gollberg occasionally teaches, and when an editor at Lark took one of her classes, he suggested that she write something for them because she is so clear and organized with her instructions. She has written four books for Lark, and is working on another, with a co-author in India, Hema Malani, on traditional Indian jewelry techniques.

It is tempting to construct elaborate narratives around Gollberg and her jewelry … perhaps she is part of a regional tradition of using the beautiful stones mined in western North Carolina … maybe she is linked to the atomic kineticism of mid-century studio jewelers … or the vibrant color combinations she creates might relate to the rich fabrics she sees on her travels to India (she is an avid traveler). But there are no fancy stories, no hidden meanings, no esoteric academic goals. Gollberg and her jewelry are straightforward. “This is me. I like making jewelry. I like designing jewelry; I like putting things together in different ways.” She emphasizes, “It’s not because it’s meaningful,” and is surprisingly unsentimental about jewelry, even employing a rotating cast of rings as her wedding band. For Gollberg, “it’s all technique,” and the technique for which she is best known is a high prong setting combined with an array of stones of different colors and textures. Simply appreciating how her jewelry looks, feels and wears is the point.

Joanne Gollberg image 4
SILVER CUFF of semiprecious stones and sterling silver; 0.6 x 7.6 x 1.3 centimeters, 2011.

For her prong series, which she began in late 2007, Gollberg uses an exaggeration of a traditional form to create modern structures that have a hint of familiarity as well as the sparkle of novelty. The prongs elevate the stones, which range from faceted semiprecious gems to natural crystals to polished orbs, giving each a sense of importance and grandeur regardless of individual market values. The height allows light to surround and illuminate the stones. Each piece of jewelry functions like a proud collector, displaying its unique treasures and gently demanding that the essential beauty of each stone be appreciated.

The elegantly simple prongs, usually of patinated silver wire, are the perfect vehicles for presenting color, whether in a ring with a single upright prong, a starburst cluster suspended on a chain or a trio dangling from an earring. Gollberg is a naturally gifted colorist and her impressive rainbow collection of neatly arranged stones provides an exciting palette. Sometimes she combines multiple stones of the same color, inviting the viewer to examine subtle differences in hue and surprising variations in texture. Other times she brings together interesting combinations of colors and textures, pairing blues with bright orange or colorless faceted cubic zirconias with rough white coral—creating an enticing visual tension. Gollberg has found that color appeals to galleries and customers, and adds that it appeals to her, too, explaining, “It gives me more to work with. It keeps me interested.” She emphatically does not ascribe any meaning to particular colors and just enjoys them. She does have favorites, though, and is a little wary of purple stones, wishes there were more good red stones and thinks the green and blue stones are “awesome.”

Joanne Gollberg image 5
SLAB NECKLACE of semiprecious stones and sterling silver; 0.6 x 5.1 x 43.2 centimeters, 2009.

As her business passed its first decade, Gollberg was doing remarkably well, showing her work in important exhibitions and highly-respected galleries. However, the fruits of these achievements did not meet all of her expectations, in particular the practical needs of supporting her family (she has a husband and a three-year-old son). She explains, “I was being accepted into all these amazing galleries that I always wanted to be in. I used to think that if I were in these galleries I would be selling work and doing well in my career. And my experience is that I sell some work in these galleries, but not enough to pay all of my bills. I didn’t think it was going to be that way.” She was making as much jewelry as she could and selling as much as she could make, but Gollberg found that she had hit a financial ceiling in the art jewelry world. In 2010 she had triple surgeries for tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome and trigger finger—all injuries from overuse, and the extended recovery time gave her the chance to reevaluate her practice.

Gollberg does not see her situation as unique, and views herself as part of a generation of makers who are facing new options and challenges when it comes to making ends meet. She sees a lot of people in the craft world struggling, and shared stories of peers whose craft show incomes have dropped by seventy percent. In addition to many consumers having less to spend, the ease of online shopping decreases the necessity for collectors to attend shows or galleries in person. Online sites like Etsy (where crafters can sell directly to consumers), while being an attractive option for some makers, can hurt the overall market as novice sellers undervalue their goods.

Joanne Gollberg image 6
AMETHYST TEXTURED CUFF of amethyst and sterling silver, 0.6 x 5.1 x 6.4 centimeters, 2011.

In her initial attempt to make a change, Gollberg and her husband took a business course with a local nonprofit organization, Mountain BizWorks, with thoughts of opening their own vintage store. She quickly realized, though, that what she really wanted and needed to do was focus on her jewelry business. Not shy, she sought out the advice of successful jewelers including Belle Brooke Barer and Wendy Culpepper, and the self-proclaimed designer jewelry business guru Cindy Edelstein (of the Jeweler’s Resource Bureau). She attended Edelstein’s Designer Day, a business conference in New York for jewelry designers: “It opened my eyes to this new jewelry world that I had been ignoring or ignorant of, which is designer jewelry.” Gollberg is hesitant to make harsh delineations between terms like art jewelry, designer jewelry and fashion jewelry—viewing it all as part of a sliding scale—but notes, “The focus to me in the designer jewelry world is more about being a real business, not about being an artist.” She does not see a great difference in the jewelry, just in how it is marketed.

Gollberg decided, proudly and confidently, to reposition her work from art jewelry to designer jewelry. This suits her well, and she explains, “I’ve never felt like an artist, I feel more like a maker.” Regardless of the terminology, she follows these criteria: she wants her jewelry to be well crafted, well designed, interesting, and wearable. She certainly appreciates the art jewelry galleries, and values her relationships with them, but notes, “Business-wise I was limiting myself so much by only focusing on the art jewelry galleries and craft shows.” When she learned during Designer Day that there are thirty thousand stores in the United States that sell jewelry, she felt empowered, thinking, “Surely one hundred of them will sell my work!”

Joanna hired her friend Marthe Le Van, senior jewelry editor at Lark, to help, and they developed a business plan and formal mission statement and redesigned her website. She works with two local jewelers, Sarah West and Caitie Sellers, who help make prongs and other components, which she cannot do anymore on a large scale because of her repetitive stress injuries. Gollberg now offers three collections: Prong, Textured and Chain. All feature colorful stones, and all are handmade. The Prong Collection continues her high prong series, with some particularly delicate designs. The chunkier Textured Collection combines the prong settings with organic circles that have mottled surfaces. The Chain Collection joins tiny, prong-set stones with gemstone beads and dainty chains, allowing for graceful movement with hints of color. Gollberg’s designer jewelry retains the feel of her earlier work, but on a scale that is inspired by the types of jewelry women tend to wear every day rather than just on special occasions.

Joanne Gollberg image 7
BLUE/GREEN/ORANGE BROOCH of semiprecious stones and sterling silver; 0.6 x 5.7 x 3.8 centimeters, 2011.

While much of Gollberg’s studio is filled with samples of her new collections and stacks of small tins of prong parts, one table is arranged with a tantalizing new project. San Francisco’s Velvet da Vinci gallery invited Gollberg, along with other contemporary jewelers, to make work using stones from the collection of studio jeweler Margaret De Patta (1903 - 1964), for a traveling exhibition. Gollberg is planning to set De Patta’s stones, mostly in shades of green, in a necklace, and to accent them with tiny yellow sapphires. She is “super excited” about the challenge, and seems to relish the opportunity for a creative outburst and the chance to balance the more routine aspects of producing for wholesale.

Regarding the state of the art jewelry world, Gollberg predicts, “There is a movement that is going to happen, I know it, where people are going to focus on making as a business, or a lot of people aren’t going to be able to make anymore.” Gollberg’s new approach is to make her work available to a larger audience than she was reaching through galleries and craft shows. “I want people to buy it who like it and will wear it,” and adds pragmatically, “the more jewelry you sell, the more jewelry you can make.”

Gollberg finds herself particularly stimulated by the evolution of her practice from art jeweler to designer jeweler: “I love everything that has to do with jewelry, so having to shift and learn has been awesome. I like having challenges. Otherwise it’s boring.” She also welcomes how this change has made her reconsider mainstream production. She pays much more attention to how women really wear jewelry and appreciates good design regardless of its source or price. “Now that the door is open for me, it has been so much more exciting and fun to look at jewelry and accept it for being cool.” Not everyone can wear Gollberg’s sumptuous, glittering, large-scale artist jewelry, but the prospect of seeing more women donning her lovely, well-crafted designer jewelry in everyday settings bodes well for jewelry observers and for the jewelry business.





More Joanna Gollberg images


500 Gemstone Jewels: A Sparkling Collection of Dazzling Designs. Asheville, NC: Lark Books, 2010.

Gollberg, Joanna. “Fresh Prongs,” Art Jewelry Magazine (July 2011): 30-33.

——. The Ultimate Jeweler’s Guide: The Illustrated Reference of Techniques, Tools & Materials. Ashville, NC: Lark Books, 2010.

Le Van, Marthe. 21st Century Jewelry: The Best of the 500 Series. Asheville, NC: Lark Crafts, 2011.

“Penland Gallery Artist of the Week: Joanna Gollberg, Jeweler.” Penland Sketchbook, available from http://www.penland.org/blog/?p=131, April 26, 2010.


Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar in Athens, Georgia, and the author of Georgia Bellflowers: The Furniture of Henry Eugene Thomas (Georgia Museum of Art, 2012), as well as books on the modern designers Ilonka Karasz and Mariska Karasz. She visited Joanna Gollberg’s studio in Asheville expecting to discuss her jewelry in terms of design and inspiration, but the conversation quickly turned to business and they had a stimulating discussion about art jewelry and designer jewelry. Gollberg acknowledges that she is facing some biases as she moves from the rarified world of art to a more commercial place, but Callahan believes that Gollberg’s infectious enthusiasm makes it hard not to share her excitement.



Keep rich and engaging content in your life, click here to subscribe today.

Our upcoming issue 37.4 contains


Nubian Jewelry

Kate Mensah

Philadelphia Craft Show


  Follow Ornament on...