Elisabetta Cipriani’s pioneering concept of wearable art has redefined the meaning of, and the boundaries between jewellery and fine art. Since 2009, her powerful artistic collaborations have captured the imaginations of collectors from across the globe. Today Elisabetta’s gallery is a world-leading artist jewellery gallery representing over two dozen international contemporary artists. This year, Elisabetta celebrates her ten-year anniversary in the wearable art business. We sat down with Elisabetta to look back on her incredible journey over the past decade.
What inspired you to start your wearable art business?
I have always had a passion for antique jewellery ever since I was a child. Back then, I didn’t know anything about artist jewellery, but I had a passion for beautiful objects. My mother actually used to take out her jewellery with me while I sat on her bed. As I tried on my mother’s jewels, I would constantly ask her if, one day, I could have not one but all of them!
Elisabetta’s parents in the 1990’s
For me, I’ve always had a passion for jewellery deep in my heart. After finishing school, I really wanted to study jewellery design. I ended up doing a short course on pearls and diamonds, following which I went on to study History of Art at John Cabot University in Rome. After I finished my studies, I got a job at MACRO (Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome) where I co-curated eleven exhibitions with amazing artists including Tom Wesselmann, Vik Muniz, Tony Craig, Tony Oursler, Kendell Geers, and Tatsuo Miyajima. Eventually, in 2005 I decided to move to London where I worked for Ben Brown gallery. Whilst at Ben Brown I fortunate to meet Ben’s lovely wife, Louisa Guinness, who is the person that first introduced me to artist jewellery. I would help Louisa bring the gallery’s artist jewellery treasure vitrine to art fairs, and it was during this period that I started to really appreciate and study amazing pieces by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Meret Oppenheim, Man Ray, and so on. At the time I could see that there was a demand for artist jewellery, but it was not as big as it is today.
I realised that I wanted to work in collaboration with living artists to create wearable art, so after I got married and left my job at Ben Brown I started my wearable art business. I love to work with artists, it’s such a unique dialogue and I really like this relationship. It felt so natural speaking with artists because of my museum background, where I used to visit artist studios and become immersed in the lives of artists. I will therefore always be thankful to Louisa Guinness for opening this door and for allowing me to realise my true passion.
Elisabetta with artist Sean Scully in his New York studio
How did you come up with the idea of wearable art? Talk to us about your unique concept.
I decided to move away from the idea of ‘jewellery by artists’ because this phrase is very general. It could refer to a jewel created by a goldsmith (who’s an artist in his/her own right) a visual artist, or even a dancer…it could be anybody! So, to make it easier to understand, I came up with the concept of wearable art. In essence, a wearable art piece is a unique work of art created by a visual artist, which you can wear! Wearable art somehow connects you, the wearer, to the visual art. In fact, the wearable art pieces transform their wearer into a walking artwork, like a performance. It’s all linked. The body lives and moves with the artwork which the wearer intimately carries with them.
Jewellery and art have a long-standing relationship. How does wearable art go beyond jewellery?
Wearable art connects the wearer to visual art. The pieces are like sculptures which one wears. Also, the language is different from standard commercial jewellery – it’s not so much about making a jewel for the purpose of decorating one’s body, or to match your outfit. Yes, it’s a decorative kind of art, but it’s disconnected from what you’re wearing. It’s a standalone piece of art that has nothing to do with fleeting fashion trends. Wearable art is timeless. Just like with a work of art, each wearable art piece has a story.
I also think the value is different from that of commercial jewellery. Without spirit, the stones mean nothing. In the case of wearable art, the value has nothing to do with the material. The materials that are mostly used are gold, silver, or even brass, so the value is actually more symbolic. The other day I was reading about the legends of Peru, where gold has the power against evil and allows one to be closer to God. There is no reason why this myth cannot be seen this way in all civilisations.
Wearable art is also very contemporary. The pieces address current issues, for example, Ai Weiwei talks about immigration with reference to prehistoric trends. His Ring W and Ring M project merges ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics with his own contemporary visual vocabulary. Rebecca Horn’s wearable art is also symbolic as it’s intended to channel positive energy drawn from the earth and sky to the body.
Left: Ai Weiwei, Ring W and Ring M (2018), 24kt yellow gold rings, 2.48 x 2.88 x 1.65 cm; 2.72 x 3.04 x 1.86 cm,
Edition of 6 (per model)
Right: Rebecca Horn, Untitled (2019), 22kt yellow gold, silver, and labradorite ring, unique
What do you love most about collaborating with contemporary artists?
Being involved in the process of creating a work of art. Even though I don’t tell the artist what to do, just being part of the creative process is the most beautiful and rewarding part of my job. I will treasure these moments for the rest of my life. I love the fact that the artist creates the project exclusively for me because, yes, I choose the artist, but actually, in the end, the artist chooses me. It’s such an honour and it makes me feel incredibly special. I find all of my projects very special, which is why I like to follow the production process very closely and often will deliver the pieces to my clients personally – I love it!
You represent a broad range of contemporary artists from across the globe. What kind of artists are you drawn to? How do you decide who to collaborate with?
Everybody asks me this question! It’s simple. I have to love their art! When I look at an artist’s body of work, I need to connect with it. I’m particularly drawn to art where one can feel the presence of nature and the body, even in an abstract or conceptual way, and also art that’s connected to everyday life. In fact, all of the artists that I represent relate their art to the everyday: Giulio Paolini speaks to the present day through reference to sculptures from antiquity; Giuseppe Penone’s large-scale tree installations reflect the everlasting link between mankind and nature; Jannis Kounellis’ Arte Povera art incorporates unconventional everyday materials; Kendell Geers’ Afro-punk pieces provide socio-political commentary on present day issues; Pascale Marthine Tayou uses familiar materials, which one might find on our travels, such as thread and charcoal etc. This kind of art has strong materiality and contemporary relevance; it’s raw yet undoubtedly fine art at the same time.
Left: Giulio Paolini, Atena Lemnia, 2016, 18kt white gold bas-relief necklace, Edition of 8, Signed and numbered
Right: Giuseppe Penone, Foglia (Leaf), 2011, 24 kt gold and bronze, Edition of 10, Signed
Left: Jannis Kounellis, Labbra (Lips) (2012), 18kt yellow gold ring, 2.1 x 6 cm, Edition of 12,
Signed and numbered
Right: Kendell Geers, The Word (Love) Made Flesh (2019), Silver and enamel pendant, 7 x 7.4cm, Edition of 20,
Signed and numbered
Pascale Marthine Tayou, Gri-Gri (2017), 18kt yellow and white gold, South Sea pearls, beads, African cloth and coloured threads, 7 unique rings, Signed
How involved are you in the creative process with your artists?
I’m very involved. I make sure that what I receive from the artist – whether it’s a sketch, a model, or even a description – is translated three dimensionally. I’m very involved in the process of creating the first prototype and work closely with our goldsmith to ensure that the artists’ vision is realised. The real jewel of the gallery is my goldsmith Paolo Mangano, who is based in Rome. He has a great sensibility in that he respects the artist’s project which has been handed to him. Together we try to add value to the project by making it more wearable – this could be making the piece lighter or making adjustments so that it sits better on the body. Once the prototype is done, I present it to the artist. The piece will never be worn by anyone until it’s perfect. Each piece is therefore very carefully monitored to ensure that we achieve excellence. Of course, each piece won’t look exactly the same even if it’s a limited edition because it’s handmade, but that’s the beauty of it.
Elisabetta with goldsmith Paolo Mangano in his workshop in Rome
Why did you decide to launch EC Lab? Please tell us about your motivations behind this venture.
As I mentioned earlier, I have always loved jewellery. It was a childhood dream of mine. I specialize in working with visual artists, but I strongly believe that there are jewellery designers and goldsmiths out there in the world hidden away in shops and studios who create fabulous pieces as if they are creating works of art. EC Lab is therefore my laboratory of experimentation, which introduces both unknown and well-established jewellery designers who create spectacular jewellery with a strong narrative.
EC Lab is also my way of bringing people into the world of jewellery by promoting both unknown and well-established jewellery designers who believe in infinite possibilities of self-expression through wearable objects, beyond the limitations of what is today considered ‘normal’ jewellery. Some of my collectors were actually first attracted to the EC Lab pieces, which enticed them to explore wearable art. The pieces in EC Lab are unique and therefore make you feel special.
In 2020 I hope to expand EC Lab and scout for more jewellery designers. I’m taking my time with this as I want to make sure that what I’m proposing is interesting and timeless. I don’t believe in things that are relevant for just a couple months, I like things that you can one day pass down to your daughter, son, or nephew.
Left: Ute Decker, The Curling Crest of a Wave (2016), 18kt Fairtrade gold ring, Edition of 6, Signed
Right: Maria Sole Ferragamo, Not a Knot (2018), Suede leather and gold foil earrings, Edition of 20, Signed
Left: Noor Fares, Muladhara Bespoke Earrings (2019), 18kt yellow gold carved rosewood earrings with amaranth garnet, amethyst, coloured pave sapphire and white diamonds, Unique
Right: Noor Fares X Flavie Audi, Superlunary, Cloud Rhombus Ring with 18kt white gold, natural rock crystal, mother of pearl, synthetic opal, coloured sapphires, and diamonds, Unique
John Moore, Ray Fin Necklace (2019), 18kt yellow gold, sterling silver, diamonds, magnets, silicone rubber necklace, Unique and signed.
Do you have an all-time favourite piece?
My favourite wearable art piece is Jannis Kounellis’ blackened white gold Labbra ring. In fact, I always have it on. I think the ring suits my personality, and it’s so comfortable that I even wear it to the supermarket! I also love Giorgio Vigna’s Segmenti ring, which the artist gave to me as a present. People are often surprised to find that there’s a free pearl dancing around my finger. The ring is light, and I love hearing the sound of the pearl or rock crystal when I move my hand as I can feel its presence. It’s as if there’s something alive in me, or maybe the sound is a reminder of my wearable art!
Giorgio Vigna, Gabbia a Segmenti (2015), oxidized silver, 18kt yellow gold, rock crystal or South sea pearl ring, unique and signed
I also love the rose gold Castellani Superficie cuff, which I often wear on special occasions, or even to a nice lunch or dinner. I don’t like to wear too much jewellery, just two to three pieces maximum.
Enrico Castellani, Superficie (2012), 18kt rose gold cuff, 6.7 x 6.6 cm, Edition of 12, Signed and numbered
Lastly (of course, I can’t have just one favourite!) I love Francesco Arena’s Head Between Hand earrings. The materiality is beautiful and it’s very elegant. The one earring is bigger than the other, and when people ask me why I explain to them that one has a thumb print and the other has a pinkie! People are intrigued to know which finger it is, and whose finger prints they are. In essence, it is the artist’s hand between the wearer’s head.
Francesco Arena, Head Between Hand (2018), 18kt yellow gold earrings, Edition of 10, Signed and numbered
If we were to open your jewellery box, what might we find?
My friend gave me a silver mirrored box with velvet lining on the inside, and I throw almost everything in there. You would not find just wearable art, but other rings and earrings, including one of my mothers’ rings, which I loved when I was a little girl, a pair of diamond earrings given to me by my father when my daughter was born, and a ring that my wonderful goldsmith gave to me as a present.
Do you find jewellery empowering?
I get unexpected emails from people telling me that they wear their wearable art pieces every day and feel naked without it. I believe jewellery has power – it channels positive energy to the body, and I feel very protected when I wear artist jewellery. It makes me feel uplifted and empowered. Artist jewellery enhances my personality and I like it when people stop to ask me about what I’m wearing. It’s one of the best parts of wearing an artist jewel. I feel special and more beautiful.
This year you are celebrating 10 years in the wearable art business. What are some highlights over the past decade?
I have so much to be grateful for. I still have the same energy and enthusiasm for wearable art that I had ten years ago, probably even stronger than ever. That’s what’s most important – to remain passionate about what I’m presenting. I collaborate with 29 artists and five jewellery designers and I’m thrilled to say that I still have a great relationship with all of them. I have also met amazing women collectors who have followed me since the beginning, as well as new collectors who have just started to collect wearable art. I love to advise my collectors and see their happy faces when they’re wearing their wearable art.
This year I’m also very excited about my new exhibition space, which the man in my life, Niccoló, has given to me. The room is still inside my husband’s gallery, but it’s bigger than before so that my wearable art pieces can live there very happily!
To celebrate my 10-year anniversary, I will be presenting all of the past 10-year collaborations alongside sculptures by Giorgio Vigna, who I have invited to present a new project which explores themes surrounding nature, planet earth, and the sea. I also chose Giorgio because the first wearable art piece I received was his, which was during my twenties some 18 years ago. When I first met Giorgio, I confidently told him that we would one day work together with jewellery. He has supported me with my exhibitions and has created wonderful wearable art pieces which are in high demand by everybody. It’s an honour to work with an artist who not only do I get along well with but whose wearable art I adore. It therefore seemed fitting to work with Giorgio ten years down the line now that my dream to work with him and other artists to create wearable art has come true.
If you could see anyone wearing one of your pieces, who would it be?
To me it actually doesn’t really matter who the person is, whether it’s the Queen, Cate Blanchett, or someone on the street. What’s important for me is the personality of the woman and that she appreciates the value of the piece . I love collectors who are principled and successfully live life with confidence.
Do you have any future aspirations for your business? What do you think are the current and future trends in wearable art?
Wearable art is growing for sure. It will of course take time to become well known to the masses, but I actually don’t think I want it to be like that. I want wearable art to remain exclusive, available only to a certain type of person who is worth wearing these pieces. I am located on the first floor on a beautiful and hidden street off Regent street (Mayfair). I really like the idea that in order to find me, one needs to make an effort! As wearable art grows it’s essential to maintain the highest quality of craftsmanship as well as it’s attractive rarity by limiting the editions. My future aspiration would therefore be to preserve the exclusivity and high standard of excellence of my wearable art, and to share it with more great people.
Elisabetta and Domizia with Enrico Castellani in Celleno
To celebrate Elisabetta Cipriani’s 10 year anniversary, the gallery is hosting a special exhibition featuring an eclectic and broad range of wearable art collaborations. The exhibition will be on show from the 21st November – 13th December at Elisabetta Cipriani Gallery, 23 Heddon Street, London, W1B 4BQ. For more information please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 (0) 207 287 5675.