Art Smith (1917–1982) was one of the leading modernist jewelers of the 20th century. Born in Cuba, but raised in Brooklyn, he learned about the fundamentals of jewelry making from a colleague whom he met while teaching crafts at a children’s workshop. From there, he attended Cooper Union from 1942 to 1946. He trained under Winifred Mason, then the first Black jeweler in the United States.
At the outset, Smith studied architecture but discovered his interests lay with sculpture, engineering, and three-dimensional forms. He learned about jewelry-making by enrolling in a night course at New York University and opened his first store in 1946 in Greenwich Village. However, because he was a black, gay man, he was the target of constant harassment. Nevertheless, he managed to achieve extraordinary success.
Art Smith’s style has been described as “…inspired by surrealism, biomorphic, primitivism … dynamic in its size and form.” His pieces were massive in scale, but lightweight enough to be worn by his muses: jazz and modern dancers. He was well acquainted with Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne and choreographer Talley Beatty.
Smith’s jewelry was hand-hammered and contained components of silver, copper and brass, sometimes combined with quartz or other colored stones. He strived to make his jewelry conform to the human body and believed that his jewelry was incomplete until the body gave it form and expression.
He described his work as “…a piece of jewelry is, in a sense, an object that is not complete. Jewelry is a ‘what is it?’ until you can relate it to the body. The body is a component in design just as air and space are. Like line, form and color, the body is a material to work with. It is one of the basic inspirations in creating form.”
During his life, Art Smith’s work was highlighted in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and shown at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. His pieces are held in the permanent collection of the Cooper Hewitt Museum, Museum of Art and Design, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Smith passed away in 1982 from heart disease.