The Brooch Unpinned: 1961 International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery

The 1961 exhibition and the beginning of the Modern Jewellery Collection  

The Goldsmiths’ Company Collection of Modern Jewellery – contemporary studio art jewellery in precious metals – began with an exhibition at Goldsmiths’ Hall in 1961. The ‘International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery 1890–1961’ was a significant landmark; its lead curator, Graham Hughes, later described it as “the world’s first-ever exhibition of modern art jewellery”. The original inspiration came from the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1959 with an exhibition planned by curators Carol Hogben and Shirley Bury to trace the evolution of modern jewellery design. Antique jewels from the museum’s collection were to be shown in an avant-garde display alongside the very latest pieces from international houses. More unusually, the exhibition was to include works by independent designer and jewellery studios from 33 countries. 

Bringing such different elements together was ambitious. When the V&A was unable to mount the exhibition, Graham Hughes, Art Director at the Goldsmiths’ Company, stepped in. He brought his own special contribution to the concept in commissioning jewels cast from wax models by modern artists such as Henry Moore and Elizabeth Frink. He enlisted the help of goldsmith and jeweller David Thomas at the RCA and Andrew Grima, who was the lead designer at the H. J. Company Ltd. workshop in London where the pieces were cast. The results were distinct and different and remain so to this day. Hughes was deliberate in challenging the industry: “The most distinguished new jewels are in fact very close to modern painting or sculpture… sometimes they are actually made by painters or sculptors.” 

1961 International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery at Goldsmiths’ Hall © The Goldsmiths’ Company, photographed by Edgar Hyman

In the context of the rise of the art schools and the teaching of jewellery design within them, Hughes sensed a turning point in the status of art jewellery. He perceived that the 1961 jewellery exhibition could stimulate a new modern aesthetic in the history of fashion and design and a surge in wider public interest. The exhibition established Hughes as an international authority in the completely new field of modern art jewellery and led to a major change in collecting policy by the Company, which had previously only supported contemporary silversmiths. As part of the 1961 exhibition, the diamond company De Beers sponsored a competition “to stimulate advanced jewellery design”. The winning pieces were donated to the Company, and some are shown here [Meadows, Kessell, Adams]. The impact on winning jewellers was considerable: the exhibition had a long-term impact on the jewellery trade and its status as a serious creative force. In the words of collector and gallerist, Louisa Guinness: “The exhibition at Goldsmiths’ Hall served its purpose and kick-started the new age of Sixties jewellery design. Makers cared less about the material content and more about the aesthetic.” 

The success of modern jewellery design as a new creative force in the 1960s is exemplified by the reinvention of the brooch; something which the Goldsmiths’ Company did much to promote and which the Collection illustrates vividly.  

“The most distinguished new jewels are in fact very close to modern painting or sculpture… sometimes they are actually made by painters or sculptors.”

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