Women & Brooches: Helen Drutt

By The Goldsmiths’ Company Curator, Dr Dora Thornton

Helen Drutt wearing her Merrily Tompkins brooch

Helen Drutt is among the world’s greatest advocates for contemporary art jewellery. She has an astonishing collection, which she wears with dash along with her trademark hat, but she does not see herself as a collector. She is a born educator and teacher; a former gallerist (1973-2002) and curator; someone who wants to help people and experience something new. She helps others to build collections and she has generously made possible gifts/acquisitions as well as donations to major museums: jewellery to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in 2002 and American ceramics, furniture and jewellery to The State Hermitage Museum in 2014. This is a woman who continues to live with art wherever she is, who cherishes makers among her closest friends.

Entering her tenth decade, she shows no signs of tiring. I met her in 2019 when she gave one of the eulogies at a memorial event at Goldsmiths’ Hall in honour of Wendy Ramshaw, for which we prepared a small but sumptuous display of our pieces by Ramshaw. The next thing I knew, she had bumped into my friend Henry Noltie while visiting Ruby Palchoudhuri, their mutual friend, when walking in Gayabari in the foothills of the Himalayas. She told him how much she had liked that display. We then got in touch and have been talking and writing excitedly about contemporary jewellery all through lockdown. She is proving to be a great friend to the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection and an inspiration to me as its Curator.

Brooches were in her life from the beginning, and they remain among her favourites, but she started off fairly conventionally at the age of seven with her name spelt out and set with marcasites, then with a circle pin after the Second World War. When she saw her first artist’s brooch in the late 1960s, an electroformed piece by Stanley Lechtzin, she felt as if she had been struck by lightning. Here was something that wasn’t a painting or a sculpture but shared a similar aesthetic; something which lacked the homogenised look of contemporary trade jewellery. “I screamed…that was it!” It was a revolution in sensibility in which the Exhibition of Modern Jewellery at Goldsmiths’ Hall in 1961 had also played a key role. As she says about brooches:

“You can become a roving professor because of jewellery; you can move through the world talking about artists and their works just by wearing the piece.”

Which is exactly what she does.

Helen’s Merrily Tompkins brooch

I asked Helen to select a few of the brooches in her personal collection and tell me what they mean to her. First up is a witty and very personal brooch by Merrily Tompkins, as testament to the long friendship between the two women. It shows Helen in her hat and shades, wearing her beloved cuffs by Breon O’Casey, an artist she particularly admires. Projecting behind her are four further arms, which can be moved up and down by tugging the ringpull, modelled on the conventional circle pin she wore before her moment of epiphany. Each object is a kind of tribute to Helen: her phone refers to the long communication between the two women as does the letter. Helen recalls that on her 75th birthday Merrily sent her a letter with 75 lipstick kisses. The kettle is one of three by Michael Lax, the great industrial designer, which Helen burnt out; Merrily was always having to go online to find a replacement. The magnet refers to her collection of fridge magnets: “I started to collect them wherever I went in airports because I needed to satisfy the hunt within me. I loved looking for things and I needed to be able to satisfy that urge to discover and to find without spending a great deal of money.” Knowing all this, you can see how the brooch is a loving tribute from one dynamic woman to another.

Helen’s Louise Nevelson brooch

Next is a brooch by Louise Nevelson. Helen’s late husband H. Peter Stern was a co-founder in the 1960s of the Storm King Sculpture Park, featuring outdoor sculpture on a large scale by such luminaries as Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and Louise Nevelson. Helen was not be to outdone: “And so I thought it was sort of a gesture toward Peter’s aesthetic for me to also acquire a Nevelson brooch from a friend of mine.” She bought an exquisite brooch from Hope Makler, a collector of the sculptural jewellery of Alexander Calder. Born in the Poltava Governorate of the Russian Empire (present-day Ukraine), in 1899, Nevelson emigrated to America with her family and became one of America’s leading sculptors of the 20th century. Helen’s Nevelson brooch is made from carved and painted recycled wood and gold. It is one of only two hundred jewels made by the artist; four of her necklaces from 1972 are in the MMA in New York, but her work is rare and Helen’s brooch from 1976 has a special sculptural quality of its own. Something of the way in which Nevelson wore her jewellery as a kind of living collage also meant something to Helen, who wears her brooch with address. It is a favourite piece.  

Helen’s Claus Bury brooch

Claus Bury’s gold brooch from 1972 is, in Helen’s view, “one of the most important brooches of the 20th Century”. It has a unique construction which reveals a geometric design. Trained in the very best of the European goldsmiths’ tradition in Pforzheim, Bury’s meticulously-crafted gold brooches from the 1970s look like carefully-engineered miniature machines. The exposed screws are typical. Helen bought her first Bury piece—a ring in cast gold with an acrylic cloud emanating from it—in 1973; she has given five of his jewels to Houston, including a gold brooch from 1972 which is closely comparable in date, design and construction to this one, which she still keeps and treasures.

Helen’s Ramón Puig Cuyàs brooch in its presentation box

Helen wrote to me during lockdown from New York with an image taken on her mobile of her latest brooch; a brand-new, colourful piece by Ramón Puig Cuyàs, in its painted wooden box. It is labelled by the artist in pencil, “Tribute to Malcolm Lowry”, the great British novelist. Born in 1953 in Barcelona, Ramón Puig Cuyàs is a highly influential goldsmith, jeweller and teacher. Helen has followed his work since the 1980s and gave seven of his jewels to Houston in 2002. She tells me that just before she acquired this piece she had sworn to herself that she would never make another acquisition. She could not resist this one.  I can just see it rattling through the letterbox, and hope to see Helen wearing it.

“My relationship with the brooches is also my relationship with the artists; my friendships. I think the friendships and the relationships, and knowing about the piece aesthetically from primary source conversations that we’ve had, also illuminates the work as you wear it and gives it a very special power.”

Images courtesy of Helen Drutt.

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