GEORGE BROOKS - Modernist Jeweler

A Unique Perspective on Modernism

Yvonne J. Markowitz

Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry
David and Roberta Logie Dept. of Textile and Fashion Arts

Susan Ward

Curatorial Research Fellow
David and Roberta Logie Dept. of Textile and Fashion Arts


The Jewelry of George Brooks

The twentieth century is regarded as a revolutionary period in the history of jewelry. While many ornaments, especially those made of precious materials, were designed and fabricated by traditional, high-style jewelry houses, others were created by a small coterie of artists who challenged notions of preciousness and promoted the concept of jewelry as wearable art. One artist on the forefront of this radically new approach to jewelry is George Brooks.

Our interest in George Brooks began, as did George's idea for this book, with a dramatic silver, gold (18 kt), and pearl fish brooch (p. 61) that appeared on the web site of a well-known dealer in modernist jewelry. One of us (SW) noticed it, and kept returning to it over about a year and a half. The quality of the design and craftsmanship was intriguing (this accounted for the price, since the dealer knew nothing about the maker), as was the unusual combination of materials, and the original 1960s-modern box stamped in lower-case, sans-serif letters, "george brooks / jeweler / santa barbara." There was no mention of his name in any of the usual references on modernist jewelry, but fortunately the box provided enough information to locate George himself. Soon afterward, the artist came to Boston with more examples of his work, several pieces of which he generously donated to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. We were fascinated by George's work and the story of his career, and decided that both should be better known among connoisseurs of modernist jewelry. This essay is an attempt to provide more information on George and his career, and to explore how his work fits into a broader context.

Background and Early Career

Brooks (b. George Rybnicek) was born in Brno, the Czech Republic, in 1925. He spent his first five years living in a small village with his mother and two sisters, while his father worked as a custom tailor in Montreal, Canada. At age six, the family was reunited in Montreal, a cosmopolitan city with a rich cultural heritage. While in college, he took course work in electrical engineering before deciding that his interests lay more in the visual arts. After briefly studying sculpture at the Ecole des beaux-arts de Montréal, he turned his attention to metalsmithing, having experimented with making silver rings (bands) from Canadian quarters. In 1948 he assumed the position of apprentice goldsmith at Henry Birks & Sons, Canada's leading retailer of high-end jewelry and watches. Like Tiffany & Co. in America, Birks' was founded during the nineteenth century and included among its workers highly skilled designers and artisans. For a young man eager to learn the jeweler's art, it was an excellent opprtunity to acquire basic jewelry-making skills.

Within a few years, however, Brooks was dissatisfied with fabricating traditional, high-style jewelry which he found visually uninteresting and lacking in originality. Like several pioneering artist/jewelers in America, he had no interest in being part of a system that promoted a division of labor where conventional designs and productivity were prized over honest, humane craft. Instead, his goal was to create one-of-a-kind ornaments based on his own designs. To that end, he constructed a jewelers' bench in his home where he created silver and gold jewelry based on simple, abstract forms. In addition to making his own tools, he also built his own equipment for cutting and polishing gemstones, especially opal – a stone for which he would have a lifetime passion.

In 1950 Brooks became aware of the jeweled creations of Georges Delrue (b. 1920), a French native working in Montreal. Delrue was part of an avant-garde group of jewelers influenced by European modernists, especially Jean Arp, Joan Miró, and Jacques Lipchitz. These artists rejected traditional, academic forms of expression, preferring subjective over objective reality. Their work, characterized by changing viewpoints and abstract forms, both stimulated and challenged Delrue who created "...flat, hollow, gold brooches in biomorphic shapes...with large, set stones...[that]...were a lively contrast to the protozoan metal forms and the deeply curved edges created among the strong negative spaces."

Unlike his contemporaries interested in modern design in America, Delrue had spent ten years working in the shop of a master jeweler, so that when he established his own atelier in 1947, he was well acquainted with the commercial jewelry designs of the period. His interest in modern art was instrumental in formulating his own innovative designs. As a result, the modernist jewelry he created was both forward-thinking and technically sophisticated. This appealed to Brooks, and in 1950 he secured the position of apprentice goldsmith with Delrue – Canada's first modernist jewelry workshop. During his seven years there, he was exposed to all aspects of jewelry production, from the concept/design phase through all aspects of fabrication. In this respect, modernist jewelers emulated the philosophy of John Ruskin, a nineteenth century British artist and social reformer who witnessed the dehumanizing effects of widespread industrialization. In its place, Ruskin promoted a return to the medieval craft guild where artists could create handmade goods in an ideal environment. However, the movement that he inspired – the Arts & Crafts movement – did not survive the Machine Age with its emphasis on speed, mass production, and consumerism. By the end of the Second World War, some artists again longed for the opportunity to execute their own designs to make one-of-a-kind ornaments and avant-garde jewelers, including Delrue and later George Brooks, were among the first to do so.

While employed in the Delrue workshop, Brooks was fortunate to come in contact with Hans Gehrig (1929-1989), a Swiss-trained silversmith who joined Delrue in 1952. Gehrig taught Brooks how to raise, forge, and chase silver – skills he would later use to create objets d'art and hollowware. He also applied these techniques to jewelry-making – his motto at the time being "If I could imagine it, I could produce it." Gehrig and Brooks also shared an interest in gems and minerals and in 1957 they founded the Montreal Gem and Mineral Club, which is today one of the largest rock clubs in Canada.

The year 1957 was an important one for Brooks. After years of executing Delrue's designs, the artist was ready to concentrate on his own, and to that end he opened his own shop in downtown Montreal. The works produced in the next few years reveal a mature artist of considerable vision and skill. From a design viewpoint, the works are varied, elegant, abstract, and sometimes playful. A silver, gold, diamond, and coral pendant created that same year illustrates Brooks' capacity to combine both precious and semi-precious materials in an ornament that is both original and whimsical (p. 49). It is also highly sculptural, a characteristic that informs many of his designs. The artist also makes use of a darkening agent (liver of sulphide) on select silver surfaces, creating a play between positive and negative spaces in some objects and adding depth to others.

The artist's interest in texture is evident in several cast ornaments where rough, uneven surfaces are sometimes juxtaposed with smooth, softly polished areas. Many are further embellished by artfully placed round pearls, a gem material that imparts a soft, feminine effect when placed within a framework of hard geometries. There is a lyrical quality to several ornaments created in the 1950s that are masterworks of metalsmithing – brooches of forged silver with graceful curves that fold and twist in space (pp. 28, 40, 54). Others, including a series of silver fish brooches, are bold geometries of openwork design highlighted by gold (18 kt) and small gems (pp. 46, 48, 57, 61).

In addition to round pearls, turquoise, and diamond highlights, opal – especially Australian boulder opal – emerged over the years as Brooks' gem of choice. After selling his shop in Montreal in 1961, George and his wife Jean embarked on a world tour where the couple had the opportunity to visit gem sources. In Andamooka, Australia, the artist spent several months mining for opal under difficult circumstances. Brooks is not alone in his affection for opal. Pliny, the 1st century A.D. Roman naturalist, stated that in opals ". . .you see the living fire of the ruby, the glorious purple of the amethyst, the deep blue of sapphire, and the sea green of the emerald—all glittering together in an incredible mixture of light." Today, the artist is an authority on the subject and has one of the largest collections of this gem in the world.

George Brooks in the Context of Modernist Jewelry

As to the mystery of why George Brooks' work has remained little-known among jewelry scholars, it is in part simply an accident of geography; Santa Barbara was a fairly small town when he moved there, and did not have the kind of community or client base that supported communities of modernist jewelers in places like San Francisco or Provincetown. The affluence of his new home also meant that he could earn a good living there without needing to send his work to competitions and galleries in other cities, where it would have been more widely noticed. In Montreal, while it was a much larger and more cosmopolitan city, the audience for new jewelry design in the 1950s was still quite small, and there was almost no connection to the contemporary American studio jewelry scene. The pioneering modernists who worked in Montreal and in other Canadian cities, although they were all either immigrants from Europe or had been professionally trained on the European apprenticeship model, also operated in relative isolation from their European contemporaries. It is therefore interesting and instructive to look at the work of Brooks and his Montreal colleagues, which until quite recently has attracted little attention from either international or Canadian scholars, and to consider how it fits into the broader history of modernist jewelry. It is also interesting to consider how Brooks' background and training sets his work apart from that of contemporary American studio jewelers such as Ed Wiener or Art Smith.

The first major difference, and one on which Brooks himself places great emphasis, is in his manner of working, and the way in which he learned his craft. Unlike the majority of American modernist jewelers, who learned metalworking through executing their own designs in workshops in the Arts and Crafts tradition or in university art programs, Brooks started out as an apprentice in a traditional, high-style jewelry house, learning to execute and interpret the ideas of other designers, and to work to exacting standards. This training carried over into his work executing the more innovative designs of Georges Delrue, and was augmented by the silversmithing skills he learned from Hans Gehrig. Through his work at Birks and with Delrue, he also became acquainted with the economic realities of the jewelry business, and the importance of being able to work fast. In his view, his training, and the speed and technical facility he learned early on, have given him an unusual degree of freedom in his designing, and have been key in enabling him to make a living making only custom and one-of-a-kind pieces. He has almost never made more than one of a design – not because he is philosophically opposed to creating multiples, but because he would find it boring. He enjoys the challenge of figuring out how to make something different from what he has done before, often making custom tools with a specific piece in mind, but then is on to the next idea. As he puts it, "The minute I make a piece, I tend to forget it, and then I'm starting a new design from scratch each time." So, unlike many American modernists, he does not have designs which have become recognizable "trademarks" through repetition.

Another distinctive feature of Brooks' work, which also grew out of his training in Montreal, is his use of precious materials, and the free way in which he mixes them with sterling silver, ebony, and other materials usually associated with "modernist" work. From the 1940s through the 1960s, most American modernists started out working with copper, brass, or sterling silver, and then sometimes moved on to work in gold; the emphasis, both from the jewelers themselves and in museum shows such as the Walker Art Center's 1948 exhibition "Modern Jewelry Under Fifty Dollars," was on the rejection of intrinsic value, and the use of democratic, inexpensive materials. At the same time in Europe, on the other hand, the impetus for modern jewelry design came primarily from within the jewelry trade, and professional organizations such as the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London emphasized work in gold and precious stones, along with Scandinavian silver jewelry by traditional silversmiths such as Georg Jensen; few artists thought to combine these two strains. George Brooks' work is an unusual combination of these varying influences; he first learned to work with gold, platinum, pearls and precious stones, on the European model, while experimenting with silver on his own. From Hans Gehrig, he learned silversmithing techniques more closely associated with hollowware than with jewelry, techniques which resonated with his own interest in creating three-dimensional forms in jewelry. While combining gold with silver in a single piece, as Brooks often did, is today fairly common in studio jewelry, it was highly unusual in the 1950s and 1960s. Even more unusual, particularly in the context of North American modernism, was Brooks' willingness to incorporate faceted diamonds in silver bezel settings, considered "the badge of the philistine" by some American modernist clients, into pieces made primarily of sterling silver. Even today, it is difficult for many North American jewelry scholars and curators to associate gold and diamonds with mid-century modernism. A case in point is a gold, pearl and diamond brooch which Brooks offered to donate to a Canadian museum several years ago. The museum liked the design (p. 98), but asked instead for an earlier version he had created in silver, without the diamonds. Brooks has continued throughout his career to experiment with unexpected combinations of materials, and to treat materials in unexpected ways – for example, running the band of a ring over, rather than under, a pearl (p. 101).

Although there are some common themes in George Brooks' designs, and many of his works have a certain characteristic "feel," as he puts it, he cannot be said to have a recognizable style. Rather, the qualities that most distinguish his work are his passion for and understanding of the materials with which he works, his technical virtuosity, and the inventiveness, integrity and elegance of his constructions. It has been a privilege to have the opportunity to meet George and discuss his work with him at length, and we hope that this book will help to introduce his work to the wider audience which it deserves.

©2010 George Brooks