ART OF ADORNMENT, By Irene Lacher
Contemporary Jewelry With A Museum In Its Future
When Lisa M. Berman walks into a party, she doesn't have to worry about running
into her doppelganger. When it comes to style, the chic brunette is one-of-a-kind.
So is the dramatic jewelry she wears when she's putting together her unique silhouette.
"I absolutely like pieces that make statements," she says. "I'm not a small-scale
jewelry wearer. It's about attitude, not altitude."
Berman's passion for the well-tuned adornment is putting her on the map of a recent design
trend-jewelry that doubles as an art object. She's the owner of an exquisitely curated
gallery of wearable art called Sculpture to Wear. After its 1999 opening in a humble
niche of Bergamot Station, Sculpture to Wear graduated to airy boutique in May when Berman
reopened the store at 808 11th Street at Montana Avenue in Santa Monica.
Berman, 37, calls herself the "Visionary Proprietor" of Sculpture to Wear, and while the
title hardly evokes humility, she isn't really wearing her vanity on her sleeve. What she
is doing is keeping her eye on the collectibles of the future. "One of the reasons why I
decided to venture into contemporary art jewelry was that so many people were dealing in
vintage jewelry, and that contemporary art jewelry was an untapped resource," she says.
"It was something new to be explored. I am representing the future antiques of today."
Her former husband, Bergamot Station art gallery owner Robert Berman, says he admires her
unerring eye as well as her commitment to educating a new breed of collectors. "When it comes
to understanding contemporary jewelry, I've never met anybody who gets it like she does," he says.
"This is a microcosm of the art world in general, and like any other art form, it's about
understanding the nuance of design and material and artists' commitment. Lisa is developing a
new vocabulary for looking at things which very few people speak in."
In addition to a stable of 20 artists from around the world, Berman shows the work of as many as 60
at any one time. Pieces like Jan Mandel's "Golden Spider" brooch and the feather-tufted necklace of
Sheridan Kennedy are displayed on pedestals and in frames, befitting creations of designers whose work
is collected by museums like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The V & A (London) and New York's
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Prices range from $100 for a Tana Acton silver wire-wrapped ring to
$38,000 for Mandel's 18K gold and stainless steel mesh Elizabethan collar with a detachable brooch
and earrings made of citrines and diamonds. Mandel, a Washington, D.C. and London based artist who
is represented by Sculpture to Wear, says it's important to her that she never repeats herself.
"If someone is paying the money for the work, I want to give them a unique piece of jewelry that
they'll enjoy for years and hopefully hand down."
Sometimes Berman recruits art historians and artists to guest-curate exhibitions, as she did for
last summer's show of contemporary German jewelry, "Neue Berliner." She has also agreed to host
an international exhibition at the end of 2005. Jewelry artists around the world have been invited
to create pieces symbolizing the end of violence against women. One piece will be mass reproduced
after the public chooses it by voting on the organization's website. Sculpture to Wear will exhibit
the one-of-a-kind jewelry as well as the original version of the object to be reproduced.
Berman also regularly donates pieces for auctions, especially for charities coping with child abuse
and neglect. "There has to be some meaning for me," she says of her selection process. "If I haven't
had any personal experience with an issue, then I choose to support a charity that promotes a concept
that I believe in."
As a child growing up in Laguna Beach, Berman was surrounded by art and design. Her great-grandmother
was a costume designer for the New York stage, and her mother, Linda B. Wright, designed and manufactured
a line of sportswear called Instant Reactions. As a teenager, Berman took metalsmithing classes, created
her first jewelry line at 13, made from found objects and beads. Soon after, she began her life as an
inspired collector, starting with vintage fashions and accessories.
Berman studied merchandising at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, jewelry-making at the
Otis Parsons School of Design and Plastics and Laser Technology at California State University, Long Beach.
In the early 90's she launched a fashion jewelry company called Statements Accessories, which sold to major
department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom. But after several years, she tired of the
fickleness of fashion. "It was taxing to come up with new looks four or five times per year," she says.
"A lot of it was knockoffs and a lot of it was cyclical, and that's what made it not as exciting for
me. What was important to me was to represent work that was either one-of-a-kind or limited edition,
would represent a feeling or emotion and was handmade. The human factor was important to me and still is."
A few years ago, Berman sought out Helen Drutt, and author and seminal figure in contemporary art jewelry
who owned a gallery in Philadelphia for 30 years. Drutt recently closed her gallery and the two are
discussing joint projects as well as Berman's inheritance of her group artists. "It's an honor to be
part of that history," Berman says. Drutt says the high regard is mutual. "I think what she's doing
is really wonderful," she says of Berman. "She's passionate about her artists and the place of jewelry
in the world of art. She's the next generation to carry on all the work that my generation did in order
to bring an awareness of this work into the public forum."
But Berman won't be adding Drutt's collection to her gallery because it has been bequeathed to Houston's
Museum of Contemporary Art. "It was important for her to have a museum of contemporary art house her
collection," Berman says. "She didn't want it to be viewed in a crafts museum. She wanted the work to
be seen by a wider scope of people and in the same serious vein as fine art, not just as jewelry.
"When I collect pieces for my personal collection, I look at that too. I think, 'When I'm 80 or 90 and
my collection is going somewhere, how will it be viewed? What story will it tell?""