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by Brook S. Mason
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Andy Warhol, Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Onassis all had one particular collecting passion in common -- tribal art jewelry, which they sourced from Tambaran Gallery on the Upper East Side.

“They were drawn to ethnic jewelry, as it can be deeply spiritual reflecting religious beliefs but also social values as well as economic wealth and status, too,” said Maureen Zarember, who heads up Tambaran and whose latest exhibition, “Adornment,” spotlights a range of examples across multiple cultures.

On view is Andy Warhol’s American Indian pendant dating from the 1950s, with massive chunks of striated turquoise set in silver and studded with coral. The price is a fraction of the cost of one of his celeb portraits, a mere $10,000. Did Andy wear it? “Perhaps,” said Zarember.

Both Hepburn and Jackie O preferred beads, including early lapis Afghan ones as well as carnelian necklaces from the Fertile Crescent.

Collecting patterns for such fare differs widely. “Some collectors gravitate towards images while others opt for the non-figurative,” explained Zarember. Then there are those who collect examples across various cultures. But very little period ethnic jewelry is on the market because of its fragility.

In terms of design, some items strike a surprisingly modern note. For example, a South Indian hair ornament with gold spikes radiating from a large ring is akin to a piece of jewelry by Alexander Calder.

Also at Tambaran is an Indonesian parrot necklace from the 14th century, composed of stylized gold parrots, made paper-thin, which is priced at $40,000. Nearby are Tahitian hair ornaments composed of hundreds of shells.

Then on offer is a 19th century Indonesian gold crown. Decorated with gold roundels and orange glass beads, the headband is of ridged gold. The cost is $45,000.

Some of the jewelry borders on the bizarre. A 19th-century Hawaiian necklace, for instance, is composed of braided human hair and centered with hook carved from whalebone. A Tutsi necklace from the Democratic Republic of the Congo consists of 112 strands of Venetian trade beads.

Today, scarcity is driving up prices, which have climbed as high as 200 percent over the past five years. The field has also seen more crossover collecting, with many new clients coming from the modern and contemporary art fields. Prices can range up to $80,000, though that’s for a gold Indian necklace set with rubies, emeralds and diamonds. Gold necklaces, Zarember pointed out, can be found across many cultures.

“We’re the most boring of cultures,” she said, “as our men really don’t wear large-scale jewelry.”  

Tip: If you miss this show, catch examples at the AOA Tribal Art Show, May 10-13, 2012, at the Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion, which Zarember is organizing. In attendance are private dealers in tribal art from Paris, Brussels, Madrid and Montreal as well as New York.

“Adornment,” Feb. 2-Mar. 31, 2012, at Tambaran Gallery, 5 East 82nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10028.

BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.