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All That Glitters Really Could Be Gold at Laguna Art Museum

Updated: Mar 4

The museum has opened its first decorative art exhibition featuring jewelry as art.


Through The Looking Glass by Adam Neeley. Photo courtesy of Laguna Art Museum
 

When the Laguna Art Museum introduced its newly created Art and Nature Festival in 2013, it was designed to be an innovative approach to the idea that artists gain inspiration from nature in its myriad forms. 


That year, the program introduced sand drawings by Jim Denevan, monumental spirals evoking floral shapes that were traced into the sand of Main Beach and illuminated by hundreds of solar lanterns.


Scroll to 2024 when LAM has rejuvenated itself again by staging its first exhibition of decorative art titled “Modern Alchemy: The Fusion of Art and Nature in the Jewelry Designs of Adam Neeley,” which runs through July 29.


“This show is built on the legacy of our Art and Nature program which we have extended from last fall into spring, and we are asking artists to create a positive dialogue around nature,” said Victoria Zagarino Gerard, LAM’s deputy director. 


The museum describes such recognition of a jeweler as artist and the elevation of jewelry making into fine art as a first. “I am inspired by flora, fauna and water,” said Neeley. 


However, for viewers strictly delineating between art and crafts and used to the museum’s offerings of California painting and sculpture ranging from Laguna Beach’s art colony beginnings in the early 20th century into the present, all this glitter might rattle their sense of propriety. 


But then, given that Art and Nature had in the past featured culinary experiments on the beach and a lamp post incongruously standing in the ocean, for example, gold and diamonds and a little overwhelming luxe shouldn’t come as that much of a shock.


Curation required a different skillset, and to that end LAM hired art historian, historical gold work scholar and author Timothy Adams to guest curate the show.  Adams specializes in the work of Peter Carl Fabergé, the official goldsmith of the Russian Imperial Court and creator of the renowned Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs. 


“Fabergé would have hired Adam instantly to create those Easter eggs with him,” said Adams. “His aesthetic of an entire piece working together fits into that tradition.”


Adams loaned a gold and jade cigarette box made by Fabergé to the exhibition, underscoring the comparison.


Illuminating his personal fascination with jewelry, Adams said, “Jewelry is the oldest form of art expression in human history – the first necklace made of joined snail shells was made 165,000 years ago. Adam stands on the shoulders of those thousands of years.” 


He emphasized that Neeley fits into the ranks of renowned global master jewelers due to his own unique creation of Spectra Gold, a trademarked process of creating subtle gradations of gold tones and forging them seamlessly together with no soldering involved.


Throughout, natural forms created with a variety of gold, silver, even platinum and precious and semiprecious stones, dazzle the senses. A ring or pendant might have gradations of white, yellow or rose gold or a pendant grayish and greenish hues transitioning into each other. The result is stunning on its own and yet always complementing the accompanying stones – Modern Alchemy. “I create the gold tones to complement the stones, never to compete with them,” Neeley said. 


One-of-a-kind jewelry pieces created by Adam Neely, on exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum. PHOTO 1: Nautilus. PHOTO 2: Calla Violette. PHOTO 3: Fantasia. Images courtesy of Laguna Art Museum

 

The exhibition spotlights his journey as an artist beginning at age 12 when he made his first pair of earrings, from lapis lazuli crystals and silver for his mother while apprenticing with silversmith Jim Walker. 


He grew a passion for collecting rocks and minerals while going on crystal and stone hunts in his native Colorado with his father Paul, a self-described rock hound. “I started collecting rocks and minerals when I was 8 and started cutting cabochons at 10 and silversmithing at 12,” he said. 


Here, one can follow his aesthetic journey through his teens when his style segued from Southwestern into a more modern, streamlined one. Think Art Nouveau meets Scandinavian modernism, mostly done in silver. The actress Daryl Hannah bought a cuff bracelet from that series in 1999. 


His early beginnings also underlie his goal to team with the museum in creating educational programs on the art of jewelry and the intersection of art and nature, he said. “I find it fulfilling to bring art and the art of jewelry making to younger generations,” he said.


One highlight among many in this 25-year retrospective and Neeley’s first solo museum show is an impressive pair of earrings titled “South Sea Glow” that is now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Made from South Sea pearls and gold, the earrings exemplify Neeley’s mastery of linear kinesiology and grace. Another characteristic of his work is that a lot of pieces have three-dimensional effects or contain visual surprises such a narrow pearl profile line on gold and stone earrings. Rings like “Through the Looking Glass'' feature hidden designs and precious stones in places that only the wearer is aware of. “I love to build surprises into my work,” he said. 


Aesthetically his designs are all his own, however some of the more intricately faceted gemstones were cut by master lapidary Stephen Avery whom he describes as one of the greatest faceting lapidary artists in the world. He also mentioned that he incorporates stones cut by the Atelier Munsteiner in Germany. Munsteiner has a unique style of faceting stones which Neeley buys in quantities from the atelier and then incorporates into his own designs, Neeley explained. 


He said that 95 percent of the works shown are one-of-a-kind, he rarely creates series, and that 40 percent are for sale while the rest comes from private collections or has been made specifically for the exhibition.


At the exhibition’s preview, Neeley mentioned that he has just turned 40 and somehow the  word “wunderkind,” prodigy in our parlance, came to mind. To wit, in 2003, he graduated from the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad where he had learned to grade diamonds (they abound in shown works) and to identify 1,400 other gemstones. The year after, he began studies at Le Arti Orafe in Florence, Italy. He credits his mastery of goldsmithing to the teachings of master goldsmith Gio Carbone. “In Florence I learned to incorporate a narrative into each piece and turn jewelry into art,” he said. 


Neeley is a Laguna Beach artist who has also exhibited his work at the Festival of Arts for 12 years but took a sabbatical last year to prepare for the LAM show. He also has a showroom on Pacific Coast Highway.


There is another noteworthy aspect to this premier exhibition: LAM director Julie Perlin Lee and her deputy Gerard both held influential positions at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Lee as vice president of collections and exhibition development and Gerard as vice president of programs and collections, under the directorship of Peter Keller, a well-known gemologist who died Nov. 8, 2022. 


“We would like to acknowledge Dr. Peter C. Keller, geologist and former president of the Bowers Museum who was influential in bringing exposure to the world of gemstones and the art of jewelry to countless individuals. His vision and mentorship guide this exhibition,” wrote Lee in the foreword of the exhibition catalog.  


Considering that the Bowers held many gem and jewelry exhibitions under Keller’s tenure, this Neeley jewelry design exhibition now seems to make a lot more sense. 


‘Modern Alchemy: The Fusion of Art and Nature in the Jewelry of Adam Neeley’

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach

When:  Through July 29; hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; closed Mondays

Cost: $12 general, $9 for seniors, students, military, under age 11 free

Information: (949) 494-8971 or lagunaartmuseum.org



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