At the height of the lockdowns in 2020, Katey Brunini, a jewelry designer in Southern California, did what many jewelers stuck at home did during those early months of the pandemic: She rifled through her safe in search of materials for her next collection.
“I had a suite of 100-million-year-old Burmese faceted amber pieces that had been sitting in my safe for years,” she said on a recent phone call. “They felt like building blocks, and that led me to think about Brutalist structures.”
Ms. Brunini juxtaposed the amber with fan-like strips of upcycled copper verdigris in a necklace that became the heart of her new Brutalism collection, an ode to the less-is-more aesthetic of the iconic buildings of her youth in San Diego — like the Salk Institute, Louis Kahn’s 1965 architectural masterpiece, in nearby La Jolla.
“The necklace is quite minimal but because the color is so strong, it becomes maximal — it’s like a fireburst,” she said. “During Covid, I went to a place of, when everything is stripped to its base elements, where do the wildflowers grow?”
The dichotomy at the crux of Ms. Brunini’s work has long been a source of creative tension among designers — contrast the sumptuous, color-intense creations of the 20th century jewelers Fulco di Verdura and David Webb with the spare, monochromatic designs of Georg Jensen and Elsa Peretti — but lately, the tension has taken on new resonance.
It is not just the waning pandemic that has sent some consumers, eager to dress up and hit the town, searching for dramatic silhouettes (i.e., the return of the shoulder-duster earring) and glam looks that emphasize personal style and fantasy. At the other end of the spectrum are shoppers discouraged by the war in Ukraine, sustainability concerns and inflation, and they are having an equal but opposite sartorial reaction.
“The maximalists are reaching for the sunny day: ‘I need an antidote to the darkness in the world,’” said Marion Fasel, a jewelry historian, author and founder and editorial director of the online jewelry publication The Adventurine. “And the flip side is: ‘There’s a lot of suffering around me and I want to be low-key in my aesthetic.’ Those are very valid responses to the exact same question.”
Many jewelers — including prestige brands such as Hemmerle in Munich, Taffin in New York City and JAR in Paris — defy easy categorization, but increasingly, the designer jewelry landscape is falling into maximalist and minimalist camps.
On one side stand unapologetic maximalists such as Randi Molofsky, owner of For Future Reference, a jewelry branding agency that represents a mix of emerging talents like Harwell Godfrey, Mateo and Retrouvaí.
“Maximalism, for me, is combining things that may be surprising with a boldness of scale,” Ms. Molofsky said on a recent call. “It’s all about that mix. That’s where the creativity lies.”
She pointed to her client Lauren Harwell Godfrey as the embodiment of maximalism. “Lauren styles her jewelry in a way that’s very stacked — it could be a huge set of bangles that go up her arm, or a trio of her Foundation necklaces with a mix of detachable charms,” she said. “However, the pieces are also innately maximalist. They contain geometric inlay patterns, combinations of cabochons and faceted gems, usually about six different gemstones.”
On the other hand, Brent Winston, the designer behind Brent Neale, filters maximalism through her particular brand of whimsy, on clear display in “Alice’s Picnic,” a retelling of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” The collection includes a necklace strung with charms such as a deviled egg in white agate and yellow chalcedony, a pendant in the shape of a carved wooden basket that can hold a miniature bouquet of gem-set flowers, and a mismatched pair of carrot (carnelian) and radish (pink tourmaline) earrings.
The nature of such finely detailed, and often one-of-a-kind, pieces may be maximalism’s chief draw. But according to Victoria Lampley, founder of the Stax, a jewelry advisory in Los Angeles, there is another force at play.
“I’m a superstitious person — I grew up with a very sentimental attachment to jewelry through my mother,” Ms. Lampley said on a recent call. “We wore red ribbons on our wrist when we traveled because of our Sephardic heritage. For me, jewelry is protection and I can never get enough of that. I like to pile it on.”
Ms. Lampley would no doubt have found a kindred spirit in Tony Duquette, the midcentury American decorator and jeweler whose design philosophy was encapsulated in “More is More,” the title of a coffee-table book published in 2009 by his longtime business partner, Hutton Wilkinson.
“We were never minimalists — ever,” Mr. Wilkinson said on a recent phone call. “You’d be having a lobster dinner and Tony would think that somehow the lobster could be dipped in gold.
“Those pieces — when I show them to people today, they’re just bowled over,” he added.
At the heart of Mr. Duquette’s creative impulses was a devotion to self-expression, said Mr. Wilkinson. “So if you decide to wear the brooch on your shoe, on your purse or on your hat — I mean, what are we missing in this world?” he said. “It’s individuality.”
And yet, as in fashion, where one person’s style may be Gucci-esque flamboyance and another’s more understated sophistication — say, The Row — jewelry has plenty of room for both. Just look to the luxury e-tailer Net-a-Porter, which caters to jewelry clients on both sides of the mini-maxi equation.
“We have seen a great reaction to maximalist brands,” Libby Page, Net-a-Porter’s market director in London, wrote in an email. “Our customers are gravitating toward fun and playful pieces such as large carved stone snails from Brent Neale, large bugs from Mason and Books, quirky mushrooms from Marie Lichtenberg and large wings from Garrard.
“Minimalist everyday stacking continues to drive sales,” Ms. Page added, “and this includes easy price point pieces that can be worn day or night from the likes of Mateo, Anita Ko, Foundrae and Suzanne Kalan.”
Wearability is fundamental to understanding the appeal of minimalist jewels. Take the story of Jean Dinh Van, a designer who spent a decade at Cartier and then left in 1965 to found his own Paris-based jewelry label, which continues to produce sculptural, abstract designs inspired, in many cases, by ordinary objects. (The designer died in July.)
“He wanted to get away from jewelry only for special occasions,” Corinne Le Foll, Dinh Van’s managing director, said on a recent video call. “He wanted to create jewelry for every day, for everyone. Universality was part of his vision.”
Today, as more men wear jewelry, minimalism’s blank canvas has helped expand the trend toward genderless designs.
“Simplicity is something everyone understands,” said Matthew Harris, whose Mateo brand got its big break in 2014, when French Vogue featured his La Barre collection, a range of pieces united by “clean bars of 18 karat gold,” wrote the magazine.
“For me, minimalism is a lifestyle,” Mr. Harris said. “Coming from a country like Jamaica where everyone is somewhat a maximalist — I call it ‘loud’ — I can’t live in a space that’s loud. I’m a creative — there are too many people speaking in my head at once. I like very simple interior design.”
Mr. Harris applauds the artistry of maximalist jewelry, such as that of the Turkish jeweler Sevan Bicakci, but “for a modern woman showing up for work, it’s not functional,” he said. “That’s the beauty of minimalism: The piece just sort of disappears.”
In Denmark, where the current sociopolitical climate has had a profound effect on shoppers’ moods, that disappearing quality is precisely the point, said Charlotte Mobjerg Ansel-Henry of The Jewellery Room, an online retail showroom she founded with her sister, Pernille Mobjerg, in Copenhagen.
“Due to the whole crisis now, especially here in Europe, and the war, people are not maxing out because you don’t want to stand out,” Ms. Ansel-Henry said.
At the moment, the site’s sweet spot is the Danaé “floating diamond” necklace by the brand Persée Paris. “They’re quite basic: a gold chain with diamonds that are pierced and hanging,” Ms. Ansel-Henry said. “They have no settings and people just love them.”
Such unembellished designs would seem to make sense for jewelry lovers devoted to sustainability (less is more, right?), but according to Susan Wheeler, a Chicago-based designer and founder of the five-year-old Responsible Jewelry Conference, maximalism is not inherently unsustainable.
“I love high jewelry,” Ms. Wheeler said on a recent phone call. “In terms of responsibility, if you’re doing a maximalist ring with five different gems, each one is sourced from a traceable miner and you’re using Fairmined gold — having these gemstones be high value and precious is good for the miner as long as they’re getting their fair share.”
In the end, what the mini-maxi divide has revealed is the degree to which both concepts have staked equal, and essential, claims on jewelry’s soul.
Ms. Brunini said the dueling philosophies have shaped her design approach since she conceived her breakout Twig collection in 1992. “For 30 years, I have focused on a tree stripped of its leaves standing strong in the face of the storm,” she said.
“However, I’ve always juxtaposed the branch with the flowers,” Ms. Brunini added. “Maximalism can’t exist without minimalism. How do we have an orchid without the stalk?”