Several years ago, after watching the Jim Jarmusch-directed 2016 film Paterson, Kenneth Koch's book Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry landed on Judy Geib’s radar. The book had been used to help craft some of the film’s poetry, but it wasn’t until a few months ago, when the New York-based fine jeweler decided to read it for herself, that it became a catalyst for her own artistic endeavors, setting the creative wheels in motion for her newest collections. The result: an enchanting mashup of stylized cartoon characters, wrought in precious metals and gemstones and inspired by the celebrated late French jeweler and glassmaker René Lalique, who helped shape the beginnings of the Art Deco movement.
“I found myself reading it in a park in Chinatown on a sunny and windy day, early for a dim sum lunch date, and gradually this particular idea unexpectedly came into focus, and I became so excited I couldn't wait to get started,” says Geib, who read that Koch often suggested to adults who want to write poetry to try emulating a poet they admire — a concept that’s often too difficult for children to grasp. “But I thought to myself, I am an adult, and I can emulate a jeweler.” Immediately, Lalique, with whom Geib shares a love of reflective things, came to mind.
Geib went on to read Koch describe the delicate cajoling and coaxing of ideas for subject matter out of the children, and that after a series of false starts, one popular idea that emerged was the use of cartoon characters. Though Geib was never obsessed with cartoons, she watched lots of them while growing up in the sixties, including favorites such as Mighty Mouse, Bullwinkle, Roadrunner, Big Rooster, Porky Pig and Wabbit. “Lalique's subject matter is often drawn from the natural world— insects, wolves — those are not typically my subjects, so the idea of taking a cue from Lalique's reflexivity and melding it with the idea from the children to use cartoon characters was really appealing,” she says.
And so, the still-in-progress Kenneth Koch-René Lalique-Cartoon Characters series was born (as well as the spin-off series Animal Carousels and Birds of America, created in the same vein). “I think cartoon characters deflate the pomp and circumstance of fine jewelry,” says Geib, who refers to Lalique as "a master of inverting expectations of extravagance” and cites some of his iconic pieces including a small tiara of diamond insect antennae that vibrate. “A lot of his pieces are glass or enamel surrounded by diamonds, and a lot of his diamonds are used in strange and scary silhouettes suited to a natural history museum. He was very playful, and irreverent towards, or oblivious to, the traditional signifiers of fine jewelry.”
After drawing a lot of Disney stalwarts such as Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo, Geib gradually discovered that she preferred cartoon silhouettes less likely to be instantly recognized. “I was hoping for the idea of cartoons; not necessarily a full-throated reading of who everyone was. But I am astounded by how universal these silhouettes are. I drew them all very roughly, but even without precision, they are easily recognizable.”
To kick off the design process for pieces in the cartoon-driven series, Geib sketches out the shapes of characters and chooses her favorites. Next, she rolls the precious metal into a thin layer and attaches tracings of the drawings to the metal with wax, then cuts them out with scissors. “For my rough technique, silver is very forgiving, and it takes on a beautiful patina. For the silver pieces I have a nice selection of light colored semi-precious stones, pink and green tourmalines and tanzanite and amethyst in playful colors, that I think go well with them.”
But that’s not all, folks. Geib also found good reason to render the characters in gold. “Sometimes you have to stick your neck out and say, yes this is a serious idea, and it deserves serious materials. There is a lot of work in making the shapes, and I love the 22K gold silhouettes,” she says. Geib hammers them to soften the shape, then creates a sturdy edge around the back of the cutout and works with the finished pieces to decide on the final arrangement.
“To me, this unconventional use of fine materials — emeralds and scissors-cut matte gold—very rough, handmade and playful, is totally fun, and appealing, and wearable—and it is definitely my way, but augmented by a little coaxing and cajoling."