What Makes Great Design?

We’re all on the search for beautiful jewelry and precious objects, items that we define as well designed. Yet “good design” is seen as subjective and to some extent it is. On the other hand, there has been a fair amount of study on what makes good design so there are actually established parameters. Good jewelry design means that a piece should be well balanced, with the right proportions and a sense of harmony and completion to the item. It’s also a piece that stands the test of time and looks as innovative and exciting today as when it was first made. To find an answer to the question what makes great design, we went to the experts — three dealers who view and evaluate vintage and antique jewelry on a daily basis. Here’s what they had to say.

Pat Saling, New York City

My immediate response is proportion. When you’re looking at jewelry, why is one piece better than the others? Whether it’s new, old, tailored, or an out-there design, the proportions of the piece and the proportions of the components of the piece must all be correct. Older pieces tend to have a beginning, middle and end — a follow-through to the design. Even in more avant- garde or mid-century pieces, all the parts play against each other in the right way.

The piece also has to be pleasing to the eye and interesting to look at. You have to come away with an overall impression of the piece. Don’t look at just one part of a piece. The biggest mistake of jewelry designers is always to try and throw in the kitchen sink, when less is more. I found a lot of that in the 1980s. There were a lot of Art Deco reproductions and there was some restraint in the design, but then it was overdone with swirls and calibré stones going in all directions. The reproductions would come back with some wear, but the real way to tell that the pieces are reproductions is the lack of restraint in the design. When you put too much stuff in one design, you run into real trouble. Your eye will tell you what is great. You have to have a base so that you will know what you are looking at. You can have an intricate design with different patterns , but it has to make sense otherwise your eye will go all over the place and you don’t know what you are looking at. In great design, less is more.

Ben Macklowe, Macklowe Gallery, New York City

The question “what makes good design” is a sticky one, because there is always the tension between creativity and accessibility. If your definition of “good design” is for something daring and innovative it will, by its very nature, appeal to a limited group of people. Is the Cartier “Love” bracelet innovative? Of course not, but it appeals to the widest demographic imaginable so I have to admit that is therefore “good design”. 

At Macklowe Gallery we have always privileged the more esoteric definition of design, exemplified by this amazing bracelet by Jean Schlumberger, Tiffany’s star designer. Although most famous for the “bird on a rock” and “Xs and Os” designs, it was really his careful study of nature and unique color sense that made Schlumberger’s reputation. Pieces like this were collected by Babe Paley, Jackie Kennedy and especially Bunny Mellon, who at her death donated her collection of Schlumberger to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, proof that his designs will stand the test of time.

Stephen Fearnley, JS Fearnley, Atlanta

To me, good design is when you look at a piece and you say “wow.” Design that is better than most, is when you look at a piece of  jewelry and you have a strong opinion that you like the piece, rather than having to find something to like about it. When I buy a piece of jewelry, I want it to be gorgeous, I want it to have a look that will stop me in my tracks, it has to be something that I don’t see in every case when I’m at a show. I look for pieces that are unique and excite me. Good design is different for different items. When I look at Buccellati for example, some of their pieces are better than others, same thing with Van Cleef & Arpels, they have pieces that are amazing.  Some pieces, such as Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra are very successful economically, so one could say that is good design.  It’s like looking at abstract art, some abstract art looks like a child made it, other pieces make you say “wow.”

 A piece of jewelry has to have balance. It can’t be too complicated or it can be confusing. There shouldn’t be a lot of overload in a piece, you should be able to look at the piece and get a feeling of wow immediately. There needs to be a balance between more is more and less is more.

When fine colored stones are used in the right way there is an interplay of color with the rest of the piece and that quality of color enhances the design, but a design can also be great with no gemstones. Sometimes people lean towards artistic talent when they are thinking about design. Being wearable is also important. Good design is also something that transcends time, like a great Belperron or Boivin piece, it should appeal to a lot of generations. There should be a wow factor that makes the majority of viewers who see the piece love it and want to own it. It could be art on a wall, or furniture, but the desire to possess an item means that it is good design.

Featured image (top of page): Cartier London Convertible double clip brooch showcases over 17-carats of diamonds mounted in platinum, circa late 1930s, courtesy Macklowe Gallery (@macklowegallery).

Authored by Amber Michelle