|PRICELESS: "Olive branch" bracelet
Ted Muehling: A Portrait (Rizzoli), a long-awaited collaboration with the renowned photographer Don Freeman, is therefore a significant contribution to the literature on style and design, for it’s easily the largest collection of images of his work available. It’s far from comprehensive (Freeman includes no pictures of Muehling’s thick-to-thin earrings or his graceful, twisty cuff links, to name two of his most enduring designs). But here, in the juxtaposition of photos of the scavenged natural objects littering Muehling’s studio—antlers, fossils, shells, stones, pinecones, tree trunks, feathers, coral, branches, bird’s nests—with those of his highly refined, flawlessly proportioned creations, readers can apprehend how Muehling, who was trained as an industrial designer at Pratt, pares down and streamlines natural forms to create jewelry that’s at once delicate and austere, organic and abstract.
More important, Freeman’s photos cumulatively reveal the restraint and deliberation of Muehling’s pieces—adornments that are paradoxically, as the uncompromising virtuoso designers Isabel and Ruben Toledo put it to me, “anti-decorative,” which is really the key to their appeal. Notoriously shy, Muehling shuns the overwhelming in all forms and has, since he began making jewelry in 1976, explored the power of the diminutive and subtle. Attuned to how women want to be seen—and how they see each other—he rejects the notion of jewelry as an appendage or independent decoration and instead designs “a bit of punctuation,” as he calls it in the book, to elliptically call attention to the woman and not the jewelry. (Nuanced and almost intentionally unspectacular, his jewelry tends to beguile women who’ve reached a certain emotional, or at least aesthetic, maturity.) As Hastreiter—who introduced Muehling and Freeman 25 years ago, and to whom they each dedicate this book—explained to me, Muehling says his work as a jeweler is animated by “the idea of seeing a woman walk down the street, taking in the way she strides, and then noticing something catch and reflect a little sparkle of light as it naturally dangles from her ear and frames her face.” (His commercial policies, aimed at ensuring that not just the rich can buy his work, reflect that dedication. He sets the prices for his classic pieces—his “rice,” “berry,” and “chip” earrings; his “simple” bracelet—deliberately low, and despite constantly increasing costs, he hasn’t raised them.)
Women return that devotion. During the holidays, Hastreiter says, Muehling’s shop is jammed “from the moment it opens until the moment it closes with bewildered-looking cute husbands and boyfriends wandering around with crumpled pieces of paper in their hands with the drawings women made of the earrings they want their men to buy them.” By Christmas Eve, “his massive amount of pains-takingly handcrafted precious merchandise has been eaten up as if by termites.”
To be sure, part of Muehling’s allure among his initiates transcends the aesthetic achievements so richly displayed in this book. Although Muehling’s work is quiet, it’s also, as Lynn Yaeger, the fashion critic for The Village Voice and a great admirer of Muehling’s artistry, wryly told me, “readily identifiable.” There’s no more efficient and cost-effective way for a woman to telegraph her rarefied taste than to hang a pair of Muehling’s rice earrings ($110 in silver) from her lobes. The wearer signifies her supreme stylishness and her disregard for all things trendy; she’s utterly tasteful and knowing, while maintaining, as Yaeger archly puts it, her “downtown cred.” That’s a crucial but near-impossible balancing act for a socially and culturally vital swath of Manhattan womanhood—editrixes in chief, politically progressive litigators, principal curators and museum directors, executive producers. In a spot-on urban-anthropological essay, the artist Christopher Russell noted that when people ask him about his son’s Greenwich Village elementary school, with its “ridiculously competitive” admissions, “studied casualness,” and smug “neighborhoody specialness” (it’s got to be Grace Church School), he tells them that “all the mothers wear Ted Muehling,” and the inquisitors—“or those in the know, anyway—immediately understand.”