In the Loupe: Searching for Stuart Freeman

From award-winning producer and author Leigh Leshner, comes a breathtaking addition to the Warman’s family, Warman’s® Vintage Jewelry. A feast for the eyes, this book features more than 800 color photographs of more than 1,000 magnificent pieces of white metal and rhinestone jewelry. Learn more at

In an interview covering ocean liner memorabilia, theatrical producer Steve Hickson told me for most collectors in that category, their ‘gateway drug’ is the original Titanic flick. It made me realize most collectors have a gateway drug, something that hooks them quickly into an addiction. It could be as simple an event as seeing that first baseball game with daddy, then buying a pack of baseball cards. Or maybe being mesmerized by a great aunt’s stash of old buttons when she tried to teach you to sew. Or perhaps when you were a kid, a pen pal sent a letter with an exotic stamp on it. Another collector is born.

Like many girls and women, I wore jewelry, but my gateway drug, the one piece that suddenly made me see jewelry as a collectible art form, was featured on a single page in Vogue magazine, tossed onto my lap by happenstance when I was having my hair cut. Pure coincidence. It was during the holiday season, so the theme was Christmas tree pins. Any other month, it could have been something else. In a way it didn’t matter what motif they showcased because that department’s editor, I saw in retrospect, always chose the most visually addictive stuff. Great design was the unifying factor. There amid jeweled pines by Bulgari and Cartier, Eisenberg and Yosca, was a plastic and rhinestone confection, with a trunk of real bark from Central Park, by some guy named Stuart Freeman.

That pin got under my skin. I looked for him for 10 years. This was pre-Internet. (You’re wondering why I didn’t call Vogue. And I was a journalist.) A decade later, his number popped up. I called, a man answered. “Is this Stuart Freeman?” With some hesitation, he said, “Yes-s-s-s.” I told him how long I’d looked for him and why. Who could forget hearing the words, “Oh, I think I still have a few of those Christmas trees in storage.” So that’s how I bought my first piece of Stuart Freeman.

Seventeen years later, it was just as exciting to ask Freeman to consign to’s October jewelry auction a ring he designed, featured in Warman’s Jewelry, 4th Edition … and he said, “Kathy, would you like me to consign jewelry I’ve had in storage since the Eighties?” The short answer, choked out while hyperventilating, was yes.

Freeman is an artist with a science background, evidently a killer combination.

Whether you call his work avant-garde investment jewelry or zany pop-culture fashion statement, it’s always intriguing, and if you like the unusual, it’s irresistible. You can see right away what he brings to his work: soul of a child (see his truck bracelet), heart of an artist (paint-tube earrings even spill jewels), mind of a scientist (there’s great precision even in his whimsy). I asked him to fill in the blank: My jewelry is always: “entertaining, attention-getting, new, cerebral, and fattening without the calories.” My jewelry is never: “dull, done, un-original, perfect, imperfect, smart, stupid.”

Born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a rebel child voted grammar school’s Best Dresser (before becoming Science Geek at Brooklyn Tech), Freeman’s foray into jewelry got started when a high school art teacher wrote a book called Art from Found Objects. “I submitted a couple of 3-D collage face pendants with real human hair. I was 15 years old and thrilled they made it into the book.”

Later (after college at Cooper Union), working at an ad agency, he created rubber bracelets for a friend who had them on when a Vogue editor spotted the talent. (Iconic photographer Bruce Weber shot them.) Freeman became, as they say, a darling of Vogue editors, his designs used all over the place, including the cover. But even having Linda Evangelista minus clothing wearing his crystallized starfish necklace (it sold for $1,800) measured a frisson factor one notch below Isabella Rossellini in tie-dyed Lucite ear pendants for an international Lancôme ad (where he copped on-page credit.)

A Cosmo cover garnered greatest sales, plastic earrings from Freeman’s Lucite series. While a lot of his work was in one-of-a-kind objects, his production pieces ran to 300 or more, as with the Lucite, or jeweled chopsticks (made for fine dining but repurposed by fashionistas for coiffures).  Maddeningly, little of his metier was signed. He had all his work fabricated in Manhattan (Freeman was an early pioneer in the Meat Market district) and still does. Like Picasso, he literally turned everything he wanted into art: any metal, bark, thumbtacks, plastic McDonald’s toys, cement, brick, charred wood, rubber and cork.

At first glance, a cuff bracelet appears to be delicately woven straw studded with jewels, but up close it’s all rubber bands. Wires become spider web necklaces, salt shakers make glassy millinery for troll pendants. Results are funny, but strike observers as smart art. As art, maybe it isn’t even required to look great on, but does, usually even better than off. A bib necklace of pencil ferrules (the little metal things below erasers) could be overlooked in a cheap carnival goods store if bagged, but once draped across you collarbone looks like a pricey couture piece. He manages to make any tacky trinket elegant.

Do objects and media inspire ideas? “I try to stay internalized in regard to creative process,” Freeman says. “But I do not live in a vacuum cleaner, so yes, all of it: the streets of the city, the smells of the sewers (not), being a native New Yorker elitist, running into other artists …” Freeman isn’t so hot on standard interview questions so it was lovely he answered the query: “What ranks as your all-time favorite jewelry design pieces?” The answers are: The Warhol Collection, his Rubber Wear and a minimalist Neo-Geo geometric series.

Maybe you’re seeing the geometrics for the first time. As for the Warhol group and Rubber, we’ve got some of it, along with 50 other lots of Freeman’s (brickwear, over-the-top jeweled necklaces, fake-everything cuff bracelets, luscious Lucite) in the auction beginning Oct. 25. It’s 1980s and never been worn. Pristine stuff.

Persistence pays off. ?

Stuart Freeman: Recent Prices Realized
Christmas Tree Pin $500
Lucite Earrings $200
Brick Wall Bracelet $220
Crystallized Starfish Pin $225
Sterling Silver Zipper Ring $225
Sterling Silver Charm Necklace (Barbie shoes, hangers, etc.) $150
S’Fear of Thumbtacks $350
Jeweled Faberge Egg Object $450
Zipper Bracelet $150
Mirrored Lens Earrings $110
Troll Pin $160
Dream Date with Stuart, depending on location $1.99-$90,000

Five Quick Questions with Stuart Freeman

Do you dream about jewelry?
I never dream, only nightmare. Yes.

I was going to ask you about your similarity to Picasso, but …
Everything is original if you have no reference. So … I try to stay un-informed.

There isn’t much of your jewelry floating around on the secondary market, is there?
A lot of it is floating in outer space.

What’s one of the most bizarre ideas you’ve had and executed?
A Christmas brooch from a car-freshener pine tree, totally jeweled. It smelled for 3,000 days. At least.

What makes you tick?
Sense of humor, hunger for excitement, my life partner, family, big-city living, food, alcohol, sex and drugs. The joy of riding on a super-crowded subway in NYC, shooting tons of photographs, disorganization, traveling around the world and creating without an end result.

Kathy Flood is a journalist, author and owner of the online antique jewelry shop Her latest book, Warman’s Jewelry, 4th Edition, from Krause Publications.


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