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Handcrafted jewelry comes of age. `Wearable art' is finding a niche in the mainstream of fashion

UNUSUAL accessories are essential to the current fashion scene, and few accessories are more sought-after than highly individualistic, handmade ``craft jewelry.'' ``For the first time in our 22-year history, jewelry has surpassed ceramics to become the leading craft category,'' says Carol Sedestrom, president of American Craft Enterprises, Inc., which operates the ACC craft fairs in Baltimore, West Springfield, Mass., San Francisco, and Minneapolis.

She also notes that craftsmen are again using gold and silver in their work, along with such non-traditional materials as plastics, titanium, aluminium, plexiglas and refractory metals.

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Jewelrymaker Jan Yager works in a converted factory in Philadelphia, along with 70 other craftsmen and artists who have divided up the space into separate studios. A participant in the recent ACC craft fair in Baltimore, she has a master's degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, and her work is contemplative and carefully planned. Her refreshingly different rock and silver necklaces, which have been featured in Vogue magazine, are designed to be worn asymmetrically. Priced at about $600, the elements in them can be easily moved and rearranged by the wearer. Other works range in price from about $100 to $8,000 for pieces in 18 karat gold.

``I have been collecting rocks for years,'' Yager explains, `choosing each one for its simple shape, color and texture. In my search for new forms, I began to include them in my work as a contrasting element to the soft, subtle qualities inherent in precious metal. They represent a harmony of disparate parts, combining hard, heavy, natural things with light, hollow, satiny-looking metal pillows.

``I always strive to create jewelry which is a pleasure to view, handle, and wear - whether it is the necklaces, brooches or earrings. It makes a personal statement not only for me, but for the wearer as well. People, I am happy to say, have found them interesting and have responded strongly to them.''

Pat Garrett of Ann Arbor, Mich., was also at the Baltimore fair. She has been making jewelry since 1973, and prices for her intricate brooches run from $95 to $3,400. She works in a studio a few miles from her home and does all her own metal cutting and stone setting. She employs two part-time helpers who relieve the sense of isolation that she had when she worked alone.

``I think Pat Garrett's work - which combines a sort of graphic image with fabulous semi-precious stones and different metals - is the closest to Lalique jewelry of anybody's being shown at ACC fairs right now,'' says Ms. Sedestrom.

Mrs. Garrett combines 14 karat green, rose, and yellow gold, 18 karat yellow gold, sterling silver, and copper with such stones as agate, tourmaline, and amethyst.

``People often buy handcrafted jewelry,'' Garrett contends, ``because they enjoy the communication process that takes place between themselves and the craftsman. They want to feel the touch of the maker in the piece that they buy.

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``Sometimes, too, unusual jewelry becomes personal adornment for people who want to convey their own sense of identity. Women who wear my dragonfly earrings, for instance, can expect people to come up and speak to them. Such jewelry invites comment and conversation.''

Another exhibitor at the crafts fair was Thomas Mann, who works in New Orleans half of the year and in Portsmouth, N.H., from June to November. His highly-compressed jewelry collages have been called miniature works of art.

His background is in theater design and his B.A. degree was in the performing arts, although he has made jewelry since he was in high school. For 15 years he has called himself a ``Designer/Jeweler/ Sculptor/Collagist,'' and he terms his jewelry ``techno-romantic'' because of its juxtaposition of modern technical materials with classic romantic imagery.''

Mr. Mann uses high-tech materials, industrial parts, antique and contemporary photographs, radio innards, found objects, and metal fish and animals which he makes himself. He has even made some of his own tools to fashion some of his elements.

``I use every kind of metal including aluminum, silver, bronze, nickel, aluminum, and brass,'' he says, ``as well as laminated Lucite and imitation ivory, and I put them together in a way that I think says something about today's world.''

Mann's jewelry fetches from $190 to $800, and he says people are either immediately attracted to it or immediately turned off. Self-employed and making his own living with his craft since he graduated from college in 1970, he now has over 65 wholesale and retail accounts for his output.

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