At the core of many designer’s ambitions, is a drive to make their jewelry stand out from the crowd. There might also be a desire for leaving a legacy. Great designers accomplish that first of all by finding their voice. And that’s not such an easy task. While they can draw inspiration from countless sources, they have to rise above what has been done and make a new statement with their medium.
Long before many contemporary jewelers were even alive, one designer staked his claim in the jewelry niche that cast a long shadow in his wake and has remained a tough act to follow. American born Donald Claflin (1935-1979) excelled in his craft, lifting it to new heights with his iconic infusion of mirth. The mid-century jewelry designer used precious metals and gemstones to convey his story eloquently. It proved that jewelry can be serious in its manufacture and craftsmanship, but still delight the senses with its lighthearted whimsy. Prior to his famed collections, designers did indeed craft pieces that were story telling in their realistic depiction of objects; fruit, flower baskets, animals and the like. Where Claflin departed however, was in his intentional tongue-in-cheek depiction of these real objects.
Whimsy & Craft
Claflin’s audacious theory was that jewelry collectors with serious money to invest might be attracted to whimsical pieces so much so that they’d collect his lighthearted pieces. His presence was so dominant that even today, certain vintage pieces at auction will say “In the style of Claflin” to express the genre of a piece.
Although he didn’t live to an old age, having passed suddenly at the age of 44, Claflin packed an awful lot of living into his celebrated career. Vintage jewelers at Wilson’s Estate Jewelry wrote of him, “One designer, Donald Claflin, tapped into his inner child and designed whimsical pieces that entertain even the most petulant viewer.”
His professional bio reads something like the Who’s Who of celebrity design houses. Claflin first designed jewelry at David Webb, before joining Van Cleef & Arpels. He went on to work at Tiffany & Co. in 1965, a particularly key point for both Tiffany and Claflin because he was also one of the first American jewelers to work with tanzanite, that indigo-hued stone from Tanzania. Claflin’s Tiffany line debuted in 1968. He also partnered with the jewelry manufacturing company, Carven French, working closely with them to bring his amusing pieces to life, utilizing a wide range of materials. Even though his creations were very unconventional, they required extremely skilled techniques to construct them.
Known for his quirky designs, Claflin crafted other popular pieces in his eleven years at Tiffany & Co. When Claflin’s relationship with Tiffany ended in 1977 he went on to work at Bulgari, designing abstract, everyday wear pieces in gold. Claflin died in 1979 while he was still working for Bulgari.
Leaving a Legacy
Times have changed and new designers have forged their own distinct mark on the global stage of important jewelers. But Claflin still maintains a formidable presence in the jewelry world. At Dartmouth College, the Donald Claflin Jewelry Studio trains students in the jewelry manufacturing arts.
Christies wrote about Claflin saying, “Most famous for his whimsical renderings of animals and mythical creatures, Claflin also created a series of jewels inspired by children’s stories such as Alice in Wonderland and Stuart Little.”
Today, serious collectors bid avidly on Claflin’s work when it comes up at auction. One can see many of his items selling in the $17,000 to $27,000 range but highly iconic pieces are known to soar to astonishing heights amid fervent bidding.
For example, in 2015, Christie’s New York Important Jewels auction sold one of Claflin’s more recognizable Pre-Colombian motif multi-gem brooches for $137K against a pre-auction estimate of $15K-$20K. A second Pre-Colombian multi-gem brooch (created circa 1967) sold at that same auction for $233K against a pre-auction estimate of between $10K and $15K. These extraordinary hammer prices offer some insight into how dedicated collectors are aggressively adding Claflin’s pieces to their collection – even today.