William Ehrlich’s jewels are not for shy, retiring types. They are big, bold statement pieces, no two exactly alike: a look-at-me rose pin with pink sapphires and gray diamonds for petals and oval hunks of chalcedony for leaves; a wide crocodile-skin cuff decorated with mother-of-pearl, diamond and sapphire pomegranates; a ring dominated by a cabochon ruby the size of a ripe strawberry.
Ehrlich, an architect by training, a real-estate developer by vocation and a collector by passion, considers his jewelry designs an amalgam of decorative and fine art, both of which he has acquired for decades. Studying the gems displayed in the glass vitrines at Jason Jacques’s gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where they recently featured in a solo exhibition of his work, Ehrlich compares them to wearable sculpture and suggests pairing a dramatic piece with more minimalist clothing. “It’s almost like hanging a wonderful painting in a room with nothing else,” he says, speaking barely above a whisper.
That Ehrlich showed his jewelry in Jacques’s charming gallery, which deals in decorative arts, is particularly apropos. Their association dates back more than 20 years, to when Jacques, barely out of his teens, was striving to become a dealer and Ehrlich was already a noted art collector. They met in the Paris flea market. Jacques, a Chicagoan, had become enchanted with the French ceramist Clément Massier, dropped out of college and moved to the City of Light to hunt for the 19th-century master’s treasures.
“I had heard about this collector from New York who was buying Clément Massier,” Jacques recalls. “I had no idea who he was, but one morning I saw a man looking at a Massier vase with his wife in a little shop.” After hearing him speak English, Jacques approached and asked if he’d be interested in another piece by the artist. “He said, ‘You have one?’ I took my backpack and pulled out a Clément Massier pot.”
That customer, of course, was Ehrlich, and the pot was their first transaction. After that, Jacques would scour the flea market for Massiers on Friday mornings, when desirable new works arrived. If he found one he thought Ehrlich would like, he’d ask the seller to hold it until after lunch. At noon, he’d telephone Ehrlich, who was six hours behind in New York, inevitably waking him to describe the piece. This was, after all, the 1990s, before JPEGs and smartphones had become common, and Ehrlich recalls Jacques detailing size, form, color and decoration. “He has the gift of verbalization, so he could be very specific,” says Ehrlich, who would wire the money to an American Express office within a couple of hours. Jacques would pick it up, run back to the flea market, buy the piece and ship it to Ehrlich. “I learned very quickly that Jason had a fantastic eye. He was never wrong, and we do have a phenomenal collection of Massier. We have more than a hundred pieces, and some of them are quite spectacular.”
Ehrlich’s roughly 35-year love affair with the ceramist’s works, though, is something of an anomaly. “I used to spend a lot of time in the South of France, and I was always taken with the work of Massier,” he says. “I was always a devout modernist, so I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of something I wanted to live with, but the pieces were just haunting to me. They had this very ethereal, spiritual quality, and the designs had such a relationship with nature, and they had this organic, compelling form. At some point, I said, ‘Let me see if there are any out there that are available, and I’ll get one.’ Unfortunately, when you have the collector gene, there is no such thing as one. It’s like the potato-chip dilemma.”
“When you have the collector gene, there is no such thing as one,” Ehrlich says. “It’s like the potato-chip dilemma.”
The “collector gene,” in Ehrlich’s case, appears to be the result not just of nature but of nurture, too. Growing up on Long Island, Ehrlich had a best friend whose parents were serious art collectors, pivoting between mid-century American art and antiquities. The couple funded the excavation of Kato Zakros, a Minoan palace on Crete. Many of the treasures discovered there are now in the island’s Heraklion Museum. Ehrlich says he was privileged to see a family coalesce around this shared interest. “It was an intellectual pursuit. It was a physical reality because they lived with the collection. It was their social life. They traveled because of it. It really was the focus of their existence,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘What a great way to organize your world.’ They were my models. I did the same thing with contemporary art.”
As a child, he began with bottle caps, antique smoking pipes and “weird stuff like that,” he recalls, before briefly turning to Post-Impressionist prints when he was about 15. They were affordable, he says, but “I quickly realized I didn’t really relate to them, because they were done in a different period. I felt like I wanted to live with work that was being done by people who were living in the same world that I was living in.
“Through a couple of strange, circuitous happenings, I got to know a lot of contemporary American artists,” Ehrlich continues. These weren’t just any artists: He befriended many of the era’s leading creative forces, now solidly in the canon, including Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. “This was in the sixties, when it was a different art world, very accessible. I was this kid who was truly a groupie. Who knew that they would turn out to be, for the most part, art history?”
At night, Ehrlich hung out at Max’s Kansas City, on Park Avenue South, the artists’ watering hole of choice in those days. “I had no drinking problem because I don’t drink. One of my closest friends at the time was a certified drunk,” he says, referring to Rauschenberg. “His drinking ended our friendship. He was an amazing guy: brilliant, talented, such a sweetheart. I found it too painful to deal with.”
In the meantime, he began assembling a substantial collection. Now, he half jokes, “I can’t afford what I own.” Still in what he calls “hoarding mode,” he continues to buy but focuses on more emerging artists. “I love living with it. That’s one of the great privileges.”
As a child, Ehrlich recalls, “I wanted to be an artist. But my parents, being products of the Depression, did not think that was a good idea. So I went into architecture as a kind of compromise.” He studied at Boston University and MIT, eventually earning his architecture degree at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Ehrlich went to work for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a firm closely associated with modern skyscrapers. In the 1970s, he abandoned that field for real-estate development. “It helped allow me to collect because the income of an architect is very limited,” he says, although he admits he always felt “a little bit guilty” about the move.
About six or seven years ago, Ehrlich was in search of an artistic outlet: “I felt frustrated. I just had this need to find a purely creative vehicle that would also allow me more immediate gratification, not waiting five years to see a building actually come to fruition.” With so many artist friends, he shied away from painting or sculpture for fear they would find him “presumptuous,” he says. “I like the idea of avoiding conflict, if possible.”
He had designed some jewelry over the years for his wife and decided to take up the craft more seriously. In doing so, he harnessed some of his professional know-how, using the AutoCAD computer-graphics program favored by many architects. After he sketches the jewelry, he programs the AutoCAD to laser-cut the German silver components before a fabricator sets the stones and assembles the final ring or brooch.
Like his computer work, his use of German silver is an unusual choice. Ehrlich was drawn to the alloy, which does not actually contain silver and traditionally has a black patina, because of the origins of its popularity in the 19th century. “The kaiser asked all the women to contribute their jewelry to the national effort to support the war with France,” he says. “It became a badge of honor to wear this because it designated that you had given to the cause.” France won on the battlefield, but, Ehrlich notes, “lo and behold, in a short time, French women are wearing black jewelry. It loses all of the meaning, and suddenly it becomes a very superficial concept of beauty, style. They corrupted this idea and made it fashion, and I thought, ‘What a great metaphor for what goes on in the world today, how recontextualizing something can be so meaningful.’”
Ehrlich has another motive for employing German silver. “I chose not to use gold or platinum because I wanted to downplay the metal aspect,” he says. “I would rather have the jewelry read like form and color than be about the perceived preciousness of the metal.” He even sometimes colors the metal, electroplating it red, blue, green or white to complement the stones. Ehrlich might play down the metal, but he admits, “then I contradict it with the preciousness of the stones. Again, it’s part of this whole game that I like to play. The fact is, we’re all suckers for glitter.”
Despite their size, Ehrlich’s pieces are lightweight, and he’s had customers ask him to make the jewelry even bigger. After one Hollywood wife picked up a large brooch set with black diamonds, Ehrlich says she ordered a pair of earrings on the same scale, set with emeralds.
In addition to nature, Ehrlich draws his design inspiration from objects of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts periods, both of which he collects. William Morris is a particular favorite. “Designing makes you feel connected to other creators, which is really nice,” he says. “If you’re just collecting or if you’re just academically looking at things, you have a more analytical and maybe judgmental attitude toward it, but you don’t feel connected to the creative spirit in the same way. This takes you into a much more intimate relationship with that earlier process.”
Ehrlich has shown his creations in galleries and at art fairs in London, Los Angeles, New Delhi and Maastricht. “I won’t show in jewelry stores,” he says. “It’s not about a commercialized venue. The whole idea is to show it in an art-related setting.”
But Jacques admits that when Ehrlich first approached him about the jewelry, he was thoroughly confused. “I thought, ‘OK, he’s bored, he needs a hobby,’” the dealer recalls. Once he saw the collection, however, he was knocked out. Simply put, he says, “Nothing else in the world looks like this.”