He changed the way we wear jewellery, and left it behind

Tom Binns, once one of the fashion world’s celebrated jewellers, at his home in Los Angeles, October 24, 2016. After a litigious end to a partnership, Binns these days now favours sculpture to jewellery and says he’s barely making ends meet. ― Picture by Emily Berl/The New York Times
Tom Binns, once one of the fashion world’s celebrated jewellers, at his home in Los Angeles, October 24, 2016. After a litigious end to a partnership, Binns these days now favours sculpture to jewellery and says he’s barely making ends meet. ― Picture by Emily Berl/The New York Times

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LOS ANGELES, Jan 19 ― In a loft studio in Venice Beach here, Tom Binns is rebuilding. Most of the world knows him as a jeweller, and a small subset of the world — the fashion world — spent many years celebrating him as one of its favourites. He was showered with awards, sought as a collaborator (early on, he worked with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, and many more after) and had his creations worn by the first lady. But most of the fashion world doesn’t call anymore.

“Not being in fashion for the last couple of years, not being in the picture, you become the forgotten man, I suppose,” said Binns, chatty and peppery if slightly subdued, in an Irish brogue that a decade in Los Angeles has done little to mellow. “The business I had closed down. I was left high and dry. I’m trying to reconstruct my career.”

Binns has been making jewellery for 40 years, as he tells it, long before the business that bore his name was founded or the art school he attended taught him the proper way to do it. But he first came to success with a eureka moment: That there is enough jewellery about already, and that he didn’t need to make more. He haunted flea markets to buy up stalls’ worth of old jewellery, junk and treasure alike, and remade it into assemblages that were more Dada than decorous.

“I’ll never forget the first time I walked into his showroom,” Ikram Goldman, the Chicago boutique owner, said. “I was dumbfounded, my mouth was open, I couldn’t even speak.” It was 17 years ago, and Goldman was preparing to open her store, long before she counted Chicago’s stylish women — Michelle Obama among them — as clients. She bought Binns’ jewellery and has stocked it ever since.

The jewels found an eager audience, but the pieces Binns made by hand were costly and laborious to produce. Moreover, his ragtag, magpie exuberance had been easy to knock off as he had risen to prominence. Then, in 2007, he entered a partnership to create a more commercial-friendly collection than his handmade pieces. “I might as well cash in on it rather than everybody else,” he thought.

Though the commercial collection was exclusively costume jewellery, Binns celebrated the fakeness of his pieces rather than try to pass off rhinestones and paste as gems, playing up wild colours and oversize volume.

“What Tom did, and at exactly the right time, is come in and be irreverent about jewellery,” said Stellene Volandes, the editor of Town & Country magazine and author of the recent book “Jeweller.” “Everyone was in on the joke. There was a joy to what he did.”

Volandes traced his influence to the brightly coloured costume jewellery that still abounds today. Goldman went further.

“Tom Binns single-handedly changed the way women viewed jewellery,” she said. “When he came on the scene, he made women feel that it’s OK to wear a really big piece of jewellery every day. No one was doing that.”

But after years and a store on Perry Street in New York, Binns’ company foundered, choked by competition, his lack of interest in commercialising his designs and his own admitted thorniness. (“Artists should be rebellious,” he said, “but, alas, rebellion isn’t what it used to be.”) Lawyers were called, and Binns spent two years in litigation to get his name back. “I paid off the ransom,” he said. He still has an archive of thousands of old pieces and has been selling them privately to make ends meet — “barely”, he added.

Jewellery doesn’t interest him as much these days as art, in any case. It is often seen as “less than”, wearable art rather than art, a little sibling to fashion, a mere “accessory”. He fumed about the press coverage that attended the president and Michelle Obama’s state visit to Britain in 2011, where, at a dinner at the US ambassador’s residence, she wore a Binns necklace of tangled chains. The coverage fawned over her dresses.

“My piece of jewellery is more important than this dress,” he said. “It was the queen standing there with all her crown jewels and Michelle Obama with this necklace that was literally tied together.”

The sculptures Binns had on display at his live/work space here looked like larger cousins of the jewellery, assembled bric-a-brac and funny, often punny, little objects. (A metal handle affixed to a cross-shaped glass box: “Handel’s Messiah.”)

Ephemera, even trash, found on bike rides around Los Angeles glows under his gaze, and comes home for renovation and reassessment.

“This was an object I found,” Binns said of a smashed can of paint that he had repainted. “This is a tabletop from Ikea that was in somebody’s garden that’s been affected by the elements,” he added. “I’m looking at this and saying, this is a piece of art. It’s fantastic.”

He has not yet exhibited the works, but he hopes to. And he has continued to make a few jewellery pieces for long-time supporters, including Goldman, and recently sent a few others off to Colette in Paris.

“I think for Tom, he is such a sensitive soul that he doesn’t know how to create a fake feeling,” said Goldman, who still has a clientele for his pieces (as well as an extensive archive of his work, which she refuses to sell). “It’s got to be really deep or nothing or at all. That’s his struggle, I think, in this moment.”

Binns said he found jewellery limiting as a medium and wasn’t keen to return to it full time.

“Do you think I have to?” he asked. “I might need to if I run out of money. But I don’t want to go into that trap.” — The New York Times

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