Ingenious pieces of handmade jewelry produced by today's craftsmen display an explosion of unexpected materials put together in unpredictable ways. They prove that in the hands of such deft experimenters even the most traditional forms and techniques of silversmithing and goldsmithing can take on an exciting new look.
''A new vitality has fused with tradition, stimulating jewelers of the late 20th century to join forces with the energy of mainstream art,'' says Helen Williams Drutt, a gallery owner and faculty member at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia.
Two current exhibitions in New York survey the extraordinary diversity and sophistication of handmade jewelry today. ''Jewelry USA'' is the result of a juried competition sponsored by the Society of North American Goldsmiths and displays 222 pieces made by 122 artists.
''Jewelry International,'' a juried show curated by Mrs. Drutt, displays 214 pieces of work by 50 artists from 17 countries. Both exhibitions are at the American Craft Museum II at 77 West 45th Street until Sept. 1. Together, they underscore cross-cultural influences and the most important contemporary trends in jewelrymaking here and abroad.
To Paul J. Smith, director of the American Craft Museum, these trends include:
1. The wide use of nonprecious materials such as plas
tics, glass, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, iron, paper, and wood. As indicated in the jewelry show here, they also include such unlikely items as string, nylon, silk, cotton, slate, granite, pebbles, titanium, wallpaper, tin, and wire. This exploration, he says, frees many of the jewelers from fluctuating gold and silver prices.
2. The dual use of jewelry as personal adornment and as environmental art. Many craftsmen have devised ways to display their pieces as sculpture when not being worn, which means that the definition of jewelry is broadening.
3. The fact that many of these jewelers, once largely affiliated with educational institutions, can now support themselves as craftsmen. Today increasing numbers are making a living solely from the jewelry that they design and make. And they have gained the patronage of customers, particularly young people, who are willing to pay for the cachet and satisfaction of wearing unusual, one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry.
4. The profound technical facility of jewelry craftsmen today and their boundless search not only for new materials but for new processes with which to combine dissimilar elements.
5. The pervasive use of color, in metalwork as well as in other materials.
''The past two decades have been an extraordinary period of search and experiment,'' says Mrs. Drutt. ''The avant-garde movement was first expressed in Holland, then in Britain. Today, European and American influences are evident alike in Jerusalem and Japan. Dutch approaches are permeated with selected British and German attitudes. Australia is dominated by German and British styles. And the influence of America begins to appear on the European continent.''
These modern crosscurrents are all obvious in this presentation in the United States of contemporary foreign jewelery. The focus here is on new concepts and directions.
Many of the pieces are playful. Some look like space objects or far-out architectural constructions. Some have a stark industrial feeling; others are humorous.
Sharon Church of Philadelphia combines sterling silver, ivory cabochon, petrified wood beads, and fumed glass beads in a necklace. Carlier Makigawa, an Australian, wraps a pebble in copper wire as centerpiece for a handsome brooch.
Tina Fung Holder of Chicago crocheted a necklace of safety pins and cotton thread. Arline M. Fisch of San Diego machine-knitted a collar and cuff set out of coated copper.
Teri Brudnak of Long Beach, Calif. produced a neckpiece of aluminum, plastics , and electronics that features tiny flashing lights.
A complicated pin by Earl Krentzin of Grosse Pointe, Mich., resembles a robot and is made of sterling silver, 14-karat gold, sodalite, and one carnelian stone.
Minimal geometric constructions play against each other. Assemblages of found objects combine with metal constructions.
''Jewelry is one of the most personal of all art forms,'' concludes Mrs. Drutt. ''It is a decorative embellishment that is meant to be worn. It relates to fashion and forms a visual connection between the wearer and the artist himself.''