Born in 1917 in the remote Russian town of Vladivostak, Irena Brynner was raised in a tightly knit two family household. However, the families were dispersed in 1928 due to political upheaval that forced Brynner and her parents to relocate to Manchuria.[1] Brynner left Manchuria to study painting and sculpture in Lausanne, Switzerland but returned to her family in 1939. After her father’s death, accusations of spying made against the family by the Japanese government forced Irena and her mother to flee, first to Beijing and shortly thereafter to San Francisco. In a firsthand account of her early life, Brynner expresses the impacts of both the warmth of her family life and the tumultuousness of political unrest. The bearing of each of these aspects can be seen as having indirect influence on the execution of her works. [2] Brynner first became interested in Craft mediums in San Francisco as a way to provide financial support for her mother. Though she started out working in ceramic she soon turned to jewelry processes under the guidance of Franz Bergmann and began making her own jewelry line at home in 1950. [3]

The influence of Brynner’s earlier classical training is notable in the example of these “wrap around” earrings. While sculptural in form the draping, lace-like elements also read as painterly, meandering brushstrokes. These forms were created through the process of lost-wax casting, in which each earring is first rendered in wax and then used to create a re-usable mold from which multiple forms may be cast. Though made in multiple, these earrings are also hand-forged, with each pair tailored to the individual wearer. In an interview Brynner speaks about the design of these earrings stating, "Lots of people that saw my things wanted to copy it, and then they come and they say, ‘It doesn’t work. People can’t wear it.’ Because if it is not fitted exactly to your ear, the wire will start pressing a little bit somewhere in the back. You can’t stand it. It really hurts.”

These earrings are an example of a design solution in direct response to the issue of individual wearability but are also an example of innovation borne out of technical limitations. Because oxygen torches were prohibited in New York apartments, Brynner was limited in how she could create works in metal. She circumvented this issue through her application of the lost-wax process.[4]

Though Brynner stated that she was not overtly political in her artistic expression she attributed vivid childhood memories as being significant to her personal and artistic development.[5] It is clear, from her initial arrival at jewelry as a medium to her execution of these unique forms, that Irena Brynner’s work points to the life of a woman for whom flexibility and ingenuity were crucial.

Adriane Dalton is a graduate student in the History of Decorative Arts and Design at Parsons The New School for Design. She is a studio jeweler, illustrator, and writer whose interest in adornment overlaps both her artistic and academic pursuits.

[1] Brynner grew up with two families under one roof. In addition to her parents the home was shared with her Aunt and Uncle, each a sibling of her respective parents who were also married. Her cousins, one of whom was the actor Yule Brenner, are in fact double cousins, and Brynner notes that the relationship between these two families was very close.

[2] Oral history interview with Irena Brynner, 2001 April 26-27, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[3] Toni Greenbaum, Messengers of Modernism: American Studio Jewelry 1940-1960 [Paris-New York: Fammarion, 1946], 108.

[4] Ibid., 110.

[5] Oral history interview with Irena Brynner, 2001 April 26-27, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.


2 thoughts on “Ingenious Solutions: Irena Brynner’s Wrap Around Earrings

Have multiple pieces if custom jewelry designed by the Artist, and would like to DONATE them to the museum, and posterity.

Please contact me for further discussion on this inquiry…………THANK YOU IN ADVANCE….

Mr. Denaro, Thank you for thinking of Cooper Hewitt. Could you please contact me directly regarding your inquiry?

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