Some of the most elegant found-object jewelry was made by Ron Ho, a popular Bellevue schoolteacher who had a second career as an artist.

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 The polished stone picked up at the beach, the carved bead purchased in a foreign marketplace, the reliquary discovered at an antiques market — we’re fascinated by these objects for reasons we sometimes know, but other times only sense. For contemporary artists, such found objects are both inspiration and material for highly sophisticated works.

“We take found-object jewelry for granted today, but it was revolutionary when it first appeared in the 1960s,” Nancy Lorem Adams recalls. She’s a board member of Northwest Designer Craftsmen, a nonprofit representing artists who work at the intersection of art and fine craft. “It used to be that people thought fine jewelry meant glittering precious stones set in gold. But in the ’60s there started to be jade and turquoise in jewelry, and silver became very popular.”

By 1980, stores like Facèré in Seattle were carrying one-of-a-kind works that defied description. Artists were using everyday things like game pieces, wood, fabric, paper and antique ivory in the context of daring, high-end designs.

“Found objects are things most people might recycle, but these artists have you look at them in another way,” Adams says.

Some of the most elegant found-object jewelry was made by Ron Ho, a popular Bellevue schoolteacher who had a second career as an artist. Ho, who died in 2017 at 80, worked primarily on commission. That meant that his work vanished quickly into private collections. Adams says she was thrilled to when collectors agreed to loan more than 20 pieces of these rare works for the retrospective “Ron Ho: A Jeweler’s Tale” at the Bellevue Arts Museum through Sept. 15. In addition to Ho’s eye-catching pieces, the exhibit has Ho’s studio, just as he left it, brought from his home and reassembled.

A distinctively Northwest style

Mention “found objects” and “jewelry” in Seattle and people immediately start talking about the late Ramona Solberg, an art professor at the University of Washington and other Washington colleges. Adams calls her “The grandmother of the found-object movement.” A class with Solberg in 1968 inspired Ho, then a painter, to switch his focus to jewelry making.

Ron Ho in the 1970s. (Ron Slemmons photo)
Ron Ho in the 1970s. (Ron Slemmons photo)

You’ll also hear about artists like Laurie Hall, Kiff Slemmons, and Nancy Worden. Worden has used corks from champagne bottles to create large-scale necklaces. Slemmons, who’s known for incorporating rulers and typewriter keys in her jewelry, calls some of her work “narrative jewelry.”

“I think that with found objects, it’s all about the story,” says Karen Lorene, the writer and entrepreneur who founded Facèré. “People engage — they think about what an object was used for and what it meant to the artist. This jewelry is so immediate in its impact.”

Adams describes Ho’s work in terms of story as well. “He developed an exquisite narrative approach with the use of silver to complete a composition,” she says.

“All Fall Down II,” Ron Ho, 1981. Tacoma Art Museum, Gift of Ramona Solberg.
“All Fall Down II,” Ron Ho, 1981. Tacoma Art Museum, Gift of Ramona Solberg.

Finding meaning

While much found-object jewelry incorporates elements from exotic cultures, Solberg encouraged her students to look to their own roots and personalities for inspiration. (Solberg’s upbeat, high-energy personality seemed to be reflected in her taste for bold black-and-white geometric elements, often dominoes, in pieces like “Look I’m a Winner.”)

She repeatedly urged Ho, a fan of European modern design, to consider his own heritage as the son of a Chinese family living in Hawaii. This led Ho to create some striking pieces featuring miniature Chinese chairs and everyday objects recalled from his childhood. In 1978-’79 he took a sabbatical from his teaching and traveled extensively in Asia, where he acquired hundreds of small items. Some of these decorated his modern home in Seattle while others he stored to be drawn on for his jewelry.

But not all meaning in found-object jewelry comes from the artist. Commissioned work often incorporates everyday objects that are significant to the person who will wear the jewelry. One of Ho’s necklaces, called “Bear’s Reliquary,” was designed for an architect who had lost a beloved Siberian husky named Bear. The found objects in the bold necklace include an Eskimo ulu knife, an Eskimo snowshoe grip and a Tibetan reliquary containing the felted hair of the dog.

“Bear’s Reliquary,” Ron Ho, 2008.
“Bear’s Reliquary,” Ron Ho, 2008.

Collecting and creating

Seeking inspiration for your own work? Check out the trays and boxes of found objects at the BAM show, just a fraction of Ho’s vast and fascinating collection.

“The show is about collecting objects and creating with them, not just the finished jewelry pieces,” Benedict Heywood, executive director of BAM, says. “It’s about the artist’s whole life.”

Bellevue Arts Museum provides a public forum for the community to contemplate, appreciate, and discuss visual culture. We work with audiences, artists, makers and designers to understand our shared experience of the world.