NEW YORK — Angela Cummings is an important jewelry designer who played a role in the feminist revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Women were then asserting themselves in the workplace and politics, fighting for equal rights and pay. They were buying their own jewelry, too, so it made sense they would look for standout pieces created by women designers such as Cummings.
Cummings was born in Austria in 1944 but her family moved to America when she was three. She studied in Europe and trained as a gemologist-goldsmith in Germany. Settling in New York City, she was hired at Tiffany & Co. in 1968, and in 1974, she was the first woman the firm recognized with a named collection, “Angela Cummings Exclusively for Tiffany & Co.” She worked for Tiffany until 1984, when she launched her own brand.
“Tiffany really promoted her as a designer, and they’re one of the few luxury jewelry houses that actually promoted designers, so she was out there front and center,” said Heritage Auctions Vice President and Director of Fine Jewelry Tracy Sherman. “Her things are highly collectible and very simple, bold and classic but unusual. When you are wearing one, people say, ‘Oh, that’s an Angela Cummings piece, isn’t it?’ Her work is recognizable and her jewelry enduring and always collectible,” she said, adding, “Whenever we have things come up in an auction that are by her, people gravitate to them. They want to look at them and try them on.”
Cummings found much inspiration in nature, and some of her most popular motifs relate to the sea as well as flowers and plants. Among her signature motifs are spiderwebs, gingko leaves, vines and feathers. One of her best known floral-themed designs, the Rose Petal necklace, was reportedly inspired by an episode in which she accidentally crushed a rose petal in her hand when a telephone rang and surprised her. A 1979 example in 18K gold sold for $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2022 at GWS Auctions Inc. The 18in-long necklace features sculpted rose petal-shape links with slightly crinkled edges.
Rings and earrings by Cummings are more easily found on the secondhand market these days, but collectors will need to be more patient to acquire her bracelets and especially her necklaces, Sherman said. Collectors who had the presence of mind to buy them decades ago typically hang onto them. The current market bears that out, and her scarcest pieces have risen steadily in value. While early Tiffany & Co. pieces often bring the highest amounts of money, her later work is also sought-after and includes pieces she created under her own brand, and also designs for the Bergdorf Goodman department store and Assael, which specializes in South Sea pearls. “They all seem to be very desirable and I don’t see anything that sells for a particularly low amount,” Sherman said.
An “Angela Cummings for Tiffany & Co.” nephrite jade and 18K gold necklace is an unmistakable statement piece. This 24in necklace — having the classic 70s styling that is back in vogue — brought $30,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021 at Heritage Auctions, quadrupling its high estimate. This necklace also displays the designer’s fondness for anthropomorphic elements that appear in many of her pieces. “It was elegant, it was simple and the beads were shaped like peas, so again you have that anthropomorphic quality,” she said.
Another highly anthropomorphic piece of hers is a cabochon ruby and 18K gold ring having an unusual scaled surface, similar to fish or reptile scales, which realized $3,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021 at Rago Arts and Auction Center.
Cummings became renowned for her inlaid designs featuring semi-precious stones, black jade, mother of pearl, coral and lapis lazuli. “The inlaid pieces are so recognizable whether it’s the checkerboard pattern or the ones where she has inlaid stones,” Sherman said. A fine example is a circa-1980 cuff bracelet for Tiffany & Co. in 18K gold, which earned $22,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2023 at Freeman’s. The bracelet is inlaid with organic patterns of various gemstones, including rhodochrosite, aventurine and rock crystal.
Another standout was a gold bangle having alternating inlaid swaths of lapis lazuli and jasper; it brought $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022 at Hindman.
A checkerboard motif is another Cummings signature. It graces many of her earrings and a few bracelets, such as a gold and black jade checkerboard bangle that brought $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2019 at Fortuna.
Also immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with her work are her reverse earrings, in which one earring might be gold with an inset material and the other earring would be its mirror opposite. “Her reverse earrings are highly desirable, whether they are gold and black, gold and white or with different colored stones,” Sherman said. A pair made for Tiffany & Co. with black jade and gold sold for $4,600 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at Heritage Auctions.
While many of her pieces have a modern and geometric styling, others are highly sculptural. A pair of diamond ear clips in a spiral design, perhaps inspired by a seashell or a curvy branch, took $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022 at New Orleans Auction Galleries. The 1997 design, which notably featured platinum and white gold instead of yellow gold, was made shortly before Cummings retired in 2003, closing her business. She did come out of retirement in 2013 to create a collection for Assael of pearl and gold jewelry featuring coral branches, ocean waves, shells and seahorses.
Cumming’s work continues to find new audiences for its bold yet simple styling, which renders it timeless. “Each new generation of people that starts looking at estate jewelry, they discover her all over again,” Sherman said.