Professional Jeweler Archive: Innovators 8: Mary Lee Hu

June 2000

Precious Metals & Bench: Metalsmithing


Innovators 8: Mary Lee Hu

This jewelry artist, porfessor and innovator weaves a career out of precious metals


Woven like a golden thread through her life, jewelry has provided the fabric for Mary Lee Hu’s career as an artist. Using metal the way clothiers use thread, Hu creates elegant, high-fashion ornaments.

“Ever since elementary school, I had the desire to become a visual artist,” says Hu. But after earning a bachelor of fine arts degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1965 and a master of fine arts degree at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, she admitted she was turned off by the Scandinavian influence of sleek and polished surfaces that dominated contemporary metalwork at the time.

Her efforts at pen-and-ink drawing showed her the intricacies of line and space, but she couldn’t find the right medium that combined her interests and her desire for self-expression. Then she took a course in fiber arts, and it changed her life. Assigned an off-loom project, Hu got the idea to use fiber techniques with wire. Working first with brass, she liked the linear and structural look. When she switched to fine silver she knew she was on to something. Further investigation into the technical and historical uses of precious metal wire in jewelry followed.

Unwrapping History

During her study, Hu found wrapped, braided and netted wire in sword handles from medieval Europe and Asia. Vikings used sophisticated braiding in some of their artifacts, she learned. Tibet provided an inspirational chain pattern composed of densely knitted wire. She found similar forms in work from Palestine and India. Even American Indian basketry used twining techniques (a weaving method where the weft is twisted in the process). In short, she found enough starting points upon which to base a lifetime of investigation.

“My love of metal – its gentle resistance to being formed and the reflection of light from its surface – made this combination seem right for me,” she says. “It all clicked.”

Opening Doors

Since her first experiments in 1966, Hu has explored the permutations of basic fiber techniques applied to metal in creating personal adornment. Traditional techniques such as wrapping, coiling, weaving, knitting and twining provided a wealth of paths to follow. As an artist first and jeweler second, she satisfied her interest in line and detail along with her fascination with metal. Interlacing techniques used in the two disparate media, Hu pioneered a direction that opened doors for her own creativity and influenced the work of many who followed.

Working in silver, she was impressed by the introduction of light as a design component. Fine silver gave her the flexibility needed for bending, while sterling silver provided the strength for the structure. “However, the ancient work was primarily in gold,” she says. Today, she uses richly colored 22k (which has flexibility plus a rich look) and 18k (where strength is needed for support).

“I truly love working in gold,” she says. “I prefer the softer look of its surface. The light seems to come from within or below the surface.”

Gold as Textile

Hu’s work feeds our appreciation of the delicacy of woven forms and our fascination with the subtle movement inherent in textiles, the reflections of multiple strands and the appeal of precious metals. Metal as a soft-looking, even pliable, fiber seems to intrigue all viewers. When you add the visual patterns, rhythmic undulations and tactile richness of woven metal, the result is an irresistible work of personal adornment.

A number of jewelry designers have used similar techniques, but the results generally de-emphasize the structure and pay more attention to the surface. Hu explores the structural possibilities – the three-dimensional possibilities as well as the richness of surface – in a scholarly and academic manner.

In addition to her jewelry and technical perfection, Hu devotes herself to educating students at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she is a professor of art. She also makes an outstanding contribution to the public’s understanding and acceptance of art jewelry through her lectures and demonstrations.

Hu’s work is widely recognized for its beauty and innovation. She has received three National Endowment of the Arts Craftsman Fellowships and was elected to the American Crafts Council College of Fellows. Her work is included in such major collections as the Victoria and Albert Museum and Goldsmiths Hall, both in London; the Renwick Gallery, National Collection of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC; the American Crafts Museum in New York City; and The Art Institute of Chicago. Her work is included in several important books on the subject of jewelry in the 20th century.

Viewers of Mary Le Hu’s intricately detailed work often ask the same questions in the same order. Her response to how long it took her: “A long time.” How she accomplishes the work: “Very slowly.”

  • Mary Lee Hu, University of Washington, Seattle, WA; (206) 938-2794, fax (206) 685-1657, mhu@u.washington.edu.

– by Alan Revere

Alan Revere is a master goldsmith and owner/director of the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts in San Francisco, CA.

Mary Lee Hu’s fine and sterling silver neckpiece is from 1975.
18k and 22k gold bracelet embellished with lapis by Mary Lee Hu


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