Masterpieces of French Jewelry

Masterpieces of French Jewelry from American Collections

This show, at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum,
traces the trajectory of jewelry-making in France from the Art
Nouveau era to present times. Perhaps it’s unfair to try to analyze a
country’s production from what a disparate bunch of foreigners happen
to bring home with them, but either American taste went into eclipse
during that period, or the exhibit charts the decline and fall of a
great art tradition.

The show is arranged chronologically, and starts out well with some
outstanding examples of Rene Lalique’s work in enamelled gold, with
other materials such as horn, ivory, opal and pearls tastefully
integrated. Some large bronze sculptures, in the shape of insectile
women, originally used as case decorations for his breakthrough 1900
exhibit in Paris’ Exposition Universelle, show his versatility.
(Although he became famous as a jeweler, he eventually gave it up and
went on to even greater success in glass, although these works, in my
opinion anyway, never rose to the artistic heights achieved in his
jewelry.) His genius was recognized early, with a first prize given
to his multi-part Iris Bracelet in enamelled gold with opal
background in 1897; and the piece, included at this exhibit, still
seems fresh and novel today. Among his other works shown, a
figurative umbrella handle in horn and gold and a purse featuring
mirrored vipers in silver and embroidered leather stand out for their
strength and adventurous spirit. Other jewelry houses of the Art
Nouveau period are represented as well, notably Fouquet and
Boucheron. Working with similar techniques, materials and subject
matter, they never rise to the same heights as Lalique, but
nevertheless manage some fine pieces, like Fouquet’s Winged Chimera
brooch, notable for its flowerlike settings of what appear to be
American natural pearls (subject of a “pearl rush” at the turn of
the century) and Boucheron’s Acacia brooch, with its finely-rendered
blossoms in plique-a-jour enamel, or a Butterfly brooch, where the
wings of the insect are fashioned from tabular plaques of engraved
diamond. Perhaps to remind us that no movement, of itself, can be
guaranteed to produce nothing but masterpieces, the show includes
some undistinguished works in the Art Nouveau style, mostly “maker
unknown”, generally featuring the images of young women, juxtaposed
with stylistically rendered verdure, that have come to exemplify the
movement in the minds of many.

Moving on to the Edwardian era, the exhibit shows how quickly the
world of fashion takes up and then discards an artistic style. While
enamelling is still practiced, it mostly is used to cover guilloche
work (also called engine turning, used to engrave gold with
mechanically accurate repetitive cuts). The nicest example shown is a
tiny pencil-holder by the Husson workshop. Diamonds are a lot more
prominent than before, largely due to the exploitation of the vast
South African deposits found early in the century, which fueled the
ultimate development of the “Garland” style, based on stylized
ribbons, bows, and floral wreaths. Platinum was also introduced to
the jewelry industry at about this time, and this seems to have
contributed to the development of ornaments that used a minimum of
metal (platinum, while it doesn’t tarnish, is quite a bit heavier
than gold, let alone silver) while maximizing the use of stones,
principally diamonds. The best example of the style shown here is
Cartier’s Bow brooch, which relieves the monotony with panels of
carved quartz crystal; an example unfortunately unheeded by
subsequent designers featured here, who seem to have conceived their
task principally as providing a vehicle for diamond sales.

The Art Deco movement brought some fresh air into the world of French
jewelry, with its emphasis on bold geometric designs. However, I
suspect it was less popular with visiting Americans than at home,
since most of the examples on view here are weak and somewhat
atypical. A standout piece is a vanity case by LaCloche Freres, with
an arrangement of roses in carved red coral, set off by lapis
leaves. A jazz band charm bracelet, maker unknown, is a truly
charming piece - a row of tiny geometrically simplified musicians and
their conductor are composed by arranging odd-shaped stones with a
minimum of metalwork, but it has the appearance of a novelty item
designed for impulse purchase, not a serious artistic effort. The
best example of Deco aesthetics on view is a Panther Brooch in
platinum, diamonds and black onyx (for the spots) created by Cartier
for the American boxer Gene Tunney, as a present for his wife.
Unfortunately, most of the more serious work has a clunky feel to it,
of being constructed to make an aesthetic point rather than to be
easily worn, or to complement the wearer. Perhaps this is why many of
the examples from this prewar period eschew Art Deco entirely or in
part and draw from historical styles, using Chinese, Egyptian,
Medieval, Greek, and Mughal forms and motifs. I was struck, however,
by the wide range of objects that were considered fair game for a
jeweler of this period. Not just rings, brooches, earrings, necklaces
and bracelets - they decorated opera glasses, produced dress clips,
vanity and cigarrette cases, cages for animals, purses, clocks,
watches, fans and perfume bottles - it seems that a jeweler’s field
of work has narrowed considerably since then.

The Postwar period seems to have marked a low point in French
jewelry design, at least from an artistic perspective. Perhaps the
atmosphere of scarcity or the recent trauma caused designers and
their customers to retrench, but the results as seen here are
lamentable. Designs were either derivative of historical patterns or
suffused with the blandness that still characterizes the 1950s in our
minds. In searching for more inexpensive products, colored stones
were used more, but usually in standardized cuts and unimaginative
designs. Perhaps copying the taste of the (American) Duchess of
Windsor, a vogue was created for cute jewel-encrusted animals, but
these did little to alleviate the prevailing artistic emptyness of
the period. A new burst of diamonds and advertising from DeBeers,
reflecting their monopoly in the world market, revived the Garland
style in a simplified form, and jewelers evolved the pave technique
to cover everything they made with the small round brilliant-cut
diamonds that were becoming ubiquitous at the time.

The main innovation of the current era, according to this show,
seems to have been the introduction of the “miracle” or
invisible-setting technique. This allows stones, particularly
rectangular ones, to be set edge-to-edge, without any metal showing
in between. Several examples are on view, but none of them are very
interesting from an creative standpoint. Yes, concentrated areas of
gem color could now be created, but no - this would not be used to
any great advantage, at least not here. Although technical tours de
force abound, like the invisible-set ruby. sapphire, and diamond
Flower Brooch created for the USA 1976 Bicentennial by Van Cleef and
Arpels, no new ground was broken in artistic terms by the mainstream
jewelry houses featured in this exhibition. The show does present
some self-consciously avant-garde pieces designed by prominent modern
artists such as Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp, Man Ray, and Andre Derain,
but while striking, ultimately these are unconvincing, consisting
mostly of large slabs of high-karat gold in the artist’s trademark
shapes. One is left with the impression of artists otherwise
committed who are willing to experiment with the jewelry medium, but
only on their own terms, unwilling to adapt the mindset of a jeweler
along with his materials. French artist Arman is an exception; his
bracelet composed from musical instruments in gold succesfully
translates an essentially sculptural idiom into a workable piece of

Striving, evidently, to end this show on a high note, the organizers
rely on a single transplanted American: Joel Arthur Rosenthal (known
as JAR) to convey the impression that French creativity in jewelry is
not altogether dead. And in part, they succeed; his most interesting
piece, a jewel-bridled circus zebra carved in variegated agate and
surmounted by an elegant diamond-studded plume, recalls the heights
of the Art Nouveau period, while his Blue Butterfly brooch refers
back to the Deco period. The piece that hints the strongest of the
artist’s own proclivities is a Daliesque Sea Urchin Clock, with its
granulated gold setting for a sand-backed watch movement placed
precisely in a natural urchin shell. But one is left wondering, what
is being left out? Surely there are French jewelry makers commanding
an original contemporary vision as well as the exacting traditional
techniques preserved in Europe that enable them to express it; why
aren’t they represented here? Is it that they’ve been unable to
reach American customers, or that these collectors are not the
high-profile types solicited by the organizers of this exhibition?
For the answer, we must wait on some future sequel to this show that
is more inclusive in its scope.

The Masterpieces of French Jewelry show is accompanied by a $29.95
catalog/book of the same name by Judith Price, published by Running
Press of Philidelphia and London. While the pictures are nice, some
are of pieces I saw in San Francisco, others are not. While many of
the pieces I saw are in it, many are left out, their places filled
with photos of related objects that may have been featured in a
different incarnation of the show, or just shuffled in to fill things
out. The rather sparse text doesn’t add much to the captions that
accompanied the show, but it is annoyingly filled out as well, with
fawning interviews of various peripherally-related celebrity figures
like Christopher Forbes and Dina Merrill Hartley (heirs of
collectors) novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford, and designer Juan
Pablo Molyneux randomly interspersed.

The show runs through the 10th of June at San Francisco’s Palace of
the Legion of Honor Museum. The $10 admission fee lets you into the
permanent collection, featuring choice works by various European
artists and a small collection of antiquities, as well as this
special exhibit. While I can’t be equally positive about all the
items in this show, it’s well worth the price of admission for the
rare chance to see the infrequently-displayed works in the Art
Nouveau section. If you can’t make it to San Francisco in time, wait
until the Lalique pieces are back home at the Walters Art Museum in
Baltimore Maryland to see them there - this is the world’s best
Lalique collection outside the Gulbenkian museum in Lisbon.

Andrew Werby