I n November 2014 Sotheby’s offered the esteemed collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon, whose magnificent and rare 9.75-carat fancy vivid blue diamond pendant sold for a staggering $32,645,000. But the horticulturalist, philanthropist and style icon had many impressive jewels in her trove, 135 of which are currently being exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, where two companion shows illustrate the genius of Jean Schlumberger. The first, Drawn to Beauty: The Art and Atelier of Jean Schlumberger, presents an in-depth look at the French jewelry designer’s career and process, while the second, Jewels of the Imagination: Radiant Masterworks by Jean Schlumberger from the Mellon Collection, highlights Schlumberger’s fruitful collaboration and friendship with Rachel “Bunny” Mellon.
Featuring sketches, photographs and Schlumberger’s personal items, Drawn to Beauty begins while the designer is in his 20s in Paris. Although his parents, who were prosperous textile manufacturers, encouraged their son to pursue weaving or finance, he wound up in the French capital working for an art publishing company. There he became involved with the Surrealists, which explains why, for those who admire the fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, many of these 1930s jewels should look familiar. What began as designing buttons for Schiaparelli developed into full-fledged objets d’art, many of which became her most iconic accessories. The highly imaginative pieces feature motifs ranging from musical instruments and harlequins to rabbits and ostriches. Complementing the jewels are some of Schlumberger’s original costume studies, sketches and paintings, which demonstrate how he was not only experimental with jewels but also with a variety of media.
But for fans of Schlumberger’s instantly recognizable starfish, X’s and crosses, do not worry – there are plenty of jewels from the designer’s 30 years at Tiffany & Co. to be enjoyed. After serving in the French army during World War II, Schlumberger worked as a clothing designer in New York before opening a small jewelry shop. In 1942, he enlisted in the Free French Forces before reestablishing his Manhattan shop. In 1956, Schlumberger became a signature designer for Tiffany & Co., where he enjoyed the creative freedom of having his own salon at their Fifth Avenue headquarters. He flourished there, creating many of the house’s most magnificent designs, which are still produced today. Schlumberger’s boxes, picture frames, powder cases and pens are on view at the MFA St. Pete alongside jewels worn by the designer’s socialite and celebrity clients, such as Hattie Carnegie and Diana Vreeland.
Having transitioned into Jewels of the Imagination, we see Schlumberger’s work for Tiffany & Co. at its height. Donated to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts between 1985 and 2015, these pieces once belonging to Bunny Mellon represent the largest public collection of Jean Schlumberger’s work in the world. The jewelry itself, as well as the exhibition design, reflect Schlumberger’s and Mellon’s deep affection for nature, both in exotic lands and the home garden. Best encompassing the two is the famous 1960 Flower Pot (Pot de fleurs) which is comprised of a small terracotta pot from Mrs. Mellon’s own garden, encrusted with emeralds and diamonds, from which an ornate amethyst flower with gold petals evoking the Sun King grows.
Although difficult to separate oneself from the luminous moonstone and sapphire Jellyfish (La méduse) brooch, the vibrant Jasmine (Breath of Spring) necklace and bejeweled flora and fauna galore, Bunny’s one-of-a-kind decorative objects, which occupy their own gallery, are not to be missed. Geometric, rock crystal obelisks and Mermaids (Sirènes) candlesticks conjure the glorious, crowd-inducing gift exchanges between foreign embassies of centuries past. Finally, returning to jewels, a vitrine full of monochrome stones mounts Bunny’s varied assortment of prêt-à-porter accessories for Tiffany & Co. Found here are the iconic paillonné enamel bracelets, which also caught the eye of Jacqueline Kennedy.
In their sheer number of exquisite, one-of-a-kind designs, both Drawn to Beauty and Jewels of the Imagination succeed in conveying Jean Schlumberger’s singular talent. While the former’s strength is exposing the designer’s lesser-known early work and Surrealist sensibility that would inform the rest of his career, the latter is the physical manifestation of a creative partnership which knew no bounds.
Drawn to Beauty: The Art and Atelier of Jean Schlumberger is on view through March 10, 2019.
Jewels of the Imagination: Radiant Masterworks by Jean Schlumberger from the Mellon Collection is on view through March 31, 2019.
Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg
255 Beach Dr NE St. Petersburg, FL 33701