The jewelry designs of Schlumberger dazzle at the Museum of Fine Arts

The jewels stand on their own, but it’s how the exhibitions are laid out that’s so brilliant.
Published January 16

ST. PETERSBURG — Expect to be dazzled by dual exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts showcasing the works of jewelry designer Jean Schlumberger.

And not just for the jewels — although those are incredibly lust-worthy.

It’s how the exhibitions are laid out that’s so brilliant. Even the most avid lover of jewelry would get bored looking at case after case of glittering adornment, with all the excitement of a store in the mall.

Instead, we’re first introduced to “Drawn to Beauty: The Art and Atelier of Jean Schlumberger” in a regal purple gallery. Even if you had heard of Schlumberger before, the exhibit gives an important overview of his background. It’s the first and only show about Schlumberger in the United States.

Curated by Stanton Thomas, the museum’s curator of collections and exhibitions, “Drawn to Beauty” takes you through Schlumberger’s artistic life. He never trained to be an artist, but like many aspiring creatives in the 1920s, he went to Paris, where he befriended Surrealists Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau. He met fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, and by the 1930s began designing jewelry for her.

These delightfully whimsical pieces are early examples of Schlumberger’s affection for nature. Using mostly gilded metal and glass, he focused on animals, making cute rabbit clips, funny ostrich clips and combs and a leopard paw brooch. A standout is Serpent Necklace (c. 1939), in which gilded metal snakes slither to form a flowerlike pattern in the center with pearls delicately dangling from the bottom.

Schlumberger also painted and was clearly influenced by the Surrealists. His paintings, as well as his design sketches, are on display, a helpful addition for understanding his creative process. He also designed clothing and costumes, which led him to Manhattan after World War II to design for the fashion house Chez Ninon. In 1946, he and Nicolas Bongard opened a jewelry store there, and by 1956 Schlumberger was invited to become the signature designer for Tiffany and Co. He and Bongard both became executives at the legendary jewelry store.

The bling factor shoots up in the second part of “Drawn to Beauty.” Thanks to loans from Tiffany and Co. and private collections, you can see the shift in materials, still in keeping with themes of nature.

Before joining Tiffany and Co., Schlumberger had begun to design for celebrities including fashion columnist and editor Diana Vreeland. For her, he made the diamond-, ruby- and amethyst-encrusted Trophee de Vaillance (1941) clip that became her signature piece. He also befriended Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, Nancy “Slim” Keith and Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon.

Schlumberger’s friendship with Bunny Mellon is the subject of the second exhibition, “Jewels of the Imagination: Radiant Masterworks by Jean Schlumberger From the Mellon Collection.” Originally organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, where Mellon had donated her collection, it’s the largest, most comprehensive public collection of Schlumberger’s work in the world.

Mellon’s father, Gerald Lambert, was president of the Gillette Razor Co. His father invented Listerine, which the younger Lambert would later market. Bunny married banking heir and art collector Paul Mellon in 1948. Together, they collected and donated thousands of works of art to the National Gallery and the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.

Mellon and Schlumberger bonded over their passion for nature. She loved plants; his favorite was sea life. Mellon was a horticulturist, owned an extensive collection of first-edition botanical books and designed the White House Rose Garden during the Kennedy administration.

Entering “Jewels of the Imagination” is spectacular. The warm, purple galleries lead to a stunning winter wonderland scene of snow- and moss-covered trees printed on fabric called scrim. Layers of the scene arch upward, creating a major sense of drama.

When planning “Jewels of the Imagination,” executive director Kristen Shepherd knew just who to call.

She tapped Rush Jenkins, a former colleague from Sotheby’s who had designed more than 50 exhibitions for the auction house and other major museums and now has his own design firm, WRJ Interior Design, based out of Wyoming.

Jenkins was game and started planning.

“When we were designing the exhibition, it was first about understanding the collection, the space and what we could do to create an environment that was going to envelop the visitor, tell a story,” said Jenkins. “The story being Mrs. Mellon, her relationship with Schlumberger and also her life. Her passion for the arts and for collecting.”

Having been a landscape architect himself, Jenkins decided to focus on Mellon’s passion for gardens. He went to the Mellon estate, Oak Spring Farm in Virginia. Photographer Roger Foley had captured the estate in all four seasons, and Jenkins worked with Foley to select a photo for each season. The photos were enlarged and used to divide the exhibition.

It was a clever and beautiful choice. The winter scene is the only one that was printed on fabric; the other photos are on vinyl. But they effectively define each space. The jewelry is arranged in ways that let you discover it like a treasure hunt.

Back to the jewelry. It’s all fabulous, one piece more stunning than the next. Most of the collection has to do with nature, much more interesting than the status quo for fine jewelry design. While Schlumberger utilized diamonds, he much preferred colorful stones and would often juxtapose them. He did this with Jasmine (Breath of Spring Necklace), which also features movable flowers and buds. Schlumberger was especially drawn to sea life, as seen in a brooch with moonstones, sapphires, 18-karat gold and platinum.

He was also fond of making boxes that were as whimsical as the jewelry (look for the peridot-encrusted Cucumber Box), as well as jewel-encrusted opulent objects that would be used as centerpieces on grand tables.

After you’ve been wowed by the gemstones and precious metals, go back to the beginning of “Drawn to Beauty,” when Schlumberger was only working in gilded metals and glass. You’ll be even more blown away by his artistry.

Contact Maggie Duffy at [email protected] Follow @maggiedalexis.

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