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Jewelry Masterworks Sparkle At Museum Of Fine Arts In St. Petersburg

Jan 23, 2019

There are all kinds of methods for creating art. Jean Schlumberger's medium was gemstones. From useable objects like cigarette cases and candlesticks to extravagant fine jewelry, the designer's work sparkles.

Schlumberger was one of the most celebrated jewelry designers of the 20th century. From his early days in Paris to his career at Tiffany & Co., Schlumberger attracted a faithful clientele of aristocrats, socialites and Hollywood stars.

The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg is offering two complementary exhibits of the designer’s work. "Drawn to Beauty: The Art and Atelier of Jean Schlumberger” presents his early pieces, alongside drawings and historical photographs.

Jorge Vidal, the museum's manager of special projects, said Schlumberger did not have formal training, but like many creative people of the 1920s and 30s, he found his way to Paris.

“Which, for an artist, I don’t think you can find a more exciting time in the 20th century,” said Vidal. “He found himself surrounded by fashion darlings and surrealist artists like Salvador Dali and Man Ray. You can very much see the influence of those artists and that period of time in his work.”

One of Dali's collaborators was well-known avant-garde fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli.  One of Schlumberger’s first professional jobs was creating bejeweled buttons for the couturier's iconic fitted jackets. The two then collaborated on a line of costume jewelry and several of those pieces are on view, including the gilt metal cupid clips so popular with fashionable ladies of the era. Vidal says that by the late 1930's, Schlumberger was getting a lot of attention and Schiaparelli didn't like it.

“It is said that Schiaparelli got a little jealous of the success and that created a rift that separated the two,” Vidal said.

Like many artists in the mid-20th century, Schlumberger's career was interrupted by World War II. After serving in the French army, he moved to New York City and opened a small boutique with his childhood friend, Nicolas Bangard.  One of their earliest customers was socialite and philanthropist, Mrs. Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, the wife of banking heir, Paul Mellon.

“She lived very close to the shop and one day she came in and bought about a dozen gifts.”

Mellon was soon presenting her friends with Schlumberger creations like whimsical ruby and pearl starfish brooches. She gave then First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy her first Schlumberger jewel encrusted croisillion bracelet. Kennedy wore the bangles so often, the press nicknamed them "Jackie bracelets."

Vidal said they are still being made today.

“That’s something that you can’t necessarily say about many fashion designers,” he said. "A design that was created 60 years ago has been in production steadily since then. If you have the pocketbook to buy yourself one, you are happy to walk into Tiffany’s and buy one today if you like.”

Schlumberger joined Tiffany & Co. in 1956. Both he and Bongard were appointed vice presidents of their own salon at the store's Fifth Avenue flagship store. One of his most famous pieces was the mounting for the famed 128.54 carat Tiffany yellow diamond worn by Audrey Hepburn in publicity photos for the movie, Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Bunny Mellon would go on to become Schlumberger's close friend and greatest patron.  Vidal says she collected his jewelry as fine art, as she did with the paintings of Mark Rothko and other artists. Her jewelry collection makes up the second part of the exhibition, "Jewels of the Imagination: Radiant Masterworks by Jean Schlumberger from the Mellon Collection." 

For this space, the museum hired an interior designer who transformed the gallery into Oak Spring Garden, Mellon's two thousand acre estate in Virginia. The first scene is a dramatic winter wonderland meant to elevate the artistic value of Schlumberger's work.

Credit Daylina Miller

“We were conscious that a jewelry show could be case after case of small objects,” said Vidal. “So what we did was create a rather spectacular scene and most times when people see what we’ve done with this space, there is an audible wow.”

It's this part of the show that really brings the bling.  A 200-plus carat necklace of 16 candy colored sapphires with jasmine flowers of round diamonds is just one of the showstoppers. Then there's the brooch shaped like a jellyfish with 18 karat gold tentacles that swayed when its wearer moved. Vidal says pieces like these exemplify why Jean Schlumberger was both a jewelry designer and an artist.

“When it is taken to these levels of craftsmanship and material and history, I don't think that you can deny its place among the other arts,” he said.

Or its place, shining brightly, in the galleries of a museum.

The Museum of Fine Arts is hosting a talk with Tiffany & Co. archivist Annamarie V. Sandecki, Thursday night in St. Petersburg. Join Sandecki for a glimpse into the longstanding relationship between Jean Schlumberger and Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon.