Geneva Anderson digs into art

Happy Valentine’s Day! Big Girls Need Big Diamonds …“Cartier and America” exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor delivers

Elizabeth Taylor with Richard Burton at the 42nd Academy Awards on April 7, 1970, wearing the Taylor-Burton diamond in its Cartier setting in public for the first time.

World over in February, couples celebrate Valentine’s Day with thoughts of love and tokens affection.  Red roses, chocolates and poetry are standards but fine jewelry takes “Be my Valentine” to another level.  A trip to the Legion of Honor’s spectacular “Cartier and America” exhibition which runs through April 18, 2010 will set you back $20.00 ($40.00 for two) but it will fill that longing to browse amongst jewels of rare artistry and to learn about the famous people who possessed them and about Cartier, the French company that made it all possible.  Marking Cartier’s 100 years in the United States, the exhibition features a spectacular array of some 300 objects from the Belle Epoch (1899-1918), Art Deco (1918-1937), pre and postwar periods and beyond. ranging from one-of-a- kind stunners like the Star of Africa diamond to white diamond suites, to the highly-colored exotic creations of the 1920s and 1930’s, to mystery clocks whose hands seems to float in air.  And, pure luxury aside, ARThound would be remiss not to mention the cuteness factor of Cartier’s dogs and small animals for the vanity, carved of stones like smoky quartz, amethyst and rhodonite.  

Curated by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s, Martin Chapman, Curator of European Decorative Arts, the exhibition is as much about breathtaking design and engineering as it about the social history of America’s wealthy—the famous “haves” who, during the heydays of American capitalism, were obsessed with European aristocracy and refinement.  American who married royals, heiresses, Hollywood stars, and other notables all considered Cartier essential in affirming their status and giving them an essential edge out-blinging one another. A fascinating aspect of this show (which is not traveling after its run at the Legion) is that Chapman had full access to Cartier’s extensive archives and included as much detail as could be found about prominent San Franciscans and their connections with Cartier.  And several exquisite pieces that have never been exhibited before—the Duchess of Windsor’s diamond encrusted Flamingo brooch, her panther bracelet, Grace Kelly’s engagement ring—shine brightly at the Legion alongside more well-known Cartier classics.

Should you question the placement of jewelry in a fine arts museum or the inappropriate whiff of commerce surrounding any Cartier exhibition, FAMSF patron and board chair Dede Wilsey—who lent a bracelet—will answer that it is not the stones per se– but the technical skills that Cartier craftsmen brought to their work that make these luxury jewels worthy of exhibition in any museum in the world.  After examining these pieces close-up, their design, refinement and engineering are certainly worthy of high art.  It is regrettable that the highly-skilled members of the Cartier design team remain anonymous under the ever-powerful Cartier brand.  When the company was formed, these artisans started out at age 14 and labored for 10 years with Cartier before they were able to work on a piece alone.  Nowadays, they start at age 21, after studying at design school.   

Cartier in Paris—a bold move to establish a signature style 

Founded in Paris in 1847, the House of Cartier originally sold a wide range of luxury goods made by others, including luxury jewelry made by several local Parisian ateliers.  Everything changed in 1899, when it moved to rue de la Paix (right next to Worth, the most influential Parisian fashion house), set up its own design studio at these new headquarters and developed a signature style for its own jewelry. 

Rose and Lily Corsage Ornament, Cartier Paris, 1906, platinum, round old- and rose-cut diamonds, millegrain setting, 19.5 x 29 cm. Sold to Mary Scott Townsend, Cartier Collection, CL 134A06, Nick Welsh © Cartier

Cartier rejected the popular Art Nouveau style which was deemed static and incapable of much evolution in terms of unique jewelry production and introduced its “garland” style inspired by the neoclassical style of the neoclassical-period which emphasized tassels, ribbon-bows and dangling glittering diamond pendants.  Cartier’s biggest and most risky move was introducing platinum over the traditional gold and silver as its preferred setting material.  Platinum’s greater stability allowed more diamonds to be set in a piece in a small area and enabled the number of articlulations to be increased without endangering the global solidity of the piece. It was also tarnish-free. Tiaras could now hold thousands of tiny diamonds. With the advent of electrical lighting which transformed the interplay between light and jewels and the availability of relatively cheap small diamonds from the new finds in South Africa, Cartier’s risk-taking paid off.   Cartier quickly became a de rigueur destination point for European royals and for wealthy Americans visiting Paris whose conspicuous consumption was targeted towards emulating European aristocracy.

Even as the royal courts of Europe were undergoing their final moments, Cartier was outfitting American women with diamonds mounted in the refined Louis XVI style inspired by French royal jewels of the 1700’s.  The early galleries house a dazzling array of Cartier tiaras, brooches, pendant necklaces and stomachers (brooches worn over the breast or stomach in the 17th and 18th centuries).   Mrs. Townsend’s “devant de corsage” “Rose and Lily corsage ornament” commissioned to Cartier Paris, 1906 -is exceptional in its craftsmanship.  3-D sprays of blooming lilies are entwined in a garland of lifelike roses; it  is sculpted entirely diamonds in the taste of the late eighteenth century.

In this bygone era of luxury steamship travel, glittering balls and society debuts, American socialites such as railway and coal heiress Mary Scott Townsend of Washington D.C. ordered elaborate diamond-studded tiaras and wore them.  In fact, Cartier’s archives reveal dozens of orders for diamond-studded tiaras from the 100 or so Americans who married into British aristocracy– and thus were technically entitled to wear them–and from others who had no European royal or aristocratic marriages.  Martin Chapman explains in the exhibition catalog that tiaras remained fashionable with America’s upper crust up until WWI but there are several instances of Americans, like Marjorie Merriweather Post (Post cereal fortune heiress and formerly Mrs. E.F. Hutton) who had no connection to royalty  but wore tiaras through the 1950’s and 1960’s.  These women complimented their tiaras with substantial bling that covered their head, neck and bosoms so that they literally became top-heavy with diamonds. 

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III, ca. 1909 wearing her 1909 Cartier necklace in its original form, a 1909 Cartier tiara amd 1904 Cartier rose brooch from Princess Mathilde.

A 1909 photograph of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III shows her wearing it all– a stunning Cartier diamond-set rose brooch from Princess Mathilde, the cultural icon of France during the Second Empire, a necklace she commissioned from Cartier in 1909 of huge hexagonal diamond pendants, and a grand “Russian style” Cartier tiara from 1909. 

All that survives from her necklace is a single hexagonal

Pendant, Cartier Paris, 1909, Diamonds and platinum, 11.9 x 4.7 cm. Sold to Grace Wilson (Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III) Cartier Collection, CL 269A09.

 pendant, which at 4 3/4 inches in length is substantial in itself.  Thanks to Cartier’s thorough records, explained Chapman, we can reconstruct how most Cartier pieces looked in their original forms.  From the early 1900’s, a photograph and a plaster cast of each piece was made as it left the Cartier workshop in order to enable craftsmen to copy, repair or alter the piece at some future date. The plaster cast of Vanderbilt necklace is displayed beside the portrait, along with the pendant.   These extensive archives also reveal the fascinating and successive transformations a piece of jewelry went through due to change in ownership or evolving taste.  

Because many pieces from the old world were sold through Cartier to the new world, Cartier served as a bridge between the old European and the new American aristocracy explained Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage.  Some of the famed jewelry of Empress Eugenie, wife of Napolean Bonaparte III, was sold off by Third Republic and bought and traded by Cartier.  Marie-Antoinette’s famed pear-shaped diamond earrings were purchased from Cartier by Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1928

Pendant brooch, Cartier London, 1923; altered 1928, Cartier New York. Emeralds, diamonds, platinum and enamel, 20.3 x 5.1 cm, Hillwood estate, Museum & Gardens, bequest of Marjorie Merriweather Post, 1973.

Post was one of Cartier’s most important American clients.  Her stunning emerald and diamond pendant shoulder brooch from the 1920’s, which graces the catalog and exhibition poster,  is one of the most spectacular pieces Cartier ever made, incorporating fabulous Indian carved emeralds, one of which dates from India’s Mughal era.  She had Cartier New York alter its top to the buckle in 1928. 

Cartier’s New York Store—paid for in pearls

To accommodate its clients, Cartier opened branches in London (1902) and New York City (1909).  After securing a rather blasé second floor space on Fifth Avenue, Pierre, the second of the three Cartier brothers, finagled the Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street Plant townhouse for the Cartier flagship store from financier Morton F. Plant.  Plant sold his mansion for a dollar and a stunning two strand Cartier natural pearl necklace valued at $1,000,000, which he gave to his wife. The New York store initially attracted clientele that included Gilded Age heiresses like Evalyn Walsh McLean, Daisy Fellowes, Barbara Hutton and a bevy of Vanderbilt women, all of whom deemed Cartier the essential measure of refinement.

The San Francisco Connection

Exploring the connection between San Franciscans and Cartier was a priority of curator Martin Chapman.  The only San Franciscan found in Cartier’s Paris archives with a San Francisco address is Mrs. Newstatter, wife of a clothing manufacturer on Market Street, who in 1908 purchased a diamond studded choker with a big pendant underneath.  There are, however,  indirect connections to San Francisco.   

American-born Lady Granard, the 8th Countess of Granard, was raised in San Francisco as Beatrice Mills, the daughter of financier and philanthropist Ogden Mills (Mills College, Millbrae).  She was a regular client of Cartier London and was particularly fond of enormous tiaras, ordering three between 1922 and 1937.  

A life-size Giovanni Boldini portrait from 1905, owned by the Legion, depicts one of the Cartier’s San Francisco’s clients of the Gilded Age, Virginia Graham Fair Vanderbilt, “Birdie,” the second of William K. Vanderbilt Jr.’s five wives.  There are several pieces of her jewelry throughout the exhibition but it is not known if she is wearing Cartier in the portrait.  She was born Virginia Fair in San Francisco and was the daughter of Silver King James Fair, (“Slippery Jim”) who made a fortune overnight off the rich Comstock Lode in the Virginia City, Nevada, the largest deposit of gold and silver ever found.  In the late 1800’s, Fair (then Senator Fair) purchased the hillside at Mason and California Streets.  After he died, Virginia and her sister Tessie built the famous Fairmont Hotel in 1902, the jewel in the crown of Nob Hill.

Scarab buckle brooch, Cartier London, 1924, Ancient Egyptian faience, smoky quartz, enamel, diamonds, emeralds, platinum, and gold, 5 x 13 cm. Cartier Collection, CL 32A24

Art Deco: Cartier’s Shining Glory

During the interwar period,or ” Art Deco era” (1918-1937), Cartier established the repertoire of Art Deco for the upper crust with its display at the definitive Paris exposition of 1925, the world’s largest international fair dedicated to the display of modern decorative arts.  Cartier did not exhibit with jewelers, but anchored itself in high fashion at the Pavillon de l’Elegance, alongside leading couture  houses like Worth and Jenny and dictated the “new” style–tiaras worn low on the brow, long ear pendants, a large brooch at the bust and a necklace slung across the chest that fastened to the dress at the back.  New geometric designs incorporated pearls and diamonds with strong bursts of specific color combinations—brilliant green from emeralds, a signature Cartier coral (in a unique shade between pink angel skin and the darker Mediterranean coral) and black onyx.  

Hindu necklace, Carter, Paris, special order, 1936, altered in 1963, platinum, white gold, marquise-, baguette-, and round old-cut diamonds, thirteen briolette-cut sapphires weighing 146.9 carat in total, two leaf-shaped carved sapphires, 50.8 and 42.45 carats, sapphire beads, one sapphire cabochon, square carved emeralds, fluted and smooth emerald beads, and emerald cabochons, 43cm. Nick Welsh, Cartier Collection, © Cartier NE28A36

Exoticism was a strong force in Cartier design in the 1920’s and 1930’and was important as counterbalance to the hard-edged International Modernism of the 1930’s.  A number of pieces on display are inspired by decorative arts of Egypt, India, China and Japan.  The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, for example, inspired several Cartier pieces, artworks, that incorporated fragments of actual Egyptian artifacts.  Three faience buckle-brooches, never exhibited together before, shine in their elegance, incorporating scarabs with deco style. One buckle was owned by Cole Porter’s wife, an important client.

The “tutti frutti” design that Cartier pioneered in its Indian style jewelry was coveted for its vibrant mix of emeralds, rubies and sapphires—these pieces seem to scream “I’m terribly expensive” and “I’m playfully beautiful.”    The “Hindu” necklace commissioned by Daisy Fellowes, the Singer sewing machine heiress, in 1936 is unparalleled.  Modeled after a 1935 Cartier design for an Indian maharajah—the necklace has over 1,000 stones—cut diamonds and sapphires and carved ruby, sapphire and emerald leaves imported from India.  Interesting note—these jewels were made for and worn by males in India but experienced a sex change when they came to the West where they were coveted, custom-ordered and worn by American women. 

Cartier actually established a trading post in Delhi, India in 1911, to buy emeralds and to solidify relationships with important Indian maharajas who were strong clients. Rainero explained that gemological studies have confirmed that “Indian emeralds” from the Mughal Empire (1556 to 1707) were actually mined in Columbia in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and brought to India by the Portuguese who controlled India’s harbors.  The history of jewelry is thus entwined with world trade and economic history and sales transactions have been telling indicators. 

Mystery Clocks

Cartier’s magical mystery clocks are its largest and most complex artworks and eight are in the exhibition. On prominent display, as you first enter the show, is the Belikan Portique Mystery Clock in the form of a Shinto Shrine Gate, bought in 1923 by opera singer Ganna Walska, second wife of Chicago industrialist Harold F. McCormick (1872-1941),

Portique mystery clock, Cartier Paris, 1923. Rock crystal, onyx, gold, enamel, diamonds, platinum, coral, and clock movements, 35 x 23 x 13 cm, sold to Ganna walska, Cartier Collectio, CM 09A23

 inventor and manufacturer of the harvest reaper.  This clock was the first of six in a series of portique style rock crystal gates created between 1923 and 1925.  The clock is transparent and its platinum and diamond hands seem suspended in air as they float around the dial.  How and where was the watch movement be hidden?   Gazing intently at the front and rear of the clock doesn’t provide any clues.  These mystery clocks were the result of collaboration between Louis Cartier and clockmaker Maurice Couët that started around 1912.  The designs varied but there were five principle types that were produced in small lots with slight variations. The designs grew more complex and exotic over time, progressing to figural clocks which incorporated intricately carved Chinese figures, usually made of jade.  The hands either floated on or behind glass with no apparent mechanism.  In the case of the portique clock, the hands are mounted on glass discs and the disc is driven from the movement hidden in the lintel, above the pillars.  A team of lapidaries, horologists, jewelers and designers spent up to a year creating a single clock.  Today, just a few artisans know how to make this movement. 

Ganna Walska was a notable Cartier patron who was profiled colorfully in a 1934 Time Magazine article “Countess Reincarnate” describing her opera performance as one that “should be seen and not heard.”  In 1941, she bought the Santa Barbara “Cuesta Linda” estate and transitioned it to “Lotusland,” a retreat with extensive botanical gardens. (See hilarious 2006 Wall Street Journal article “What the Diva Wrought.”)  So determined was she to complete this magnum opus that she auctioned off her Cartier jewelry to finance and endow Lotusland.

Great Transactions– Historical Diamonds

Cartier’s legacy goes hand in hand with the sale and resale of famous historical diamonds—remarkable diamonds whose value goes beyond the tradtional perameeters of valuation because they are a part of history.

The Star of South Africa, prominantly displayed at the Legion, was the first important large white diamond to come from South Africa and is credited with turning the tides of fortune in South Africa .  In 1869, it was picked up by a Griqua shepherd boy near the Orange River who traded it to a Boer settler for five hundred sheep, ten oxen, and a horse.  It weighed 83.5 carats in rough crystal form and was cut into a 47.69-carat old style pear-cut diamond.  The stone was later called the “Dudley diamond” after the Earl of Dudley who purchased it for his wife, Lady Dudley, who wore it as a hair ornament surrounded by 95 smaller diamonds. The stone was also owned by J.P.  Morgan before it made its way in 1917 to Cartier, New York, and was reset as a magnificent brooch.

In 1912, Pierre Cartier sold the legendary 45.52 carat Hope Diamond–the rarest and most perfect blue diamond in existance–for $180,000 to Evalyn Walsh McLean.  She was the wife of Ned McLean, wealthy publisher of the Washington Post, and the only daughter of Thomas Walsh, an immigrant miner and prospector turned millionaire.  The diamond’s last private owner, she delighted in flaunting a jewel that many thought cursed and wore it flamboyantly until her death in 1947.  Harry Winston Inc.,  of  New York City, purchased her entire jewelry collection, including the Hope Diamond, from her estate in 1949 and in November, 1958, donated it to the Smithsonian Institution, where it almost immediately became its premier attraction.  The Hope Diamond is not on display.

Richard Burton’s spectacular gifts of jewels to Elizabeth Taylor were media events that marked the 1960’s.  His most famous purchase was the 69.42-carat pear-shape diamond, later named the Taylor-Burton Diamond from Cartier in 1969.  Certified by the GIA’s Gem Trade Laboratory, the stone was graded as Internally Flawless, F Color.  The diamond is not at the Legion but the story is worth repeating.

In a highly publicized auction, Burton bid on the necklace for Liz but was outbid by Cartier whose winning bid resulted in the stone initially being named the “Cartier” diamond.  Right after the sale, Burton was determined to acquire the diamond from Cartier and offered to buy the stone. Cartier agreed to sell it to him under the condition that it could be displayed at its Chicago and New York stores as the “Cartier.”  Of course, everyone in America knew the story, and more than 6000 people a day flocked to Cartier’s New York store to see Liz’s rock. Taking advantage of the terms of purchase that allowed them to re-name the stone, Liz and Dick re-christened it the “Taylor-Burton” diamond when they took possession.  Liz wore the diamond the first time in public for Princess Grace’s 40th birthday party in Monaco, and the diamond’s transport was a media event in itself.  In 1970, she had Cartier re-mount it into a necklace and wore it to the Oscars in 1970, where she was a media sensation.  Following her 1978 divorce from Burton, Taylor sold the diamond for $5,000,000 to NY jeweler Henry Lambert and used part of the proceeds to build a hospital in Botswana.  Its current owner is Lebanese diamond dealer Robert Mouawad.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor— A Panther Phenomena

Flamingo clip brooch, Cartier Paris, 1940, Diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, citrine, and platinum, 10 x 6 cm, California collection.

Wallis Simpson, the controversial Duchess of Windsor (1896-1986), was an American socialite whose third husband was Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor and former King Edward VIII of England.  The King’s desire to marry a twice-divorced American with two living ex-husbands caused a constitutional crisis in England that ultimately led to his abdication in December 1936.  After abdicating, he became the Duke of Windsor and married Simpson six months later, who became the Duchess of Windsor but was denied the style “Her Royal Highness.”

The Duchess made the Paris Couture best-dressed list in 1935 and remained there for 40 years, famous for her elegant but simply-tailored clothes and chic jewels.  She was Cartier’s most important client during this period after her marriage and several of her masterpieces are at the Legion.  “She was willing to be quite cutting edge,” explained Pierre Rainero, “ to wear things that other women would not wear and she wore then very well.”   She amassed a huge collecion of important jewelry that was sold at auction in 1987 for a shattering $50 million.

Rainero went on to explain that, usually, Cartier’s most daring objects were made for stock, and that special orders that adhere strictly to the request of customers are almost always “looking backwards.  The Duchess of Windsor, however, fell under the category of a notable exception—a client whose strong character led to her strong pieces that were an expression of her character.  The duke and duchess forged a special relationship with Cartier’s Jeanne Toussaint (1887-1978) who had been in charge of Cartier’s precious jewelry since the mid-1930’s and all the Duchess’s most important jewelry were collaborations between the duke, the duchess and Toussaint.

Panther clip brooch, Cartier Paris, 1949. Sapphires, diamonds, yellow diamonds, platinum, and white gold, 6 x 3.7 cm, sold to HRH Duke of Windsor, Cartier Collection, CL 53A49

The Duchess’s Flamingo clip brooch (1940) is arguably her most famous piece of custom- designed Cartier jewelry and is exhibited at the Legion for the first time.  The piece was  fabricated from the Windsor’s own collection of bangles with the collaboration of Toussaint. The flamingo’s body and long stilt legs are of pave diamonds while the vibrant bristling plumage is fabricated of calibré-cut rubies, sapphires and emeralds.   The attitude is “quite daring” in this landmark piece, explained  Rainero.  “It has a real sense of humor for a Duchess and it marks the end of certain period, as it was delivered to her just days before the Germans invaded Paris in June, 1940.”   In the late 1980’s, the flamingo’s status as an icon was secured when it became a knockoff by costume jeweler Kenneth J. Lane   The original was sold at auction in 1987, privately acquired.

Another of the Duchess’s iconic stunners is her diamond and sapphire panther clip brooch, bought as a stock item from Cartier Paris in 1949.  The regal panther is crouched in a life-like pose on a perfectly round 152.35 carat cabochon star sapphire.  It was this very panther that launched the “big cat craze, ” which swept up the duchess herself.  Her 1952 Panther bracelet, also exhibited at the Legion for the first time, is set with calibré-cut black onyx and diamonds and is so finely articulated that it wraps around the wrist like fabric.  Other jewelry collectors, such as Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton followed suit.  She had Cartier make her a draping Tiger brooch and ear clips (also on display) of yellow diamonds and onyx resembling the ram’s skin suspended from the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Flamboyant Jewels for Film Stars

María Félix in 1975 wearing her 1975 Cartier crocodile necklace and 1967 Cartier emerald ear clips.

The show’s final gallery includes some delightful short film clips of movie stars who, over time, garnered media attention as the new aristocrats and who famously wore Cartier.   Their famous jewels are on display too.  Gloria Swanson is wearing her Cartier diamond bracelets from “Sunet Blvd.”   Tallulah Bankhead surrenders her Cartier for bait in  “Lifeboat.”   Gace Kelly polishes her 10 carat emerald-diamond engagement ring (from Prince Rainier of Monaco)  in her last movie “High Society.”   And, while poolside in Cap Ferrat, in 1957, a gorgeous young Liz Taylor, captured in a home movie, gleefully recevies ruby and diamond earrings, a necklace, and bracelet from husband Mike Todd.

María Félix, the wildly beautiful siren from the golden age of Mexican cinema, is famous for having turned down the small film roles offered by Hollywood’s Cecil B. DeMille with the reply, “I was not born to carry a basket.” 

Crocodile Necklace, Cartier Paris, 1975, gold, 1,023 brilliant-cut yellow diamonds, two navette-shaped emerald cabochons (eyes), 1,060 emeralds, and two ruby cabochons (eyes). Cartier Collection, © Cartier

Félix found the perfect expression of her bold personality in the huge snake and crocodile pieces she commissioned from Cartier Paris. Her 1968 snake necklace, of platinum and white gold, is encrusted with 178.21 carats of diamonds and finished in the mille-gras. 

 Pure shock factor aside, the necklace demonstrates Cartier’s meticulous attention to detail.  When handled, it mimics the slinkiness and weight of a real snake with hundreds of individual sections that are hinged internally.  Its underbelly feels slithery due to gorgeous enameling that also protects the wearer’s neck.

Her 1975 detachable double crocodile necklace features two baby crocs—one of 1,000 yellow diamonds and the other with over 1,000 circular cut emeralds–that wrap around the neck with heads resting at the center of the throat.  As the legend goes, one day in 1975, Félix visited Cartier Paris absolutely unexpectedly.  She did not come alone but had a baby crocodile in a jar with her and requested that Cartier make her a necklace in the shape of the baby reptile and not to dally as it was growing by the day.  In 2006, to pay tribute to Felix and her necklace, Cartier debuted its La Dona de Cartier collection, featuring the La Dona de Cartier watch, crafted in gold with half-moon, reptilian-like links, something on a more affordable scale for the masses.   But, as we all know, the real Cartier, the Cartier of legends, does not cater to the masses.

February 13, 2010 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

review: Bling’s Big Three— Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique—at 1900 World’s Fair, Legion of Honor, February 7- May 31, 2009

Tiffany & Co. (American, 1837 – present). Necklace, (Diamonds, pink tourmaline, yellow gold, platinum, c.1885 –1895).  The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 1991-20. Photo:  Howard Agriesti, The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Tiffany & Co. (American, 1837 – present). Necklace, (Diamonds, pink tourmaline, yellow gold, platinum, c.1885 –1895). The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 1991-20. Photo: Howard Agriesti, The Cleveland Museum of Art.

How gratifying that in an economic crisis, we can momentarily forget our worries, escape to a museum and indulge in pure fantasy.  “Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique” at the Legion of Honor through May 31, 2009 is an enticing show that will fuel your imagination and transport you back a century to a time when the world’s fair was the stage where all the newest innovations, curiosities and luxury goods were unveiled.  The show offers a glimpse of rare jewelry and design masterpieces from bling’s “big three” Peter Carl Fabergé, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and René Lalique set against the backdrop of the Exposition Universelle of 1900, the only world’s fair where all three masters showed simultaneously.  With some 300 objects from more than 50 international lenders, “Artistic Luxury” reunites works that have not been presented together since they were shown at this world’s fair and offers many pieces that have never been exhibited publicly in the United States before.  The exhibition is curated by Stephen Harrison of the Cleveland Museum of Art curator of decorative art and design, where the show originated and by Martin Chapman, curator of European decorative arts and sculpture for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The Legion of Honor is the perfect venue for this show as its benefactor Alma Spreckels, “big Alma” was a passionate collector of all three of these master designers, particularly Fabergé.  And one of the Legion’s current benefactors, Diane B. “DeDe” Wilsey, Fine Arts Museum Board of Trustees President, is also a passionate collector.   The Legion also organized the impressive 1996 blockbuster show “Fabergé in America” that had a 16 month, 5-stop national run and left some critics scathing at the blatant promotion of Fabergé, a large financial sponsor of the show.  Some of those Fabergé objects, along with some bequeathed by Mrs. Spreckels are on display again, and Mrs. Wilsey has lent her Kelch egg, rarely shown in public.  

Grand Entrance, 1900 Paris International Exposition.  Courtesy of

Grand Entrance, 1900 Paris International Exposition. Courtesy of

Prepare to be pleasantly overwhelmed.  The show is awash with globetrotting royals, aristocrats, stage stars, gallerists and industrialists from several different eras. It would take a battalion of Vanity Fair readers to piece together all the juicy stories behind these treasures that the rich and famous have commissioned, bought, bequeathed, auctioned, hawked and sued each other for over the years.  Unfortunately, the placards on the display cases read like dry novels, long lists of owners and way too little gossip.  Because jewelry is intimate, it begs for intimate stories of those who owned and wore these items.    And, of course, what the original owners paid and how that translates in terms of today’s dollar.

The Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris provides a fresh and historically interesting context for examining these three luxury producers.  Billed as the summation of a century, this world’s fair aimed to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate movement into the next.  And it was the center stage on which the rivalry between these three great luxury makers took place as they attempted to outdo each other and to woo the upper crust to buy their exquisite creations.  From April through November of 1900, over 50 million visitors attended and some 60 countries presented 85,000 exhibitions of the best of their art and culture, scientific innovations and manufacturing accomplishments. Visitors were wowed by innovations such as a moving sidewalk which rattled around the exhibitions at two different speeds—9 km/hour and 4 km/hour, the wireless telegraph, scientific photography, the first projected sound films and the world’s most powerful telescope.  The Exposition’s legacy includes many grand Parisian buildings that were constructed as venues for the Exposition such as the Grand Palais, the Gare de Lyon, the Gare D’Orsay (now the Musee D’Orsay), the Pont Alexander III and the Petit Palais.  

The new style that was universally present and served to usher in modernism was Art Nouveau, a revolutionary movement which was a response to the radical changes caused by the rapid urban growth and technological advances that followed the Industrial Revolution.  Art Nouveau basically sought to make art central in the design of all things and to abandon the traditional separation of art into the distinct categories of fine art (painting and sculpture) and applied arts (ceramics, furniture, and other practical objects).  

House of Fabergé (Russian, 1846-1929).  Mikhail Perkhin (Russian, 1860-1903) designer.  Imperial Pansy Egg.  Nephrite, silver-gilt, enamel and rose-cut diamonds, 1899.  Private collection.  Photo:  © Judith Cooper.

House of Fabergé (Russian, 1846-1929). Mikhail Perkhin (Russian, 1860-1903) designer. Imperial Pansy Egg. Nephrite, silver-gilt, enamel and rose-cut diamonds, 1899. Private collection. Photo: © Judith Cooper.

 The three luxury makers embraced Art Nouveau in varying degrees—Rene Lalique and Louis Comfort Tiffany on the cutting edge; Fabergé worked in several styles; Charles Lewis Tiffany remained a traditionalist.  

When walking through the galleries at the Legion, it is hard to distinguish objects that were actually shown at the Paris world’s exhibition from those produced during that period.  According to curators Stephen Harrison and Emmanuel Ducamp, who have been researching this for years, verification of the actual objects that were on display has been a difficult task, especially so for  because little information was retained.  The best sources have been photographs taken of the various booths and of objects and also sales receipts and correspondence. 

Fabergé: Beyond Eggs

Peter Carl Fabergé of St. Petersburg was at his peak at Exposition Universelle of 1900 where he displayed all the exquisite imperial Easter eggs he and his craftsmen had made, plus a selection of other luxurious objects, and was awarded the Legion d’Honneur.   Fabergé was the most conservative of the big three, catering primarily to the tastes of the Russian and British royal families and to international clients such as the King of Siam.  He used a greater variety of precious and semi-precious stones than any other jeweler in history and the Czar’s patronage gave him access to exquisite and rare Russian hardstones from Imperial quarries in the Urals and Atai Mountains.  Sapphires, emeralds and rubies were usually en cabochon (not faceted) and diamonds were almost always rose cut.  His enameling techniques were unparalleled, especially the finishes he achieved: opaque, semipolished or brilliant, or color effects which varied according to the angel of light or vision.  Refinement is the distinctive characteristic of all his work: one object alone might have four differnt shades of gold, blended and contrasted exquisitely with the colors of the gems and enamels he chose.

The 7 Fabergé eggs on display at this exhibition wonderfully illustrate the competing push-pull factors at play between historical revival styles and the beginnings of modernism around the turn of the century.  Fabergé maintained a foot in both design camps:  some of his designs were executed the Art Nouveau style such as the “Imperial Pansy Egg,”  while others such as the “Imperial Blue Serpent Egg Clock” were done in Louis XVI taste from 18th Century France.  His complete mastery of historical styles was so proficient that he could readily adapt the very best elements from the past while keeping aspects of his pieces attractively modern. 

The well-known story behind the exquisite ornamental Imperial eggs is that they were commissioned by Czar Alexander III in 1885 and presented to his czarina, Maria Feodorovna, yearly at Easter up until the Russian Revolution.  After Alexander died, his son Czar Nicholas II continued the tradition with gifts of eggs to his mother and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna.  Together, father and son commissioned 56 eggs in total.  Fabergé had to always best himself and over the years his eggs, which always related thematically to the Imperial family or to scenes from Russia important to the family, become more and more elaborate with an array of dizzying surprises inside.   

House of Fabergé (Russian, 1846 - 1918), Mikhail Perkhin, workmaster. Imperial Blue Serpent Egg, (Gold, blue guilloche enamel, opalescent white enamel, diamonds, sapphires, 1887). H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco.

House of Fabergé (Russian, 1846 - 1918), Mikhail Perkhin, workmaster. Imperial Blue Serpent Egg, (Gold, blue guilloche enamel, opalescent white enamel, diamonds, sapphires, 1887). H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco.

One of Fabergé’s most beloved eggs is the famous Art Nouveau style “Imperial Pansy Egg,” given in 1899 to Maria Feodorovna.  This stunning green egg in nephrite, a form of Siberian jade, has tender branches of twisted gold from which appliqué pansies in enamel and diamonds seem to grow.  The treat found inside is executed in a more traditionally historical design—a large white heart with a border of diamonds sitting on an easel; affixed are 11 red enamel medallions like holly berries that click open to show miniature portraits of the members of the imperial family.  The family lent the egg back to Fabergé so that it could be shown at the 1900 Paris exhibition.   

The more traditional “Imperial Blue Serpent Egg” is actually a clock with a rotating dial—a snake’s tongue marks the hour—and was inspired by a fantastic French desk clock by Jean André Lepaute from about 1785.   The midnight blue enamel egg with gold garlands and diamonds was originally presented on Easter in 1887 to Maria Feodorovna and later owned by Princess Grace of Monaco.  Prince Rainier III of Monaco received the egg as gift in 1974 from Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos and it became one of Princess Grace’s favorite objects, adorning her desk in her private study.  When we consider how cherished these objects were, it is remarkable that the Dowager Empress lent this egg, along with other treasures back to Fabergé to show at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. 

Also on display is the Fabergé “1902 Kelch Rocaille Egg” owned by Fine Arts Museum Board of Trustees President Diane B. “DeDe” B. Wilsey.  

House of Fabergé (Russian, 1846 – 1920).  Imperial Lilies-of-the-Valley Basket, St. Petersburg, (Yellow and green gold, silver, nephrite, pearl, rose-cut diamonds, 1896).  Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art; on loan from the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation.

House of Fabergé (Russian, 1846 – 1920). Imperial Lilies-of-the-Valley Basket, St. Petersburg, (Yellow and green gold, silver, nephrite, pearl, rose-cut diamonds, 1896). Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art; on loan from the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation.

 The 7 Kelch eggs were modeled after the Imperial Eggs and were all created by Michael Perkhin, Fabergé’s second head work master between 1898 and 1904.  They are as fine, if not even more sumptuous that those in the Imperial series.  The 1902 rocaille egg is made of translucent green enamel adorned with gold rococo cartouches, platinum flowers set with diamonds and varicolored gold palms, also set with diamonds.  The heart surprise picture frame is made of gold, rose-cut diamonds, and rose and white enamel.  Mrs. Wilsey keeps a portrait of her beloved dog in the diamond studded frame.

Fabergé and his craftsmen also created a wide range of personal luxury items and whimsical objects coveted by European aristocrats–all kinds of little boxes, small animal sculptures in semiprecious materials decorated with gold and gems, umbrella handles, cigarette cases, flowering branches set in vases and baskets, clocks and mechanical pieces.   One of his finest creations is the masterwork “Imperial Lilies of the Valley Basket” a basket of lilies of valley of seed pearls nesting in moss of spun gold with delicate leaves of carved stone.  It was presented to Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna by the merchants of Nizhny Novgorod as a coronation gift in 1896 and became her favorite object by Fabergé; she kept it on her desk until the 1917 Revolution.  Fabergé borrowed it back and took it to the 1900 exposition in Paris where it was a sensation.

One of Fabergé’s most popular works at the turn of the century was a delicate “Dandelion Puff Ball” whose real-looking powdery fluff was actually asbestos fiber fixed on a thread of gold with a small uncut diamonds at the edge.  His inspiration was the Hermitage’s collections of flowers cut in precious stones made for Catherine the Great and her aunt.  The Legion of Honor has an entire case of flowers carved of rare hardstones from Russian Siberia and the Urals, each flower exquisite in its endearing simplicity.

Tiffany & Co. (American, 1837-present), Paulding Farnham (American, 1859-1927), designer.  Iris Brooch.  Pink tourmalines, green garnets, platinum, c. 1900-1901.  Primavera Gallery, NY.  Photo:  Howard Agriesti, the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Tiffany & Co. (American, 1837-present), Paulding Farnham (American, 1859-1927), designer. Iris Brooch. Pink tourmalines, green garnets, platinum, c. 1900-1901. Primavera Gallery, NY. Photo: Howard Agriesti, the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Two Tiffanys: American Upstarts

Visitors to the 1900 Exposition Universal would not have missed the stunning displays of luxury goods in the American pavilion by Charles Lewis Tiffany’s firm, Tiffany and Co., and beside it, the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co. owned by his son, Louis Comfort Tiffany.  The numerous awards won by father and son were reported widely and this critical exposure bolstered demand and secured the reputations of both Tiffanys as a brand source of museum-quality objects.  No greater contrast between the traditional and conservative versus the new Art Nouveau style—could be seen than in the two Tiffany booths. 

In the Tiffany & Co. display, the emphasis was on rare and expensive stones in lavish settings that beckoned the seriously wealthy to buy.  The exhibition at the Legion offers a stunning 5-inch-long “Iris Brooch” in pink tourmalines, green garnets and platinum as well as a breathtaking necklace of large pink tourmalines set in diamonds, both created by Tiffany and Co. for Jeptha Wade II and his wife Ellen, of Cleveland, Ohio.  Wade was the grandson of the founder of the Western Telegraph Union and he and his wife typified the type of wealthy and socially prominent clients that Tiffany cultivated.  Despite heavy American demand, most Europeans thought the flashy American works produced by Tiffany & Co. were vulgar because they were created for business tycoons and not true aristocrats.  An elaborately carved elephant tusk tankard on display clearly crosses the line into excess and humor as it mistakenly features painstakingly carved American-style alligators instead of the African crocodiles that big-game hunters would expect want to see carved on their African elephant ivory trophies.

 Louis Comfort Tiffany’s glass was well known in Europe before the Exposition Universelle of 1900 due to his association with Siegfried Bing, the Paris gallerist whose department store-museum “Salon de l’Art Nouveau” which opened in 1895 gave name to the Art Nouveau movement.  Tiffany was one of the top artists in Bing’s stable of artists and designers and Bing retained exclusive distribution rights over his work up until the 1900 exhibition.  By the time, Tiffany showed at the 1900 exposition, his Favrille (handmade) glass had become legendary to the point that any artwork that had any iridescent quality was called “Tiffany glass,” much like any copy is referred to as a “Xerox.”

Tiffany Studios (American, 1900-1932). Magnolia Window. Lead, stained glass, 1900. State Hermitage Museum.

Tiffany Studios (American, 1900-1932). Magnolia Window. Lead, stained glass, 1900. State Hermitage Museum.

Louis Comfort Tiffany presented his finest work at the Paris fair, creating a special shaded gallery so that viewers could experience hismagnificent glass in all its glory.   His large “Four Seasons” window won a gold medal and his religious masterpiece, “The Flight of the Soul,” was extremely popular. In key parts of his windows, Tiffany and his team of artisans folded and layered glass to create texture, depth and realism. 

Tiffany’s precious “Magnolia Window” which has its U.S. debut at the Legion was displayed in Bing’s separate pavilion just outside the gates of the exhibition on the River Temps.  This window was bought in 1901 and taken to Russia by Baron Alexander von Stieglitz, for his Stieglitz Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts in St. Petersburg, as an example of contemporary art.  After the Russian Revolution and during the Soviet era, the window was in safe storage in the Hermitage but essentially lost to the art world.  This is the first time it has ever been seen.

The window exemplifies Tiffany rewriting the boundaries of conventional stained glass during this period, creating a canvas on which he essentially makes an Impressionist painting in glass.  The woman who actually worked the glass and created the cartoon or framework was Agnes Northrop, one of the many gifted women designers employed by Tiffany Studios.  In fact, the big three all had similar design studio set-ups where they were the master artist but employed a stable of very talented artists who could execute and sometimes extend their creative masterpieces.  The delicate shades of pink, green, and ivory glass selected for the petals and leaves of the tender magnolia blossoms show a remarkable sensitivity for color nuance.

Lalique: Uniquely Poetic Of the big three, Rene Lalique (1860-1945), the Parisian goldsmith and jeweler, had the most profound influence on his peers in Europe.  His booth was the sensation of the 1900 exposition, what everyone came to see—the walls were a glorious bestiary of women  crafted from bronze and glass with arms outstretched and transforming into winged butterflies, flanked by snakes and bats.  Beneath their protective wings were cases of his fabulous jewelry.  Lalique’s poetic interpretations, expressed through Art Nouveau design delivered a groundbreaking message: this not about was jewelry as precious stones but rather about jewelry as art.  Lalique was interested in conveying the mutual interdependence of the human, animal and plant realms and he created wildly provocative and metaphorical works that were a fusion of female, animal and plant in a mystical recognition of nature.

René Lalique (French, 1860-1945). Purse with Two Serpents, 1901-3. Gold, silver, antelope skin, silver thread; 23.1 x 17.9 cm.  Private Collection.

René Lalique (French, 1860-1945). Purse with Two Serpents, 1901-3. Gold, silver, antelope skin, silver thread; 23.1 x 17.9 cm. Private Collection.

Lalique’s designs were embraced by the celebrated actresses of the day, including Sarah Bernhardt and Julia Bartlett whose bold personalities could carry off these strong and often large artworks.  According to scholar Emmanuel Ducamp, who wrote the catalogue essay on Lalique, “The aristocracy backed away saying ‘too much and not enough,’ meaning too loud and the simple materials didn’t have enough value.” 

Lalique’s creativity and reformist vision of woman as earth mother, creator, warrior, and protector went hand in hand with the modernism embraced near the turn of the century in the theatrical repertoire.  Powerful roles for women like Salome, Jeanne d’Arc, Medee, Cleopatra—made impressions that had ripple effects.  The catalogue (p. 128) quotes the critic Plumet musing that Lalique’s jewelry had “a bizarre charm…disturbing, spellbinding, even Satanic.”  In all, a new woman was in the making and feminism was about to pop with Lalique’s designs stirring the pot.

While it was common among the big three to use serpents and insects in their designs, the snake in its various complex contortions was a principle theme of Lalique.  His “Purse with Two Serpents” (1901-03) created for Bernhardt has a clasp of two angry striking serpents cast in silver which guard the contents of the purse.  

According to Stephen Harrison, Lalique’s use of fighting snakes as guardians for the contents of a purse references not only the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but the general mood of titillation that was central to Art Nouveau.  The work’s realism is underscored by the slippery-looking snake skins embroidered into the bag’s surface with silver thread.

René Lalique (French, 1860-1945). Cattleya Orchid Hair Ornament. Carved ivory, horn, gold, enamel on gold, diamonds, 1903-1904. Private collection. Photo: Laurent Sully Jaulmes. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP Paris.

René Lalique (French, 1860-1945). Cattleya Orchid Hair Ornament. Carved ivory, horn, gold, enamel on gold, diamonds, 1903-1904. Private collection. Photo: Laurent Sully Jaulmes. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP Paris.

In the 19th Century, a passion for tropical orchids overtook Europe and people became practically manic in their interest which drove prices to incredible heights. Missions were sent to the tropics for collecting orchids to satisfy this passion for exotic plants.  Lalique’s ability to immortalize the delicate orchid in ivory must have been mesmerizing.  Around the turn of the century, he created a number of orchid hair combs which attest to his complete mastery of the material.  The “Cattleya Orchid Hair Ornament” on display has creamy petals whose lacey ruffled edges are so thin they are translucent. The piece is enhanced by pale green cloisonné leaves with veins of diamonds. 

As soon as mass production and second-rate firms began flooding the market with “Lalique-style” jewels, Lalique himself turned to a new medium–glass and a style that moved way from Art Nouveau’s interpretations of nature to a more abstract and simple form.  One of the reasons that Lalique became perhaps the greatest glassmaker of all times was that he applied his techniques of jewelry-making to glass art and his works conveyed his love of nature, capturing its poetry and enough realistic detail to impress everyone who encountered it. 

Saturday, May 30, the show’s very last weekend, offers “Luxe at the Legion: Divas as Patrons, Collectors”a free program that promises to let you relive la belle epoque in a luxurious day of music, films, lectures, and art.

The catalogue Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique by Stephen Harrison, Emmanuel Ducamp and Jeannine Falino, Yale University Press, is recommended, and provides a wealth of information about jewelry-making and styles at the turn of the century. 

May 16, 2009 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment