Modern jewelry giants are being celebrated by art museums on both coasts.
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Nothing lures patrons through museum doors like exquisite jewelry. It’s simply true, and it’s been true at least since 1977, when the Victoria & Albert Museum in London staged a legendary survey of the output of Carl Fabergé. The peerless Russian workshop performed its magic again last year at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, Calif. “Decorative arts have always been a definite crowd-pleaser for museums,” says Tim Adams, an independent art historian and curatorial consultant in decorative arts for the Bowers, which hosts “A Quest for Beauty: The Art of Van Cleef & Arpels” through February 15. “It seems to be more and more popular now.” In the first three and a half weeks of the Van Cleef show, 15,500 people came to see it; the Bowers estimates that a total of 45,000 will visit during its entire run.
Assembling a museum-quality show of jewelry, especially one that is focused on a single house or jeweler that still exists and is producing new pieces, poses a stark curatorial challenge. Three American museums are now demonstrating different—and entirely satisfying—ways to accomplish the task: The Bowers, with its Van Cleef offering; the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco with “The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita and Beyond, 1950–1990,” which runs through February 17; and the Metropolitan Museum in New York with “Jewels by JAR,” the first American retrospective of the works of Joel Arthur Rosenthal (known professionally as JAR), which concludes on March 9.
Each of the jewelers has made unique contributions to the craft. The innovations of Van Cleef & Arpels, the Paris-based house named for Alfred Van Cleef and his wife, Estelle Arpels, in 1906, include the minaudière, a petite vanity case that strays farthest from the groupings of glistening rocks that characterize a typical headliner jewelry exhibit. It comes with a backstory as pretty as the thing itself: In the late 1920s, Estelle’s brother, Charles, encountered Florence Jay Gould, third wife of Frank Jay Gould, the son of the notorious robber baron. Charles couldn’t help but notice that Gould was toting her makeup around in a Lucky Strikes cigarette tin. “It was not really appropriate for a woman of her stature,” Adams says, laughing as he described Charles’ reaction to Gould’s makeshift evening bag. The name for the jewelry house’s solution comes from the word minauder, a distinctly French word for the talent that distinctly French women have for navigating life’s social niceties with effortless grace. Another trademark of Van Cleef & Arpels, the mystery setting, receives its due, as well. The setting calls for selecting stones that match closely in color and then custom-cutting and slotting them into place via a tongue-and-groove system that helps conceal the metal that holds the stones. Mystery settings are expensive in more ways than the obvious; about half the rubies selected don’t withstand the process of cutting and setting, and the losses are worse with emeralds, a notoriously hard-to-handle stone. Roughly three out of four emeralds chosen for a mystery setting break before they reach their destiny. “It takes one to two years to make a mystery setting,” Adams says, “but when you finally get them, they’re exquisite.”
Bulgari, which opened its first boutique in Rome in 1884, distinguished itself in the post-World War II years by moving away from the dominant Parisian style of jewelry for its own markedly Italian vision. The house’s choices have been validated by how widely and deeply their designs permeated the culture. The 1970s craze for medallions on gold chains is a pale imitation of Bulgari’s refined approach of building jewelry around antique coins. Incorporating coins into jewelry dates at least to Roman times, so Bulgari’s reintroduction of the practice worked as eye candy and brain candy. The idea came from Nicola Bulgari, who collected coins in his childhood and never lost his appreciation for them. Martin Chapman, curator of European decorative arts and sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, to which the de Young belongs, says that Bulgari chose significant antique coins and did not fuse them directly into the jewelry; the house respected the coins’ integrity as beautiful objects in their own right. Speaking of a 1978 necklace that contained a Florentine Renaissance coin in a shield-shaped diamond frame on a gold chain, Chapman says, “It’s very carefully made so the coin is not harmed in any way. It’s just held by mounts.” Another huge hit came in the 1980s with the Parentisi collection of modular gold jewelry, an inspired design of the sort that Andy Warhol had in mind when he declared Bulgari “the most important museum of contemporary art.”
One of Bulgari’s greatest contributions is among the hardest for a 21st-century audience to see, except in an exhibition like this one. Before World War II, jewelry-wearing protocol was clear: gold was proper when the sun was up, and the starry sparkle of diamonds and platinum were for the night, the domain of evening gowns, white ties, and tails. Bulgari took aim at the old rules with glittering tours-de-force such as a gold bib necklace with matching earrings. Finished in 1965, this grand evening wear piece not only mixes “daytime” gold with “nighttime” diamonds, it emphasizes colored stones, combines more than one type of colored stone (green emeralds, purple amethysts, and white diamonds), and includes turquoise, which isn’t nearly as valuable as the other three. The gems’ rounded cabochon cut is also characteristic of the Italian house’s style. Bulgari helped erode another once-firm boundary by designing high-end jewelry to complement casual clothes that no sane socialite would don for a charity ball. “Bulgari had to move with the times in order to survive,” Chapman says. “It seems to have an extraordinary ability to change with the times.”
Bronx-raised Rosenthal’s road to becoming jewelry’s greatest living auteur ran through Bulgari, where he worked for a few years in the 1970s. He declined the house’s offer to relocate him from the New York boutique to the Paris one and instead struck out on his own, initially taking a space near the Place de Vendôme, the Parisian street that is as important to jewelers as Rodeo Drive is to shoppers, before ultimately moving onto it. After completing an undergraduate degree at Harvard in two years, he embarked on a self-made course of study that included apprenticeships at the fashion houses of Fabiani in Rome and Christian Dior and Nina Ricci in Paris, as well as a stint working with an actual auteur, Otto Preminger, on the film Hurry Sundown. Throughout, Rosenthal and his partner, Pierre Jeannet, marinated themselves in the art world, visiting museums, dealers, galleries, and auctions, as well as collecting antique jewelry and occasionally selling some on to Bulgari and Parisian contacts. By 1978, he was ready to launch himself as JAR, designer of fabulously alluring and spectacular pieces of jewelry.
Rosenthal is almost comically allergic to publicity, but Jane Adlin, associate curator in the Met’s department of modern and contemporary art, says that convincing him to participate in his first American museum retrospective was “not complicated or difficult. He loves the Met, and he’s a Bronx boy. There was no convincing. It was a mutual admiration.” Rosenthal’s jewelry is very much his own; it is hard to point to any one piece and identify influences that come from gazing into Tiffany’s windows as a boy, or toiling for Bulgari as a grown man. While nothing displayed in the Met’s JAR show is autobiographical or personally revealing, Rosenthal’s passion for magnificent stones, be they precious, semi-precious, or barely precious, shines through. The zebra-head brooch from 1987, fashioned from a striped piece of agate, is a paean to the joy of seeing beauty in a chunk of raw material and knowing exactly how to reveal it to the rest of the world. “JAR creates works of art like a painter or a sculptor,” Adlin says. “If someone buys it, great. It’s very divorced from the day-to-day nuts and bolts of buying jewelry. It’s not Cartier. It’s just different.”
Rosenthal designs his pieces but does not execute them, relying instead on skilled artisans to realize his creations, some of which are devilishly complex to produce. One of JAR’s most stunning triumphs is a 2001 pair of brooches in the form of lilacs, one pinkish purple and one white, which feature 21,000 individual stones (the larger of the two has 11,000, and the smaller has 10,000). “I think you understand it [the difficulty of their manufacture] viscerally, but without holding them, looking at them, and studying them, you may not understand the huge amount of work, expertise, and finesse it takes to pull it off,” Adlin says. The Colored Balls necklace from 1999 is another of JAR’s achievements that was a challenge to create. For each ball, he selected a blend of gems in differing gradations of color—for example, combining tourmalines, rubies, garnets, and other stones in the red ball—to achieve the overall effect. “Subtlety is the name of the game,” Adlin says. “You’re stunned when you realize that 10 different stones make up one ball.”
The trio of exhibitions also demonstrate how even the best jewelry is merely a bundle of shiny rocks bound by metal or string if they are not worn by the right woman. Before the late 19th century, jewelers who wanted to reach the summit of their careers had to drape their masterworks on the bodies of royalty. The rise of Hollywood in the 20th century changed all that. Crowned heads still mattered, but actresses mattered more (and one, Grace Kelly, famously jumped the fence, going from actress to princess). Celebrity clients receive attention within the Bowers and the De Young shows. Most are time-tested names such as Kelly’s; virtually none are contemporary stars. As Chapman explains, there’s a good reason for this. “Sometimes, it takes time to find out who they [the owners and purchasers] were. The husbands or the buyers didn’t want people to know what they paid, and it was worse if it [the piece] was for a mistress. There was a great need for secrecy. It was only revealed with the passage of time.”
Prominent 20th century women suggested design ideas to jewelers and commissioned pieces for themselves, scoffing at the notion of waiting for a man to read her mind and make the purchase for her. Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, suggested to the powers that be at Van Cleef & Arpels in 1938 that they might make a piece that incorporated a zipper. It took the house 13 years to master the thorny technical issues involved, but in 1951, it unveiled its golden Zip necklace that could transform into a bracelet. Actress Marlene Dietrich turned to Van Cleef & Arpels for help with resetting an outdated-looking ruby-and-diamond item she owned. She wanted a show-stopper that also served the practical function of covering up a scar on her wrist. The result, a bracelet dubbed the Jarretière for its resemblance to a garter, became part of her costume for the Hitchcock film Stage Fright.
In enjoying these exhibitions, one conclusion becomes unavoidable: If you styled yourself as an elite jeweler in the mid- to late 20th century and Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t wearing your goods, you may as well not bother hanging your shingle out. Few women throughout history have so famously loved and worn jewelry. She even wrote a memoir in 2002 that focused on that aspect of her life, titled Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry. Though the text makes no pretenses of scholarship and the tome itself is largely an excuse to revel in the staggering beauty of her collection, it shows how she evolved from a giddy recipient of glorious gifts to a savvy spender of her own money and finally reached a level of knowledge and confidence that led her to imagine and design pieces for herself.
In that book, she stated that her jewelry was destined for auction, and after she died in 2011, Christie’s fulfilled her wish. The auction of her jewelry collectively fetched more than $130 million, and gave Bulgari and Van Cleef & Arpels the opportunity to acquire pieces of theirs that she had possessed. Among the Taylors in the Bowers exhibit is the Barquerolles necklace, a diamond, emerald, and yellow gold piece that converts into a pair of bracelets and a clip. Taylor knew it as her “granny present,” bestowed upon her by Richard Burton in 1971 when she learned that she would become a grandmother. The Bulgari show captures the range of her tastes, from a platinum, sapphire, and diamond sautoir, a type of long necklace, made in 1969; a coin sautoir from 1975; and a gold, ruby, and diamond necklace with a heart-shaped pendant that the Italian house contributed to a 2002 auction she arranged to benefit her namesake AIDS-fighting charity.
JAR is the exception that proves the Taylor rule. The pair of ball earrings that he made for her in 2001 is not among the 300-plus items in the Met exhibit, which (rightly) keeps the emphasis on his artistry rather than his clientele. But Taylor and her commission rates a mention in the catalogue, and the earrings, covered with tightly packed horizontal bands of diamonds as well as sapphires in shades of violet, blue, and green that complemented her magnificent violet-blue eyes, are the first piece of jewelry pictured in her 2002 memoir, meriting a full page of their own before the title page. The foreword, written by François Curiel of Christie’s, singles out the JAR earrings, too, with Curiel saying, “I suppose I should have guessed, but I never expected Elizabeth Taylor to know him.”
By 2001, Taylor didn’t need JAR, and JAR didn’t need Taylor; he had long since established himself with the ideal audience for his creations. It wasn’t money or fashion that drew the two together—it was a powerful shared love of jewelry and all the possibilities of the jeweler’s art. Ironically, museum shows defy Taylor’s philosophy about jewelry. She felt it important to wear her pieces, and was generous with people who asked to try them on; sharing her jewelry with a rapt audience thrilled her. One of the reasons she sent her collection to auction was that she didn’t like the idea of her prizes sitting under glass on display. As charming as it would be for the institutions to drape female docents in millions of dollars’ worth of earrings, necklaces, bangles, brooches, and rings, and allow visitors to handle and try them on, à la Taylor, it’s never going to happen.
But these shows could capture the imaginations of the next Bulgari, Van Cleef, Arpels, or JAR, and sow a love of gems and the desire to learn how to compose them into masterpieces. In the meantime, it’s perfectly all right to stand before a vitrine, lose yourself in the sparkle and shine, and dream about what might come next.