I was thrilled to learn that my local art museum, Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, was to stage an exhibition of French jewelry this summer. Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris was the Joslyn’s first jewelry exhibition and their first partnership with a Parisian museum. The exhibition featured 70 pieces of jewelry and luxury accessories and over 100 works on paper from the Petit Palais’ collection. The Petit Palais’ Parisian heritage was an important factor within the exhibition since Paris has been home to a continuous tradition of jewelry production since the Renaissance. Bijoux Parisiens highlighted over 300 years of French jewelry innovation and creativity and placed the precious stones and luxury items in a historical context to emphasize the way in which French jewelry reflects the aristocratic wearer’s position in society and the designer’s creativity. While some of the artifacts spotlighted artists who are lost to history, others pointed to the mastery of France’s famous jewelry maisons such as Boucheron, Cartier, and Van Cleef & Arpels. Through its use of contemporary fashion plates and prints from popular French magazines, Bijoux Parisiens also highlighted the intimate relationship between jewelry and fashion. The sartorial aspect of the exhibition was clear from the beginning as the first section of wall-text was accompanied by an 1884 portrait of a young woman by artist Paul Baudry. The painting’s subject, Madame Louis Singer, wears an off-the-shoulder black gown with delicate ruffles down the skirt and a bustle. The sumptuousness of her dress is enhanced by her jewelry, a diamond and pearl brooch at her bosom, double-strand pearl bracelet, sapphire and diamond ring, and dainty diamond earrings. The combination of Madame Singer’s smart black dress and glittering jewelry announce her as a woman of refined taste and high status.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition began with engravings by Gilles L’Égaré dating to the 1660s. These drawings of various ring and chain designs were produced to train apprentices and mark the artist’s ownership of the designs. The earliest piece in the exhibition was a pendant of gold, enamel, rubies, and pearls. I was struck by the intricacy and scale of this pendant, which was about three inches tall and featured a woman embracing two children, symbolizing the Christian virtue of charity. Both the early drawings and jewelry pieces set the tone for an innovative and ornate exhibition.
There was little evidence of eighteenth-century splendor in the exhibition, but a large portion of Bijoux Parisiens was dedicated to nineteenth-century France and the link between its tumultuous political climate and jewelry aesthetics. Napoleon’s reign ended the repression of luxury during the French Revolution and encouraged the privilege of excess. The renewed production of jewelry, like the visual arts and fashions of the period, featured neoclassical designs and a revival of ancient art. Cameo necklaces, bracelets, and brooches as well as drawings of cameos featured prominently in the exhibition. Cameos in particular were a staple of Napoleon’s court because they alluded to antiquity and displayed wealth while their semi-precious materials were affordable to the aristocrats who were still recovering from the Revolution. Contemporary fashion illustrations from Germany in the exhibition show typical neoclassic, columnar gowns with deep necklines that made for easy display of large cameo necklaces such as the one below.
A wall broke Bijoux Parisiens into two distinctive spaces and appropriately separated twentieth-century artifacts from the earlier jewelry and forced visitors to pass a physical threshold into the turn of the century section of the exhibition. The radically different Art Nouveau style that dominated the turn of the century materialized in Bijoux Parisiens in jewelry and graphite drawings. An amazing selection horn and enamel hair pins and brooches by René Lalique exemplified the natural plant motifs and insect-adorned designs of the new style.
Perhaps my favorite artifacts in Bijoux Parisiens was the selection of color lithographs by George Barbier, Edouard Halouze, George Lepape, and Charles Jacqueau. The prints revealed the synergy between the radical fashions and jewelry designs of the early twentieth century. Works by Lepape from the Gazette du Bonton from 1912-1915 featured Paul Poiret’s radically simple and exotic styles such as his ‘lamp-shade’ dress and turban looks accessorized with equally elegant bangles and long necklace strands. The First World War slowed French jewelry production and wiped away aristocratic dynasties, leading to a new social order and new design aesthetics. Color lithographs from the 1920s expressed the new, modernized forms embraced by French jewelry designers. An ad for Van Cleef & Arpels illustrated by Edouard Halouze presents a woman surveying her Van Cleef & Arpels collection. The simple strands of pearls and bracelets she wears compliments the striking simplicity of her low-cut, bright red dress and in-vogue cropped hairstyle.
I adored this exhibition (so much so that I visited three times) and although the exhibition is now closed so I cannot suggest visiting, its display of French jewelry innovation sheds an important light on the intimate relationship between fashion, jewelry design and French history.
All photos by the author