In one gallery an ornate gold, ruby and pearl pendant dating to around 1590 features the Greek virtue Charity flanked by two children symbolizing Faith and Hope. In another, a sleek gold 1950s-era chain called a “gas pipe necklace” is intertwined with glittering diamonds and platinum.
The two works have a remarkably different aesthetic, but they’re equally opulent and dramatic, both ultimate statement pieces that undoubtedly showcased their well-heeled owners to stunning effect.
Displayed in the first and last galleries, the two pieces are the bookends of almost 70 breathtaking items spanning 360 years in “Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris,” opening this weekend at the Joslyn Art Museum.
Complemented by 100 design drawings, prints, fashion plates and photographs, they tell the story of evolving trends in jewelry from the tail end of the Renaissance through just after World War II.
The exhibition is a fascinating glimpse into how tastes evolved with the times. It’s also not solely focused on the razzle, dazzle, sparkle and shine of precious stones, although there are plenty of glittering diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds showcased throughout.
“So many of these pieces aren’t about the gems,” said Dana Cowen, the Joslyn’s associate curator of European art. “They’re about the craftsmanship and the small, delicate techniques that give prominence and service to the objects.” Those objects include more pendants and necklaces as well as bracelets, earrings, hat pins, cuff links, diadems, hair combs, vanity cases and other decorative items used to convey wealth and status.
Portraying those two qualities was a challenge that pushed jewelers to explore the limits of their craft. The French Revolution ended gaudy consumption, so gems were removed from settings and often sold.
When Napoleon crowned himself emperor, the restored aristocracy needed jewelry to go to court but didn’t always have adequate funds to purchase it. Once Napoleon fell from power, the ascendant members of the French bourgeoisie wanted to establish themselves as the social elite. While wealthy, they, too, had budget constraints.
That meant jewelers — and the famous jewelry houses like Boucheron, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier that rose to prominence during the 19th century — had to get creative.
“A parure is a great example of how they had to think economically,” Cowen said. A French word, parure means “set,” and refers to groups of jewelry that included matching pieces like a necklace, bracelet and earrings. Items could sometimes be removed and swapped for other purposes. Think taking a pendant off a necklace and wearing it as a brooch, or affixing earrings to a bracelet as charms.
“Jewelers also had to consider their materials,” Cowen said, gesturing to a luminous gold set dubbed “Romantic Parure” from approximately 1830. “The jeweler took a strand of gold and mixed it with brass, which made it harder, so he could intricately emboss it. The technique provides texture, catches the light and gleams to give it a sense of wealth.”
Other tricks involved using semiprecious stones to achieve a big bling effect. If a client wanted white gems, but diamonds were too costly, tourmaline found its way into settings. If statement pieces demanded large stones, colorful amethysts provided sparkling drama.
More unique approaches included adding natural materials like iridescent beetle wings to a ram brooch and chain or swan feathers to a delicate dandelion pin.
“They also imparted a little exoticism,” Cowen said.
Tastes changed constantly. Napoleon’s reign introduced a rage for all things neoclassical.
“Cameos hearkened to ancient Rome, so the fad for cameos was wild,” the curator said. “New ones could be made from hard stones, but enamel could also be used to make faux cameos. Artists used shading to give the illusion of depth.”
The neoclassical craze was also driven by archaeological excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the removal of antiquities to places like the British Museum and the Louvre, where jewelers derived inspiration for creating pieces based on Greek, Roman and Persian artifacts.
One design in the Joslyn exhibition, a mid-19th-century gold, enamel and onyx necklace and earring parure, borrowed heavily from ancient Syria. Another, a gold, diamond and enamel bracelet from the same time period, re-created a chariot scene from the Parthenon.
Ancient influences eventually lost favor, and jewelers moved away from historical styles around 1900, Cowen said.
“They began to innovate and move into the modern age,” she said. “René Lalique in particular was one of the most important designers in art nouveau. You still see diamonds, pearls and enamel work, but he used new materials like steel and aluminum and looked to nature for motifs.”
Women during the 19th century adorned themselves with cameos of Roman or Greek goddesses. Their early-20th-century counterparts turned to flowers, birds and insects.
“You think it would be horrible to wear grasshoppers and beetles, but women wanted them because they were so beautiful and the craftsmanship was so good,” Cowen said.
By the 1920s the flowery swirls that were the hallmark of art nouveau gave way to the sleeker streamlines of art deco, with Charles Jacqueau, the “Picasso of jewelry design,” defining the style by looking both forward and back. Hired by Cartier to create designs that would compete against other leading jewelry houses, Jacqueau turned to the 18th century for inspiration. But he also was an avid consumer of contemporary culture. Both featured prominently in his designs.
“He’s interesting because he carried around a book he called his ‘Ideas Bank’ and filled it with inspiration,” Cowen said. “He looked at Chinese, Japanese and Persian art. He’d go to a ball or visit the zoo. He went to the Ballets Russes and saw ‘Afternoon of a Faun.’ The lead dancer was wearing a panther skin. Jacqueau started incorporating a panther into Cartier’s designs, and it became the trademark.”
The drawings, prints and photographs that round out the exhibition offer fascinating glimpses into the process behind the creation of many items on display. They also show how jewelers generated designs, how women wore pieces with different styles of dress and even how top jewelry houses marketed themselves to clients.
“During the Renaissance, artists engraved their designs to promote themselves at court and get commissions,” Cowen said. “In the 20th century, Van Cleef & Arpels had an ad where you see a woman trying to choose which piece of jewelry to wear for the evening. She has all this jewelry — how does she decide?”