As one of the twentieth century's most gifted artists, Jean Schlumberger created fantastic designs that transformed nature's wonders into objects of mesmerizing beauty. With gold and dazzling gemstones as his palette, he captured the glory of flowers, exotic birds and mythical creatures in bejeweled statements unrivaled in the world of jewelry design.
Though cast in stones and precious metals, Schlumberger's is a world of energy and movement. Jellyfish with sapphire tentacles and jeweled dolphins undulate with the rhythms of the sea; glittering petals and leaves are stirred by gentle breezes. “I try to make everything look as if it were growing, uneven, organic,” he once said. “I want to capture the irregularity of the universe.”
Jean Schlumberger (1907–1987) was born into a prominent family of textile manufacturers in Alsace, France. As a child, he demonstrated a talent for drawing, which was not encouraged by his parents, who sent him to Berlin in the 1930s to pursue a career in banking. He developed neither taste nor talent for numbers, however, and soon moved to Paris where he could indulge his love of the arts.
Schlumberger began designing jewelry using porcelain flowers and gemstones mounted as clips. He gave them to friends such as Marina, the Duchess of Kent, who became a lifelong champion of Schlumberger's work. Elsa Schiaparelli, the famous couturier, soon discovered the young designer's talents and hired him to create costume jewelry and buttons for her collections.
Schlumberger's first design in precious metal and gemstones—a gold cigarette lighter in the shape of a gold fish with gemstone eyes and flexible tail—became a classic. In 1941 he created the Trophée clip for Diana Vreeland, legendary editor of Vogue. Now in the Tiffany & Co. Archives, the clip features an oval-cut amethyst and ruby shield with a warrior's chain mail scaled with diamonds, and longbow, arrows, spear, and ruby-set sword in blue enamel.
Schlumberger enlisted in the French army during World War II and was evacuated at Dunkirk, eventually making his way from England to New York. By chance, he crossed paths with a childhood friend, Nicolas Bongard, who was designing handmade buttons. In 1947 the pair opened a small salon and soon Schlumberger's clips of jeweled birds and sea creatures were seen on the most fashionable women. Schlumberger became the designer of choice for such glamorous women as Babe Paley, Elizabeth Taylor, and Countess Mona Bismarck. For his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy purchased the famous Two Fruit clip in rubies and diamonds, which is in the permanent collection of the Kennedy Library.
In 1956 Walter Hoving, chairman of Tiffany & Co., asked Schlumberger and Bongard to join the company as vice presidents. A special design studio and salon were decorated to the designer's specifications. With an unlimited supply of the finest colored stones now at his fingertips, Schlumberger created some of the most fabulous jewelry designs of his career.
A superb draftsman, Schlumberger began each design with a drawing to discover the purity and grace of the natural forms that caught his eye. The sketch, he said, also serves as “the only link between the three members of that complex and disparate trio formed by the client, craftsman and creator.” A detailed drawing was then produced and the final design was created in precious metal and gemstones.
Schlumberger often traveled to Bali, India and Thailand to fire his imagination and create his own magical mementos, such as the exotic Oiseau de Paradis clip with yellow beryl, amethysts, emeralds, and sapphires; and the Sea Bird clip that combines a bird's beak and head with a serpent's body in pavé diamonds, rubies, and spike-like 18k gold plumage.
Schlumberger's work is also distinguished by a strong sculptural quality, which is beautifully embodied in his Frame clip, a center sapphire enclosed with pavé diamonds and draped with a diamond baguette ribbon. This strength of design unifies the varied elements in his most intricate pieces. As in nature, every flower, leaf, bird and fish is unique, a true Schlumberger original shaped into a well-integrated work of art.
A great innovator, Schlumberger brought back the 19th century art of paillonné enamel, a process of achieving translucent colors by laying enamel over 18k gold leaf. His magnificent enamel bracelets, in vivid red, blue and green spiked with gold, became the signature accessory of every stylish woman's wardrobe. Jacqueline Kennedy was so often photographed wearing the enamel bracelets, the press called them “Jackie bracelets.”
The worlds of art and fashion have celebrated Schlumberger's brilliant career with numerous honors and awards. He was the first jewelry designer to win the coveted Fashion Critics’ Coty Award in 1958. The French government made him a Chevalier of the National Order of Merit in 1977. A 1986 exhibition marked the designer’s 30th anniversary with the company. And in 1995 the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, which houses Schlumberger’s original designs, honored him with a retrospective entitled, “Un Diamant dans la Ville.” This posthumous tribute marked only the third time a jewelry designer had been so honored by the museum. The world's largest collection of Schlumberger objects was given by Paul Mellon to The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts permanent collection.
In later years, Jean Schlumberger returned to Paris, the city that awakened his artistic soul. He died in 1987, at the age of eighty, leaving a legacy of bejeweled flowers, ocean life and birds of wonder.
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