If you are blue and don’t know where to go to, head toward the sparkling jewels on view now at the Flagler Museum.
Few times has the extravagant gilded-age Whitehall mansion been upstaged by an exhibit running on the second floor. If it feels like the noise levels go up a fair number of decibels upon entering the upstairs galleries, that’s because there are more than 200 conversation pieces of handcrafted art jewelry on display.
A Renaissance-style pendant (1884-1890) made of gold, amethyst and enamel and featuring a translucent purple hue sets the tone for Maker & Muse: Women and Early Twentieth Century Art Jewelry. Elaborate, bold and unapologetically dramatic, the jewelry designs – many featuring semiprecious stones and enamelwork – make their entrance in groups housed inside glass cases assisted by a blue light.
The contrast with the bright green walls is such that, more than once, intricate rings, pendants, necklaces, brooches, and tiaras appear as precious glowing fish in fancy, waterless tanks. Not surprisingly, many draw from nature, animals and imagined hybrid creatures. When not wearing them, the strongest force inspiring them was often the maker.
As its name indicates, the show running through May 26 is a celebration of women’s multifaceted contributions to this art form, particularly in France, Austria-Germany, Great Britain, New York, and Chicago. Their creations sit along those of renowned male artists including Louis Comfort Tiffany and René Lalique to convey their similarities. But it is the peculiarities of each individual artistic voice and the passions driving their form that make the case for a visit. Maker & Muse wastes no time introducing us to the anima of jewelry art making.
The very first three pieces on view, including that purple pendant and one aquamarine necklace from 1890, are by Mrs. Philip Charlotte Newman, the first English woman to be acknowledged as a jeweler in the 19th century. Newman rarely repeated her designs. As the country’s first professional woman studio jeweler, she encouraged many other female artists to venture into this predominantly male-dominated sphere. Following the death of her mentor, jeweler John Brogden, Newman set up her own workshop on Savile Row. Even after managing some success, she answered to her husband’s name and stamped her creations “Mrs. N.”
Mrs. W.H. (Elinor) Klapp, the only American woman featured at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 under her own name in the jewelry category, gifts us an exquisite brooch (c. 1895-1914) made of carved moonstone, silver or platinum. Set between intricate shiny wings appears the elongated figure of a tunic-wearing angel on a mission. It is minimalist compared to most pieces on display but nevertheless one of the stars of the show. The wife of a successful merchant, Klapp is known for her use of Native American stones, in mounts of gold or silver. Although she conceived the designs for her pieces, she had others build them.
The gradual progress in this recognition road is evidenced by a charming 1922 piece titled Dancers Pendant (silver, cloisonné, and enamel) and attributed to Harold and Phoebe Stabler. Husband-and-wife partnerships such as this one exposed the role women may have been quietly playing all along. Sharing the credit was a place to start, although it didn’t satiate the stronger voices.
As many of their male counterparts, female jewelers drew from the natural world. This is the case with Peacock Clip (c. 1930) which features silver, gold, moonstone, sapphire, and pearl. Its creator, English jeweler Dorrie Nossiter, was one of the most recognized female voices precisely for this colorful arrangement of gemstones and curves, which in this case mimics the range of colors and feathers shaping the bird’s fan-like tail.
Even those creations attributed to male designers carry a romantic, feminine undertone. Looking at Joseph A. Hodel’s Venus Necklace – showcasing silver alloy, gold alloy, enamel, fire opal and pearl – we sense the scent of the woman evoking it was never too far away. Here, the link to Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is obvious. Meanwhile, a pendant attributed to Austrian jeweler Josef Maria Olbrich featuring silver, enamel and amethyst teases a less immediate and more organic association. Think female anatomy.
Among the pieces paying tribute to women as muse is Mermaid on Coral Brooch (c. 1900), which depicts the long-haired mystical creature reclining on a piece of coral. In design, workmanship and mix of materials (gilded silver, coral, and pearl), the work recalls the style of French Art Nouveau. This piece, however, represents how the Jugendstil (youth style) manifested in Germany and Austria and is by German goldsmith Karl Rothmüller.
Equally intent on pushing artistic skill and defying the limits of creativity is Renè Lalique’s Winged Sylph Brooch (c. 1900), which is housed in the second gallery room. The sensual whimsical qualities that give Lalique’s creations away can be seen in the daring pairing of a female nude and an insect’s wings. Gold, enamel and freshwater pearl breathe life into the fantastical morphed being, which was likely not worn in public.
The famous French designer was concerned with the visual message rather than the tangible value of his works, which explains his use of glass, horn and ivory among materials not typically employed in high-end pieces. Two watercolor drawings of Lalique’s designs are included in the show. For a less erotic interpretation of his, see the meticulous panel brooch sitting nearby which features nine violet bellflowers, made of gold, enamel and diamond. It is dreamy.
Walking three rooms filled with out-of-this-world pieces of jewelry does something to the fittingly green color of the walls. If it behaved like one of those mood rings, it would start turning brighter or darker depending on the level of envy. On second thought, it might turn pink.
Maker & Muse: Women and Early Twentieth Century Art Jewelry runs through May 26 at the Flagler Museum, Palm Beach. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 Sundays. Closed Mondays and holidays. Admission: $18. Call 655-2833 or visit flaglermuseum.us.