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AMNH’s Beautiful Creatures Are Fiercely Compelling

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The new Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals at New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) opens this Saturday, a much-anticipated event that JCK’s Rob Bates covered in this in-depth interview with the exhibit’s curator, George E. Harlow.

You’ll come for the mineral specimens, sure, but…I think you’ll end up staying for Beautiful Creatures, the long-awaited accompanying fine jewelry exhibit that will be on view through Sept. 19.

Housed in the Melissa and Keith Meister Gallery, which will serve as the gem halls’ rotating exhibition space, Beautiful Creatures was curated by Marion Fasel, editor-in-chief of The Adventurine, as well as a noted jewelry historian, author, and trend authority.

Mounted in sculptural glass cubes and along the walls, the exhibit’s more than 100 jewels are organized into three categories: creatures of air, featuring butterflies, dragonflies, bees, birds, and more; creatures of the sea, with fish, seahorses, crocodiles, and starfish, among others; and creatures of land, with snakes, lizards, tortoises, panthers, tigers, elephants, giraffes, zebras, and lions.

AMNH Beautiful Creatures exhibit
Entrance to the Beautiful Creatures exhibit in the Melissa and Keith Meister Gallery (photo: D. Finnin/©AMNH)

Encompassing masterworks by Cartier, Boivin, Van Cleef & Arpels, Tiffany & Co., Belperron, Sterlé, Stephen Webster, JAR, David Webb, Hemmerle, and many other big-name jewelers and designers, the collection spans 150 years of jewelry history—and dovetails with the founding of the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1869.

“All of the animals are animals you will find elsewhere in the museum,” said Fasel in her official remarks during last Thursday’s press preview. “They are all creatures of the wild. They were also chosen because they illustrate points about gems, innovation of materials, and many of them reflect cultural moments or historical events.”

Fasel shared many insights and tales, but my favorite was a delightful story about the origin of Verdura’s famous lion’s paw shell brooches. Designer Fulco di Verdura purchased the stripy shells from the AMNH gift shop in 1940: “He took them across Central Park and had his craftsman set them with diamonds along the crevices of the shell, and he rather poetically thought it looked like water receding from the shell and shining in the sun.”

AMNH Verdura shell brooch
One of two lion’s paw shell brooches by Verdura that enjoys pride of place in a case of meticulously rendered tentacled and scaly aquatic marvels (photo: © Sotheby’s)
AMNH Beautiful Creatures butterflies
The wall of dragonflies and butterflies includes several examples by Suzanne Belperron, alongside masterpieces by Wallace Chan, JAR, Hemmerle, and Van Cleef & Arpels, among others. (Photo: D.  Finnin/©AMNH)

Later, during a more intimate conversation I had with Fasel as I toured the exhibit, the curator told me her search for the featured jewels was an exhaustive undertaking (especially since the task coincided with writing the Beautiful Creatures book she authored in association with the museum, which was published last fall by Rizzoli). A scarcity of options that met her exacting criteria required her to source treasures from private collections and the archives of the jewelry houses themselves—a delicate, high-stakes operation under any circumstances.

Plus, she says, “You can go south very quickly with animal jewels. They can get cutesy, there can be animals dressed as people.… I wanted them to have a fierce quality, to have that animals-in-the-wild feeling that you have with the dioramas at the museum. I also wanted all of them to be full-bodied, not just heads or arms—the full replication.”

Perhaps the finest example: Mexican actress María Félix’s crocodile necklace from 1975. According to Fasel, “The legend is that she walked into Cartier with a small crocodile and said, ‘Make me a necklace,’ and they did it.” Two more Cartier jewels belonging to Félix are also in the exhibition: a serpent necklace made with 178.21 cts. of diamonds, and snake ear clips of gold and enamel. Fasel summed up the precise, anatomically correct workmanship and extravagance of these reptilian pieces in a single word: “savage.”

AMNH Creatures of Land case
María Félix’s crocodile necklace holds court at the top of the Creatures of Land case (also featured on its own up top). (Photo: D. Finnin/©AMNH)

Also integral to Fasel’s curating strategy was that of scale—she wanted children to be able to access the magic of the jewels. Thus, the tiniest designs, from an itty-bitty turtle with a diamond-crusted carapace to a toylike pavé diamond giraffe, are placed at the base of the cases, right at toddler eye level.

“I think it’s fun to find the small things as well as the large treasures,” says Fasel. “At the lender previews, some people have brought their children in and they love it. There’s a sense of magic and joy.”

For attendees of all ages, I’d say: Here are a few more of the beautiful creatures that are waiting to greet you—or grab you!—when you go.

AMNH Dali Etoile de Mer Brooch
Étoile de Mer Brooch, a flexible, surrealist starfish brooch featuring two butterfly pins designed by artist Salvador Dalí in 1950 and formerly in the collection of philanthropist Rebekah Harkness (photo: Jake Armour, Armour Photography)
AMNH VCA lion brooch
Van Cleef & Arpels lion brooch from the collection of philanthropist Brooke Astor, whose patronage of the New York Public Library has led to speculation that the piece might have been a nod to the marble lion statues that flank the main branch’s entrance on Fifth Avenue (photo: © Sotheby’s)
AMNH Cartier bird brooch
Bird brooch made by Cartier Paris in 1948, measuring almost 8 inches high and set with around 90 cts. of diamonds in platinum (photo: D. Finnin/©AMNH)

Top: Crocodile necklace with 60.02 cts. of fancy intense yellow diamonds and 66.86 cts. of emeralds in the setting, Cartier (photo: Nils Herrmann, Cartier Collection © Cartier)

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By: Amy Elliott

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