Schlumberger: Celebrating Nature

Though separated by two world wars and a European continent, French jeweler Jean Schlumberger (1907-1987) and Russian master Peter Carl Faberge shared one common trait: both celebrated nature with startlingly imaginative designs. While Faberge eschewed big expensive colored stones, however, Schlumberger, living in more colored stone-accessible times, adored them.

Such comparisons between the two famous jewelers beg to be made, since both have been celebrated in prominent museum exhibits in the past year. Schlumberger’s Paris exhibit, at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, was perhaps less publicized than Faberge’s Metropolitan Museum of Art venue (see June 1996 JCK, p. 176). But for jewelry aficionados who like to see the works of the greatest, it’s been a banner year. Maybe it’s only a coincidence, but the Met’s 1995 exhibit of Greek jewelry also trumpeted those ancient craftsmen’s love of nature themes.

Is it thus any wonder the modern jewelry industry is going through a nature-inspired jewelry frenzy?

From buttons and beads to the Emerald City: Jean Schlumberger’s career took off when, at the ripe old age of 30, he left behind his job at an art publisher to join Parisian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli in 1937. The famous couturiere asked him to make buttons and costume jewelry to complement her designs. Schlumberger, a gifted draftsman, already had established a name for himself when the Germans marched into Paris in 1940.

Evacuated at Dunkirk, Schlumberger went from London to New York City, where he set up a workshop and store with his friend, Nicolas Bongard. There Schlumberger conceived his first fine jewelry designs, in the form of elaborate drawings. Bongard, who was trained as a jeweler, oversaw and often created the models from which the pieces were made. (Like Faberge, Schlumberger never actually made the pieces for which he was so well known. He couldn’t, because he had no training as a jeweler or metalsmith!)

Instantly popular with “the ladies who lunch,” Schlumberger might have sat out the war by his pool. But French patriotism gripped him and he and Bongard soon returned to London to join General de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, with whom they remained for the duration of the war.

After demobilization, Schlumberger and Bongard again set up offices in New York City and in Paris. From there Schlumberger’s reputation skyrocketed. In 1955, Walter Hoving of Tiffany & Co. asked Schlumberger to become staff designer. The now-famous designer was given his own department and made deputy chairman of the Fifth Avenue jeweler. For the next 20 years, he designed at his peak, becoming a good friend of Diana Vreeland, the editor of Vogue, and an outfitter to media stars such as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

Movement! Volume! Color! Like the “Lights! Camera! Action!” command on a movie set, Schlumberger’s command to his jeweler craftsmen was to create pieces that invoked drama through movement, volume and color. Sometimes his master workers, who were used to his vivid imagination, would look at his drawings with disbelief. “We all work together, the craftsmen, my collaborators and myself…Sometimes we guide each other into unknown paths, and after groping about, trying this and that, making models and exerting our willpower, we find the key to success, even if it means suffering…Sometimes we ask them to do things they think are impossible, but which — after a lot of experimentation and tenacity — turn out to be possible,” Schlumberger once said.

  • Movement. What did Schlumberger mean by movement? Imagining the constant workings of nature, the great artist created pieces that showed branches intertwining, vines creeping, blossoms unfolding and stems surging upward toward an ever-present sun. His animals were equally alive, whether butterflies fluttering, fish shimmering through water or bugs creeping forward on an imaginary leaf. Schlumberger achieved these effects by swirling gold and platinum between colored stones, by using brushed enamel to create a dynamic shimmer and by placing stones to catch light in a way that made the pieces dance.

  • Volume. Like the artist he was, Schlumberger took advantage of his knowledge of perspective and depth to give his pieces unique volume. Rounded shapes, convex surfaces, dangling claws, rays and points — all were used generously in his jewelry.

  • Color. Schlumberger was enchanted by color, but he was not a traditionalist. Unlike more conservative jewelers who used only ruby, sapphire and emerald, Schlumberger incorporated countless other colored stones, often juxtaposing them in unusual ways. Turquoise mixed freely with peridot, amethyst or topaz. Sapphires joined pink tourmalines. Emeralds were freely shaded with blue sapphires and aquamarines to form harmonious tonal masterpieces.

Much of his vacation time was spent at a home he built in Guadaloupe, and that place influenced the colors he used. Schlumberger also loved enamel, which master enamelists created for him by putting transparent enamel on metal strips. The effect created nature-like acid greens, sun drenched yellows and sky blues.

Metals and gems as canvas and paint: More than anything else, the Paris exhibit showed that Schlumberger will always be remembered for his more painterly use of precious materials. He never considered the expense of a stone more important than what its color could achieve. If diamonds would add sparkle and fire, he used them. If not, he didn’t. If he wanted to use rubies — his favorite stone — he’d pile them on, regardless of the expense. But if the much cheaper turquoise or lapis better suited his purpose, he’d drop the more precious stones altogether. Such blithe disregard for the so-called “status” of fine jewelry makes his pieces a pleasure beyond their mere intrinsic value.

He used the same aesthetic sense in his settings. Unlike more traditional carriage trade jewelers, he never worried about setting stones up high and far apart to trumpet their size or value. If burying a stone to add depth or crowding several stones together to suggest movement suited his purpose, then rules be damned — he’d do it.

Judging by the prices his pieces fetch and the number of collectors and museums that value his work, such thumbing of the nose at effete standards seems to have stood the test of time. Vive la difference!