“Jewels of the Imagination”: jewels by Jean Schlumberger in Florida

A 2.5 hour flight from Washington Dulles airport and I arrive in Tampa, Florida. An even shorter time here than in Washington but wow what a privilege to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in St Petersburg, and view possibly the largest single owner collection of Jean Schlumberger jewels ever exhibited. They are mainly from the Rachael “Bunny” Mellon Collection bequeathed by the late Mrs Mellon to the Museum of Arts in Richmond, Virginia and on loan here in Florida.

“Bunny” was a horticulturalist and philanthropist. A style icon for many years and among the list of her true friends was Jackie Kennedy-Onassis and Jean Schlumberger. In fact it was Bunny who designed the Rose Garden at The White House.

The Mellon Collection contains no less than 147 pieces including jewels and decorative items all designed by Schlumberger. They are the epitome of high end 50s and 60s style, while their richness and diversity really is a sight to behold. Bunny and Jean or “Johnny” as she used to call him, struck up a friendship that lasted for over 30 years and she was probably his greatest benefactor. Their love of nature in particular is what created this enduring friendship.

The exhibition is entitled “Jewels of the imagination” and with the naturalist themes used one can quite see why. The story tracks Schlumberger’s career which was initially encouraged by his parents to become involved in weaving or banking! Such diverse opposites and yet it was his skill at drawing and sketching from an early age that lead him to jewellery designing from costume jewellery pieces made for Elsa Schiaparelli in the 30s to owning his own shop in lower Manhattan, he eventually became the design director for Tiffany for over 30 years.

The jewels have an inherent feel of the wonders of nature. It is evident in flowers, vegetables, fruits, fish and sea urchins using wonderful coloured stones mixed with Diamonds. Jean was not a huge fan of “just Diamonds” he would far prefer to use coloured stones, these stones being the feature but then enhanced with the use of Diamonds as well as intricate 14ct and 18ct yellow gold and platinum. Enamelling too was a decoration he used in abundance both within his decorative items as well as his jewels and the famous enamel bangles sometimes known as “Jackie bangles” as she of course had two! This form of enamelling is known as pailloné enamelling a painstaking process that creates a rich coloured patina on all his pieces decorated in this way.

My three favourite pieces from this exhibition would start with the flower pot; an ornament crafted in 18ct gold, cabochon Emeralds and featuring a large Amethyst in the centre that was originally a Sapphire. Within the fretwork style around the pot is an actual flowerpot from Bunny’s greenhouse at the time! What I particularly love about this ornament is that the flower can be worn as a jewel! Nothing quite likely versatility when it comes to a flowerpot!!

The second piece, and believe me these choices are difficult, would probably have to be the wonderful “Jasmine, Breath of Spring” necklace. Though not designed for Bunny she wore it to a gala dinner in honour of her husband Paul Mellon’s retirement from the board of the Gallery of Art in Washington in 1985. It features a wonderful array of coloured Sapphires and was so named by Bunny as it reminded her of a honeysuckle bush whose “unmistakable fragrance is a harbinger of the season”.

The third and final piece illustrates the strong friendship that “Bunny and Johnny” had. One of many notes written and sent to Bunny that she kept as personal momentous of their friendship. There was nothing sexual in this friendship it was more a meeting of the minds and this simple message with two sketched cornflowers shows to me how thoughtful and beautiful it was.

Until the third exhibition ….