Tag Archives: jewelry

Nouveau-Riche

Like a frothy lady-in-waiting, Art Nouveau emerged as the handmaiden to the Belle Epoch, following in its honeyed footsteps.  Dainty yet flamboyant, it was born out of a madness of grace and unceasing charm.  It mocked symmetry, the foolhardy composition suppressed by balance and proportion.  It was not classic, nor serene – it burst forth in a chaos of beauty, coiling with the whimsy of nature; her spectacular mirth.

It could be seen everywhere during the careless years before the Great War; rich with lethargy and leisure.  It was carved into frescoes of gardens rooted into walls, blossoming into curls so elaborate, they grew into a joyous caricature of the growing, earthy world:

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Jewelry was twisted into bowers of serpents and insects, ornate with gems and enameled hues that rippled like watercolor.

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The faces of women loomed from the depths of moonstone and opal; they hung like stars from frameworks of woven gold.

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Medusas shrieked from engraved combs; gods and goddesses ruled, bold and inalienable, from pendants, brooches and collars.

Art Nouveau was seen in the filigrees that romped throughout architecture, illustration, textiles, silverware, clothing.  Every aspect of the decorative life became a tangle of coils, twisting like ribbons of DNA.   Small Victorian modesty was replaced by the fluidity of Nature’s world, the richness of her seasons, the shameless appreciation of her power.

At no other time would Mucha’s women appear on posters with their hair melting into russet and gold tinted oceans…

or would Cheret be able to paint dancers in a torrent of petticoats and color.

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It was the time of absinthe spoons, their tiny bowels a matrix of wrought silver only large enough to embrace a cube of sugar.

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The silken lilies curling down the velvet-clad back of the Countess of Greffulhe, her shoulders and neck emerging from the sculpted collar like a living flower, is an iconic image of an era that celebrated the soft beauty of pure decoration.

The era meandered like an autumn river, rich with color and earthy detritus, following a path of nascent creativity.  Portraits of its fortunate inhabitants were painted with swift brushstrokes, before the wandering, busy imaginations of the subjects called them away.  The harsh linearity of previous decades was eschewed:  gowns, coats, even the liquid shine on patent leather shoes:  no aspect could bear to be harnessed by clarity.  Painters like Sargent…

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and Boldini…

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portrayed their sitters in a bedlam of shifting colors; of gowns swirling like hurricanes, of faces as clear yet as hard to define as reflections in a turbulent sea.  Like Narcissus, they were in love with those reflections, yet on the precipice of an approaching danger.

At first the menace was only a subtle threat.  It was seen in the smudged eyes of Klimt’s portraits; his jagged mosaics that felt like a chain mail of disillusionment.

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It beckoned from Schiele’s figures, sprawled on tangled sheets; the oblique limbs relegated to a coarse reality that presaged the death of sentimentality.

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Yet the Beautiful Age would linger for a while; its gilded culture pulsating and changing shape like a jellyfish – only to sting the onlooker before he turned away.  But its death came; and it was only as a herald to countless more deaths, beginning with a distant assassination in the summer of 1914. When British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” he no doubt was referring to the darkness of impending despair, the inevitable destruction of war, but surely, he must have given a thought to the end of the golden world which was all he had ever known.  He must have known the fear of ugliness which had begun its approach in an apocalyptic gallop.

But this joyous life, as enchanted as a flower, was not meant to last long.  Rather, it was destined for the memory, where the regret of losing its fey beauty would linger like perfume; where that perfect world could be safely buried and the earthy spirit of Art-Nouveau would live forever.

 

Silent Bells

It burst in front of me like an iridescent cloud.  Blooming with seraglio colors it hovered and dipped like a wayward carpet, alive with Byzantine patterns.  Its tinted sinews smeared the spinning flight:   magenta and green flexed in the air.

It swooped, dipped and paused in mid-flight.  A doubtful sprite of velvet reflections, it traced an invisible latticework of tracks and pathways:  meandering, creative, senseless.   It was as if femininity’s frail nucleus was compressed like coal in an invisible hand, writhing within nameless muscles, waiting and suffering.  And when the birth was over, the hand would open to release a diamond faceted with color– and the hummingbird, in a grateful blur, would fly away.

I heard the impudent buzz in my ear; taking tiny dares to hide in my shadow, to follow in my footsteps. I saw it dive into gardens of flowers, to pierce the fragrance, to shatter pockets of pollen into a gilded mist.   I watched it disappear into bowers of vines and thorns, into cradles of blossoms – to emerge satiated and ready to continue on its chaotic progress.

This tiny vision has stayed with me; Nature’s whimsical compromise between insect and bird. And yet I recall another vision:  one of a garish thing, engraved and metallic, heavy and debauched. It is what is now referred to as “novelty” jewelry, but what in reality is a travesty that only the misguided creativity of the Victorians could produce.

It is a necklace; made up of a single golden tier, decorated with shields seeming ready to be carved and quartered with the family crest by the jeweler’s steel quill.  But instead, as part of the creation of this necklace, many delicate decapitations were committed.  Affixed to each shield was a hummingbird’s head; each mounted at a different angle, so that when the lady opened the velvet case she would be struck by the light that angled across the deceased feathers.

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A lady’s magazine of the time described the petite corpses “…as plump and tempting to epicurean palate as any ever served up broiled on toast.”

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And when the lady held the dainty executions to her throat, bloodless and gaping, she would admire the kaleidoscope of colors that mirrored across her skin.  She would love the golden beaks, the echo of life in the glass eyes – the deaths done in her honor, inconsequential, ultimately, because they were so small.

She would always treasure her frivolous horror, her captured prisms:  the errant lives that now hung from her neck like silent bells.

The Wanderer

It was found off the coast of Panama, nacreous and irresistible, glowing with a soft, pale temptation.  It was shaped like a tear, weeping into the ocean, the birthplace of currents, the blueprint of tides.

Gems, like women, will make men sentimental.  They give their treasures nicknames – small proofs of private and affectionate ownership.  At this time, Spain was mistress to the New World, showing her love in unwanted Catholicism and demanding payment in land, in people, in valuables.  By the time this grieving pearl had become part of the Spanish Crown Jewels, it had already acquired the name 'La Peregrina' – 'The Pilgrim', 'The Wanderer'.

In 1554, Philip, future king of Spain, was betrothed to a sad queen.  England's Mary I - thin-lipped, jaws tightly muscled, graceless and  intolerant - had never met Philip.  But she stroked the painted cheek of his portrait and waited with a doomed devotion for her Spanish lover across the Atlantic.

Philip arrived in England with chests of presents for Mary and the ladies-in-waiting who followed her silently on hidden footsteps.  There were bolts of satin – in coiled, simmering colors – yards of silver and gold tissue; black and white lace; linen veils; and gems from the empty veins of the New World.  Amongst these royal baubles was La Peregrina, wrapped in velvet perhaps, to protect its sublime light; the moon that slept within its layers.

Mary loved the pilgrim that had traveled to far to reach her.  She ordered her jewelers to create a setting worthy of her egg-sized pearl.  They brought to her a brooch of diamonds, surrounded by a filigree that swarmed like a golden vine.  And La Peregrina dangled like a planet beneath that glittering sky.

She wore it always.  It lay across her flattened breast, against the wooden corset.  Beneath it Mary's heart beat, an undesired spark kept alive in its lonely chamber.  But La Peregrina was round and nubile – a ripe fruit blooming from a barren tree.

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The Search

They are mystic glances, subdued by glass, surrounded by enamel and pearls, garnets and gold, colors from the sky, stones from the earth.  They stare boldly from beyond their frames, from beyond the centuries – clutching jealously at their meaning, keeping it hidden beneath the guarded depths of a lover's jewel.

Who

There was a time when they searched crowded, powdered rooms:  tiny ships with precious cargo, pinned safely within the gentle harbor of a silken bodice, by the sharp island of a velvet lapel.  They held the image of a loved one's eye; the eye that animated a living face the way meaning inspires a word.  Free from the danger of recognition they were unblinking testaments that their owner yearned, but had to keep that longing a secret.

When the sun questioned such audacity, the eye would appear to blink under its hot scolding.  When it rained, the eye seemed to despair and cried for its wearer's loneliness.  When the clouds pulled a shadow across the flippant sky, the darkness made the eye overcast and enigmatic.

The eye can be a narcisisstic pool – a liquid mirror in which a person can see his own heart and desire.  The DNA of human emotion swims in its oceanic depths.  It reaches into the luminous sky and sees its image in the stars piercing the galaxies like an embroidery spanning infinite acres.  But it can also be a communique of shade and color; a confession two hundred years old whose ghostly reflection still reclines in the embrace of loving gems, continuing its lonely search.

Why

 

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