New Cummer exhibit examines how French history was reflected in its jewelry

New Cummer exhibit examines how French history was reflected in its jewelry

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As becomes clear while touring “Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris,” a new exhibit at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, French history has often impacted French taste in jewelry.

The exhibit, which continues through Jan. 7, features more than 100 works of jewelry, drawings, fashion prints, paintings and photographs that help illuminate the intersection of French history, art and fashion.

“Jewelry — from design to execution — is a creative art form with a unique history,” said Holly Keris, chief operating officer and chief curator of the Cummer. “The exhibition traces this rich history through fine works of art, including design drawings and stellar pieces of jewelry, from before the time of Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715) through World War II. It’s going to be a showstopper.”

The jewelry and other items come from the Petit Palais in Paris, which was built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle and now houses the City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts de la ville de Paris)

The exhibit is organized chronologically, with the oldest item on display an oval pocket watch that dates to about 16oo.

“Throughout history jewelry has served both functional and decorative purposes, reflecting its patron’s status and taste, as well as the social, political, and economic circumstances of its creation,” a text panel drawn from the exhibit catalog explains.

During the 17th century, when French King Louis XIV was acquiring large, extravagant gems, French jewelers gained access to stones from Persia and India. In reaction to the prevailing Baroque style, the jewelers began developing the more jocular, graceful Rococo style, according to a text panel. Among Europeans, French designs were considered the epitome of style and elegance.

The French Revolution that began in 1789 changed that.

“Prudent aristocrats hid their jewelry which was seen as a reflection of privilege and excess,” a text panel says.

But then Napoleon Bonaparte emerged from the power struggle following the revolution and eventually crowned himself emperor in 1804.

“He loved luscious things,” said Nelda Damiano, the Cummer’s associate curator.

Napoleon looked to the Roman Empire as a model for what he hoped to achieve and made Neoclassicism a prevailing artistic style. Following his defeat in 1814 and 1815, open display of jewelry again went into decline.

Following a revolution in 1848, Louis-Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon I, seized power and became Emperor Napoleon III, a text panel says. He and his wife Eugenie reinstated sumptuous court life. Like his uncle, Napoleon III embraced Neoclassicism. The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855 became a symbol of the country’s new prosperity and presented the diamonds of the crown as the centerpiece of the event.

But things went very wrong in 1870 when Prussia provoked France into going to war and crushed the French. Napoleon III was deposed, his empire collapsed and there was another bloody rebellion in Paris. The French economy was severely damaged. As the economy slowly recovered, conservative elites created a revival of Renaissance and Gothic styles in art and jewelry.

Late in the 19th century, the Central Union of the Decorative Arts encouraged innovation, a text panel explains. Art Nouveau, which looked to nature for inspiration, caught on in jewelry, furniture and other applied arts.

The prosperous Belle Epoque (Beautiful Age) from 1905-1915 encouraged a range of jewelry styles. Some conservative women found Art Nouveau too decadent, according to a text panel. Cartier’s designer Charles Jacqueau looked to the 18th century and incorporated Rococo elements such as bows, ribbons and garlands of leaves. Russian Carl Faberge adapted the Rococo style as well and earned medals and great commercial success at the 1900 Exposition Universelle. Faberge then set up shop in London.

World War I ended the Beautiful Age. Responding to the dramatic changes caused by the war and the rise of the “New Woman,” French jewelers adapted the sleek Art Deco style in the 1920s, exploring geometric forms and emphasizing sharp and dramatic contrasts, a text panel explains. Pale platinum because the metal of choice.

Today many of the great jewelry houses like Boucheron, Cartier, Chaumet, Lalique and Van Cleef & Arpels remain headquartered in Paris.

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