Jewelry as fashion statement? Jewelry as work of art? Both are true in “Bijoux parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris” — the new exhibition at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens opening Sunday and running through July 21. The earliest jewels date to the late 17th century, the most recent to just after World War II.
The 70 delicate pieces look luscious on display with their vivid colors. An ornate set or parure of matching jewelry studded with amethysts, a tiny golden dandelion hairpin accented with diamonds, and a classical portrait pendant decorated with bright enamel and pearls are only a few of the treasures shining out from the gallery cases.
The idea for the exhibition was born just after the close in 2011 of “Jean-Louis Forain: La Comedie parisienne,” the Dixon’s first joint venture with the Petit Palais. Director Kevin Sharp was in Paris meeting with his counterpart, Gilles Chazal, then director, now senior curator at the French museum.
“We descended through labyrinthine corridors to this tiny vault, and for the next few hours looked at these marvelous things which he and his wife Martine had gathered. By the time that I left, it was already fixed in my mind that we were going to bring this group of objects to Memphis,” Sharp said.
Putting together the Petit Palais collection has been a labor of love for Gilles and Martine Chazal; his wife is a scholar and expert on jewelry in her own right. The collection is not on permanent view in Paris but has previously been shown at loan exhibitions in Japan and Italy — never before on this continent. Gilles Chazal has come to Memphis to celebrate the show’s opening, and he will present a lecture on the collection at 2 p.m. Sunday.
The exhibit includes not only examples of French jewelry but also over 200 design drawings, fashion prints and photographs. Among the prints are color lithographs from early 20th century issues of the fashion publication Gazette de bon ton that illustrate how women wore the jewelry of the day.
“They reveal how the jewelry was paired with the fashions of that time, how the headdresses accentuated the way people wore their hair, how all the details of their costume work together,” said Dixon associate curator Julie Pierotti.
The exhibition is enhanced by an illustrated catalog published by the Dixon and authored by Gilles and Martine Chazal. He describes how the original nucleus of jewelry pieces was supplemented by thousands of designer drawings from important French firms such as Cartier and Rene Lalique.
The selection of those drawings on view in the galleries goes straight to the heart of jewelry as art. Some were prepared as proposals for clients; others stand as sheer bursts of creativity. A fortunate few went on to be executed in precious materials, while many more remain fantasies with these archival drawings as their only record.
Notable among the sketches are the opulent designs created by artist Charles Jacqueau for a maharajah’s headpiece around 1926. An Indian prince had commissioned jeweler Cartier to create a perfect setting for his fabulous emeralds, which could be worn on special occasions.
“Beside the names already well-known to the public today — Boucheron, Cartier, Lalique and Van Cleef & Arpels — this exhibition facilitates the rediscovery of such other great masters as Baugrand, Falize, Fanniere, Fountenay, Froment-Meurice, Wiese, and many more,” the catalog states.
The Dixon is supporting the exhibition with special programs, including a Munch and Learn lecture at noon May 1, where Sharp will explore “The Artists of Bijoux parisiens.”
Said the director: “When I saw this collection, I had an epiphany. There was a point when jewelry stopped being objects of luxury or vanity and became works of art. That’s what I want to talk about. They are really pieces of sculpture made out of the most valuable materials in the world.”
This show promises to be one of the Dixon’s most popular exhibitions because so many people collect or have inherited vintage jewelry. From 10 a.m. to noon June 8, Ivey-Selkirk Auctioneers and Appraisers from St. Louis will be on hand for a “What It’s Worth” session. For a small fee, jewelry, decorative arts and fine art can be brought in for a verbal appraisal.
Pieces designed by ReneLalique, one of the best-known designers in the exhibition, often appear on the auction market. Prices range from the $11,250 realized for an etched and enameled crimson glass ring, circa 1920, last December at Sotheby’s New York, to the $482,500 final price paid for a signed Lalique art nouveau necklace, bracelet and brooch with diamonds, star sapphires, and enamel work in their original case at Christie’s New York in 2009.
Whether you want to collect or just learn more, the catalog of “Bijoux parisiens” is a must-have reference on the history of jewelry design. Says Julie Pierotti: “The chapters illustrate how the designers looked to the past for inspiration and then looked to the future. The catalog is laid out chronologically, so that is how we put the exhibition together. The individual pieces of jewelry are allowed to shine, and the design drawings are nearby”.
Bijoux parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris
The exhibit opens Sunday at Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park Ave. The opening lecture by Gilles Chazal, senior curator at Petite Palais, begins at 2 p.m. For more information about the exhibition and events, go to dixon.org or call 901-781-5250.