MFA highlights Tiffany & Co. designer Jean Schlumberger’s masterworks, relationships in companion exhibits

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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“Some women want to look expensive,” French jewelry designer Jean Schlumberger said in 1956. “I would prefer to have them look precious.”

His clients did both. The former Tiffany & Co. vice president, who had his own design salon at the luxury retailer’s New York headquarters, was innovative and elegant. His whimsical and exotic pieces adorned the necks, wrists and lapels of 1960s and 70s style icons like Jacqueline Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Rachel “Bunny” Mellon—many of whom he and his life partner Lucien Bouchage grew to know personally.It’s Schlumberger’s relationship with Mellon, horticulturalist and designer of the White House Rose Garden, which inspired “Jewels of the Imagination.” The exhibition, currently making its only U.S. appearance outside of Virginia at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) St. Petersburg, highlights the epitome of mid-century elegance in Mellon’s personal collection of his work.

To complement the exhibit, curators at the MFA created “Drawn to Beauty,” a second exhibition exploring the art and atelier of Schlumberger. It features photography, jewelry and more from the Tiffany & Co. archives and private collections, while also glimpsing into the designer’s discreet relationship with Bouchage.

Watermark spoke with Dr. Stanton Thomas, “Drawn to Beauty” curator and the MFA’s Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, about the importance and elegance of Schlumberger’s work, on view now through March 31.

WATERMARK: Why was “Jewels of the Imagination” such a perfect fit for the MFA?

STANTON: A lot of times people think that fine arts are painting and sculpture, period. I love the fact that this reaches beyond that and engages jewelry and design as fine arts, which they absolutely are. I think there’s something incredibly personal and intimate about a show dedicated to jewelry. These are spectacular things, beautifully designed examples of really precious stones and precious metals just gloriously put together. It has that wow factor.

Who was Schlumberger?

He came from a very prosperous background. His parents were textile manufacturers and they wanted their son to take over the business or go into banking, and he was not really interested in either of those things. He fled the life they had wanted for him and went to Paris in the 1930s, which of course is where everybody wanted to be; it was the cultural center of the world. He set up shop briefly in New York in the 40s … in 1956, he signs on with Tiffany & Co. and that’s the beginning of his major career.

The exhibit focuses heavily on his relationship with “Bunny” Mellon.

They were very dear friends and clearly loved one another. They had a very rich, wonderful friendship. When she passed away, she gave her entire collection of Schlumberger’s work to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and that’s the basis of that exhibition. They are works that she either purchased or commissioned from him; some were things you could buy, they were stock items at Tiffany, but most of the objects are things which were commissioned. It’s a great happenstance which happens rarely in history where you have a really visionary artist, someone of great and very bold imagination, who happens to come into contact with a kindred spirit who has almost unlimited funds.

Socialites adored Schlumberger’s work. Why is that?

He was famous among his colleagues for spending time with his clientele. He really wanted to know what their interests were, he wanted to know what their likes and dislikes were. He really became friends with many of them and they were friendships that endured for decades. In addition, he was cutting edge; he was the one who had designs which were strange, wonderful and very powerful. He had this very bold imagination that caused people to want to wear his objects. But I think it was his personality—he just charmed people, women in particular.

That’s highlighted in “Drawn to Beauty.”

The exhibition that I came up with is really arranged around the idea of his early years in Paris and his exploration of surrealism. It evolves with his artistic process and time with Tiffany & Co. and the last section is about the social butterflies and the jet-setting of the 1960s and 70s, which is where the really iconic pieces are.

Why was it important to curate the exhibit?

It serves as a great prelude to “Jewels of the Imagination,”giving you a nice introduction into his stylistic development and what his influences were. It also brings in a lot of early work; we have a lot of the pieces he did in the 30s that are done with very inexpensive materials. It was fascinating to see how those things are just as visionary, just as strange and wonderful, as the things he was doing with Tiffany years later. It’s great continuity but also gives you a glimpse into how strong his creative vision was, even as a young adult.

It also highlights his relationship with Luc Bouchage.

It allows us to tell a little bit of the story about Luc Bouchage, about which we know almost nothing. They were very discreet, as a gay couple would have been during that time period. Their relationship was understood and certainly accepted by all of their friends; they lived together and anybody who knew them knew they were a couple—but again, they were very discreet about it. I think that’s pretty typical for that time period.

Why was it important to include their relationship?

I’m a historian first and foremost, so the truth is the truth. It’s so important to be truthful to what the facts are and those are the facts. If we were doing a heterosexual artist whose partner had an influence or even no influence on their career, absolutely we would include them. I think it’s an absolutely essential part of telling anyone’s life story.

My only regret is we couldn’t tell more—and it’s not that we wouldn’t tell more, we just didn’t know very much. What we have we’ve kind of gleaned together because we see photographs that we know Luc Bouchage took in exotic places, so we know they traveled together. We know they owned a home together, but one of the frustrations is you very rarely see the two of them together in photographs. That’s partially because Luc Bouchage was behind the camera, and also because it was that time period. People were very discreet about relationships which were considered controversial.

It was also before the selfie.

A long, long time. [Laughs]. They also had careers that were intertwined. Schlumberger was the star and he was the more prominent socially and creatively of the couple, but there are Tiffany advertisements where Bouchage is the male backdrop to the woman showing off jewelry. You have to imagine this was a very close-knit world.
“Drawn to Beauty” includes Schlumberger’s drafting table, which was gifted to Bouchage’s nephew, St. PETE architect Yann Weymouth, designer of the MFA.

He’s a very good friend of the museum. It’s very rare to have objects like that which are so personal and so important. It really brings that portion of the exhibit to life, to actually have that surface on which he worked. He was very meticulous about how he worked and how he approached his subject matter. It really enriches and reinforces that part of the exhibition. I think giving it to Luc’s nephew also reinforces this idea that it was a familial relationship; for the time it was as open as could be, but of course that was a different era.

Why are these exhibits a must see?

This is a very rare opportunity, not just to see the works of the VirginiaMuseum of Fine Arts, but to see all of the objects which are included in “Drawn to Beauty.” They are actually much rarer than those in “Jewels of the Imagination,” which will go back to Virginia. They just don’t travel and are very rarely exposed to the light of day.

We tried to very carefully calculate and balance the exhibits against one other. These are stellar exhibitions and a fantastically rare chance to see these objects.

“Jewels of the Imagination” and “Drawn to Beauty” are on view now through March 31, the latter of which will be consolidated March 10. For more information about the museum, exhibits, related public programming or to purchase tickets, call 727-896-2667 or visit MFAStPete.org.

Check out some of the pieces in the collection below.

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