Inspired By Nature

A new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts showcases the late Bunny Mellon’s stunning collection of objets d’art from celebrated French-born jewelry designer Jean Schlumberger.

The flower seems to grow naturally as if in some nameless pot on any veranda, its leaves askew, stem curved at the weight of the head. Scores of delicate, daisy-like petals sweep back from a large deep-purple disc. This is no simple flower; it’s a masterpiece by renowned French jewelry designer Jean Schlumberger (1907-1987). His work was so coveted that he was asked to join Tiffany & Co. in 1956. As an exclusive designer and vice president, he was one of only four Tiffany designers in its history to have an individual imprint. 

“Flower Pot’s” fine details are stunning in their precision. Most parts of the flower are gold adorned with diamonds, emeralds and black garnet ore. The center is a large amethyst. Yet Schlumberger chose to build the piece around a simple foundation—a common terra-cotta pot found in any amateur garden. 

Jean Schlumberger

Photo courtesy of Tiffany & Co.

That whimsy—the juxtaposition of fine art and man’s interaction with nature—was Schlumberger’s signature, and the element that endeared his work to so many, among them Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon, who first met the artist in New York in 1954. A great admirer of Schlumberger’s natural themes, she soon became one of his most frequent patrons. In fact, “Flower Pot” was created in 1960 specifically with Mellon in mind. 

“Flower Pot” is one of 145 pieces that are part of the Rachel Lambert Mellon Collection of Jean Schlumberger on exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from Feb. 10 through June 18. 

Although “Flower Pot,” like more than two dozen other Schlumberger pieces once owned by Mellon, was gifted to the museum years ago, many of the works in this exhibit will be on display for the first time. When Mellon died in 2014 at the age of 103, she bequeathed more of her extensive collection of Schlumberger art and jewelry to the VMFA: The museum now holds the largest private collection of Schlumberger’s pieces. 

“This was jewelry that broke with historical precedent,” says Mitchell Merling, the Paul Mellon curator and head of the department of European art at the VMFA. “This was meant to be bold and impactful, but it was also meant to be witty.”

Schlumberger’s wit and whimsy is what attracted Mellon to Schlumberger’s pieces. An avid horticulturalist, Mellon, like Schlumberger, found inspiration in the natural world.

Among the jewelry on display is “Breath of Spring,” a necklace of gold, platinum, sapphires and diamonds that features 11 flowers evolving from bud to bloom as they move down the neckline. The brooch “Jellyfish” features a moonstone-studded dome from which tentacles of gold and sapphire dangle, woven and curling, as if swaying in the fluid motion of the sea. 

Many Schlumberger works not anchored by natural themes drew Mellon’s appreciation, too. A perfectionist, she saw beauty in balance—a case of gold strands woven to resemble wicker, for instance, or a cultured pearl necklace with a ruby, diamond and gold of two colors. Each piece features elements that held deep meaning for Mellon, from her gardens to her multiple homes around the world.

“This exhibit encapsulates Schlumberger’s vision and her appreciation of that,” says Merling. “The message of this exhibit is not what all this wealth could acquire. The message is to appreciate the jewelry and art for what it is, which is joy and creativity in nature.”

The Mellon Legacy: Read More 

Extreme wealth has always captured the American imagination. Among the great affluent class in Virginia, few have intrigued us more than the late billionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon and his wife Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon. Click here to read about this extraordinary couple and their lasting impact on the arts, sport, education and more.

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