Jean Schlumberger (1907 – 1987) When The New York Times published Jean Schlumberger’s obituary, the newspaper called him, “one of the leading jewelry designers of the 20th century.” Experts and jewelry historians also describe him as one of the century’s most gifted artists, a great innovator, and “the first jewelry rock star.”
The jewelry historian Vivian Becker writes: “Among Schlumberger’s major contributions to Tiffany and jewelry history, was his inspired use of materials and color. He was largely responsible for reviving the taste for rich, sun-colored, yellow gold, which he emboldened with enamels in clear, bright, strong colors, often pinned with his signature gold studs or nails.
Jean Michel Schlumberger was born into a prominent textile manufacturing family and in Mulhouse, in German-controlled Alsace, France. He had four siblings: Daniel Schlumberger (1904-1972), Pascal Alfred (1911-1986), Isabelle Françoise Elisabeth, and Jacqueline.
As he grew older, Jean proved to be an artistic young man who loved nature and loved to draw. He also exhibited a lively imagination.
He constantly sketched but his parents wanted him to enter the family business and did their best to thwart his artistic interests by refusing to give him access to formal training in art or design. Instead, they sent him to Berlin in the 1930s to pursue a career in banking. He had neither taste nor talent for numbers and soon moved to Paris where he could indulge his love of the arts.
It did not take long for Schlumberger to get caught up in Paris’ artistic and social scene. His first job was with Lucien Lelong, where he worked for only a short time. His next job was with a firm that published art books.
He loved Paris’ flea markets where he found interesting objets trouvés, including Meissen flowers that he turned into costume jewels and dress clips and gave to his friends to wear. Costume jewelry was the obsession of the time and Schlumberger was inundated with requests for his creations.
With his sister, he started a small business making distinctive fashion jewels that were soon worn by society figures especially the Duchess of Kent, who became a lifelong champion of Schlumberger’s work. It is said that in the mid-30s, the Duchesses’ earrings caught the eye of the esteemed fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Jean was written up in Harper’s Bazaar as “that new designer in Paris [who’s created earrings that] have never been so entertaining.”
Schiaparelli was already famous for her stylish accessories and hired Schlumberger to design buttons and costume jewelry for her shop. Their collaboration was a tremendous success, not only in Paris, but around the world. Schlumberger’s work with Schiaparelli was in notable company. Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau, and the poet Louis Aragon also designed surrealist jewels for their good friend Elsa Schiaparelli.
Some Schlumberger’s creations were buttons that looked like starfish, pebbles, shells and rough gem stones in inventive settings. Schlumberger also created gilt cherubs with fake diamond torches, insects – especially spiders, sea creatures of all kinds, and hearts pierced by swords. Almost any subject was inspiration for a unique, original piece of jewelry.
Schlumberger’s first design in precious metal and gemstones—a gold cigarette lighter in the shape of a gold fish with gemstone eyes and flexible tail—became a classic. In 1941, he created the Trophée clip for Diana Vreeland, the renowned editor of Vogue. Now housed in the Tiffany & Co. Archives, the clip features an oval-cut amethyst and ruby shield with a warrior’s chain mail scaled with diamonds, and longbow, arrows, spear, and ruby-set sword in blue enamel.
By the end of the 1930’s, Schlumberger had established himself as a great designer of accessories including hat pins for Madame Suzy, and shoes for Delman. Famous on both sides of the Atlantic, his “junk” jewelry, as it was then known in the US, was extensively copied by American manufacturers. The Flying Fish earrings that created a stir for the Duchess of Kent could be found at Bergdorf’s where they sold for $22, a tidy amount for costume jewelry in those days. His gilt cupids were widely available at the more modest price of fifty-nine cents. It seemed fashionable women in NY were wearing his designs everywhere.
It is said that Schlumberger’s success interfered with his relationship with Schiaparelli who grew resentful of the attention he was getting for his own work. In 1939, either because of his differences with Schiaparelli or the outbreak of World War II, his work with Schiaparelli came to an end. He joined the Army, and eventually made his way to England, and then to the US.
Schlumberger enlisted in the French army and served under Charles de Gaulle. He was evacuated at Dunkirk and eventually made his way to New York. In a providential coincidence, he crossed paths with a childhood friend, Nicolas Bongard who was designing handmade buttons. Bongard was a nephew of the famed fashion designer Paul Poirot whose sister Jeanne had married the well-known French jeweler, René Boivin.
With Nicolas handling business affairs, Schlumberger was free to design. His playful creations, particularly of jeweled animals and fantastic sea creatures were worn by leading ladies of fashion and society including Diana Vreeland.
In 1947 the two men opened a small salon that sold Schlumberger’s clips of jeweled birds and sea creatures to very fashionable women. Schlumberger also became a favorite designer for Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Countess Mona Bismarck, and Jacqueline Kennedy.
By 1955, his success was such that Walter Hoving, then president of Tiffany & Co., approached Schlumberger and Bongard to move their business to Tiffany. In a move that was greatly beneficial to all parties, Tiffany installed Schlumberger and Bongard, with their own separate departments, in Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue store. This gave them access to the firm’s formidable supply of precious gems and materials.
Once settled at Tiffany’s, Schlumberger was allowed complete freedom to create new kinds of jewelry and objects. His jewelry embraced classic design principles of the Renaissance, including use of depth, dimensions, and combinations of a variety of materials. Schlumberger connected history, pageantry, myth, and nature along with opulence, and sometimes bold color, combined with gold gems and enamels.
In his first year at Tiffany’s, Schlumberger designed one of the most famous Tiffany pieces: the mounting for the Tiffany Diamond which had been in the firm’s collection since the nineteenth century. The brooch, entitled “Bird on a Rock”, incorporated the impressive 128.54 carats (25.71 g) yellow diamond in a fanciful setting.
Schlumberger was the first of only four designers Tiffany allowed to sign their creations. The others are Paloma Picasso, Elsa Peretti, and Frank Gehry.
Schlumberger’s major contributions to Tiffany and jewelry history were his inspired use of materials and color. He was largely responsible for reviving the taste for rich, yellow gold, to which he added enamels in clear, bright, strong colors. In 1961 Jean Schlumberger’s Ribbon Necklace was worn by Audrey Hepburn in presentation photographs for the movie, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
In 1962, Schlumberger created gold ribbed and studded bangles, inspired by the nineteenth century art of paillonné enamel, a process of achieving translucent colors by laying enamel over 18k gold leaf. These striking enamel bracelets, in vivid red, blue and green colored gems, some with cross-stitches called, ‘Croisillons,’ were often worn by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and became classics. Jackie wore so many of these bangles that the press dubbed them, “Jackie bracelets.”
Schlumberger often traveled to Bali, India, and Thailand to inspire his imagination and create magical mementos, such as the exotic Oiseau de Paradis clip with yellow beryl, amethysts, emeralds, and sapphires and the Sea Bird clip that combined a bird’s beak and head with a serpent’s body in pavé diamonds, rubies, and spike-like 18k gold plumage. As in nature, every flower, leaf, bird and fish is unique, as were Schlumberger’s originals, shaped into well-integrated works of art.
Schlumberger had a house in Guadeloupe, in the French West Indies, which he purchased in the 1950’s and where he spent his winters. There, he studied the plants, sea life and shells that provided so much of his inspiration. He would often take a boat out into shallow waters, reach down, and pull out a shell covered with sea weed. The next morning, he would be at work on a sketch based on what he had found. The sketch would become a maquette of wax or clay, and the result was a dazzling creation – a shell with seaweed in emeralds and sapphires, or a bracelet in gold, with diamond shells nestling in emerald fronds on a sapphire sea.
Schlumberger did not limit himself to jewelry. He began to create a series of objects and sculptures, including his famous boxes. Most of them were created between 1957 and 1976. Many were made to order while others were done in limited editions.
Schlumberger’s brilliant career has been recognized by art and fashion connoisseurs with numerous honors and awards. He was the first jewelry designer to win the coveted Fashion Critics’ Coty Award in 1958. The French government made him a Chevalier of the National Order of Merit in 1977.
A 1986 exhibition at Tiffany & Co. marked the designer’s 30th anniversary with the company. In 1995 the Musée des Arts Décoratifs which houses Schlumberger’s original designs, honored him with a retrospective entitled, “Un Diamant dans la Ville.” This posthumous tribute marked only the third time a jewelry designer was so honored by the museum. The world’s largest collection of Schlumberger objects was given by Paul Mellon to The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts permanent collection.
In later years, Jean Schlumberger returned to Paris, the city that inspired artistic life. He died in 1987, at the age of eighty, leaving a legacy of bejeweled flowers, ocean life and birds of wonder. He was buried at Isola di San Michele.
Today, Jean Schlumberger’s original boutique high above New York’s Fifth Avenue, is at the center of Tiffany’s luxurious private salon; the studio where VIP clients can sit and discuss a custom design that will turn their dreams into reality. Showcases are filled with Schlumberger jewels and the shelves are lined with early Tiffany objects. It is a fitting tribute. As Diana Vreeland wrote of her friend whom she called, ‘Johnny,’ “he was a true artist for whom jewels were a means of realizing his dreams.”