Tiffany & Co. is one of the few jewelry houses that has created a clique of in-house designers whose names are as famous as the brand itself. Among them are Elsa Perretti, Paloma Picasso and Jean Schlumberger, the latter of whom still receives the highest marks at jewelry auctions. Christie’s is selling 18 of the designer’s pieces at the Jewels online auction, which runs from September 19 to 30.
When Schlumberger was a young man living in Alsace (then part of Germany), his parents sent him to Berlin to pursue a career in banking. Instead, he rebelled and traveled to Paris to follow his dream of becoming a jewelry designer, eventually opening a salon in New York before joining Tiffany.
Schlumberger was one of the first designers of the 20th century (along with Bulgari and Cartier) to move away from the austerity of emeralds, sapphires and rubies from the Belle Époque and early Art Deco eras to pair semi-precious gemstones in unusual combinations. At the time, it was unheard of to combine gemstones such as aquamarine, tsavorite, tourmaline and rubellite with diamonds into high jewelery pieces. His unique style combined elements of classic design with a heavy dose of quirkiness. His idea was to capture the perfect symmetry along with the imperfections of nature, which was reflected in the jewelry, which always seemed to be in motion – a bird ready to take flight, a flower in the middle of bloom, or vines twining around a gemstone, threatening to overtake it.
“I try to make everything look like it’s growing, uneven, random, organic, in motion,” he once explained his design ideal.
Tiffany hired Schlumberger in 1956, set him up in the studio, and stocked him with an unlimited supply of some of the finest gemstones in the world. He regularly traveled to distant outposts in Bali, India or Thailand in search of inspiration. The result is some of the most dynamic and sought after jewelry in the world. He was the first jewelry designer to receive the coveted Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award in 1958; and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, which houses original Schlumberger designs, honored him with a retrospective titled “Un Diamant dans la Ville” in 1995 as a posthumous tribute. (He died in 1987 at the age of 80 in Paris.)
“Great collectors realized how extraordinary his fantasy creatures were and they became collectibles,” says Daphne Lingon, head of jewelry at Christie America. “It can be said that Schlumberger’s influence on flora and fauna in the world of jewelry design was one of the most significant of the 20th century, and ultimately having so many pieces in one auction is a testament to its enduring power.”
The 18 auction lots at Christie’s feature Schlumberger’s signature mix of classic design with bold colors and playful hue. One diamond-encrusted bird sits atop a 70-carat citrine ($12,000-$18,000) and the other atop a 63-carat amethyst ($20,000-$30,000), a moving camel brooch with a lapis lazuli cabochon hump and bridle of diamonds ($7,000-$10,000), another bird brooch with a small coral jelly bean boule body ($3,000-$5,000). The sale also has some great examples of the designer’s signature enamel and payon bracelets, with thick sculpted gold bars, seashells, or vine motifs overlaid with bright enamel (these are priced between $10,000 and $18,000).
At one time, Schlumberger attracted a loyal following of celebrities, including the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor. Today, with so many brands making red carpet placement deals, his work seems to be dwarfed, but Tiffany still makes his models, much to the delight of serious collectors, and it’s only a matter of time before a new generation rediscovers his work. This auction might be the perfect place to start. Christie’s Jewel’s 200 online auctions also feature Boucheron, Bulgari, Cartier, Hemmerle, JAR, Oscar Heyman & Brothers, Seaman Schepps, Taffin, Tiffany & Co and Van Cleef & Arpels. More than half of sales are offered without a reserve.