1907 - 1987
Jean Schlumberger was born in Alsace, France in 1907. His family was involved in textile manufacturing, and quite prosperous. Jean was an artistic child, who loved nature and loved to draw, and he also had a lively imagination. His wish was to study art, but his parents wanted him to enter the family business, and they refused to give him access to any formal training in art or design. Instead, they sent him off to Berlin to prepare for a career in banking.
When Jean was in his early 20's, he went off to Paris to follow his artistic inclinations, and was immediately caught up in the dazzling artistic and social scene of Paris. His first job was with Lucien Lelong, but he did not stay long with Lelong. His next job was with a firm that published art books.
Paris in the 1930's was heaven for someone with Schlumberger's artistic leanings. Originality and novelty, even to the point of eccentricity, were not only admired -they were worshipped. The worst sin was to be boring and conventional. Jean - charming, good looking, from a good family and artistic fit right in. He soon developed a circle of elite and fashionable friends. He was drawn to jewelry design, but had little money to spend on materials. He would frequent the Flea Market, where he hunted for interesting but inexpensive bits of Victoriana, such as serpents, cherubs, and old glass beads.
He came upon some porcelain flowers from an old chandelier, and mounted them as gifts to friends. They were so enthusiastically received by his fashionable friends that he continued to pursue his new-found interest in costume jewelry. Coco Chanel had already broken the ground by making costume jewelry, especially out-sized and outrageous fakes as acceptable as real jewelry. He soon received so many requests for his pieces that he was able to give up his regular job and concentrate on jewelry. He opened an atelier on the rue de la Boetie, and expanded his range of jewelry for his wealthy and avant-guard socialite clientele.
Sometime in 1937, he caught the eye of Elsa Schiaparelli, who was quite taken with a pair of his earrings that she had seen on the Duchess of Kent. He was written up in Harper's Bazaar as "that new designer in Paris". "Earrings have never been so entertaining", they enthused.
Schiaparelli was quickly becoming famous for her highly styled accessories, and she hired Schlumberger to design buttons and costume jewelry for her shop. Their collaboration was an instant success, not only in Paris, but around the world. Some of his imaginative creations were buttons that looked like starfish, pebbles, shells and rough gem stones in imaginative settings. Gilt cherubs with fake diamond torches, spiders, other insects, all manner of sea creatures, hearts pierced by swords - almost any subject could be used for an imaginative and original piece of jewelry.
This was during the time in Paris when Surrealism was becoming very popular. Schiaparelli loved Surrealism, but Schlumberger claimed that "he did not understand Modern Art", which is quite a surprising statement from someone so artistically inclined. His jewelry has always had a Surrealist edge, though. He was naturally drawn to the strange and bizarre in nature, of which he was a keen observer.
By the end of the 1930's, Schlumberger had become a great success as a designer of accessories - hat pins for Madame Suzy, shoes for Delman. He was famous on both sides of the Atlantic. His "junk" jewelry, as it was fashionably referred to in the US, was widely copied by American manufacturers. The Flying Fish earrings that had created such a stir on the Duchess of Kent were now on sale at Bergdorf's for $22.00 - a goodly sum in those days, especially for costume jewelry. His gilt cupids were available elsewhere at a more modest $.59. Fashionable women in NY were wearing his designs everywhere.
He was also a great success socially, and was invited to all the best parties. This was very important for an aspiring jeweler, as social access to women of wealth and taste was essential, especially to make the transition from costume to real jewelry.
From his rich patrons, he began to receive commissions to re-set stones. He welcomed this change, as he was beginning to find costume jewelry limiting, and wanted the challenge of working with precious materials. He did not, however, wish to create ostentatious jewelry that was instantly recognized for it's value. He once commented "you may just as well pin a check to your lapel".
His 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 out-break of WW2, this period of his life came to an end. He joined the Army, and eventually made his way to England, and then to the USA.
Upon his arrival in New York, his real wish was to continue designing "fantasy" jewelry, but using real materials. By an amazing stroke of good fortune, he ran into an old friend from Paris - Nicholas Bongard, who was the nephew of the famed Paris couturier Paul Poiret, and had worked in the jewelry business with his uncle, Rene Boivin. They decided to go into business together, and opened a workshop at 745 5th Avenue. One year later, however, they both joined DeGaulle's Free French Forces, and went to fight in the Middle-East. After the war ended, they returned to New York, and set-up on East 63rd Street. Bongard attended to the business end, leaving Schlumberger free to use his creative skills. They also opened a Paris location, where Schlumberger designed the pieces, which were then fabricated in France.
Schlumberger had the good fortune to have been in the right place at the right time. His fresh designs were just what a war-weary world needed. The flat, stylized jewelry of the '30's and '40's was now out of style, and Jean's lush, exotic, figurative, three-dimensional, colorful and highly original designs would have a profound influence on jewelry design of the 1950's and beyond. He captured the spontaneity of natural forms, and drew on the exotic and varied creations of his costume jewelry days as inspiration for his designs in precious jewelry. Diana Vreeland was a great admirer of his work. She had commissioned him to design and make a fabulous Tropheé brooch in Paris in the 1940's, and was their first client when they set up shop in New York.
One of Schlumberger's most important contributions to mid 20th century jewelry design was his use of strongly colored enamels, especially in combination with the rich colors of semi-precious and precious stones. He also favored yellow gold, which was always an important element in his designs.
In 1956, Walter Hoving, the then new Chairman of Tiffany & Co, was looking for original and exciting contemporary jewelry to bring new excitement to the 5th Avenue store. He approached Schlumberger and Bongard, and made them the offer of a life-time - an exclusive Schlumberger Department on the mezzanine of the store. Schlumberger would have complete control over is designs, and would also be allowed to keep the Paris shop. Thus, he was perfectly poised to produce his most fabulous designs, with the resources of Tiffany behind him.
Schlumberger was delighted with the arrangement. He continued to draw his inspiration from nature, particularly sea creatures and vegetation. He was drawn to their sinuous and ever-changing forms. Strange birds and plants, always voluptuous and undulating were also favored subjects, all executed with un-expected and exotic combinations of stones chosen for their color, rather than their value, and accented with brightly colored enamels. Having Tiffany's almost limitless resources, he also created many pieces using precious stones, including three different settings for the famed Tiffany diamond. Among his clients were the most important names in Society, including Jacqueline Kennedy. She owned several of an iconic bracelet that he designed using a special enamel technique called pailloné, in which a layer of foil was placed over the gold before it was enameled in bright, transparent colors - yellow, lime green, rich blue and a deep red were the favorite colors, and they were ornamented with raised gold designs of lozenges, dots or cones. They were called "Jackie" bracelets in her honor.
Nature was not his only source of inspiration. Like Verdura, he was drawn to the Renaissance and to the 18th century, as well as the exoticism of the East. He often remarked that he was drawn to old illuminated books and manuscripts, and had a fine collection of these.
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 - others were done in a limited edition of 11.
Jean was also an avid traveler, and was inspired by his travel experiences. He had a small but exquisite apartment in New York City, where he often invited friends and clients to small, chic dinners. He also had a house in Guadaloupe, in the French West Indies, which he had purchased in the 1950's, and where he spent his winters. There, he was able to study 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 sea weed in emeralds and sapphires, or a bracelet in gold, with diamond shells nestling in emerald fronds on a sapphire sea.
He would begin his creations for a client with a sketch, which he referred to as "the bearer of a woman's desire", and "the only link between the client, craftsman and designer". The sketch became an intricate drawing, and from this, the jewel was made. "Ideas come to me at pencil point, following a process that is as inexplicable as it is unconscious".
Schlumberger also maintained a home in Paris, and began to spend more and more of his time there. He eventually settled there permanently, and died in Paris in 1987, at the age of 80.
For all his fame and Society connections, he was essentially a very quiet and private person, and tried to avoid interviews or discussing his work. He was often compared with Cellini and Fabergé, although he disdained these comparisons. There is no doubt, however, that he was one of the greatest jewelry designers of the 20th century.