It was perhaps Jean Schlumberger’s lack of formal training that enabled him to design such exquisite jewels, unfettered by an awareness of technical constraints and ideals, his imagination was left to conjure marvellous creations inspired by his love of the natural world.
Born in Mulhouse in the Alsace region of France in 1907, Schlumberger was one of five children born into a prosperous family of textile manufacturers and merchants. His artistic ability and inclination showed itself from a young age but was discouraged by his parents who wanted their son to pursue studies in business and finance with a view to joining the family business. He duly did so and went on to work in both the textile and banking industries in Europe and America. By 1936 however he was living in Paris and working for the fashion designer and perfumer Lucien Lelong in an environment that encouraged artistic expression and design. He was introduced into Parisian high society and was soon mixing with people such as the Duchess of Kent, Jean Cocteau and Daisy Fellows. In 1937 he began designing costume jewellery and accessories for the couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, a collaboration that was cut short by his mobilization at the outbreak of World War II. In the years that followed the return of peace he travelled extensively and worked in New York as well as Paris.
It was in February 1956 that he received an invitation that was to provide him with the opportunity to fully express himself as an artist jewellery designer. The president of Tiffany & Co., Walter Hoving, asked him to join the prestigious jewellery firm and head up an independent design studio and salon. There began one of the most significant collaborations in the company’s history. Surrounded by a seemingly endless supply of fabulous multi hued gemstones and a large team of talented craftsmen he was able to create some of the most magnificent jewels of the mid 20th century. Greatly inspired by all forms of nature including birds, insects, sea creatures and flowers he designed jewellery that was imbued with colour and joie de vivre. His sensitivity to balance and proportion is evident in all of his designs from the most classical flower brooch to the most whimsical pieces featuring unicorns and jellyfish.
In 1961 Goldsmiths’ Hall in London held their ‘International Exhibition of Modern jewellery’ which featured no less than eleven pieces of jewellery designed by Schlumberger. By now his clients included many of America’s most elegant and stylish women such as Diana Vreeland, Babe Paley and Jackie Kennedy who was so often seen wearing her stack of brightly coloured enamel ‘Croisillon’ bracelets that they became known informally as ‘Jackie bracelets’. These were made using the 19th century art of paillonné enamel, a process of achieving translucent colours by layering enamel over 18ct gold so that it appears almost luminous. These remain one of Schlumberger’s most popular designs and are still hugely sought after today.
His creativity wasn’t confined to jewellery; compacts, picture frames, ornaments and cigarette cases were all given the Schlumberger magic touch and transformed from every day items into jewelled objets that would delight every time they were used. He continued to work with Tiffany until his retirement when he settled permanently in Paris. A few years later in 1986 Tiffany held a retrospective of his work to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his joining the firm. Schlumberger died the following year leaving a legacy of jewelled fantasies made real. His original drawings, jewellery and objet are held in private collections and museums around the world, they are without doubt some of the most stylish and desirable examples of mid 20th century design.