November 2008 Issue
Battle of the Bling
The Cleveland Museum of Art glitters with luxury goods from Fabergé, Tiffany and Lalique.
It’d be easy to lapse into hyperbole: to say that the rivalry that existed between artisans Peter Carl Fabergé, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Rene Lalique was comparable to a three-way, battle royal between Mohammed Ali, Mike Tyson and George Foreman. (You can practically see the esteemed designers in a boxing ring, striking blows with luxury goods instead of knockout punches.)
The truth is, while the trio’s competition for praise and wealthy patrons in the early 19th century was real, it never led to any brawls. Rather, it inspired an influx of creativity and a collection of stunning jewelry and decorative designs — and the era’s art enthusiasts had ringside seats for the entire event.
“Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique,” on view through January 18 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, explores the creative contest that existed between the three famous artist-jewelers, as well as how it influenced contemporaries such as Cartier, Gorham and Boucheron. For many museum visitors, the exhibit’s nearly 300 masterworks — carefully selected from the collections of more than 50 international lenders, including Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Albert of Monaco — will be as educational as they are awe-inspiring. After all, just as few people realize that the men were creative rivals, they’re also unaware that they worked in the same mediums. Even knowledgeable art lovers tend to solely identify Fabergé with the lavish “eggs” he handcrafted for the Russian royal family; Lalique with the art-nouveau-style glass pieces he produced until his death in 1945; and Tiffany with colorful stained-glass creations.
(To that end, the exhibition offers plenty of examples of the trio’s most famous offerings, including five of Fabergé’s Imperial Easter eggs; the debut of a rare Lalique glass vase; and Tiffany’s “Magnolia Window,” never before exhibited in this country.)
However, their talents were just as rich as their customers. For instance, Lalique was considered one of the finest jewelry designers in the world until he switched to glass in 1910 — a move that was inspired by Tiffany’s success in glass work.
“And, irrespective of the eggs that everyone knows him for, Fabergé was, first and foremost, a great jeweler,” says Stephen Harrison, CMA curator of decorative art and design.
That’s evident in the exhibit piece entitled simply “Necklace,” created by the House of Fabergé, an extravagant work comprised of diamonds, gold, platinum, demantoid garnets and massive, deep-purple amethysts from the Ural Mountains in Siberia. “The stones in that necklace stand up about a half-an-inch off your neck, and they have this beautiful gold filigree behind them,” says Harrison.
It’s hard to imagine that the extravagant designs employed by Fabergé — most noteworthy for his use of oversized gems — could have been largely overlooked all these years. “But the reason we don’t know much more about his jewelry today is because those were really the first things that were broken up and sold after the Russian Revolution,” says Harrison. “Not too many of his fantastic jewelry pieces survived.”
Of course, Fabergé, Lalique and Tiffany were well aware of each other’s works at the turn of the century — most notably, when they were all exhibited at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. Other craftsmen of the period took notice, too, and endeavored to make their mark with such opulent pieces as the exhibit’s “Butterfly Brooch,” by an unknown maker.
“That piece is extraordinary,” says Harrison of the diamond, gold and silver brooch. “If you draw a line right down the center of it, you’ll see that the diamonds on either side are completely different shapes — but they have a matching pair on the other side. The artist arranged the diamonds to mimic the subtle patterning on the back of a butterfly.”