On View: The Rachel Lambert Mellon Collection of Jean Schlumberger

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts hosts an exhibition “Bunny” Mellon’s private collection of Schlumberger jewelry—the largest collection to ever go on public display.

David Stover / © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
OF 9

The past few years have seen major museum retrospectives on countless fashion luminaries: McQueen, Alaia, Saint Laurent, Gaultier, and so on. Yet, jewelry designers rarely receive the same attention under the spotlight. Sure, Jean Schlumberger may not be as much of a household name as Yves Saint Laurent but his influence on design is just as important.

This month the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond debuts an exhibition of Rachel “Bunny” Mellon’s private collection of Schlumberger pieces—the largest collection to ever go on public display. The 142-piece show is a master class on the innovative designer and his impact on 20th-century style.

Born in 1907 in France, Schlumberger got his start creating buttons for the legendary surrealist fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Though he’d never been formally trained as a designer or artist, Schlumberger soon began designing Schiaparelli’s costume jewelry. In 1956, Schlumberger was appointed in-house designer at Tiffany & Co. where he quickly gained a devoted following of the era’s most stylish women: Babe Paley, Diana Vreeland, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Elizabeth Taylor, among others. Schlumberger is one of only four designers Tiffany & Co. has ever allowed to sign the brand’s designs (the others being Elsa Peretti, Paloma Picasso, and Frank Gehry). At the time, Schlumberger’s designs were daring in their irreverence, using precious materials without the haute formality. For Schlumberger, design took precedent over a gem’s carat count or clarity.

Mellon was an influential gardener and landscape designer best known for redesigning the White House Rose Garden at the behest of Jackie Kennedy. Jackie, too, was a Schlumberger fan, wearing his enamel bracelets so often that they were dubbed “the Jackie bangle.” But unlike many of Schlumberger’s bold-face clients, Mellon was notoriously private and rarely ever photographed wearing her impressive jewelry collection. That alone makes the VMFA’s show a significant occasion.

Mellon and Schlumberger were kindred creative spirits, her passion for gardening clearly influenced his whimsical use of nature motifs. He famously said, “I wanted to capture the irregularity of the universe. I observe nature and find verve.” And, of course, her patronage allowed Schlumberger’s imagination to run wild. Many of the pieces in the show are one-of-a-kind, created specifically for Mellon, such as a bejeweled flower pot objet designed around one of Mellon’s own terracotta pots.

Here, several highlights from the extensive exhibition on view through June 18, 2017. vmfa.museum.