Mid-Century (1950 – 1960)

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With mid-century jewelry, the use of platinum was prevalent once again. Designs were often abstract free-form designs using a combination of yellow gold and platinum. Pieces were often pavéd with small diamonds covering much of the piece. This was the period in which Schlumberger was producing his finest pieces for Tiffany & Co.

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Tags: Mid-century

Mid-century Sapphire and Diamond Floral Clip Earrings

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Mid-century sapphire and diamond floral clip earrings, set in platinum.

English, ca. 1950
Length: 1 inch

$14,000

These earrings appear in our clip on earrings video on our videos page.

Art Deco Sapphire and Diamond Floral Clip EarringsArt Deco Sapphire and Diamond Floral Clip Earrings

Mid-Century Sapphire and Diamond Ring

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Natural 8.75 carat Ceylon sapphire ring set in platinum with lunette diamond shoulders.

English, ca. 1950
(diamonds approx. 1.5 cts)

other view, Mid-Century Sapphire and Diamond Ringback view, Mid-Century Sapphire and Diamond Ring

Holy Moley: 18th Century Patch Boxes

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Swiss Gold and Enamel Patch Box

On April 26, 1687, the famed diarist Samuel Pepys noted that the Duchess of Newcastle wore “many black patches because of pimples about her mouth.”  She likely carried them in a patch box, or boite á mouches. Such boxes were often made of gold, tortoise shell, silver, or ivory and fitted with a mirror, adhesive, brush, and compartments for patches. Some feature additional compartments for cosmetics like rouge or kohl.

Made of silk, leather, or taffeta, patches became popular face and body accessories beginning in the 16th century. They came in a range of shapes, including geometric forms, stars, and different phases of the moon.  Some were even more whimsical, like the shapes of animals and insects. One theory behind the trend is a superstition of moles and their placement, which were admired as marks of beauty.

Donned by both women and men, patches served to accentuate the whiteness of one’s skin and to conceal blemishes. Their placement was a flirtatious language of gestures, as different positions suggested different types of flirtation.  A patch near the lips was called the ‘coquette,’ on the forehead, the ‘assassin,’ the ‘roguish’ on the nose, the ‘impassioned’ near the eye and, on the cheek, the ‘gallant.’ Which one are you?

micromosaic dog box

Nineteenth Century Gold and Mosaic Seal

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Gold seal with four profiles against blue mosaic ground and owl on top.

Italian, nineteenth century
Height: 1 3/4 inches (including bail)

$4,500

Nineteenth Century Gold and Mosaic SealNineteenth Century Gold and Mosaic SealNineteenth Century Gold and Mosaic Seal

Hidden Histories: Mark Antokolsky’s Portal to Prominence

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In mid-nineteenth-century Russia in the town of Vilna, there lived a boy named Mordekhai, but everyone called him Motke. He loved working with his hands, filling makeshift sketchbooks and any available surface with scenes and figures, including walls, tables, and chairs. Even his family’s tavern door was not free of his hand, where he drew a fully armed soldier to frighten away drunkards.

Motke was called leimene hand (clay hands) or leimener geilom (clay statue) for his clumsiness when helping with the family business. Little did anyone know how much these pejorative nicknames prophesized, as those clay hands would one day breathe life not only in clay, but also wood, marble, and bronze.  Art history knows him not as Motke or Mordekhai, but Mark Antokolsky (1843-1902), the most famous Russian sculptor of the nineteenth century.

Antokolski by Repin 1914

By Ilya Repin, 1914
From Wikimedia Commons

Antokolsky was one of a very few successful Jewish artists in Russia from the nineteenth century. In Russia it was more difficult for Jews to achieve artistic success than in other countries. Artistic pursuits were also not welcomed within the Jewish community. Intellectual training was traditionally revered, unlike art, and all handwork trades, which were looked down upon.

Art was considered frivolous, and figure drawing in particular was taboo. Antokolsky’s parents tried to discourage his artistic inclination, which they regarded as sinful, and his father often beat him for making “idols.” Eventually they relented, and his father arranged for him to apprentice with various artisans. The young sculptor was unhappy with all of them, until he became the pupil of the wood carver Stassel’krout, remaining his apprentice for three years.

His work so impressed the wife of Vilna’s governor-general that she helped him travel to St. Petersburg to receive a stipend from Baron Horace Ginzberg to attend the Imperial Academy of Arts. In 1862 he was the first Jewish student to be accepted at the Imperial Academy of Arts, but only as a volnoslushatel, meaning someone who can attend class but not be put on the official student list.

A combination of such luck and talent laid the foundation for Antokolsky’s success. Starting in the 1860s, a relaxation of restrictive laws, among other factors, made it easier for Jews to acquire artistic training in Moscow and St. Petersburg. At last, artistic portrayals of Russian-Jewish life would no longer be confined to the ethnographic domain, as Jews appropriated their own image.

Antokolsky had one foot in the Russian and European art world and another in the Pale of Settlement, which was a world in and of itself. Though he deviated from tradition in pursuit of art, he would not sacrifice his strong Jewish identity for success. He remained observant by not working on the Sabbath and enthusiastically attended High Holiday services. His Jewish heritage inspired much of his work. In 1864 he received a silver medal for his wood carving Jewish Tailor. This honor was a significant turning point in the representation of Jews in art, as this was the first time in Russian sculpture that an image of a Jew was presented in a dignified manner and not conforming to stereotypes. The prominent art critic Vladimir Stasov praised the work, saying it represented “a launching of the new and true sculpture,” also remarking, “Before Antokolsky, not a single sculptor in the whole of Europe had endeavored to portray scenes of Jewish national life and to become an explorer of these innovative landscapes.”

One Jewish subject depicted by Antokolsky is the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). This portrait, on view here at A La Vieille Russie, was part of a project called the Friends of Mankind, a group of historical and biblical figures Antokolsky admired for their devotion to truth and kindness. Ever devoted to historical accuracy, Antokolsky meticulously researched his subjects and Spinoza was no exception. He pieced together every little biographical detail he could find and was frustrated with the discrepancies encountered in many portraits.  He also went on a trip to Amsterdam to “peep in the environment where Spinoza came from and to breathe in the air there.”

Marble portrait of Baruch Spinoza by Mark Antokolsky

Antokolsky felt a strong inner bond between Spinoza and himself, as Spinoza’s dual identity paralleled his own: they both challenged tradition, becoming outsiders within and outside of their communities. A descendent of marranos (Jews who converted during the Spanish Inquisition but practiced Judaism secretly or later returned to it), Spinoza was raised in a deeply religious household and educated to become a rabbi. However, he became drawn to secular subjects, particularly philosophy, and began to question aspects of his faith. Accused of betraying Judaism and becoming an atheist, he was excommunicated in 1656 at 24 years old, and later exiled from Amsterdam. Although he never abandoned Judaism and changed religions, his unconventional views were threatening to a Jewish community still recovering from the Spanish Inquisition and concerned with reviving and maintaining traditions.

Ivan the Terrible by Mark AntokolskyAntokolsky’s portraits of important figures in Russian history are also highly regarded, two of which are for sale here at A La Vieille Russie. One such portrait is a ceramic bust of Ivan the Terrible. Ivan was produced in a variety of media, including marble, plaster, and silver. Majolica was a rare medium for Antokolsky. Originally executed in bronze in 1871, the portrait won Antokolsky many honors, and he became famous overnight. To become so renowned in one’s own lifetime is a significant accomplishment for any artist, and accompanying this instant fame was a gold medal and the title of  Academician. The portrait impressed Tsar Alexander II so much that he commissioned a copy for the Hermitage, now in the Russian State Museum. As with all his works, Antokolsky meticulously researched Ivan’s life and character, also spending four months in the Kremlin Armory studying designs for the throne and costume.

Another notable historical portrait in our collection is a bronze of Nestor the Chronicler, the eleventh century Kievan monk credited as the author of Primary Chronicle, or Tale of Bygone Years, the only written record of Russia’s early history. Antokolsky thoroughly read the Chronicle as he worked on the portrait, and the plain wooden table, clothing, and Nestor the Chronicler by Mark Antokolskyother features reflect his loyalty to historical accuracy. The first version of Nestor was made in bronze in 1890 and was over five feet tall. It was originally in the Hermitage and moved to the Russian Museum in 1897.

Due to a combination of health problems and anti-Semitic aggression, Antokolsky moved abroad, first to Rome in 1871 and then Paris in 1877, but his heart remained in Russia and he returned periodically. He continued to receive honors, including a gold medal at the 1878 Exposition Universelle, and again in 1900. In 1893 he was named a full member of the Imperial Academy of Arts. He died at the age of sixty-one in 1902, at last returning to the land of his birth, and is buried in St. Petersburg. The young clay hands who once left his mark on his family home, grew up to leave his mark on the world.

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References:

Ambromowicz, Hirsz, et al. Profiles of a Lost World: Memoirs of East European Jewish Life Before World War II. Wayne State University Press, 1999.

Glants, Musya. Where Is My Home?  The Art and Life of the Russian Jewish Sculptor Mark Antokolsky. 1843-1902. Lexington Books, 2010.

Goodman, Susan Tumarkin, ed. Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change 1890-1990. Prestel-Verlag/Jewish Museum, 1995.

A Thimbleful of History

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collection of thimbles

Antique thimbles are trinkets most often of precious materials, as beautiful as they are functional, imbued with both sentimental and intrinsic value. While they originated as sewing implements, over the centuries their decorative features evolved to complement their new functions as fashionable gifts, status symbols, and tokens of affection.

In the preindustrial era, the significant amount of domestic sewing made thimbles and other sewing implements common household possessions. Over time, they became increasingly valuable. For example, by the sixteenth-century, silver thimbles were listed in wills and other legal documents.

In this period, decorative thimbles became fashionable gifts, a trend believed to be set by Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603) when she gave a gem-set thimble to a lady-in-waiting. For centuries it was customary to include thimbles and other sewing tools in a bride’s trousseau, a tradition that carried into the nineteenth-century. Thimbles given by a lady’s fiancé usually featured inscriptions like ‘A token of regard’ or ‘Forget-me-not.’

Gold and Enamel Thimble

Gold Directoire period French thimble with black and white enamel border.

As thimbles became more valuable, they became more decorative. In the fourteenth-century, French goldsmiths began making decorative thimbles. By the sixteenth-century, thimble decoration became more distinctive, consisting of relief designs, foliate scrolls, and mottoes. The finest thimbles were mostly gold.  Other materials varied by region. Glass thimbles came from Venice and Bohemia and wooden thimbles came from Germany and Austria.

Gold and Turquoise Floral Thimble

English 18k gold thimble with with turquoises, pearls, and gold scrolls set in an elegant floral pattern. Mid-nineteenth-century.

The production of porcelain thimbles began in the eighteenth-century by a number of factories, but thimbles from the Meissen factory remain the most revered and sought after by collectors. Porcelain thimbles share common decorative motifs like flowers, birds, silhouettes, landscapes, fishing or hunting scenes, pastoral scenes, harlequinades, and chinoiseries. Rims are often scalloped or crenellated.

porcelain thimbles

Left: English Bilston Battersea thimble with multi-colored floral sprays on a white ground. 1765.
Middle: Meissen porcelain thimble with early pruncing and a wide border of flowers. Mid-eighteenth-century.
Right: Meissen porcelain thimble with chinoiserie decoration. 1735-40.

Gem-set thimbles featured an array of gemstones like moonstone, amethyst, jade, topaz, sardonyx, coral, onyx, turquoise, carnelian, and moss agate. Some were thought to have apotropaic qualities specifically for protecting eyesite, a fair concern for a seamstress. Moss agates protected the eyes, as well as sardonyx, which offered the added bonus of defending witchcraft. Turquoise thwarted eye disease and poison.

Antique Gold and Turquoise Thimble

English 18k gold thimble set with seven turquoises within a floral scroll decorated border with scalloped edge. Ca. 1840.

Today, thimbles still make excellent gifts and are avidly collected. Also, if one happens to be in search of a protective amulet, by all means, consider a thimble.

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19th Century Amethyst and Pearl Cross

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Amethyst, pearl, and diamond bishop’s pendant cross.

Probably Russian, 19th century
Length: 7-1/2 inches

$45,000

19th Century Amethyst and Pearl Cross, back

18th Century Goldsmith Work: Snuff Boxes

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Snuff taking was exceedingly fashionable throughout the 18th century in Europe.  Therefore, snuff boxes and snuff taking accessories of all types and quality were produced – ranging from Sheffield plate boxes, to sterling silver boxes to gold boxes with gem stones and enamel miniatures, in each country’s own decorative tastes, and reflecting the period’s styles (Louis XV or Louis XVI for example).

The more common boxes were usually rectangular in shape. Materials such as tortoise shell or horn were used to line the inside.  Some boxes utilized many different colors of gold to create a landscape.  Snuff is a fine powder, and hinges had to be extremely well made so as to store the substance properly in the owner’s pocket.  The hinges were often incorporated into the overall design of the boxes and are hard to detect.

ALVR Blog: The Empress of Gems – Pearls

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Now that it’s June, it’s time to layer on the pearls, the birthstone for this month!

Appropriately dubbed  “the queen of gems,” pearls have long been associated with royalty, crowning the heads of many queens throughout history. Cleopatra’s legendary pearl earrings, Byzantium’s Empress Theodora’s pearl tiara, and Queen Elizabeth I’s pearl-studded ensembles, for example, immediately spring to mind. But here at A La Vieille Russie, we think of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.

Colored photograph of Russian Empress Alexandra FeodorovnaThe Tsarina was not particularly interested in fashion, preferring simpler, lightweight gowns to the sumptuous finery she donned at court. Her taste in jewelry was similar, favoring pearls over other gems, noted by American writer Kellogg Durland, who traveled to Russia in 1907 to write about the Empress. He later reflected on this visit in his 1911 book, “Royal Romances of To-Day,” in which he remarks on Alexandra’s fondness for pearls:

“The Tsaritsa’s pearls, which she wears with her court costume are famous the world over. […] Perhaps, of all her jewels, she cares most for a long string of wonderful pearls, which she wears very often. The string is so long that she can wear it twice around her neck, and yet have the longest loop reach to her knees. The short loop comes to the waistline, and is finished with one single pear-shaped pearl of enormous value.”

This penchant for pearls was nicely documented, for example, in our colored photograph of the Empress (pictured above) and in this charming photograph of Alexandra and the Tsarevich, Alexei, playing with her pearls:

1913 photograph of Empress Alexandra and her son, Alexei, playing with her pearls

Empress Alexandra and the Tsarevich, Alexei, via Wikimedia Commons

Who can blame the Empress’s preference for pearls? These gems of the sea have captivated mankind for millennia and it’s easy to see why, from their beautiful luster to their seemingly magical, organic formation.

Pearls have long been associated with purity, innocence, and humility, qualities that can be attributed to their mystifying, organic origins. American mineralogist, (and Tiffany & Co. Vice President 1879-1932), George Fredirick Kunz explains how: 

“Unlike other gems, the pearl comes to us perfect and beautiful, direct from the hand of nature. Other precious stones receive careful treatment from the lapidary, and owe much to his art. The pearl, however, owes nothing to man […] it is absolutely a gift of nature, on which man cannot improve.”

As an organic gem, the pearl’s origins intrigued and perplexed man for centuries. Its association with the sea led to many water-inspired myths and theories. Ancient poets surmised that pearls formed from tears of the gods that fell into open oysters.  Similarly, in Greek and Roman mythology, Aphrodite/Venus shook droplets of water from herself as she rose from the sea, the droplets then hardening into pearls. Such myths inspired the belief that pearls formed from drops of dew, a theory that persisted for centuries. This theory endured until around the 16th century, when naturalists began to speculate that pearls formed from oyster eggs.

Pearls in fact are the result of a mollusk’s response to a foreign particle. The pearls form when layers of nacre (mother of pearl), a variety of calcium carbonate, surround a foreign particle, like a grain of sand or a parasite. Not as fantastical as tears of a god, but still magical in its own way.

For centuries, the main sources of pearls were the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, as well as the rivers and lakes of China and the coast of Japan. After 1492, the discovery of pearls in the New World provided Europe a supply so great that the region came to be called the “Land of Pearls.” 

alternate view, Baroque Pearl and Diamond Dog FigurinePearls come in many colors, ranging from white to black, and varying shades of cream, gray, blue, yellow, lavender, green, and mauve. The color produced depends on the mollusk and its environment. Pearls also vary in size, from tiny seed pearls, to large, irregularly shaped baubles called baroque pearls. Baroque pearls were popular in their namesake Baroque period but also so during the Renaissance, when jewelers fashioned them into pendants and brooches resembling animals, mermaids, and other creative, figural representations. Baroque pearls continued to inspire jewelers in subsequent periods, including during the Renaissance Revival period in the mid-nineteenth century, and even later. For example, our baroque pearl and diamond dog figurine/pendant dates to the early twentieth century.

Contemporary Diamond and Pearl Spider BroochContemporary jewelers continue to use pearls in creative ways. For example, a large cultured pearl is used as the body in this late 20th century spider brooch. A cultured pearl results from manmade intervention in the pearl-making process. A particle, such as a bead or a piece of shell, is placed inside a mollusk for the layers of nacre to form around it. While such attempts existed for centuries, it wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century when a number of individuals successfully refined the process. What was once a rare jewel only accessible to royals and aristocrats now became attainable for many people throughout the world.

Throughout history, pearls were not just prized for adornment, but also valued for their presumed curative properties. Ingesting pearls was believed to cure any number of ailments, from indigestion to melancholia. Elixirs were made with pulverized pearl and vinegar, sometimes with the addition of lemon juice and other ingredients. While we can’t speak on the curative benefits of ingesting pearls (in fact, please don’t), wearing them is sure to chase away the blues! As George Fredirick Kunz, said, “there are few ills to which women are subject that cannot be bettered or at least endured with greater patience when the sufferer receives a gift of pearls.” At ALVR we’re pleased to offer a lovely assortment of pearl gifts, from brooches to rings. Here are some of our favorites:

Sources:
Dirlam, Dona M, Elise B. Misiorowski, and Sally A. Thomas, “Pearl Fashion Through the Ages,” GIA.edu. https://www.gia.edu/doc/Pearl-Fashion-Through-the-Agesv.pdf (accessed 6/1/2020).
Durland, Kellogg. “Royal Romances of To-day.” United Kingdom: Duffield, 1911.
Kunz, George Frederick., Stevenson, Charles Hugh. “The Book of the Pearl: The History, Art, Science, and Industry of the Queen of Gems.” United Kingdom: Century Company, 1908.
Matlins, Antoinette L. The Pearl Book: The Definitive Buying Guide – How to Select, Buy, Care for and Enjoy Pearls. United States: LongHill Partners, Incorporated, 2001.
“Pearl” on Antique Jewelry University, Lang Antiques & Estate Jewelry, https://www.langantiques.com/university/pearl/ (accessed 6/1/2020).
Pointon, Marcia R. “Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones and Jewellery.” Germany: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2009.
Ward, Fred. “The History of Pearls,” PBS.org, December 29, 1998. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/history-pearls/ (accessed 6/1/2020).

ALVR Blog: Opal-Essence

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main view, black opal ring

Opal is the birthstone for October, but we think this gem should be celebrated year round! Opals are truly a wonder to behold. A hydrous variety of silicon dioxide, it’s composed of tiny silica spheres bonded together with silica and water. Known for their brilliant flashes of color, this optical phenomena is the result how the silica spheres are layered within the stone, scattering the light in different directions.

Opals come in a brilliant range of colors, including orange, yellow, red, green, blue, and purple. White opals are the most common. Found in Hungary, white opals feature flashes of color against a white, almost translucent, ground. Black opal, one of the more prized forms that is  mined in Australia, exhibits a play of color against a dark ground. Fire opal, so named for  its bright yellow, orange, or red background color, is primarily found in Mexico and Ethiopia.

Opals have been revered for centuries. Because the colors of other gems can be found in opals, the Romans considered opal to be the most precious and powerful of all gemstones. In the Middle Ages, opals were believed to bring good luck by embodying the virtues of all gemstones.

Although admired since ancient times, the reputation of this luminescent gem darkened in the nineteenth century. In this period, opal lost its luster thanks to the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s 1829 novel, Anne of Geierstein. In the novel, the character Lady Hermione wears an opal with supernatural powers that changes color according to her mood. After the opal is sprinkled with holy water, it loses its color, leaving her ill, and the following day, reduced to ashes. Scott’s decision to use the gemstone as a supernatural life source must have been inspired by the flashes of color seen on an opal when it’s exposed to light. Misunderstanding of this optical phenomenon, along with the stone’s delicate nature, inspired awe and superstition.

Unfortunately, Scott’s artistic license had consequences for the opal market, rendering this once lucky stone to be quite the opposite. In fact, within one year of its publication, sales of opals decreased by nearly 50% and remained low for the next twenty years. Superstition arose from a misunderstanding of opal’s delicate nature. They rank 5.5 to 6.5 out of 10 on Mohs scale of hardness, making opal more fragile than other stones. Because of their high water content, they’re particularly sensitive to sudden climate changes. While Sir Walter Scott exaggerated this sensitivity, it should be noted that the stone can crack under dry conditions, or rapid changes of temperature.

Like Sir Walter Scott, nineteenth-century American poet Hannah Flagg Gould was inspired by opal’s lifelike qualities. In her 1845 poem “The Opal,” she describes the stone as “the gem with the burning heart,” referring to the luminous spot that changes position in the light. Her interpretation is more optimistic than Scott’s, implying that the stone is imbued with holy light:

Gem with the burning heart,
That, as a living soul,
Pervading Every Part,
Gives beauty to the whole,
What angel’s hand thy bosom lit,
With the bright spark enkindling it.

Published in 1845, the poem illustrates opal regaining favor by mid-century. However, at the time of the Crimean War, old superstitions returned briefly when the stone was blamed for giving soldiers bad luck. In subsequent decades, attitudes warmed as more opal deposits were discovered, rekindling the opal market. This was particularly so later in the century when, in 1877, black opal was discovered in New South Wales, Australia. Queen Victoria also played a significant role in restoring opal’s reputation. She loved to wear them and was known to give them as gifts. She gifted opal jewelry to each of her five daughters as wedding presents and loved to give opal rings to many of her friends. 

In this age opals are revered once again. So long as it’s taken care of, the burning heart endures.

“Deceptively Modern Jewelry” in Art & Object Magazine

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Read about the “Deceptively Modern” exhibition in Art & Object Magazine.