Jean Schlumberger was born in 1907, in Alsace (in north-eastern France), and was the son of a rich textile manufacturer. Schlumberger resisted pressure from his parents to join the family business and immersed himself in the Paris of the late 1920s, a city buzzing with creativity, artistic verve and a spirit of exploration. He loved the city’s flea markets, where he picked up interesting objects, including Meissen flowers, and turned them into costume jewels – the latest craze – and dress clips, which he gave to his friends to wear.
Schlumberger was inundated with requests, so, together with his sister, he started a small business making characterful fashion jewels, worn by society figures such as Daisy Fellowes and Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent, whose earrings, it is said, caught the eye of the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli then commissioned him to create the novelty buttons for which he would go on to became world famous. He was in fine company: Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau and the poet Louis Aragon also designed surrealist jewels for their good friend Schiaparelli.
This entrée into the world of jewels shaped Schlumberger’s natural talent and his sense of fantasy and freedom, which proved more valuable than any formal training in art or jewellery-making. Never bound by convention, never limited in his imagination, Schlumberger saw jewels, first and foremost, as a means of expression. He rejected the cold, flat geometry of the prevailing Art Deco style, favouring a rich, sculptural approach. He loved the beauty and mystery of precious materials, yet despised jewels prized primarily for their intrinsic value, saying, ‘One might as well pin a cheque on someone’s lapel.’
Celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic as the ‘tall, darkly fascinating Parisian’, Schlumberger began to apply his talents to designing precious jewellery, again for his circle of friends. Daisy Fellowes commissioned a diamond flower brooch, which she wore with a real flower.
At the outbreak of war, Schlumberger joined the French army, endured Dunkirk, escaped first to England and then to America before returning to Europe a year later to join de Gaulle’s Free French forces. At the end of the Second World War, in 1946, he went into partnership with an old friend, Nicolas Bongard, nephew of Paul Poiret, who had worked in fine jewellery for Lacloche and Boivin; together they opened a small shop on New York’s East 63rd Street.
The fashion columnist Diana Vreeland, who had known ‘Johnny’, as she called him, from Paris, was one of their first clients, commissioning her dream jewel, a ‘trophy of gallantry’, and she was followed by the elite of New York society, including style leaders such as Babe Paley and Gloria Guinness. They loved Schlumberger’s effervescent individualism. As Vreeland explained, ‘He so well understands the fantastic beauty of the world that he is not a fantasist. The world is a fantasy; Johnny is a realist.’
In 1956 Walter Hoving, the chairman of Tiffany & Co, on a quest to add a dynamic contemporary dimension to the Fifth Avenue store, found just what he was looking for in Schlumberger’s jewellery. He made Schlumberger and Bongard an offer they couldn’t refuse: Schlumberger’s own department, complete control of his designs, and a position as vice president of Tiffany.
At Tiffany, Schlumberger revelled in the resources at his disposal, the magnificent gemstones, supreme craftsmanship in the best ateliers. The blend of freedom and security unleashed his full creative potential and gave his imagination free rein.
Of all the themes from nature, Schlumberger most loved the sea, creating jewels and objects designed as sea urchins, starfish, cockleshells, sea anemones. His style crystallised into a riotous yet refined rococo – like Schiaparelli, Schlumberger knew exactly how far to push the drama – characterised by dynamism of form, asymmetry, fluidity and a glorious use of colour chosen with an artist’s rather than a gemmologist’s eye. He reintroduced enamels: vibrant, clear, glossy, sun yellow, sky blue, grass green, lacquer red, sometimes flecked with delicate gold paillons, and often stabbed with his signature gold nails or studs.
Aside from nature, Schlumberger drew on a rich inventory of inspirations, many taken from his love of travelling, others from the splendour and nobility of the Renaissance, or his love of antiques. When it came to the technical realisation of his designs, he was a perfectionist, exacting in his demands for supreme goldsmithing and craftsmanship.
At Tiffany, his circle of fashionable society friends was joined in the 1960s and 70s by a jet-set clientele, including the Taylor-Burtons and Jacqueline Kennedy, who became a close friend. She is particularly associated with Schlumberger’s gold-ribbed and enamelled bangles, which remain bestsellers today.
Schlumberger died in 1987, but his department in Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue store continues to create his designs, in limited quantities, making careful, considered selections each season. The artistic integrity of his jewels, their metaphysical quality, their poetry and perfection of line and proportion, mean that they are timeless in their appeal, so much a part of yet transcending their moment in time.
Today, Jean Schlumberger’s original atelier, high above New York’s Fifth Avenue, is at the centre of Tiffany’s luxurious private salon, the studio where VIP clients can sit and discuss a bespoke design that will turn their dreams into reality. Showcases are filled with Schlumberger jewels, the shelves lined with early Tiffany objects. It is a fitting memory; as Diana Vreeland wrote of her friend, he was a true artist for whom jewels were a ‘means of realising his dreams’.