A few little orchid masterpieces from the Art Nouveau period (1884-1914) …
Renowned French glassmaker René Lalique (1860-1945), was also a notable jewellery designer of the late 19th century and his ‘Orchid Comb’ is one of the Walters Art Museum’s greatest treasures. Combining materials in unexpected ways, Lalique developed new techniques and revived old ones, blending historical and cultural references.
The ‘Orchid Comb’ represents the height of Lalique’s jewellery production. His studio rendered the highly naturalistic orchid out of a single piece of ivory; diamonds play a supporting role, picking out the veins along three slim leaves in glowing plique-à-jour enamel. The stem is attached by a gold hinge to a three-pronged horn comb. This is the most flamboyant of all the pieces purchased by museum founder Henry Walters at the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Never intended to be worn, the Orchid Comb entered the collection as a masterpiece of technical accomplishment in the field of the decorative arts. The Walters Art Museum is in Baltimore, Maryland in the United States.
But wait, there’s more … the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal is home to an orchid comb by Lalique that features not one, but three slipper orchids.
The orchids are carved from two different materials – facing forward is an ivory Paphiopedilum, which facing left and right are orchids carved from horn. A small drop-shaped topaz is at the centre of the ivory flower. The comb itself is also in horn and connected to the ornaments by a gold hinge.
“The exotic orchid was one of the flowers that symbolised the aesthetic movement of the late 19th century. Art Nouveau jewellers handled the subject with great realism, which is heightened in this case by Lalique’s technical mastery,” the museum’s website says. “He started from the real flower yet managed to imbue it simultaneously with elegance and a powerful erotic charge.”
Paulding Farnham (1859-1927) is a name that won’t leap to mind when thinking of fabulous jewellery designers but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries he raised the profile of American company Tiffany & Co – and it was all thanks to his botanical designs, especially orchids.
Farhham joined Tiffany’s in about 1879 and worked for them until 1908, becoming chief designer and director of the jewellery division in 1893.
The 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle (world fair) marked Farnham’s first major display of work, which included his enamelled and jewelled orchids. Each orchid was drawn from life after blooms were sent from places such as Guatemala, the Philippines, Colombia, India, Mexico and Brazil. The individual blooms were “coated in copper to preserve [them] for study”, according to Kristin Edrington in her 2012 Master’s thesis and quoting from Jeweled Garden by Suzanne Tennenbaum and Janet Zapata (Vendome Press, 2006).
The 24 Tiffany brooches caused a stir at the Exposition, Edrington says. “The public was stunned and fascinated with the fact that the orchids were so life-like, and the actual species of orchid could be matched with the jeweled orchid. While many French jewelers … had captured the floral form and stylized it, Farnham was able to recreate the flowers’ very essence of realism and life. He took floral jewelry design to an entirely new level of naturalism.”
The company won a silver medal, among other awards, for Farnham’s orchid designs, and seven of the brooches remain in the Tiffany Archive.