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Historic Jewelry Dazzles at Taft Museum's "Bijoux Parisiens"

Love things that sparkle? At the Taft Museum of Art, Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit PalaisParis luxuriates in rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and emeralds in brooches, necklaces, and earrings designed by Cartier, Lalique, Van Cleef & Arpels among others.

Continuing through May 14, the collection – which includes drawings, paintings and fashion prints – explores the intersection of French art, fashion, and history from the 17th through mid-20th century, from lavish Baroque adornments through stately neoclassical pieces of the Napoleonic era to Art Deco designs.

Try this on for size: in 1875, jewelry designer Eugène Fontenay composed a collar of two strands of linked flower heads that flank a strand of pearls. The centerpiece is a cameo, carved from a shell, which depicts the goddess of the dawn, Aurora, with her horse-drawn cart. The Horae, the goddesses of the seasons, accompany her. The cameo sits in an openwork gold mount set with sapphires and rubies and hung with a pearl, in the Renaissance manner.

Chief curator Lynne Ambrosini laughs that there’s a game she likes to play as she unpacks touring exhibits. “I ask myself, ‘What would I like to keep?’ It kept changing.”

She finally settled on a Gothic Revival cuff by Lucien Falize with links that will suggest glorious medieval cathedrals to viewers.  “The links are large and framed in gold sculpted in high arches. Tiny diamonds and turquoise.” Her voice is filled with admiration.

Ambrosini urges Taft Museum visitors to look beyond the bling to the craftsmanship, which she calls “sculpture on a very small scale.”

You’ll want a magnifying glass to examine the extraordinary detail. Ambrosini laughingly suggests men “dragged to the exhibit” will marvel and wonder, “’How do you think they did that?’”

And consider the political, economic and social change the jewelry speaks to, every bit as captivating as the bright, shiny stones.

“Jewelry is a barometer of changes in society,” Ambrosini says.

The jewelry design of the Napoleonic era was neo-classical. Why? Because the Little Corporal had declared himself Emperor and had aspirations of conquest at least equivalent to ancient Greece and Rome ad favored symbols from antiquity to drive the point home.

“Napoleon was deposed in 1814,” Ambrosini reminds, followed by the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy.

The Restoration period “recalls the grandeur of the pre-revolutionary regime,” Ambrosini explains, with a big difference.

“The buying power of the ruling class was greatly diminished. Jewelry designers “very wisely” imported less expensive stones, like amethysts from Brazil.  “Gold was hammered, pounded and stretched” to disguise the fact that piece contained very little gold.

Jump ahead to the 1890s. Design had changed again, to Art Nouveau, bringing with it Rene Lalique, famous for elements including enamels and iridescent effects.

“Platinum was the metal of choice – until the bottom fell out of the stock market. Everyone wanted gold because it was a safe investment.” It took a while for platinum to come back into jewelry design because during WWII “it was needed for the munitions industry.”

Try to take advantage of the free podcast audio tour of Bijoux Parisiens with decorative arts specialist Jeannine Falino.

It picks out some of the most dramatic pieces in the exhibition highlighting how the jewelry was made and used, and how evolving tastes led to new styles. Visitors can download the audio guide on their smartphones. More information at

Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris, through May 14. Taft Museum of Art. 314 Pike St., Downtown Cincinnati. Hours: 11 a.m-4 p.m. Wednesday-Friday. 11 a.m-5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Admission: Tuesday-Saturday:  Adults $14 in advance; $16 at the door;
Senior and Youth (6-18), $12 in advance; $14 at the door; Children 5 years and younger free.
Sunday: $4 in advance, $6 at the door, children 5 and younger, free. Visit or call 513-684-4516 for all programming reservations.

*Securing timed tickets in advance is recommended. Walk-ins will be accommodated as availability permits. Visit to get tickets. 

Among free programs (reservations required, 513-684-4516) in conjunction with Bijoux Parisiens (reservations are required for all programs. Visit or call 513-684-4516.)

Feb. 24, 1:30–2:30 p.m. Book discussion led by Library Manager David Siders and Fiction Librarian Stephanie Cooper from the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

March 2, 6:30 p.m. Learn about the intriguing parallels between jewelry design and the global history of design with graphic designer and educator Mark Thomas. Galleries will not be open.
April 6, 6:30 p.m. Jewelry expert Elyse Zorn Karlin offers an evening of fascinating histories of fabulous Frenchwomen and their equally fabulous jewelry. Galleries will not be open.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts