"Masterpieces of French Jewelry," opening today at the Legion of Honor for a four-month run, is surprisingly, gratifyingly more than just a display of beautiful gems and precious metal ("not that there is anything wrong with that"). This is a spacious, elegant matrix of the art of jewelry, grouped by periods and styles — decorations and ornaments presented in the context of their time, in a chronological sequence.
With such a large exhibit, it is surprising to learn its constraints: everything here is from France, owned by Americans — institutions and private collectors, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Christopher Forbes and Dina Merrill Hartley.
The stunning pieces are displayed in rooms identified as Art Nouveau (1890-1905), René Lalique (Art Nouveau’s phantasmagorical main creator, 1860-1945), the Paris Exposition (1900), Belle Epoque (1900-1915), and so on, up to the present.
Active artists at the show include Americans working in Paris: Joel Arthur Rosenthal (JAR), the 40-year-old engineer Lorenz Bäumer, and from the venerable House of Boucheron, items from the 21st century — although Boucheron is also represented by an 1889 Acacia Branch brooch, of gold, silver, diamonds and enamel. This classic piece is so shimmering and "alive" that its claim of portraying nature’s sensuality and movement is well-justified.
Eye-catching items include a 100-year-old Cartier bow brooch, carved rock crystal with diamond drops; also from the turn of the previous century, a Husson cigarette case of green enamel and diamonds.
A complementary exhibit also opening today is "Design and Decadence: French Works on Paper of the Modernist Era." Drawing from the period between the two world wars, the show bypasses the usually represented movements — Cubism, Dada and Surrealism — to focus on "ordinary" graphic design, fashion and popular culture.
The curator’s notes warn, rather archly, that some items "display overtones of conspicuous consumption, decadence, and even hints of vulgarity. ... How one approaches these works can vary from nostalgia to the judgmental." Assuredly, at the next-door jewelry exhibit no potential of faultfinding exists.
Where: Legion of Honor, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closes June 10
Tickets: $10 general; $7 seniors; $6 ages 13-17; free for children 12 and under
Contact: (415) 863-3330