Dixon Opens Petit Palais Jewelry Exhibition

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

A rare display of French jewelry and designs at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens traces the history of jewelry design from the late 17th century to after World War II.

A dandelion brooch circa 1880-1889 made with gold, platinum, silver, diamonds and swan feathers from the French jewelry maker Debut et Coulon on display at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. 

(Photo Courtesy of Dixon Gallery and Gardens)

The exhibition, “Bijoux parisiens: French jewelry from the Petit Palais,” marks the second collaboration in three years between the Petit Palais in Paris and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.

This second joint effort between the Dixon and the Petit Palais was born out of a visit to the Petit Palais Kevin Sharp, director of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, made in 2011. The two museums had just completed a retrospective exhibition on French impressionist Jean-Louis Forain. Over lunch, Sharp and Gilles Chazal, director of the Petit Palais, talked about projects the two museums might develop in the future.

After lunch, Chazal, who retired last fall and is now senior curator, invited Sharp to view a new acquisition. Chazal and his wife Martine, a renowned jewelry expert, showed Sharp dozens of pieces of sparkling French jewelry adorned with pearls, diamonds, crystals, and other rare jewels.

“Seeing what I was seeing and listening to Martine and Gilles Chazal, I understood for the first time the power these objects possess beyond their seductive beauty,” Sharpe writes in the introduction to an illustrated catalog on the exhibition published by the Dixon and authored by Gilles and Martine Chazal. “I finally grasped that any good piece of jewelry is less indebted to fleeting moments of fashion than to the dominant aesthetic of the time in which it was made.”

The jewelry exhibition opened with a lecture by Gilles Chazal on Sunday, April 28, and will be on display through July 21. In celebration of Bijoux parisiens, the Dixon will also present a series of events and lectures hosted by scholars, artists and the local community.

“It (the exhibition) is a further demonstration of the Dixon’s ongoing commitment to the study of 19th century subjects, to publishing major scholarly catalogues, to maintaining our place on the international stage and to working with the strongest institutions we can – partners like the Petit Palais,” Sharp said.

While the shops of many of the jewelry designers featured in the exhibition can still be found strolling down the famous Rue de la Paix in Paris today, Bijoux parisiens also showcases many of the designers and designs that are lesser known and no longer in existence, Chazal told an audience at the Dixon on April 28.

“We know very little about some of them,” said Chazal, who traveled to Memphis to help set up the show. Jewelry is often destroyed and melted for the previous metals and jewels, he said.

Bijoux parisiens features more than seventy unique works of jewelry and 200 drawings, oil paintings, fashion prints and photographs examining the work of designers and artists like Ernest Vever, Eugene Fontenay, Lucien Falize, Rene Lalique, and Charles Jacqueau, who defined the Cartier look for more than four decades. The objects in the exhibition are from the collections of the Petit Palais and private lenders in London, Paris and Memphis.

Many of the drawings on display were commissioned by clients and prepared as proposals, and never have been realized as actual jewelry pieces. But whether it’s an intricate powder box and lipstick case designed with gold, silver and rubies by Boucheron or a gas pipe necklace fashioned out of gold, diamonds and platinum, the pieces show how jewelry was both influenced by other type of art and paired with the fashions of the time.

The next Bijoux parisiens event takes place Wednesday, May 1, at noon with Sharp, who will speak about the artists of Bijoux parisiens. Other lectures will discuss everything from the jewelry of the French courtesans to the allure of diamonds with Mednikow master jeweler Jack Leavitt.