As always, I spent a lot of time in museums during my trip to San Francisco. I started at the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park—the first time I’ve ever been to this museum. I went to see Artistic Luxury: Faberge, Tiffany, Lalique. I know we like to think that today’s rich spend fortunes on their luxe brands. But seriously, rich people everywhere need to demand more from their artisans.
Growing up working in a family-owned jewelry store, I was aware of the works of Peter Carl Faberge, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Rene Lalique through photographs and other stories. These names are legends in the world of jewelry. But even that knowledge did not prepare me for the reality of their artistry.
Pictures were not allowed in the galleries. But that seemed appropriate, because I’ve seen boatloads of photos of works by these artists and they don’t even come close to the reality. (Although I have included a photo from the Legion of Honor’s Web site to set the context.)
All of these houses created amazing work, but my personal preference tends toward the works of Faberge and Lalique. Having said that, you have not experienced Tiffany glass until you’ve seen it in person, particularly the stained glass windows—the glass is not just cut pieces leaded together; they are molded and sculpted and textured to create something that is more like painting than stained glass. They were mesmerizing.
Works from the house of Faberge were even more amazing. The stars? The legendary Faberge eggs with at least a half dozen on display here. These astound. Let’s start with the enamel work—finishes so perfect, so vibrant, so incandescent that you can’t understand until you see. And I won't even try to describe the surprises hidden in each egg.
The eggs dazzled but so did the collection of flowers displayed in carved, rock-crystal vases that were so realistic you’d swear they were filled with water. Take the fluffy dandelion just waiting for someone to blow on it and release it’s seeds. Only this dandelion was crafted from the frailest gold, tiny diamonds, and of all things, asbestos fibers—a newly discovered material at the time.
And how about the frigid beauty of an ice pendant and accompanying snowflake brooch. The platinum and diamond frost on the pendant were like looking through a frosted windowpane on a beautiful winter’s eve.
I can’t leave this section without commenting on the brilliant audio tour. So many audio tours border on the silly. But here real people told real stories. Like the Faberge egg given to Princess Grace of Monaco. She loved it so much she kept in on her desk in her personal study until her death, after which her husband hid it away for more that thirty years. Or the woman on the board of the museum who, after purchasing her Faberge egg, was left without a purse to take to a party at which the museum’s head curator would be. She tucked her keys and compact in the Faberge egg and used it as a clutch. The curator nearly had a heart attack.
There's still Lalique to discuss. I’ll try and keep it short. I loved this stuff. Everything is beautiful, but much of it is beautiful in a dark way. Sure, there are flowers and birds and other images of traditional beauty. But there are also insects, snakes, and faces that moan. One orchid carved from bone was so fragile you wondered why it hadn’t wilted under the bright lights. There was a pair of dragonflies carved from bone, the wings so thin you could see through them.
So, to all you rich people that have accumulated more of our society’s wealth than any group since the great depression, I have one thing to say. The least you could do is demand more from today’s craftsmen. Until you’ve spent hundreds of millions on an original creation as beautiful as a Faberge egg or a Lalique hair comb, you’re not doing your part for the economy. Get with it.