Places to visit on one tank of gas: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The Rachel Lambert Mellon Collection of Jean Schlumberger is on display through June 18 and general admission is free. “The VMFA has never really presented such an extensive exhibition of jewelry objects like this.”

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The Rachel Lambert Mellon Collection of Jean Schlumberger is on display through June 18 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. (Courtesy Ben Swenson)

Editor’s note: No need for a plane ticket. Put that passport away. This story is part of a series that features regional attractions outside of the Williamsburg area that can be driven to with less than one tank of gas. Buckle up and hit the road.   

Many people find inspiration in the beauty of the natural world, but when that muse strikes an elite artist and a wealthy patron at the same time, the result is a body of breathtaking work.

The Rachel Lambert Mellon Collection of Jean Schlumberger is on display through June 18 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. General admission to the museum is free.

Schlumberger was a French-born jewelry designer known for his keen artistic eye and imaginative creations. He was especially well known for his work at Tiffany & Co. in New York City.

The 142 pieces of jewelry and objets d’art include fashion accessories, such as brooches and necklaces, and ornamental objects, such as crystal obelisks and statuettes. All of these pieces are made of precious metals, gemstones and other refined materials, and each one is the result of meticulous design and craftsmanship.

The objects all belonged to Rachel Lambert Mellon, an American horticulturalist, gardener, philanthropist, and art collector, who was called “Bunny” her whole life. When she died in 2014, Mellon left nearly all of her Schlumberger pieces to the VMFA, which already had possession of more than two dozen designed by Jean Schlumberger and purchased by Mellon.

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Mellon was a well-known heiress and the and the second wife of Paul Mellon, himself the inheritor of a fortune. The VMFA was among the many educational and charitable organizations the Mellons supported throughout their lives.

The Mellons’ primary residence was a sprawling estate called Oak Spring near Upperville, Va. Paul Mellon died in 1999.

Early on, Schlumberger’s jewelry found favor among socialites such as former first lady Jackie Kennedy and Diana Vreeland, a noted columnist and editor in the field of fashion. Schlumberger eventually became vice president and lead designer at Tiffany & Co.

Bunny Mellon and Schlumberger shared a fondness for nature. Mellon was an avid horticulturalist, so she was attracted to Schlumberger’s art and jewelry, much of which incorporated interpretations of flora and fauna.

Schlumberger designed pieces with Mellon in mind and Mellon often commissioned items from Schlumberger that would celebrate her appreciation of nature.

The brooch Hummingbird, for instance, casts the eponymous creature in a sheath of gemstones and gold, a slender beak of black enamel stretching from its sparkling body.

Bracelets and Banana Earrings employs a little-used material called paillonné enamel, which the craftsman layered over gold leaf, offering vibrant colors that are at once rich and lustrous.

The decorative piece Bowl is crafted from a translucent type of quartz called agate and adorned with colorful stones and gold woven vine-like around the bottom and rim.

Mitchell Merling, Paul Mellon Curator and Head of the Department of European Art at the VMFA, said that Schlumberger’s work stands apart from other art by virtue of its exquisite design and craftsmanship.

“When you see Schlumberger and compare it to other jewelry, much of what’s out there is just stones in a setting. These pieces are rocket ships compared to those,” he said.

Merling said that the Schlumberger exhibit is meant to be family-friendly, as young and old alike are invited to make their own inspired creations. A long, wooden table in one room of the exhibit displays items for inspiration: a couple books of sketches made by Schlumberger himself surround a gleaming brooch set as the table’s centerpiece. Visitors are encouraged to take a seat and draw whatever comes to them in blank sketchbooks.

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Anthony Backherms, spokesperson for the VMFA, said that the response has been overwhelming, with nearly 10,000 visitors stopping in for the exhibit within the first nine days.

“Because VMFA has never really presented such an extensive exhibition of jewelry objects like this in the past, and because this particular collection has such an interesting history, visitors seem to really enjoy spending a great deal of time in the exhibition as they familiarize themselves with the objects and information available to them,” Backherms said.

Schlumberger, who died in 1987, once suggested that his novel creations could be traced back to common, humble experiences: “I observe nature and find verve,” he said.

Merling said he hopes the exhibit causes people to seek creative inspiration in the same natural world that spoke so deeply to Schlumberger.

IF YOU GO: The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has more information about its exhibits and programming on its website and Facebook page.

Ben Swenson is an educator and writer who lives in James City County. His blog Abandoned Country chronicles sites of historic value that have been reclaimed by nature. Swenson can be reached at benswenson@cox.net

For more information or to have your recent trip highlighted in our new travel section, please email travel editor Aaron Gray at aaron@localvoicemedia.com