The American Museum of Natural History is marking the opening of the redesigned Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals with a new exhibition. Beautiful Creatures, curated by jewellery historian Marion Fasel, looks at how animals have inspired jewellers, from Cartier’s panthers to Boucheron’s 19th century stag beetle brooch.

Fasel’s curation encompasses contemporary jewellery dating from the last 150 years, in line with the museum’s recent celebration of their 150 year anniversary. Her criteria for inclusion ensures an eclectic selection: ‘All the animals included had to be full-bodied and appear somewhere in the museum,’ she says. ‘There are no barnyard or domestic animals or animals dressed as people, which is a whimsical subgenre of animal jewellery.’

Fasel was also keen to include jewellery which revealed its context, looking at what the jewellery can tell us about the wider world. ‘Perhaps most important of all, every jewel had to reflect a cultural tide, historical event, gem discovery or advancement in jewellery technology. For example, the wings on the dragonfly designed by Julia Munson under the direction of Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1904 is a virtuoso display of early platinum work in jewelry. The birds made by French jewellers during the World War II occupation of Paris were symbols of hope and freedom. Fish brooches created from the Twenties through the 1950s by American jewellers reflected the popularity of the sport.’

Gold lion brooch in precious stones
Van Cleef & Arpels lion brooch from the collection of philanthropist Brooke Astor, whose patronage of the New York Public Library has led to speculation that the piece might have been a nod to the marble lion statues that flank the main branch’s entrance on Fifth Avenue. © Sotheby’s 

Pieces by Bulgari and Van Cleef & Arpels join more contemporary designers such as Bina Goenka in the exhibition which marks the opening of the new space. Alongside the temporary exhibition gallery, it will also encompass a gallery of gems including the magnificent 563-carat ‘Star of India’ sapphire and new pieces such as the two of the largest amethyst geodes which are on display.

Exhibitions will explore how the conditions of our planet have enabled such a vast array of mineral species - it is fitting, therefore, that Fasel’s preoccupation with the natural world is the first at the temporary exhibition space, a fascination she shares with the jewellers. ‘The insects act as a canvas for artistic expression,’ she says. ‘Looking at a kaleidoscope of butterfly jewels, all designs within essentially the same outline, beautifully demonstrate how jewellery techniques and the style for and available supply of gemstones have evolved.’ §

Pink shell with jewels on it
This Verdura lion’s paw shell brooch was made from lion’s paw scallops purchased by the Italian designer Duke Fulco di Verdura in the Museum’s gift shop in 1940. Courtesy of Stephen Webster
Butterfly dotted with precious gems
Suzanne Belperron butterfly brooch. Photography: David Behl © Belperron