Nuevo Culture

The Museum of Natural History Opens an Exhibit of Sparkling Animals

I do not have an octopus teacher, sloshing around off the coast of South Africa. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t special animals I can learn from! My instructors reside not in a kelp forest but in glittering vitrines at the Museum of Natural History, in an exhibit entitled “Beautiful Creatures: Jewelry Inspired by the Animal Kingdom.”

The exhibition opens tomorrow, housed in a rotating gallery that is part of the museum’s newly renovated Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals. Among the 150 specimens are creatures that fly and slither, splash and sprint, from a 1927 Tiffany swordfish—the perfect summer jewel—to the ridiculously epic Cartier diamond bird brooch, which, at almost 8-inches high and weighing a hefty 5.5-ounces, crushed Uma Thurman’s shoulder at the 2016 Met ball.

A number of these critters have impressive provenances: there is the Glenn Spiro papillon ring sported fetchingly by Beyoncé, and (I want this!) the petite Cartier snake ring custom-made for jewelry collector Elizabeth Taylor. The legendary Mexican actor Maria Felix is represented by, among other serpents, a pair of coiled blue enamel and gemstone ear clips that seem so heavy they could rip the lobe of an ordinary mortal, which of course, Ms. Felix was not. And here is the famous diamond-ruby-sapphire-emerald flamingo that belonged to the famous—and infamous—Duchess of Windsor. (This haughty bird, familiar to us from countless photographs, strikes one as a sort of jewelry equivalent of the Mona Lisa—smaller and less imposing in person, but undeniably glowing with a certain something.)

Ring by Glenn Spiro

Denis Finnin

Elizabeth Taylor’s Cartier ring. 

Denis Finnin

Maria Felix’s earrings. 

Denis Finnin

From the extraordinary imagination of Salvador Dalí comes a circa-1950 starfish, flaunting a vast palette of stones and even a pair of attendant bejeweled butterflies. This piece once belonged to the dancer Rebekah Harkness, the subject of Taylor Swift’s “The Last Great American Dynasty,” who noted Harkness’s affection for Dalí in the lyric: “Rebekah gave up on the Rhode Island set forever…
And blew through the money on the boys and the ballet
And losing on card game bets with Dalí.”

Love is funny. One minute you’re falling for a circa 1900 enamel grasshopper ring by Lucien Gaillard (small as it is, a surprising number of people picked this as a favorite when we played that old game—you can take one thing home, which is it?) Then, two seconds later, your heart is breaking over a massive dragonfly of diamonds and colored stones by the modern master Wallace Chan.

Dalí’s starfish brooch, owned by Rebekah Harkness.

Denis Finnin

And who knew that a contemporary diamond-and-moonstone Hemmerle parrot would grab your attention? (Am I the only one who thinks it looks like the Maltese Falcon?) Or that a scallop shell studded with diamonds, subtle and bold at the same time, would weave a magic spell? Maybe it’s because it has such an interesting backstory—it seems that in the early 1940s, Fulco di Verdura himself bought the shells for $5 from the gift shop of this very museum. “What I get a kick out of is to buy a shell for five dollars, use half of it, and sell it for twenty-five hundred,” he told the New Yorker in 1941. He neglected to describe the Herculean task of setting gold and diamonds in a shell, nor the number of smashed bits that ended up on the atelier floor.

Asked how she selected these bright and beautiful creatures, the exhibit’s curator, Marion Fasel, says that she wanted to go where the wild things were. “No barnyard animals, no domestic animals, no animals dressed as people!” she declares. “And they couldn’t just be pretty—they all had to have a soul. And they do. I never talked to the animals before, but now I do. And they talk back to me.”