CINCINNATI -- The shiny items of "Bijoux Parisiens," the latest exhibit at the Taft Museum of Art, are just the distraction you need.
Open Saturday through May 14, "Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris" features 75 dazzling pieces by Cartier, Lalique, Van Cleef, Arpels and more. The show views French history and fashion through the lens of jewelry from the early 19th through mid-20th centuries.
"It's not an exhibition of precious stones," said Christophe Léribault, director of the Petit Palais in Paris, the museum that conceived the exhibit. "It's more an exhibition of craftsmanship."
Produced by Petit Palais in cooperation with the Joslyn Art Museum of Omaha, Nebraska, where it will travel in June, "Bijoux Parisiens" includes several pieces from private collections in Cincinnati and the Taft Museum.
Panther cufflinks, a brooch made to look like a diamond-studded dandelion puff, a turquoise and gold bracelet inspired by Gothic architecture -- the exhibit is filled with sparkling treasures. It's hard to know where to look first. It's a show that requires slow-going and up-close viewing so you can really take in the innovation and craftsmanship that created these opulent and elegant pieces.
Buy your tickets online to save a couple dollars, and when you go, here are nine things you can't miss at "Bijoux Parisiens."
Neo-Renaissance pendant: The first thing you see when you walk into "Bijoux Parisiens" is a fist-sized Renaissance pendant. At its center is a tiny figure of Charity, a woman looking adoringly at two small children and surrounded by a symmetrical arrangement of gold scrolls and small stones. The piece was created well before the era the exhibit focuses on but is included to show how this style -- symmetrical, focused, sculptural -- influenced jewelry makers for centuries.
Take note and be sure to compare the piece to the Neo-Renaissance pendant from Lucien Falize, its gold scrolls dripping in diamonds, tourmaline and pearls. You'll see the same open work, symmetrical design and enamelwork. In just two pieces, you can trace the evolution of centuries of technique.
The natural influence: During the Art Nouveau period, asymmetrical design and natural influences led to jewelry that featured flowers, leaves and shells, in addition to metals, gemstones and materials like horn. The lines are softer, a stark difference from earlier pieces influenced by architecture, but the jewelry is no less striking. Be sure to notice the pressed-flower effect achieved on a hair comb by Rene Lalique, a favorite of actress Sarah Bernhardt, and the maple seed pendant glittering with diamonds and peridots by Georges Fouquet.
The modern influence: "Bijoux Parisiens" ends with pieces created between World War I and II, and you can see the rise and inspiration of machinery and technology in the jewelry, as well as the changing culture. Daring young women in sleeveless dresses needed stacks of glittering bracelets. With their short hair, they needed sparkling headbands. They were less interested in nature and more interested in the clean, stark lines of the Art Deco style.
The Cincinnati connection: Local jewelry expert Kim Klosterman loaned several pieces from her private collection to "Bijoux Parisiens." These include an Art Deco clutch by Cartier, embellished with onyx, rubies and amethyst, and a bracelet dripping in diamonds cut in a variety of ways.
"Each piece catches the light differently, so something is always sparkling," said Lynne Ambrosini, director of curatorial affairs at Taft Museum. "It's really the ultimate in bling."
Klosterman will lead a conversation about the House of Fouquet, one of the jewelers featured in the exhibit, at 2:30 p.m. March 12. The discussion is free with admission to the museum.
The skull pin: One of the most interesting pieces in the show could be easily overlooked amidst the gem-encrusted brooches and sparkling necklaces. A tiny enamel skull, remarkably realistic, sits atop a dangerous looking stickpin. The macabre design is interesting enough, but make sure you pause long enough to take in both the handiwork and the description about the stickpin, which dates to about 1870. The skull was battery-operated. At the pull of a string, likely worn down a mischievous gentlemen's coat sleeve, the skull's jaw chattered and its diamond eyes flashed.
The history: "Bijoux Parisiens" is dazzling, for sure, but don't ignore the writing on the walls -- literally. Political and economic history can be seen through the design and materials of jewelry, and the show does an admirable job of making those connections in the descriptions at the start of each room of the exhibit, giving visitors a crash course on French history from Napoleon to World War II.
A free audio tour, featuring decorative arts specialist Jeannine Falino, also is available through your smartphone -- search for "Bijoux Parisiens" in your podcast app -- and will provide more details about the most dramatic pieces in the exhibit.
The illustrations: Also lining the walls is a wide variety of design drawings and fashion prints. They help trace the evolution of French culture and styles and, although the Art Deco illustrations are striking even from a distance, the design drawings are fascinating up close, showing how craftsmen imagined and created adornments.
"Jewelry is, in essence, a small sculpture," Ambrosini said.
Jewelry in art: Klosterman has written explanations of the importance and meaning behind the jewelry featured in eight paintings that are part of the Taft Museum's permanent collection. Meander through the galleries on your visit and learn about the necklaces of Queen Maria Luisa of Spain and Anna Sinton Taft. The "Bijoux Parisiens" visitors guide has a handy map to help you find the paintings.
French-inspired food: At the Lindner Family Cafe, you can try a variety of French-inspired dishes, including stuffed crepes and croque monsieur. Reservations are recommended; call 513-352-5140. On select Saturdays, an afternoon tea also will be served and, of course, include macarons. Find pricing and make reservations online.
Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris
Taft Museum of Art
316 Pike St., Downtown
11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday