Winter As Muse in Jewelry and Decorative Arts
The Snowdrop of Nancy
For the Daum Brothers, the snowdrop was both an aesthetic and political symbol. The Franco-Prussian war (1870-1) had torn their lives asunder. As many Alsatians fled their homeland, Nancy turned into a border town and saw its population double to 100,000. Auguste and Antonin Daum were 17 and 6 years old respectively, and the turmoil that followed permeated much of their art. The snowdrop became a symbol of the French resistance. Often emerging out of a blanket of snow, the snowdrop was considered a harbinger of spring.
The flower likely represented much of what the Lorraines hoped for at the time, an end to the "guerre de brume", and a rebirth of the region under French rule. After a string of successful battles from Beaugency to the Loire, General Chanzy claimed to represent a turning point in the war. Accordingly, the satirist Alfred Le Petit depicted a heroic General Chanzy as a snowdrop bursting through the snow— the heads of German generals dangling like fruit.
The snowdrop's political importance was underscored by its inclusion as a diplomatic gift to Maeda Masana, Commissioner General of Japan at the Exposition Universelle (1878). During the exposition, Maeda and two of his compatriots ventured to Auteuil to sow radishes, cabbage, and turnips. Touched by this self-effacing gesture, the artist Émile Gallé sent him a gift of snowdrops collected in the woods of Lorraine. An archival photo by Gallé showed the snowdrops growing in a park on 2 avenue de la Garenne.
The Winter Landscape, Enlightenment and Renewal
Despite their deceptively arcadian nature, Daum’s landscape vases were filled with political rhetoric. The Winter vases were created in 1910, a tense time in Lorraine’s history. The German government had begun exploiting iron-ore and potash deposits, while Lorraine's textile industry was on the decline. Native Lorrainians considered their land a civic right unjustly taken by foreign interests. In the Alsatian review of 1880, Victor Hugo proclaimed “This sky is ours, this land is ours. Lorraine and Alsace are ours.”
Three of Daum’s landscape vases bore the names of the months of the French Republican Calendar (1793-1871): Vendemiare, Frimaire, and Pluviose. The French Republican Calendar differed from the Gregorian in that the year started on the Autumn Equinox, the day that the Republic was proclaimed. The symbolic implications of the Equinox were multi-faceted. Calendar reformers noted that on this day the sun entered Libra, the sign symbolically associated with equality.
Daum Landscape Vases (Left to Right: Pluviose, Vendemiare, Frimaire), Macklowe Gallery, c. 1900
When they proposed to synchronize the annual social cycle with a cycle which derived from the rhythmicity of Nature, the Committee of Public Instruction stated explicitly that “the equality of the days and nights was marked in the heavens at the same moment when civil and moral equality was proclaimed by the representatives of the French people as the sacred foundation of their new government."
We may understand Daum’s intentions with his engraving of the line “L'hiver! quand la ramée est un ecrin de givres” in one of his winter vases. The line itself was rather innocuous in content translating to “Winter, when the branches are a jewel box of frost.” More revealing was the line’s context, Victor Hugo’s poem “Ponto” from his book Les Contemplations.
Ponto was the name of a dog who accompanied Hugo on his meditative walks. The poem begins in a birch tree forest on the island of Jersey. Therein, winter becomes the site of reflection and enlightenment. After recounting the names of corrupt rulers, parliamentarians, and knights, Hugo concludes that the dog is more virtuous than the human being. In this conclusion, Hugo reaffirms his anti-monarchical beliefs. The birch tree trembles in winter, the epitome of the frailty of the ancien regime, and since it was used in the corporal punishment of convicts and slaves—it was also a demonstration of the discrimination and violence of state oppression.
The École de Nancy had deep ties to Victor Hugo. Among their most prominent figures, the Hugo family had resided in Nancy for three generations as soldiers and wood merchants. Both Émile Gallé and the Daum Freres engraved or included lines of Hugo in their wood and glasswork. Hugo was both an artist and a Republican Politician who spoke fervently for Lorrainian independence. Aligning with Hugo’s views, Daum joined with prominent manufacturers Vilgrain, Tourtel, and Gallé in establishing L'Est Républicain, a French Republican political paper in 1889.
The snowflake in jewelry
Appealing in its geometric structure and lace-like quality, the snowflake as we know it had quite humble beginnings. For centuries, the nature of snowflakes had been a mystery. Robert Hooke’s compound microscope ultimately revealed their true shape. Three years before his landmark book Micrographia (1665), Hooke made ink drawings of snow crystals in the Royal Society Register Book. Painstakingly drawn with compass and ruler, these drawings would lay the foundation for Micrographia’s wider survey. Distilled into easily reproducible drawings, Hooke’s work would soon trickle down from literati to the wider public.
Photograph of Hooke’s fold-out ink-wash drawing of snowflakes, with inscribed compass and knife marks, in ‘Figures Observ’d in Snow by Mr. Hook’, Royal Society Register Book, Vol. II, p62. Royal Society Centre for the History of Science.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the snowflake became increasingly popular in textile and domestic decorative arts. Its transition into jewelry can be traced to a Mr. Wilson Bentley. Born in 1865, Bentley spent most of his life as a farmer in Jericho, Vermont. To pass the long winters, Bentley developed an elaborate rig that combined the telescope and view camera. By painstakingly isolating snow crystals on black velvet, Bentley was able to take thousands of individual “snowflake portraits”. Bentley sold 200 of his negatives to Tiffany & Co., which used the design in brooches and pendants.
Wilson A. Bentley, Snowflakes Photomicrographed, c. 1890. Albumen prints. Smithsonian Archives, History Division, Washington, D.C. Published in Wilson A. Bentley and William J. Humphreys, Snow Crystals (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1931).
Concurrently, a 25-year-old Alma Pihl was being commissioned for her first major project at Fabergé. Granddaughter of Fabergé chief jewelry designer August Holmström, Alma Pihl was singular in her drive. When tasked by Dr. Emmanuel Nobel to create 40 brooches for a dinner party, legend has it that Alma Pihl was inspired by the frost on her window. The design became an instant hit for the jewelry firm culminating in the legendary Winter Fabergé egg. Studded with 1,660 diamonds and carved from rock crystal, the egg became the most expensive ever ordered.
Left: Design for snowflake brooches, Holmstrom workshop, Victoria and Albert Museum, Right, Fabergé winter egg, 1913, Private Collection, Qatar