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Sotheby’s sells Medusa necklace for $3.7 million

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Louis Comfort Tiffany’s “Medusa” pendant has been listed as “whereabouts unknown” since it was sold by Parke-Bernet Galleries in 1943 from the estate of Mrs. Henry Walters. The exciting discovery of this piece is of great significance because it is one of the earliest jewels designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany (LCT). Although he had spent the last decades of the 19th century gaining a reputation as an accomplished painter and interior designer, and for his work in glass and enameled decorative art, he first began designs for jewelry in 1902 in preparation for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. The necklace was sold for $3.7 million at a recent auction at Sotheby’s.

In a small pamphlet printed at the time of the exposition, twenty-seven items were listed including nine brooches, ten hair ornaments, three necklaces, two pendants, one girdle, one hat pin, and one tiara. Besides the Medusa pendant, only three out of the twenty-seven works from the exposition are known to exist today. The jewels Tiffany exhibited in St. Louis met with positive reviews which exceeded his hopes and expectations. Commentaries appeared in publications such as The Craftsman, The Jeweler’s Circular Weekly, Vogue, The Boston Budget, Washington Life and Town and Country. 

From the early period of 1902 to 1907, possibly only a few hundred pieces of jewelry were made by LCT. In Tiffany & Co.’s 2006 exhibition catalogue Bejewelled by Tiffany 1837-1987 (p. 74), it is stated that “of Tiffany’s earliest jewels, only one, the Medusa pendant, bears the signature of Louis Tiffany.” Janet Zapata, author of The Jewelry and Enamels of Louis Comfort Tiffany also mentions that the numbers assigned to the St. Louis pieces begin around 100, prefixed by the letter “J” for Julia Munson who collaborated with LCT and directed their manufacture. In a Tiffany & Co. archival photograph, the Medusa pendant is numbered J123.

John Loring, former Design Director of Tiffany & Co., notes in Louis Comfort Tiffany at Tiffany & Co., that LCT, in collaboration with Munson, designed his two most important jewels, both shown at the Société des Artistes Français in Paris, 1906. One was the “Peacock” necklace, the other was his “Medusa” pendant which Loring describes as “more reminiscent of fiddle-head fern shoots and the curiosities of a forest floor after a spring rain than of the fearsome serpent-coiffed head of a Medusa or even of a medusa jellyfish.”

Tiffany conceived the Medusa pendant at a time when jewelry design both in Europe and America had begun to turn away from the revival styles that had dominated the second half of the 19th century. Nature became the leading source of inspiration, as is seen in the internationally acclaimed jewels by René Lalique around 1900. Since childhood, the beauty of nature had captivated LCT and his earliest “artistic jewels” clearly reflect his observations of the natural world. In his glassmaking and enamel work, he had explored the chromatic effects he could produce in those media, and together with the wide array of unusual gemstones supplied by George Friedrich Kunz, Tiffany & Company’s chief gemologist, Tiffany was able to create jewels of original design with an emphasis on superb craftsmanship. The Medusa pendant is a testament to the artistic vision of Louis Comfort Tiffany and may be considered amongst his greatest triumphs in jewelry making.

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