Rapaport Magazine

Quintessential Flowers

Paulding Farnham’s lifelike floral brooches are masterpieces of natural beauty.

By Phyllis Schiller

Gold, enamel and diamond orchid designed by
Paulding Farnham for Tiffany & Co., circa 1890.
Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.
George Paulding Farnham — known as Paulding — was born on November 6, 1859, in New York City. When he was 16, with the help of family connections — his aunt was married to Tiffany & Co. executive Charles Thomas Cook — he began an apprenticeship in the studio of Tiffany’s chief designer Edward C. Moore, which enabled him to develop his natural talent. In 1885, Farnham was hired, eventually working his way to head designer from 1891, after the death of Moore, through the early 1900s. Farnham left Tiffany & Co. in 1908, after Louis Comfort Tiffany took over the firm and began implementing his own design vision. Farnham died in 1927 in California at the age of 68.

Artistic Legacy
   During his tenure at Tiffany & Co., Farnham created an impressive array of award-winning jewelry designs exhibited at several world expositions that won the company acclaim on an international level. Farnham also was responsible for designs in silver and impressive private commissions such as the Belmont Cup, Dewey Sword and Adam’s Vase.
   At the age of 27, Farnham designed the jewelry Tiffany & Co. exhibited at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The pieces encompassed a mix of Renaissance Revival styles, native-American-themed pieces and creations that were inspired by Oriental and Islamic art, along with a series of dramatically life-size enamel and gemstone orchids, which captured the gold prize for jewelry. “The flowers were in the style of naturalism,” says Janet Zapata, jewelry historian, “but Farnham also turned to revival styles of other cultures — he did them all.”
   “You have to take Farnham’s designs in the context of the era in which he grew up,” says Carol Elkins, senior vice president, Sotheby’s jewelry department, New York, “and the various revival styles taking place. He was a consummate artist in terms of designing things that were Renaissance Revival. He was coming out of the tradition of naturalism. He was experimental in design in creating these amazing lifelike flowers.”
   Farnham’s diamond-centric pieces included a large, lacy looking corsage ornament made for the 1889 Exposition, points out Zapata, with more than 2,000 diamonds mounted in platinum, as well as a diamond necklace whose leaves and blossoms were patterned after the American hazelnut, its center diamond weighing 25-plus carats. But, Zapata says, while the diamond jewelry exhibited was valued at $500,000, an impressive sum at that time, it was the enamelwork and jeweled orchids that caused the most sensation. “These flowers were all perfect reproductions since they were based on real flowers.”
   “In the mid-nineteenth century, you had some fabulous jewelers working in diamonds and silver,” points out Elkins, “but in terms of the enamelwork, Farnham truly did groundbreaking work with the flowers he designed, and I think what he will always be known for are the orchids. They were such a huge international splash when they were launched in 1889 at the exposition and that is what put him on the map.”

A Bouquet Of Flowers
   The interest in flowers, says Zapata, “was very strong in the late-nineteenth century. A lot of these flowers weren’t seen in the West until then, appearing first in Europe, then America. For instance, the chrysanthemum that we take for granted today wasn’t introduced until 1856. The different flowers each represented specific sentiments or meanings. Designers took advantage of that interest and began replicating flowers’ beauty in jewelry. What Farnham did was more full-blown, naturalistic, not realistic. It looked like the flower itself had been dipped in gold.”
   Farnham’s orchids represented 25 species native to a variety of countries including Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, India and the Philippines, explains Zapata, and so closely followed nature that a reviewer stated they had to be touched to ascertain they were jewelry and not the real thing. The stamens and petals were accented with diamonds; the stems were pavéd with diamonds and rubies. In fact, says Zapata, their true-to-bloom appearance was said to have caught the eye of financier Jay Gould, a private collector of living orchids, who added the bejeweled examples to his collection.
   Along with the orchids, Farnham designed other floral jewelry featuring “unusual stones that few other jewelers had been using,” says Elkins, “supplied by gemologist George Frederick Kunz.” One well-known example is Farnham’s Iris Corsage Brooch, made for the 1900 Paris exposition, points out Elkins. It features diamonds and Montana sapphires and dermatoid garnets and was purchased by railroad tycoon Henry Walters.

Auction Standouts
   Jewelry designed by Farnham doesn’t come up at auction or in the marketplace very often, says Elkins. “On average, you might see an orchid or two within a decade. So that when one is available, it can command an impressive price.” Elkins cites a pink orchid that sold at Sotheby’s New York in October 1993, estimated at $20,000 to $30,000. “It was a shot that rang round the world when it sold for an astonishing $415,000.” Just this past December, a smaller orchid, shown above, with its original case, estimated at $80,000 to $120,000, sold for $173,000. “I can’t say for sure whether it was part of the 1889 exhibition,” Elkins says. “But it certainly was one of the varieties he made. The company did do re-issues the following year in New York and Farnham added more varieties.”
   Farnham’s jewelry, notes Elkins, has an audience of “serious buyers” and “if there hasn’t been one on the market for a very long time, they’re hungry” to own one that comes up for sale. But, she says, “anyone can be drawn to these pieces, especially when it’s something interesting attributed to his design under the aegis of Tiffany.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2014. To subscribe click here.

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