Rapaport Magazine

Sophisticated Whimsy

Donald Claflin’s iconic figurative jewelry has enchanted collectors with its blend of fine detailing and storybook charm.

By Phyllis Schiller
American jewelry designer Donald Claflin, born in Massachusetts in 1935, put his training at Parsons School of Design in New York to good use as an illustrator and textile designer before moving on to jewelry. His early career included stints at David Webb and Van Cleef & Arpels and his later designs were for Bulgari. But he is most well known for his innovative jewelry for Tiffany & Co., where he worked for 11 years from 1966 to 1977. Although he died unexpectedly at the age of 44 in 1979, Claflin left behind a body of work that solidified his reputation as a premier designer.
   There were many highlights during Claflin’s tenure at Tiffany & Co. In 1968, he designed their debut tanzanite collection and in 1970, the crisscross engagement setting, where the diamond is set in intersecting bands of precious metals. But of all his Tiffany & Co. creations, his figurative jewelry best shows off his innate creativity.
   “It is interesting to note that Claflin spent seven years at David Webb before he migrated to Tiffany,” points out Robin Katz, owner of Robin Katz Vintage Jewels in New York City. “So by 1966, when Claflin came on board, the magic and popularity of animal jewelry was already in full swing. Tiffany was looking to import a fresh American look that was a counterpoint and complement to Jean Schlumberger’s magical realism, and Claflin brought all of this with a flair.”
   “Claflin’s use of untraditional and organic materials such as wood, elephant hair, ivory and coral extended Tiffany’s tradition of artisanship,” adds Katz. “In addition, his artistic imagination combined caricature and childhood fantasy and gave Tiffany jewels a novel dimension.”

Design Details
   Drawing on popular characters in children’s stories, such as Alice in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty and Chicken Little, Claflin added a saucy charm to his depictures. Chicken Little wears a jaunty diamond hat adorned with a sculpted gold feather, shown opposite, and Humpty Dumpty is debonair in a colorful diamond-adorned outfit and a diamond crown.
   The intricate detailing and “sophisticated whimsy,” says Carol Elkins, senior vice president, jewelry department, Sotheby’s, makes Claflin’s figurative designs immediately recognizable. Fantastical Claflin creations she notes include a sea serpent “more playful than menacing as it swims atop swirls of sparkling diamond sea foam” and a dragon brooch gentled with a “Cheshire Cat” grin. Figures of South American priests or warriors, “especially the Peruvian-inspired priest bearing sacrificial hearts, were realized in brightly colored tourmalines, coral and turquoise. This may sound gruesome but Claflin had the ability to portray these figures in a way that imbues them with a sense of humor.” Claflin’s thunderbird totem, Elkins says, strikingly realized in black and white enamel with accents of turquoise, “illustrates his ability to draw upon various cultures for design inspiration.” Even Claflin’s floral designs “have a mass and substance unlike other mid-twentieth-century examples,” she says, calling his stems of luscious coral strawberries with golden seeds “classic Claflin.” His timelessly elegant tanzanite flower, created in 1968 and recently sold at Sotheby’s as part of the Bobst collection, illustrates Claflin’s “ability to showcase large colored stones.”

Material Matters
   According to Jean Kim, associate specialist, jewelry department, Christie’s, what distinguishes Claflin’s “masterfully crafted,” “highly individualistic,” boldly colored pieces are unusual combinations, including bright colored hard stones, such as turquoise and coral, juxtaposed with bright enameling, colored gems and diamonds. “Although his style is somewhat similar to that of Jean Schlumberger and David Webb, his works remain unmistakably unique. Often anthropomorphic, they have a refreshingly cheerful quality and are unabashedly whimsical.”
   Claflin’s style represented a break from the formality of 1950s jewelry design, says Fernando Bustillo, partner at FD Gallery, New York City. “His materials, often unexpected and organic — such as leather, hardwoods, enamel — and the playfulness of his form and subjects were in stark contrast to the sterile, mostly white, patterned jewelry typical of the decade before. He thrived in the 1960s, capturing the mood of the moment among a new generation of jewelry lovers who were looking for something more expressive, whimsical and colorful.”

A Lasting Legacy
   “Today’s obsession with Claflin’s designs can be tied to their rarity and their iconographic break with European formalities,” says Katz. “Recent auction results show the fervor for this American original.”
   At Christie’s, Kim says, Claflin’s works have been offered on average once or twice a year for the past 25 years. “Many of his more elaborate and important pieces, such as the playful dragons and Peruvian-inspired pieces, are extremely rare and highly coveted by collectors, fetching prices that are multiple times higher than their auction estimates, due to their rarity, importance and very high level of workmanship.” Even some of his simpler and more wearable pieces fetch high prices, she notes, “his use of bright colors combined with different textures make a bold and stylish statement.”
   Claflin pieces, says Elkins, are “sought after by informed collectors. Prices continue to increase steadily with global competition, and given the finite number of items produced, the supply is limited. Some Claflin jewels were illustrated in the annual Tiffany & Co.’s Blue Books and in various magazines at the time, such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. This sort of documentation provides context and emphasizes the significance of Claflin’s contributions to twentieth-century American jewelry design.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - August 2016. To subscribe click here.

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