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Wearable Art at M.S. Rau Antiques

September 21st, 2012 | posted by Deborah Choate

A 17th century painting of a "cabinet of curiosities" by Frans II Francken

The origin of the institutions we now call museums lies in the motley 18th century collections known as “cabinets of curiosities.” Assembled by the wealthy, who could afford to travel the world on the Grand Tour and amass souvenirs along the way, these cabinets (which were actually rooms and not furniture) contained everything from exotic animal specimens to automata to fine art. Meant to demonstrate the worldliness of the owner, the cabinets were part side-show spectacle and part educational dioramas.

Micromosaic Necklace, ca 1870. Image from V & A.

One of the most desired destinations of the Grand Tour in the late 18th century was Rome, where the medley of ancient cultures produced artifacts, jewelry and objets d’art were perfect for the educated collector’s “cabinet of curiosities.” Especially desirable were the mosaic jewelry pieces which demonstrated both exacting skill and historical importance.  Mosaic jewelry was made in two distinct styles: micromosaic and pietra dura, differentiated by both geography and technique.

The Romans perfected the micromosaic technique, and their workshops grew to the height of popularity through the entire 19th century. Only highly skilled craftsman could work with the tiny tiles – called tesserae – to manufacture the intricate and beautiful jewelry. Tesserae were formed from metal, marble, stone or glass, and dexterously positioned using cement and precious metals. Each piece could take many months to create, given the level of both complexity and artistry.

Victorian Micromosaic & Gold Necklace at M.S. Rau Antiques.

M.S. Rau Antiques owns one of these stunning examples, a 19th century micromosaic necklace created in the Etruscan Revival style, crafted of 18K gold and painted glass tesserae. Designed en esclavage – which refers to the swag chain and the multiple hanging pendants — the striking Egyptian motif is highlighted by rich, gold beading. Those in New Orleans will instantly recognize the fleur de lis accenting the pendants, suggesting a European’s take on ancient Egyptian style. A similar necklace is found at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, attesting to the importance of this piece.

Influenced by the burgeoning field of archaeology, this micromosaic necklace is a wearable work of art. After donning the piece, one could hang it as if a painting, perhaps in her own “cabinet of curiosities.”

Click here for more images of the necklace and to see more of M.S. Rau Antiques exciting jewelry collection.

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