Tucked away discreetly behind Piccadilly, the Museum of Mankind is a venerable institution, reeking with academic respectability. Yet later this month it’s set to explode our preconceptions with an extraordinary jewellery exhibition. Entitled Show Off, the exhibition’s aim is to do for jewellery what the Tate did for Pop Art in the Sixties or, more recently, what Shock of the New did for Young British Artists — quite simply, force us to look at jewellery differently. The creator of this thought-provoking and breathtakingly original exhibition is Theo Fennell.
Spectator readers probably associate Theo Fennell merely with celebrity bling. For years he has been pigeonholed as a purveyor of gigantic, colourful glitz to the rich and famous. His flagship South Kensington store is aglow with rubies, sapphires, tourmalines, green citrines, mandarin garnets, yellow beryls and black diamonds that adorn his trademark scorpion rings, jewelled skulls, winged hearts and ampoules. Fennell’s creations are not for the faint-hearted and it’s no surprise that Fennell has a reputation for being a dashing, larger-than-life bon viveur.
In reality, the man at the helm of this glittering empire is serious, verging on earnest, about his craft. He is determined that Show Off will not only reshape our attitudes to how we decorate ourselves but also rekindle respect for Britain’s forgotten master craftsmen.
Fennell describes his vision of the jewellery universe: ‘At one end of the spectrum you have outrageous vulgarity where people buy rocks just for their size. You may as well wear a cheque round your neck,’ he says. ‘This type of jewellery has no aesthetic value at all.’ At the other end you have jewellery designed by committee for the global luxury brands and then churned out on a vast scale as seasonal, fashion accessories. Somewhere between lies far more interesting country, fertile with potential, that Fennell believes has yet to be fully charted and explored. It’s this country that Fennell is excited by and that he’s evoking in Show Off.
At first sight this country is an eerie and disturbing place, inhabited by mythological figures — cherubs, murderers, snakes, scorpions, bats and skeletons. The opening piece is a lifesize guillotine, beneath which Marie Antoinette’s head has rolled, its lifelessness enhanced by a dagger earring, its drop of blood a gleaming ruby. The exhibits become increasingly bizarre and include a woman in an electric chair, stuffed animals and birds squabbling over jewels, a corpse on a gurney and a tableau of heaven in which an angel’s wings have been chucked into a dustbin in favour of a far greater temptation — a ruby horned heart. In one room you are asked to look through a telescope to discover the jewel in a snake’s mouth. ‘Look again! Look properly!’ insists the show.
The show is a dazzling adventure but above all it’s challenging. A corpse rots but the jewels survive. This is at the core of Fennell’s thinking. He deplores the way jewellery has been hijacked by the big brands to become seasonal, disposable frippery. A jewel should be an heirloom crafted to endure.
‘Behind all the greatest jewellery lies a story,’ Fennell explains. ‘People reacting to a Viking ring in the British Museum are not cooing over the precious stones — it’s probably just beaten copper. What’s captured their imagination is that the ring has depth and history. All great jewellery is necessarily talismanic, a keepsake that transcends generations.’
Fennell’s first became mesmerised by the stories behind jewels when he worked for the great silversmith Edward Barnard after graduating from the Byam Shaw School of Art. Fennell’s job was to log in the repairs. One morning a 1920s 18-carat-gold champagne flute arrived, engraved with ‘Good Morning Diana’. The romance of it enchanted Fennell and came to underpin his own designs.
For all his global success, Fennell is a patriot and passionate about turning the British back to what they do best. ‘Take Purdey, Lobb or any Savile Row tailor — the British are world-class at making beautiful things but we’ve forgotten how to commission our craftsmen.’
Show Off is set to put us back on course. It is more a launch of a big idea than of a jewellery collection — though all his pieces are for sale. It’s about persuading us to have faith in our individuality by seeking out what we want rather than just accepting what’s readily available.
‘We need to return to commissioning personal pieces,’ Fennell insists. ‘Unless jewellery has emotional weight it’s just a gew-gaw. My stuff’s like grand opera. It may be bold and brash but it’s well-conceived and exquisitely crafted with humour.’
Ultimately, Show Off is less about drawing attention to Fennell’s own designs than about using his jewels as a stepping-stone to expanding our appreciation of craftsmanship in general. He likens jewellery-making to working on a movie — it’s teamwork and he seeks praise as much, if not more, for his craftsmen as for himself. I find it paradoxical that behind Show Off lies a clever, thoughtful and surprisingly modest man.
Show Off runs at the Museum of Mankind, Burlington Gardens, London W1 from 25 to 27 September. All inquires to Juliet Rowe, tel: 0207 591 5080, email@example.com