Review: Putting on the Glitz—Driehaus Museum’s Jewelry Exhibit and Ellie Thompson’s Designing American Jewelry Book

As we navigate the current Gilded Age, it’s helpful to reflect on the last one. The Driehaus Museum at 40 East Erie is showcasing 200 pieces of dazzling past and present bling in Chicago Collects, Jewelry in Perspective, through September 22. Exquisite brooches, necklaces, rings, tiaras and more are on display (some with innovative backlighting to highlight the details), with a propensity toward my favorite stone, opal in all colors.

This collection of personal pieces and decorative arts, curated by Elyse Zorn Karlin, comes from the Driehaus collection in the 1883 restored Nickerson Mansion as well as from other Windy City collectors and institutions. The chronological installation wraps counterclockwise through several rooms on an upper floor and celebrates Chicago’s rich history of metalwork, jewelry making and education at places like the Art Institute, Hull House and the Kalo Shop.

Most of the collection is from the Gilded Age, the American version of the European Belle Epoque, a period roughly between 1873 and World War One in 1914. France and Belgium contributed a sensuous and curvilinear Art Nouveau influence to the moment, including depictions of nature by master jeweler Rene Lalique. Germany offered Jugendstil, youth style, that pushed against neoclassicism to create reimagined household tableware among other objects. The British championed Edwardian pieces including lacelike metalwork made possible by the invention of the oxy-acetylene torch. Edwardian jewelry features swags and garlands inspired by 18th-century French courts’ neoclassical and rococo motifs, as well as milgrain details, tiny bead borders around a piece.

Marcus & Co. gold, enamel, pearl and black opal necklace from a private collection. Photo by Alex Brescanu.

In the mid-19th century, revival jewelry was popular for wealthy wearers to show off at balls, salons and similar public events. Archeologists unearthed artifacts from Egypt, Greece, Italy and Etruscan civilizations, and jewelers at that time reimagined them for contemporary audiences. Sons of the Russian House of Faberge fled to France in 1924 to influence more international design.

In response to industrialization, the Arts and Crafts Movement started in 1860s England to emphasize handicrafts versus assembly lines. Semiprecious stones were preferred over higher-value precious gems, and as more of an accent that the primary focus along with enamel work. Silver took prominence over gold. Women became jewelry-makers too.

American artists added their spin on the movement, which lasted until the 1940s, including at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and other Atlantic exchanges of traveling artisans. The Arts and Crafts ethos inspired architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as trained metalsmiths arriving from Germany and Scandinavian countries. Over in Austria, architects, sculptors and artists like Gustav Klimt founded the Wiener Werkstatte, Vienna Workshop, which integrated design in all life aspects including personal adornment.

Art Deco style and jewelry started in France in the 1920s, inspired by Cubism and the discovery of King Tut’s tomb among other influences, and was of cultural importance alongside the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age. Deco jewelry is known for the use of platinum, set with coral, jade, ruby, emerald, sapphire and black onyx, by firms such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Tiffany (which already has a robust presence throughout the rest of the Driehaus via eponymous lamps and more). Around 1892, Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of company founder Charles, built a glassmaking facility in Queens, New York, and added jewelry-making to the artistic glass business.

Post-World War II, designers could again use formerly restricted metals. The 1940s brought bold and geometric clean-lined pieces, along with twisted rope and braided wire. Brutalism, abstract expressionism, the Atomic Age, space exploration and Pop Art popped up in the shops at the time as well as this exhibit. In Art Nouveau jewelry, male artisans depicted women as “either beautiful or frightening,” notes the exhibit's descriptive signage. That limiting look is addressed at the end of the installation, which features mid-century modern (1940s-1960s) and current jewelry, primarily by women.

Ellie Thompson. Photo by Leslie Schwartz.

One of the Driehaus exhibit’s featured current artists is Roscoe Village-based jewelry designer and avid cyclist Ellie Thompson, who splits her time between Chicago and Montana. She’s just published a book, part memoir about her 25 years in the business and part luxury coffee table eye candy, called Designing American Jewelry: From City Rhythms to Western Dreams, available on June 20. She recounts her origin story, growing up among ginkgo trees in New Haven, Connecticut, where she learned about gemstones and jewelry-making from British goldsmith Derek Simpson at his shop on High Street.

Thompson studied gemology at California’s Gemological Institute of America, then moved to Chicago to work in gem appraisal preparation and jewelry manufacturing. She started to help clients repair and restyle pieces, then began designing engagement rings and small collections, many of which are beautifully photographed in the book.

She imagined the first earrings of her iconic City Rhythms Collection for a 1997 Platinum Guild International jewelry design competition, where they won the Spectrum Award. The collection’s open-air design is architectural, skeletal and deconstructed. “I like the mathematical limitations of it,” Thompson says in the book. She was drawn to the intense “not purple” magenta color of the rubellite tourmaline for another collection called Time + Space, which became a “geometric exploration of line, space and shape.” She also uses blue and yellow peridots, noting that, when she searched for brighter source materials, “gemstones can be found anywhere regardless of the boundaries that governments and cartographers place on the ground.” Thompson uses cinnamon zircons in rose gold designs, and deep purple amethysts throughout her work, documented via rich images in each chapter.

Ellie Thompson's City Colors ring.

The Whispers of Winter collection was inspired by her former shop on the 22nd floor of the Willoughby Tower at Michigan and Madison, and the snowflake photos of Wilson Bentley. Thompson made computer CAD files that created models on a 3D printer to produce this new jewelry, also influencing the creation of future designs. Millennium Park’s Lurie Gardens inspired her urban prairie flower designs. The Golden Ratio proportions can be seen in Thompson’s wheel earrings and necklaces. Iron & Sugar pieces came after a trip to Paris where she photographed intricate ironwork and ate many macarons. Thompson’s first belt buckle creations were part of the American Metaphor Collection, and Primal Dreams sprung from abstract line drawings.

Thompson’s tale of her personal Western expansion is chronicled in her book, as is her metaphorical and real collection called True North. She’s also created jewelry lines called Florals for Spring, the Language of Love, and the Groundbreaking Collection. She moved into her current Roscoe Street shop in 2019, where she devises her custom creations and is open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and by appointment. In addition to the current Driehaus exhibit, Thompson has also shown work at the Field Museum’s Grainger Hall of Gems.

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.