ART DECO GEM-SET AND MOTHER-OF-PEARL CHINOISERIE MYSTERY CLOCK BY PIERRE GRAVOIN, PARIS, FOR BLACK, STARR & FROST, NEW YORK, CIRCA 1931, MOSAIC BY VLADIMIR MAKOVSKY

A clock with mother-of-pearl, emeralds, lapis lazuli, and turquoise decoration, diamond numerals and hands, rock crystal dial, base of black onyx, lapis lazuli, and banded agate; mounted in platinum and 18-karat gold, with French assay marks; with original fitted case, and winding key

  • Movement and case stamped Black, Starr & Frost, Gorham, Inc.; case with maker’s mark for Pierre Gravoin; mosaic signed M for Vladimir Makovsky
  • Measurements: 5 7/8 × 4 1/4 × 2 inches

Additional cataloguing

Literature

  • Coffin, Sarah, and Stephen Harrison. The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s. New York: Yale Press, 2017, p. 282.“
  • Splendid Gifts,” Vogue, December 1, 1931, p. 45.
  • Napoleon, Landon J. Black, Starr & Frost: America’s First Jeweler Since 1810. Newport Beach, CA: Black, Starr & Frost, 2014, p. 90.
  • Proddow, Penny, and Debra Healy. American Jewelry: Glamour and Tradition. New York: Rizzoli, 1987,pp. 94-95.

 

Exhibitions

  • The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian National Design Museum, New York, April 7–August 20, 2017; The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, September 23, 2017–January 14, 2018.
  • World’s Fair, New York, House of Jewels Pavilion, 1939.

 

Biography

One of America’s oldest jewelers, Black, Starr & Frost traces its roots to 1810 when Erastus Barton opened a store at 166 Broadway in New York City. The store was immediately recognized by high society. The firm went through a number of partners and name changes, becoming Black, Starr & Frost in 1876. Producing exquisite jewelry, the firm exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and was frequented by socialites and celebrities. In 1929 the firm merged with Gorham, and was sold again in 2006.

 

Significance

During the Art Deco period, jewelry and objets d’art attained a splendor that has not been rivaled since. In the 1920s, glamour and elegance prevailed as design evolved from delicate confections into bold, colorful forms, which were created not merely as utilitarian items but as works of art. Although Cartier, Boucheron, and other French jewelry houses created the archetypical examples of Art Deco, the American firm Black, Starr & Frost rivaled their French counterparts and offered exquisite vanity cases and clocks for an elite clientele.

This clock is light in design, thanks to the screen form developed by Cartier, here a rectangular face held by two arches. Stylized carved lapis lazuli carp support the sides, their eyes set with cabochon emeralds. The central mosaic depicts lapis lazuli swallows flying and perching on etched gold and platinum branches against a mother-of-pearl background accented by turquoise flowers. The decorative theme carries over onto the back of the clock, which is inlaid with mother-of-pearl to create a repeating stylized cloud pattern that alludes to the association of clouds with elegance and high status. The company commissioned Vladimir Makovsky to create the mosaic; a Russian émigré, he worked in Paris for leading French jewelers including the makers and purveyors of Art Deco mystery clocks: Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Verger Frères.

The mystery of this clock is that the hands appear to float without any visible connection to a mechanism. This effect is achieved by setting the hands into transparent rotating rock crystal disks with toothed metal rims that are propelled by gears in the clock case. Black, Starr & Frost was the only American jewel salon to offer mystery clocks. In 1931, Vogue prominently featured this elaborate mystery clock along with three others, the only known mystery clocks from Black, Starr & Frost. This is the only example available on the market. This magnificent clock, on par with the best examples of French Art Deco, would be a stunning asset to any collection.

The Black, Starr & Frost building on Fifth Avenue and 48th Street designed by Carrère and Hastings, Architecture and Building, November 1912.

The magnificent interior of the Black, Starr & Frost building, Architecture and Building, November 1912.

“Splendid Gifts,” Vogue, December 1, 1931.

The clock on offer is featured in the second row, second from left.