THE JEWELRY OF ROBERTO AND HAROLDO BURLE MARX
Last May MAHNAZ COLLECTION curated the first significant exhibition in the United States of jewelry and drawings by both Roberto Burle Marx and Haroldo Burle Marx. It was overdue, and a welcome opportunity to view jewelry - and original drawings of jewelry - made by Brazilian brothers who were deeply inspired by nature. Each of them played a part in creating influential, innovative and utterly beautiful modernist jewelry between the 1940s and the 1980s.
The two Burle Marx brothers drew on Brazil’s natural bounty to make made one-of-a-kind, handmade jewels in worked gold, most often yellow and high karat, and deployed deep hued gemstones, gaining early admirers worldwide. Their jewelry celebrates Brazil’s fecundity in colored gemstones: aquamarine, tourmaline, topaz, garnet,quartz, citrine, amethyst, chalcedony and amazonite, and emerald among many others. In the late 1950s, Brazil’s leaders began commissioning Burle Marx jewels for visiting heads of state and other dignitaries. The Empress Nagako of Japan received an early opal necklace. In the 1960s, Burle Marx jewelry helped establish international worldwide interest in Brazil’s supply of superb quality gemstones, making them attractive to jewelers who had long focused on sapphires, rubies and diamonds. (In this effort they kept company with a distant relative, Hans Stern, who founded the eponymous Brazilian jewelry company.).
The jewelry of the Burle Marx Brothers is tactile, and meant be stroked and carried like a talisman, worn close on the body, settled perfectly on a collarbone, or encased around a wrist in yellow gold and andalousite. It is meant to transform a finger through the cut of the stone.
There is, however, a subtext to their fascinating story, one that involves a family crisis. The two brothers, after working closely for over a decade, parted ways, most likely over creative and business matters. The exact date is unclear, but the estrangement was severe enough to endure the rest of their lifetimes. By At the time of Haroldo’s death, in 1991, they had not reconciled. Roberto died a few years later. A great deal was left unsaid. As a result, which brother could claim creation of which jewels came to be a subject of some dispute, as others took up the brothers’ quarrel. Similarly, the matter of who invented the pioneering forma livre cut of stone is occasionally debated. Yet, a close examination of the jewelry tells the true story.
The challenging, novel and hard to reproduce forma livre or free form style of cutting stones, became a vital characteristic of Burle Marx jewelry. In rings and brooches in the exhibit from the early years, the cuts resemble Roberto’s abstract art, his sculpture, and his free form, sinuous and abstract landscape designs. It was however, Haroldo, though, who had trained in lapidary work and gemology. As an expert, he knew the hardness, malleability and fracture quotient of Brazilian stones. He claimed ownership of the forma livre cut outright, originating it around 1948, and went on to create variations on that cut for the entirety of his jewelry career. TIME magazine credited him with the cut in the 1967 article. The forma livre design cut, however, did visibly change over time: in the period of brotherly collaboration, when Roberto’s powerful artistry dominated the design process the gems appear voluminous, spiraling upwards,more mountainous - as if reaching helter skelter for the sky. The cut become flatter, more elegant, and almost “wavelike” during the post rift period when Haroldo made jewelry on his own.
A selection of jewelry and jewelry drawings in the exhibit was created during the period of sibling collaboration between the late 1950s and the mid to late 1960s., during which time Roberto’s was the powerful design eye and hand. After the rift, Haroldo went on to a long solo career as a star jeweler to for the Brazilian and international elite. His jewels came to have more of the attributes of classic fine jewelry.
In the international world of jewelry, the Burle Marx brothers are among the lost masters. American jewelry insiders may know Haroldo’s work but they have not fully recognized or valued its craftsmanship, exquisite forma livre colored gemstones, and classic enduring beauty. Roberto’s fame as a path-breaking landscape designer and artist eclipsed public awareness and scholarly appreciation of his artist jewels. He is not known to have made much jewelry himself after the brothers split up. ((The Brazilian company H. Stern bought certain rights to Roberto’s jewelry drawings after his death and made “inspired by” jewels.)
This exhibit reminded us that the jewelry works of Roberto Burle Marx and Haroldo Burle Marx, are iconic representations of Brazilian modernist, artistic, and fine jewelry production during the the 1950s – 1980s. They deserve a renewed international reputation and a new, appreciative audience.
Excerpt from a longer essay on the jewelry of the Burle Marx Brothers by MIB.