Bringing the Bling: Jewelry, Decorative Arts – and Oddities – From Prominent Local Families Flash Brilliance at Historic Chicago Mansion

A necklace and a piece by Lalique are on display at the Driehaus Museum. (Credit: Michael Tropea) A necklace and a piece by Lalique are on display at the Driehaus Museum. (Credit: Michael Tropea)

Chicagoans own a wealth of jewelry.

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Correction: wealthy Chicagoans own a wealth of jewelry, and some of their glittering stockpiles date to the Gilded Age, a time of great financial disparity in the late 19th century.

A new exhibition illuminates the jewels in city collections, both private and institutional. There are enough gorgeous gems and decorative art objects here to fill a whole season of “Antiques Roadshow.”

The location is paramount, and it’s the perfect setting.

The Driehaus Museum is the former Nickerson House, an extravagant private home a short walk from the Magnificent Mile. The 1883 Italianate mansion was dubbed “The Marble Palace” due to the profusion of marble within. The late Chicago businessman Richard H. Driehaus, who died in 2021, was a serious collector of beautiful things, and this historic house is likely the biggest work of art in his collection.

These days, the upper rooms of the mansion are filled with filigree and jaw-dropping jewelry. More than half of the more than 200 items came from the Driehaus Collection, and the remainder is sourced from private owners and institutions. There are key loans from the Field Museum, The Chicago History Museum and Oak Brook’s dazzling Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art.

“There’s something innate about wanting to adorn yourself,” said curator and jewelry historian Elyse Zorn Karlin. And your home, she might have added.

“Jewelry says a lot about you. It can send a message, like if I wear a cross or a Star of David. It’s also portable wealth,” she said. “You can take it if you have to leave in a hurry. And you can learn history through it as well.”

Some of that history is rife with conspicuous consumption – if you absolutely needed a portable doorbell to summon your servants, why not have it made by Fabergé? The House of Fabergé also produced a darling tabletop barometer, because whose palace is complete without one?

Other lovely oddities include a wedding gift from Katherine Hepburn to Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier – an exquisite silver goblet by the master Danish metalsmith Georg Jensen.

There’s a monumental monstrance, the vessel that contains the consecrated host in some Christian churches. The brilliant golden sunburst at the sacred heart of the work might prompt a visitor to put on sunglasses.

A pocket watch owned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria is on display at the Driehaus Museum. (Marc Vitali / WTTW News)A pocket watch owned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria is on display at the Driehaus Museum. (Marc Vitali / WTTW News)

Another object of blinding bling is the pocket watch of “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria (You may ask: the same guy who made all those castles and financed composer Richard Wagner? Yup, same.) It’s a statement watch, and what it says is “I’m still King, even if I bankrupt the state treasury.”

Art Nouveau, Art Deco and British Arts and Crafts are among the historical styles on display. There’s a treasury of Tiffany and a little bit of Lalique. There’s artistry from the makers at the Kalo Shop in Park Ridge, circa 1900, and a case full of modern treasures that hold their own in the company of earlier masterpieces.

It’s a constellation of tiaras, necklaces, cigarette cases, vases, candlesticks, the punchbowl from the Cliff Dwellers club and even a creamer made in 1798 by Paul Revere Jr., the nepo-silversmith and son of the artist and patriot.

Among the necklaces on display is one made by Tiffany circa 1900, at left. (Credit: Michael Tropea)Among the necklaces on display is one made by Tiffany circa 1900, at left. (Credit: Michael Tropea)

The temporary home of all these starry jewels is the bedrooms and parlors of the onetime Nickerson mansion, whose original owner made a bundle in the booze business and then went into banking. He had several fortunes, and he poured them into making a house that is understated on the outside and over-the-top inside.

A colleague asked, “How did so much great jewelry end up in Chicago?” The curator shrugged and gave a two-word answer “Good taste.”

That’s one thing about the flamboyantly wealthy of yesteryear and, more recently, Richard H. Driehaus himself. They evidently had refined taste and the good sense to hire artists, artisans and conservators. Compare that with what one might find in our more recent gilded era – gold toilets, trashy trinkets and vanity portraits. Not exactly harbingers of taste or appreciation.

Most of these early collectors showed their appreciation and understanding of the arts – and perhaps a certain noblesse oblige – by supporting the artists.

The exhibition is called “Chicago Collects: Jewelry in Perspective” and is now open at the Driehaus Museum and runs through Sept. 22, 2024.

The Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St., is pictured on May 21, 2024. (Marc Vitali / WTTW News)The Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St., is pictured on May 21, 2024. (Marc Vitali / WTTW News)


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