One jewelry designer made a splash at the turn of the 20th century by creating hyper-realistic jeweled orchids for Tiffany & Co. Here, Freeman’s Jewelry and Watches specialists dive into the life and work of Paulding Farnham.
04/25/2023 Jewelry and Watches
Orchids have long fascinated (and occasionally frustrated) gardeners hoping to keep their beautiful blooms thriving—but perhaps no one more so than Paulding Farnham, who set their likeness in jewels at the turn of the twentieth century.
George Paulding Farnham was born in New York City in 1859; Farnham’s aunt, Eleanor M. Paulding, married Charles Thomas Cook, then–vice president of Tiffany & Co. Cook saw a great deal of promise in his nephew’s artistic talents and was able to get Farnham an apprenticeship at Tiffany designer Edward C. Moore’s studio in 1879.
A Tiffany & Co. Paulding Farnham Antique Diamond and Enamel Orchid Brooch
Farnham’s first recorded work produced for Tiffany & Co. was indeed floral, though not an orchid: a life-size gold and yellow diamond brooch designed as a Japanese chrysanthemum.
In 1885, Farnham was taken on as a full-time assistant to Moore; he set to work designing pieces for the upcoming Paris Exposition scheduled for the summer and fall of 1889. By 1888, Farnham had designed twenty-four life-size orchids composed of enamel, green gold, and silver, utilizing pearls and other precious gemstones to create a hyper-realistic aesthetic and capture the luminescent colors of the orchid.
The designs were adapted from the Orientalist Saracenic silverware patterns designed by Charles Moore himself, and were crafted using a special technique of molding unannealed silver into the shape of the flower, then undergoing a delicate process of enameling the silver pieces.
At the time Farnham worked on these pieces, orchids were a costly import to North America, and thus a symbol of wealth and status. The aristocracy began collecting orchids—as well as books and art that referenced these unique flowers—but orchids had never appeared in jewelry before Farnham’s series for the Paris Exposition.
Each of Farnham’s twenty-four orchids was an exact replication of a different species of orchid, using diamonds, rubies, opals, and other colored gemstones to replicate the colors that made orchids such an enticing flower among high society.
Farnham’s meticulous detail and craftsmanship alongside the rising prestige of the orchid was a fateful match: he won a gold medal for the orchid suite at the Paris Exposition, and was heralded for his “boldness and originality of design” by newspapers across the globe. When he returned to New York after the Exposition, he continued the line of orchid jewelry, creating a wide array of brooches for the private market that were sold out of the Tiffany & Co. store in New York
After his success at the 1889 Exposition, Farnham was promoted to assistant secretary. In 1900, Farnham once again made a statement at the Paris Exposition with his life-size iris brooch, made of 120 Yogo sapphires, diamonds, topaz, and garnets. The brooch is currently held in the collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.