Some 115 years after Paulding Farnham designed astonishing jeweled orchids for Tiffany and Company's exhibit at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, David Freda has created enameled gold and gemstone orchids for Tiffany's that are so lifelike one wonders if they should be pinned to the shoulder or placed in a vase.
Janet Zapata, jewelry scholar
Taxidermist, bird artist, falconer, naturalist, climber, mountain biker...fine jeweler? David Freda's many interests start with the taxidermy, which he began in Milwaukee when he was about eleven. "I'd been collecting butterflies and bugs and my father said, ‘no,' I could not do taxidermy. But I got a book and taught myself after school-a few small animals, birds mostly." In high school he found a job in a taxidermy shop and then with a friend "got hooked on bird illustrations, which went hand in hand with the taxidermy." From there he proceeded to watercolors, which, still in high school, he sold profitably at Ducks Unlimited meetings and elsewhere. That led to falconry, and pretty soon into banding the birds for tracking.
David C. Freda with an orchid display in the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science. Stein¬er-Halperin photograph.
It should probably not be a surprise, then, that when Freda saw the double elephant folio edition of John James Audubon's Birds of America on display in the Main Exhibition Hall of the Library at the Huntington, he exclaimed, "that's my choice-I've never actually seen it, even though it has always been a touchstone of my work-wow!" Henry Huntington acquired the four volumes in 1917 from the Saint Louis industrialist and philanthropist William K. Bixby (1857-1931), whose own collection of rare books and manuscripts was one of the most important of its day; Huntington acquired additional literary manuscripts from Bixby the following year.
Lily lamp designed by Mrs. Curtis Freschl for Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), made by Tiffany Stu¬dios, after 1902. Patinated bronze and Favrile glass; height 20 ¾ inches. Freda was understandably drawn to this sculptural study of two types of lilies (field lilies for the shades and water lilies for the patinated bronze base) that demonstrates the importance of natural forms as a starting point for Louis Comfort Tiffany's designs. Tiffany was awarded a gold medal for the pro¬totype of the lamp at the 1902 Prima Exposizione d'Arte Decorativa Moderna, in Turin, Italy. Purchased with funds from the Art Collectors' Council.
When Freda entered the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, he intended to major in painting, until he took a class in jewelry making-"to learn to make bells to put around birds' legs for tracking. I took a class with Marcia Lewis, who was kind of a wild metalsmith in her own right, and was totally mesmerized." Hiking in the Shawangunk Mountains as a graduate student at SUNY New Paltz, he found some snake eggs, which, through hollow-core casting, he transformed into beads for necklaces. "I started taking molds of baby snakes from nature shops and then started working at the American Museum of Natural History and they'd let me use animals in formaldehyde to make molds that I turned into jewelry."
Freckles (Brassolaelia Richard Mueller) orchid brooch by Freda for Tiffany and Company, 2010. Enameled gold and diamonds, height 4 ½ inches. Photograph by Carlton Davis.
In New York Freda attended an exhibition of René Lalique's jewelry at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and here is where it all starts to come together for readers of Antiques. "I was blown away by the enameling (on my early works all the decoration was painted); I taught myself how to enamel, moved to California, and created a line of orchids in silver and enamels." Walking past Tiffany and Company one day sparked a recollection of Paulding Farnham's orchids, so Freda decided to walk in and show them his. "The next thing I knew they asked me if I could make the orchids in gold and enamels. ‘Sure, no problem,' I said, but then it took me two years to figure it out. Enameling on gold is tricky-modern glass doesn't work-you have to use old glass, from the 1940s and 1950s to make it stick."
Roseate Spoonbill/Platalea Ajaja engraved by Robert Havell after John James Audubon (1785-1851), Pl. CCCXXI in John James Audubon, The Birds of America (1827-1838). Hand-colored engraving and etching, 25 ⅝ by 35 ¼ inches.
"I like to think my orchids pick up where Farnham left off-a contemporary very clean looking twist. I take molds of real orchids first, then do the enameling and add elements like diamonds and gold granulation. Each is one-of-a-kind and made of my own 20 karat gold alloy."
Orchids abound in the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory, erected at the Huntington in 2005 as a cornerstone of the institution's botanical education programs. Its design inspired in part by a Victorian-style lath house that once stood on the property to house palms, ferns, rhododendrons, and cyclamens, the sixteen-thousand-square-foot conservatory brings a twenty-first-century commitment to Henry Huntington's passion for the plant world.