Inspired by the archaeological discoveries of the early twentieth century, Marie Zimmermann created extraordinary, and previously unstudied, jewelry in Egyptian and other revival styles.
Marie Zimmermann was among the most eclectic and innovative designers of jewelry and metalwork working in the early twentieth century. Her creations in gold, silver, bronze, copper, and iron explore a wide range of approaches to design, celebrating and interrogating traditional methods and experimenting freely with materials, surface, color, and applied ornament. Because of the diverse and challenging nature of her work, Zimmermann's oeuvre has received little scholarly attention until now.
The daughter of Swiss immigrant parents, Zimmermann grew up in Brooklyn and was educated at the Packer Collegiate Institute, the Art Students League, and Pratt Institute. She lived for some twenty-five years at the National Arts Club in New York City, where she also exhibited her work alongside that of other leaders of modern American design. Like many designers, Zimmermann's earliest artistic expression was jewelry, which she continued to produce throughout her career, excelling particularly in intricate combinations of semiprecious stones, delicate enameling, and gold that boldly invoke and subvert Egyptian and classical revival styles.
There were two periods of extreme popularity for reinterpretations of ancient Egyptian design in Europe and the United States. The first began in the 1860s and reached international proportions around 1870, inspired by the opening of the Suez Canal. Excavations, World's Fair displays, and the importation of ancient objects, along with design manuals incorporating Egyptian motifs, from Owen Jones's Grammar of Ornament of 1856 (see Fig. 3) to Christopher Dresser's 1873 Principles of Decorative Design, furthered interest through about 1900.1
The second major wave of the Egyptian revival came with major excavations in the first quarter of the twentieth century-by the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum-leading to the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb by Howard Carter in 1922. Art and artifacts, including jewelry, from the excavations were swiftly incorporated into museum collections. Exhibitions held at institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum, that museum's momentous acquisitions of Egyptian material, and the building of a remarkable Egyptian collection at the Brooklyn Museum had a profound effect on Zimmermann.2
She was not the only jeweler to be inspired by the aesthetic these objects represented. Louis C. Tiffany's first Egyptian revival designs date from about 1900; his jade and amethyst bib necklace made a triumphal showing at the 1906 Paris Salon.3 Then, after a trip to Egypt in 1908, he collaborated with Julia Munson on a line of Egyptian revival jewelry to be sold by Tiffany and Company. In the 1920s Cartier in Paris created a similarly robust line of Egyptian revival works, which Zimmermann could have seen in their New York shop, opened in 1909.4 And many other jewelers also embraced the Egyptian revival, especially with the advent of art deco.5
One of Zimmermann's most successful Egyptian revival designs is a striking gold ring (Fig. 4) with a clear kinship to bracelets found on Tutankhamun's arms.6 The ring comprises a beryl scarab in a collet setting and, on the band, three blue and green enamel lines crossbanded by three red enamel lines, a design that evokes both classical columnar forms and the bundles of lotus stems or papyrus reeds often depicted in Egyptian art and artifacts. Flanking this motif, Zimmermann added small half-circles, which may represent the volutes on an Ionic capital, and above, an inverted gold volute set in a pool of rich blue enamel. All of this leads up the sides of the ring to the scarab, whose associations with the creator god Atum stemmed from ancient Egyptians' belief that young scarab beetles were not hatched from eggs but emerged spontaneously from burrows. The scarab also carried strong solar symbolism and is depicted in many artifacts pushing the sun along its course in the sky. Zimmermann's ring thus carries themes of miraculous creation and resurrection.
The ring in Figure 5 forges a different pathway with similar success. The stone, a large zircon,7 is set off by eight gold and champlevé enamel prongs shaped as lotus petals, with orange-enameled gold beads punctuating the spaces between them and delicate beads of variegated blue-green secondary hues along the three strands of the flaring gold band. The bold color fields of green and blue enamel evoke ancient royalty, while the striations in the enamel (a technique Zimmermann used often) give it a feathery appearance that recalls various ancient Egyptian sources, including bowl-shaped column capitals decorated with leaf forms and motifs inspired by clustered palm branches from the Old Kingdom through the Roman period.8