Emily Stoehrer

As a young child I used to wander around the seashore and tide pools with my sister, searching for starfish. Sometimes we even found one! What we discovered in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean tended to be yellow, brown, or orange, and I can still recall the creatures’ bumpy, softly spiky texture as I ran my fingers along their fronts and backs. The way their long legs draped and hung between my fingers as I rested them in my outstretched palm fascinated me. Now I search for starfish with my own children, but we encounter them on the beach much less often than I used to. As jewelry curator, I’ve spent the last few years intently focused on one specific starfish. My treasure hunt has brought me into conversation with colleagues at the Smithsonian, the New England Aquarium, and Harvard’s Museum of Natural History. I’ve learned about what starfish look like and where, in the past, artists and designers might have gone to study them.

The subject of my preoccupation never lived a day in the ocean; it’s a brooch made of gold, ruby, and amethyst and is an extraordinary example of the goldsmith’s art. Its red and purple palette is unlike anything I’ve ever seen on the beach. At first I thought the colors were fanciful, so you can imagine my delight when, a few years ago, I found out real starfish—or sea stars, as they’re more formally known—can actually be a wide range of colors, including the red and purple variety depicted on the brooch. The life-size design, which is about four inches across, is based on the Asterias vulgaris, a common sea star native to the North Atlantic.

The simple elegance of the brooch conceals a complex construction combining form and function. It gets its lifelike design from dozens of sophisticated joints. These allow for movement in three directions—up and down, side to side, and around—so when the starfish is handled its legs flex and drape in the same wavelike motion as the marine creature it’s modeled after. The brooch was designed by Juliette Moutard in 1935 for the Parisian jewelry house René Boivin and has been described as the most magnificent ornament the firm ever produced. Actress Claudette Colbert purchased it in 1938.

This masterpiece is a great example of women as innovators, artists, and patrons. Men dominated the jewelry arts until the 20th century, but by the 1930s, when the brooch was created, it was no longer unusual to encounter women in the field. Today, nearly one hundred years after it was designed, it’s exceptional to have a piece of jewelry that celebrates the lives of three women.

René Boivin founded his jewelry house in 1890. After his death in 1917, his wife, Jeanne, took the reins, becoming the first woman to direct a French jewelry house. The sister of the famed couturier Paul Poiret, Jeanne was very much a part of Paris’s avant-garde set during the interwar period. She had a strong interest in nature and in color, and together with the designers she hired, she codified a bold look in jewelry during the 1930s.

Today we know little about Juliette Moutard’s life and career. What remain are the many extraordinary ornaments she created during her tenure at Boivin. She had previously worked for a watchmaker: the meticulous nature of watchmaking and flexible quality of watch designs have echoes in the movement of the starfish brooch. While Moutard could have closely examined starfish specimens at France’s National Museum of Natural History, to intimately reproduce the precise movements and colors of the sea star she must also have studied live creatures. The design took a few years to perfect; Moutard designed the starfish in 1935, but the finished piece wasn’t published until 1938, when a photograph of it appeared in Harper’s Bazaar magazine.

Claudette Colbert, who in 1934 won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night, likely purchased the brooch the same year it was photographed in Harper’s Bazaar. At that time she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood. Colbert was usually conservative in her fashion and jewelry choices, but if there was ever a time for her to take a risk, it was at this moment. Colbert celebrated her achievements with a new acquisition. Only two known photographs exist of Colbert wearing the brooch. In one photograph, probably taken in 1938, Colbert is seated and the starfish is nestled between her breasts. Another, which was published as part of a full-page spread in the movie magazine Photoplay in November 1939, features Colbert wearing the brooch pinned to the shoulder of a short Persian lamb coat, accessorized with a jaunty hat and a gold link necklace. In both images, the brooch’s flexibility is on full display in the way it hugs the curves of Colbert’s body.

A woman stands with her left arm on her hip and right arm draped across her torso.  She wears a fur hat, a fur coat, and a starfish-shaped brooch pinned to the left lapel.
Claudette Colbert wearing the starfish brooch, as featured in the November 1939 issue of Photoplay.

While the brooch may evoke thoughts of summertime and languid days in the sun, its heft is better suited for heavy winter fabrics. I’ll leave you to search for your own starfish on the beach until this holiday season, when I invite you to come to the MFA and see our “star” in person in the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation Gallery.

Author

Emily Stoehrer is the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry.