From Art Nouveau theatrical poster to a Japanese art gallery, a unique serpent bracelet designed by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha for French actress Sarah Bernhardt has coiled its way through more than a century of history – disappearing, reappearing, and intertwining itself with an eclectic group of extraordinary people.
By Victoria Martínez
It all began with the type of lucky break many creative people struggling for success dream of.
In late 1894, a talented but unknown illustrator happened to be working in a Paris print shop when a famous French stage actress made an urgent request for a new promotional poster. Eagerly, Alphonse Mucha got to work on the commission: a poster of Sarah Bernhardt in the title role of the 1894 production of Gismonda. Bernhardt was so pleased with the final work that she asked Mucha to design not only more posters, but also stage sets and costumes for future performances.
One of these was the poster he designed for the 1898 production of Médée, featuring Bernhardt as the barbarian princess who married the Greek hero Jason. As Medea, Bernhardt’s left arm is entwined by a golden serpent bracelet meant to evoke “ominous Oriental antiquity.” As “the oldest, best known and most sought-after theme in the history of bracelets,” the serpent may have been chosen for its historical significance, but the symbol of the snake was one that Bernhardt clearly enjoyed. She demonstrated this in 1890 while performing as Cleopatra:
“For the death scene, in which the distraught queen is bitten by an asp, Bernhardt kept two garter snakes in a jewel case on her dressing table. She was fond of them and often twined them around her wrists, to the horror of her maid and visitors.”
Inspired by the theatrical prototype in his own work, Mucha designed a serpent bracelet that could be more practically kept in Bernhardt’s jewel box and wouldn’t horrify anyone by wriggling around on her wrist. To execute the piece, Mucha turned to leading French jeweler Georges Fouquet, with whom he was in the midst of a three-year collaboration. Together, the two masters of the Art Nouveau style created an extraordinary piece of jewelry in 1899 that Dr. Jeremy Howard, lecturer of art history at the University of St. Andrews, called “one of the most striking examples of [Mucha’s] work.”
“Here the snake coiled around the wrist, its tail extending up the arm, its winged head, set with a mosaic of enamel, opals, rubies and diamonds, resting on the back of the hand. It was linked by a series of chains to another ‘snake,’ this a finger ring, its head turned to face that of the bracelet. The piece was given extra flexibility by a discrete system of hinges which allowed movement of the hand.”
Towards the end of her life, suffering from ill-health and financial difficulties, Bernhardt resorted to selling off much of her large collection of jewelry. Whether the bracelet was sold during her lifetime or after her death in 1923, its whereabouts are difficult to track until 1964 when Joan “Tiger” Morse – an eccentric, amphetamine-addicted, American high-society stylist/avant-garde fashion designer – bought it from a Paris jewelry store.
When she wasn’t dressing the likes of Jackie Kennedy, designing “extreme pop” clothing, or socializing with Andy Warhol, Morse was traveling the world in search of unusual and interesting items for her high-end New York City boutiques. London decorative arts dealer John Jesse described traveling with Morse to Paris, where she paid $10,000 for what Jesse called “…possibly the single most wonderful piece of Art Nouveau jewellery I have ever seen.”
Exactly when the German-American actress Marlene Dietrich acquired the bracelet is not certain, but probably after April 1966, when it was included in an exhibit of Alphonse Mucha’s Art Nouveau works at the Hôtel de Sens in Paris. She may very well have seen it at the exhibit since she spent much of her time living in Paris. Of course, it’s also possible that she owned it at that point and had loaned it out for the exhibit.
Whenever and however Dietrich first encountered and acquired the bracelet, she would have done so with the discerning eye of someone who had grown up surrounded by jewelry. Her mother’s family had a prestigious watch and jewelry store in Berlin, where Dietrich had spent much of her childhood.
“Jewelry was my heritage, the heritage of my mother’s family. My grandmother’s advice was a lot of fun, and she gave me lovely little pieces of jewelry, too, which helped me to pay attention and remember it all,” Dietrich later recalled. “I loved standing among the well-dressed ladies [at the store] as they tried on jewelry, and I did the same as they did.”
Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any known photos of either Sarah Bernhardt or Marlene Dietrich wearing the bracelet (or at least none that I can find). It seems like an artistic injustice that these two iconic actresses whose images were cast far and wide both during and after their lifetimes were never photographed wearing an equally iconic and historical piece of jewelry.
Like Bernhardt before her, Dietrich found in her advancing years that she needed money more than she needed jewelry. In November 1987, she sold the bracelet at auction in Geneva, along with several other items from her personal collection. The New York Times reported a Christie’s spokesman as saying, “She wants to sell because periods of her life have passed by and this coincides with her economic circumstances. It’s not that she’s as poor as a church mouse, but she’s not as liquid as she used to be.” The following month, the newspaper described the sale of the bracelet:
“An extraordinary snake-shaped bracelet worn by Sarah Bernhardt – a twist of gold and enamel embellished with diamonds and opals – was sold last month by Christie’s in Geneva for $757,246. The price paid for the 1899 wrist ornament – designed by Alphonse Mucha, it was crafted by Georges Fouquet of Paris – was the highest ever paid at auction for a piece of Art Nouveau jewelry.”
Today, over a century after it was created in Paris, the bracelet is some 6,000 miles away in the permanent collection of the Alphonse Mucha Museum in Sakai City, Japan.
Interestingly, although the bracelet was a one-of-a-kind piece designed for Bernhardt, according to jewelry expert Françoise Cailles, there are actually three versions of the bracelet documented in the Fouquet archives. After Sarah Bernhardt’s version was sold, one of these other versions – created in 1900 – suddenly appeared and was sold at auction in 1989. This version of the bracelet can be seen on the cover of Cailles’ book, “Le Prix des bijoux. International Jewellery Auction, Vol. 2.”
 Born Alfons Maria Mucha in Prague in 1860, he studied art at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts before moving to Paris in 1887. An important and prolific artist of the Art Nouveau style, he died in 1939 in Prague.
 The celebrated French stage actress of La Belle Époque, known as The Divine Sarah, born and died in Paris, 1844-1923.
 Howard, Jeremy. “Art Nouveau: International and National Styles in Europe.” Manchester: Manchester University Press: 1996, p. 20.
 Cailles, Françoise and Jean-Norbert Salit, “Le Prix des Bijoux: International Jewelry Auction, Vol. 2.” Paris, Art Creation Realisation: 1991, p.69.
 Silverthorne, Elizabeth. “Sarah Bernhardt (Women in the Arts).” Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishers: 2004, p. 101.
 Born and died in Paris, 1862-1957.
 The daughter of American architect Morris Henry Sugarman, Morse was born in New York in 1932 and died there of a drug overdose in 1972.
 Jesse, John. “A Fridge for a Picasso.” Sheffield (England), Muswell Press, 2014, p. 116.
 Born Marie Magdalene Dietrich in Berlin in 1901 and died in Paris in 1992.
 Chandler, Charlotte. “Marlene: Marlene Dietrich, A Personal Biography.” New York, Simon & Schuster: 2011, pps. 16-17.