The most amazing and talented brother act in Brazil.

TIME magazine, 21 July 1967

Forma Livre: The Jewelry of Haroldo
and Roberto Burle Marx

by Mahnaz Ispahani, The Mahnaz Collection

The brothers, Haroldo and Roberto Burle Marx were principally inspired by nature, creating influential, innovative and utterly beautiful modern jewelry between the 1940s and the 1980s.

The challenging, novel and hard to reproduce forma livre or free form style of cutting stones, became a vital characteristic of Burle Marx jewelry. In rings and brooches from the early years, the cuts resemble Roberto's abstract art, and his sinuous, sculpted landscape designs. It was Haroldo, though, who had trained in lapidary work and gemology.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when contemporary Brazilian jewelry was still focused largely on setting diamonds, emeralds and rubies in white metals, using tired designs, the Burle Marx brothers broke the mold. They drew on Brazil’s natural bounty to make one-of-a-kind, handmade jewels in worked gold, most often yellow and high karat, and deployed colorful gemstones, gaining early admirers worldwide. The jewelry celebrates Brazil’s fecundity in colored gemstones: aquamarine, tourmaline, topaz, garnet, quartz, citrine, amethyst, chalcedony, amazonite, and emerald among many others. Brazil’s leaders began commissioning Burle Marx jewels for visiting heads of state and other dignitaries, and their jewelry helped establish international interest in Brazil’s superb gemstones, making them attractive to jewelers who had long focused on sapphires, rubies and diamonds. (In this effort they kept company with a distant relative, Hans Stern, who founded the eponymous Brazilian jewelry company.) During the period the siblings worked in tandem, each jewel was first rendered in refined gouache drawings and then translated into gold, leaving us an additional legacy of striking modernist jewelry drawings.

There is, however, a subtext to their fascinating story, one that involves a family crisis. The two brothers, after working closely for about a decade, parted ways, possibly over creative and business matters. The exact dates are unclear, but the estrangement was severe enough to endure the rest of their lifetimes. At the time of Haroldo’s death, in 1991, they had not reconciled. Roberto died a few years later. A great deal was left unsaid. As a result, which brother could claim creation of which jewels became a subject of some dispute, as others took up the brothers’ quarrel; similarly, who invented the pioneering forma livre cut of stone is occasionally debated.

Roberto Burle Marx's garden for the Ministry of Health and Education, Rio de Janiero. Photo by Malcolm Raggertt

The challenging, novel and hard to reproduce forma livre or free form style of cutting stones, became a vital characteristic of Burle Marx jewelry. In rings and brooches from the early years, the cuts resemble Roberto’s abstract art, and his sinuous, sculpted landscape designs. It was Haroldo, though, who had trained in lapidary work and gemology. He knew the hardness, malleability and fracture quotient of Brazilian stones. He claimed ownership of the forma livre cut outright, inventing it around 1948, and went on to create variations on that cut  of stone for the entirety of his jewelry career. TIME magazine credited Haroldo with the cut in 1967. The forma livre design did, however, clearly change over time: in the period of brotherly collaboration, when Roberto’s powerful artistry dominated the design process, the gems appear voluminous, spiraling upwards. The cut become distinctly less piercing and more elegantly rippling during the post rift period when Haroldo made jewelry on his own.

After the rift, Haroldo went on to a long career as a star artistic jeweler for Brazilian and international high society and creative collectors. In the world of jewelry, the Burle Marx brothers are among the lost masters. American jewelry insiders may know Haroldo’s work but they have not fully valued its craftsmanship, exquisite forma livre colored gemstones, and enduring beauty. Roberto’s fame as a ground-breaking landscape designer and artist overshadowed public awareness and scholarly appreciation of his artist jewels. He is not known to have made much jewelry himself after the brothers split up. (H. Stern bought certain rights to Roberto’s jewelry drawings after his death and made “inspired by” jewels.)

The jewel works of Roberto Burle Marx and Haroldo Burle Marx, in different ways, are iconic representations of Brazil’s innovative fine jewelry production during the 1950s–1980s, indeed, of Brazilian modernism. They deserve a renewed international reputation and a new, appreciative audience. 

Haroldo Burle Marx 1911–1991

Haroldo Burle Marx, born in 1911, was younger than Roberto by two years. He became a specialist who excelled in his chosen métier: jewelry. He was an innovator in his fields, lapidary work and gemology, and a masterful independent, modernist jeweler. When Time magazine wrote about the Burle Marx brothers in 1967, Haroldo was described as the manufacturer of “Brazil's most exquisite jewelry”. Haroldo trained in gemology and lapidary work for four years, studied in Idar-Oberstein, the center of semi-precious stone cutting in Germany, and began making jewelry in the late 1940s. By 1954 he ran a jewelry workshop full time, employing Italian and Brazilian artisans. He owned a fashionable boutique selling fine jewels, on Rodolfo Dantas, Copacabana, in Rio de Janeiro.

As a jeweler, Haroldo’s jewelry prior to 1975 showed the influence of his brother but his style gradually evolved in a different direction. For him, gems were central, an ancient material, as much “a product of nature as clouds or trees,” as he told Connoisseur magazine in 1983. Haroldo’s gemstones were of a high quality and often perfectly matched and, the yellow gold became more often polished than stippled and textured, with clear borders. Often the gold has an unusual patina, denoting the use of silver as the main alloy. His jewels have symmetry and balance. Among jewelry collectors, Haroldo Burle Marx became a coveted name, known for avant-garde fine jewelry, rich in color and exquisite in construction.

Roberto Burle Marx 1909–1994

Roberto, born in São Paolo in 1909, became the most famous of the Burle Marx siblings. He was a genius, a man for all seasons: a world-renowned landscape architect with a distinctly Brazilian modernist formulation, a botanist, environmentalist, painter, ceramicist, textile and theater-set designer, singer, and a jewelry designer. Roberto designed some 2,000 public parks and gardens, along with mosaic pavements of the Copacabana Beach promenade in Rio de Janeiro - surely one of his most visible and beloved creations.

As the finely wrought gouache drawings of jewelry show, Roberto designed ancient feeling yet entirely modernist artist jewels with a hand that showed a deft understanding of massing, heft, volume and the formal organization of space. His early jewelry drawings show his experimentation with amoeba-like shapes dotted with cabochon gems, while drawings from 1962–1964 include geometric necklaces and bracelets. The jewelry is sculptural and irregular, but always with significant dimensionality. The rings rise high from their bezel settings, their gemstones jutting upwards, as if searching for the sky. Roberto’s interest in carefully choreographed formal textured surfaces emerges in brooches, some of which look as though they have been etched on a landscape of gold.