The West Baton Rouge Museum is telling the story of Mignon Faget's artistry and career in a different way.

Instead of focusing on a chronological timeline, the exhibit looks at the New Orleans jewelry designer's work through her collectors' collections.

"The Collectible Life of Mignon Faget," which runs through Jan. 3, features more than 80 pieces from lovers of her jewelry in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Alexandria.

Faget, a prolific designer, has crafted more than 70 series of jewelry. The show includes pieces from about 27 of those collections.

"I see what I have seen all of my life, the beauty of my environment," Faget said. "Louisiana designs are inspired by the architecture, nature and traditions of our unique culture."

Guest curator Nolde Alexius said the exhibit is set up to feature personal collections, with some of the display cases showing one person's collection and others telling Faget's story.

"We have these kind of double narratives in the exhibit — the narrative of Mignon and her career and her creativity and artistry and discipline, but also the narrative of a personal collection as represented by her designs," said Alexius.

And it means something to Faget for people to love her work.

"Mignon said she designs jewelry for people who don't think of jewelry in terms of categories but see that jewelry plays a lot of different roles in our lives," Alexius said. "Just as the materials Mignon uses — the gold and silver — make the jewelry valuable inherently, her artistry also makes it valuable. And the collectors add value with their own personal curation of her designs."

Alexius is a part of that narrative. Her mother, Mira Alexius, was the representative of Faget's work in Alexandria, selling it in her store, M.A. Designs. Alexius came to know many of the area's collectors through her mom and asked them to loan some of their pieces to the exhibit.

Museum staff also contacted collectors in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, resulting in an eclectic mix of a shared love of Faget's work over her 50-plus years a jewelry designer.

Faget, born and raised in New Orleans, earned her bachelor's degree in fine arts with a concentration in sculpture from Newcomb College in 1955.

In 1969, she produced her first ready-to-wear clothing line, but customers were taken with a sand dollar and sea-inspired belt she had crafted by melting down some wedding gifts.

"She had been an avid seashell collector before she started making jewelry," Alexius said. "When the idea occurred to her that she could accessorize her leather and suede nautical designs with jewelry, she naturally turned to her seashell collection as a way to design it."

One of her sand dollars from this early Sea Collection — on loan from interior designer Aza Downs Bowlin, who inherited it from her mother, Barbara Downs — hangs in the show. 

"It was a necklace, but my mom wore it as a belt," Bowlin said. "It's certainly not one-of-a-kind, but it represents some of her early work."

Bowlin believes her mom was attracted to Faget's work because she, too, was an artist.

"She graduated in fine arts, but she pursued interior design," she said. "She owned Barbara Downs Residential Design in Alexandria, and Mignot Faget's jewelry spoke to her in the way my mother saw the world around her, especially the Gulf Coast. … She had at least 10 pieces, probably more. All of her children inherited them. She always wore two rings — her wedding ring on her left hand and one of Mignon Faget's gold garden snail rings on her right."

Bowlin's mom presented her with a silver garden snail ring for her eighth grade graduation.

"That ring stayed on my finger growing up until my mom died in 2009," Bowlin said. "Now I wear the gold garden snail."

Alexius said the vintage sand dollar is "one of the oldest in the show, if not the oldest."

Along with the Sea, which came out in 1970, other collections represented in the show include Zea, a 1988 collection in praise of corn; 2019's Sea Revisited; Knots, from 1976, which garnered Faget her first national attention; and Romanesque Return, a 1990 collection which Alexius calls Faget's tour de force.

"We have a whole section dedicated to her Romanesque Return," Alexius said. "The story goes that her friend Errol Barron, who is an architecture professor at Tulane and an architect in New Orleans, was directing the restoration of the Howard Memorial Library (now the Patrick F. Taylor Library). People may know this building now primarily because it's the events space for the Ogden Museum."

The building, which opened in 1889, was based on a design by esteemed American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, a native of Louisiana. As architectural fragments were carried out and placed on the lawn, Barron realized they looked like jewelry and called Faget. The fragments inspired her series.

"She returned the building to people as wearable art, just as Errol was returning it to people of the city of New Orleans to use and enjoy," Alexius said.

Also included are a pair of cuff links, inspired by the building's brick work, Faget designed especially for Barron.

"It's fitting to have this piece, the cuff links, in this exhibit with the focus on personal collections," Alexius said. "We were excited to acquire them."

Melinda Waller Mangham's Faget brooch collection also catches the eye. There are 10 in all, made of gold, silver and bronze.

"This collector was a teacher, and she wore a pin every day," Alexius said. "She collected various pins, but the standout in this collection, I think, is this barrette her daughter wore. It was a pin that Mignon converted into a barrette, and you can see that it was a much loved piece."


Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com