MFA jewelry exhibit brings sparkle to the Museum of Fine Arts
Exhibit shows jewelry’s importance and influence through history
“Jewels, Gems and Treasures: Ancient to Modern,” curated by Yvonne Markowitz of the Museum of Fine Arts, is a study in the appreciation and significance of various jewels and precious pieces over time. Spanning centuries and six continents, the show features studio jewelry, diamonds once belonging to film legend Joan Crawford and a suite owned by Mary Todd Lincoln, as well as 17th−century south German rosaries and a Nubian crystal pendant dating back to 712 B.C. The exhibit calls into question the multiple functions of jewelry, and it displays pieces that range from the protective to the decorative.
“Jewels” is the first exhibit in the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation Gallery. The gallery is a medium−sized room with walls covered in black fabric, and its spotlights point purposefully into the cases. The pieces glisten back, change hue at different angles or hold the dull, matte sheen that results from being out of sight for centuries. The varied jewelry pieces command equal parts attention and reverence. On the day of my visit, the gallery−goers in the small space shuffled unhurriedly from case to case, alternating gasps and words of longing in reference to the exhibition’s treasures.
Passing by ancient diamonds and emeralds seated next to hair pins made from bone and cowry and seashell−laced necklaces, a museum−goer experiences not only the varying and ever−evolving craftsmanship of jewelry, but also insight into the shifting role jewelry has played in society from ancient times to today.
The show, through its curation as an assortment of collections and loans, examines the various roles of precious materials, metals and gems, without casting undue focus on any one time, medium, culture or region. The exhibit looks at the role of these materials in jewelry pieces that range from ancient Nubian pendants to Tiffany necklaces. Many of these pieces accompanied rites of passage or other special points in people’s lives — jewelry for weddings, funerals, births, crownings and initiations into manhood and womanhood abound.
The show exhibits jewelry made from a staggering number of different materials, including gilt metals, jade, feathers, coral, bone, ruby, amethyst, turquoise, pearl and even rubber. It’s clear that Markowitz put plenty of consideration into creating the show’s overarching theme of jewelry pieces as valuable historical and cultural artifacts, and the show promotes dialogue about the significance of adornments. Jewelry pieces can convey a huge amount of social information and act as social capital in one way or another. They often convey status, power or recognition. The show reminds us that social significance is a fluid concept, and that what may seem by consensus to be most valued and praised is not set in stone, or in silver.
One of my favorite pieces was an Alphonse Auger corsage ornament, circa 1837−1904. The corsage pendant features a spray of yellow diamonds, gold and silver crafted into flower blossoms. Each of the flower heads is movable, courtesy of small springs that are mounted to the brooch. The blossoms are detachable and can be worn separately, as was the style in 19th−century Europe. The craftmanship of the corsage is more intricate than most of the jewelry in the exhibit.
The final selection in the last case of the gallery was a 1980 bracelet by famed artist Otto K called “Gold Makes You Go Blind.” The bracelet is essentially a piece of rubber tubing with a large gold ball resting in its middle, hidden from view inside the tubing. This final nod to Markowitz’s thought−provoking curatorial style is also a testament to the role of design in jewelry making. It leaves a viewer with lingering questions concerning the function of jewelry: do we wear it to impress, or to highlight our own features? Is it the gems we value, or their presence and what they convey to the outside world?
“Jewels, Gems and Treasures” is a dynamic exploration of preciousness, without material bounds. The collection never sits on one understanding of what is rare and precious for too long. Its strength is also its weakness: it is so varied that it not only brings forth necessary and probing concerns, but it also provides few answers. It leaves room for the interested mind to delve deeper into human history’s complex relationship with adornment and celebration, through a multifaceted looking glass.