Damian Skinner is an art historian and curator based in Gisborne, New Zealand. He edited the book Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective (Lark Books, 2013).
Jewels, Gems, and Treasures: Ancient to Modern, curated by Yvonne J Markowitz, is like a prelude to the critique of preciousness that has played such a key role in contemporary jewelry. Rather than putting the concept of preciousness into question entirely, the exhibition reveals that desirable or precious materials have been surprisingly varied – not a category or typology of materials set in stone, but a category that is diverse across ages and societies. Preciousness, when laid out like this, becomes a dynamic category, not a calcified and restricted set of materials (gold, gems) that contemporary jewelry decides to reject in the mid-twentieth century.
At heart, this exhibition is basically a best-of selection from the MFA collection and yet it is a smart collection show, since it places all the emphasis on how jewelry operates as a kind of object across different cultures and periods. It denaturalizes our certainties – about what materials are precious, and about the functions of jewelry. Here, we find Tiffany necklaces dripping with diamonds, as well as jewelry that is magical, intended to travel into the afterlife, that dazzles with its skilled execution, that embodies social status and that self-consciously questions the history and nature of jewelry itself.
The gallery in which Jewels, Gems, and Treasures is housed is a reasonably small, square space, with freestanding cases lining three walls, and a built-in case on the fourth wall. The cases are lit from within and the carpet, walls and ceilings are colors that recede, so that we are left with the contained areas of the cases and the objects sparking in their shallow cases. The gallery was busy on the Thursday that I visited, a steady stream of people shuffling from case to case, murmuring to their friends about what they were looking at. The atmosphere isn’t somber, but respectful, absorbed and quietly amazed, rewarding attention and a slow pace.
While the display is focused on making the jewelry look amazing, context isn’t neglected. These aren’t beautiful objects floating in space, disconnected from the world and left to float in a historical-museum void. At the base of each case, away from the object but clearly linked to them, a panel of information and sometimes, images, clearly and effortlessly lets you know when the jewels were made, what they are made of and how they were used. Almost all of the objects are suspended on wire mounts that hold them in space, rather than resting against the upholstered surfaces of the cases, which leaves space for the absent body to be imagined.
What Markovitz’s curatorial approach does is provide context to value and preciousness. A corsage ornament, a spray of roses by Alphonse Auger from 1890 made in gold, silver and diamond, isn’t just a naturalistic depiction of flowers, jewelry’s favorite subject, but a revivalist jewel. It harks back to the eighteenth century, when the fashion for such jewelry, to be worn on the bodice of an evening dress, first emerged. The flower heads are set en tremblant so they move slightly and the whole brooch can be disassembled, so each blossom can be worn separately. It makes sense; in other words, belongs to a place and time. Suites of jewelry using colored gemstones, which could be up to as many as sixteen individual pieces, were fashionable evening wear in the nineteenth century and this exhibition features three such sets, from England and the United States, with two of them having illustrious owners (Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln and Elizabeth Hart Jarvis, who married Samuel Colt, the gun manufacturer). So there is bling, but in this context, alongside so many other kinds of materials, each of which commands the status of being precious, the conventionality of this status is revealed, or renewed, so we see it again, not as inevitable but as revealing of social values.
And, framed in this way, different kinds of jewelry production can co-exist and command attention. While three objects from the Farago collection represent contemporary jewelry concerns, it isn’t boring to consider fashion/costume jewelry by Kenneth Jay Lane, or the various designs by Fulso di Verdura, who became the jewelry designer for Coco Chanel. The artistic ambitions of all these makers is on display, but art doesn’t automatically win out here, as it would if this was a show of contemporary jewelry, since Markowitz has established a set of rules for what jewelry does, how it performs. These rules are bigger than contemporary jewelry’s realm of expertise, meaning contemporary jewelry isn’t the only answer to the problems that these objects address.
There isn’t a catalog for this exhibition, but many of the objects on display in this gallery are also featured in Markowitz’s Artful Adornments: Jewelry from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which was published to mark the opening of the Rita J and Stanley H Kaplan Family Foundation Gallery in which Jewels, Gems, and Treasures is on show. It is a chance to see old favorites, such as the Egyptian pectoral (1783-1550 BC, possibly from Thebes, of gold, silver, carnelian, glass) or the Hathor-headed crystal pendant (743-712 BC, Nubian, made of gold and rock crystal) or the coral revivalist suite (1840-60, Naples, Italy, of gold and coral) or the feng tien (headdress) (Chinese, c.1900, gilt metal, kingfisher features, jadeite, tourmaline, coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, bone, pearl, glass, resin, silk) or Charles Robert Ashbee’s Marsh Bird Hair Ornament, now a brooch (1901-2, gold, silver, enamel, ruby, moonstone, freshwater pearl). Again Markowitz displays her talent for condensing a great deal of information in a pithy, informative and accessible text. Here, for example, is what we find out about the coral necklace:
'During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European and North American craftsmen sought out coral as a material for the decorative arts because of its beautiful color, ready availability, and relative softness for carving. Popular motifs for coral adornments included floral sprays, good-luck tokens, and classical themes revived by well-publicized archaeological finds in popular magazines and newspapers such as the Illustrated London News and the Illustrated Times Weekly. The brooch in this elaborate, revivalist suite features a detailed carving of the head of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and revelry, who wears grape clusters in his hair and circles of delicate gold grape vines wrapped around his head. He is flanked on either side by hybrid images of female heads and rams. Below them are three pendant amphorae, vessels often used to store wine. The god-grape-amphora motif continues on the necklace, but in this ornament, representations of Bacchus alternate with the heads of maenads, raucous female spirits who animate nature. Each head is separated by a stylized ram in profile. The rams represent an unusual choice because the animal was rarely associated with Bacchus in classical art. Revivalist jewelers often created pastiches incorporating motifs from a variety of ancient cultures, and such mixing of iconography would not have seemed incongruous to the jewelry’s owner.'
After a general introduction, which provides the history of the MFA’s jewelry collection – what kind of objects entered the museum, when and how – Markowitz divides the book into categories: ‘Magical Jewels,’ ‘Emblems of Wealth & Power,’ ‘Tokens of Affection & Remembrance,’ ‘Dress & Adornment,’ ‘Jewelry & the Avant-Garde.’ These introductory texts are necessarily general, spanning a few pages each and covering hugely diverse geographical regions and time periods, yet this is supplemented by the detailed accounts of each piece that follow, including a very well-written text, plus further readings through footnotes. There is a glossary, further reading section and an index, which make this a useful book for specialists as well as the general public.
Like the exhibition, Markowitz’s focus on the role of jewelry allows her to pull together a collection of objects that otherwise wouldn’t make sense. Contemporary jewelry, for example, is not only found in ‘Jewelry & the Avant-Garde,’ but turns up in ‘Magical Jewels’ (Kiff Slemmons) and ‘Tokens of Affection & Remembrance’ (Lisa Gralnick and Daniel Jocz). It isn’t even the star of the show in ‘Jewelry & the Avant-Garde,’ which takes in the arts and crafts, and art nouveau movements at the beginning of the twentieth century, before ending up with studio jewelry. Again, what is so nice about this approach is that contemporary jewelry is restored to a larger world of adornment and jewelry, and jewelry is restored to being about more than precious materials. It is, so Markowitz’s exhibition and book seems to suggests, okay to be dazzled – and paying attention to sparkle doesn’t have to mean turning jewelry into objects that are all surface and no depth.