Friday, July 15, 2011



The Inaugural Exhibition Jewels, Gems, and Treasures: Ancient to Modern Features Jewelry  Including Pieces Worn by Mary Todd Lincoln Four Millennia, Marjorie Merriweather Post, and Coco Chanel

As the saying goes, “diamonds are a girl’s best friend”—at least in modern times—but as the exhibition Jewels, Gem, and Treasures: Ancient to Modern illustrates, ornaments made of ivory, shell, and rock crystal were prized in antiquity, while jewelry made of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, and pearls became fashionable in later years. The exhibition opens July 19 and runs through November 1, 2012 and highlights some 75 objects representing the rich variety of jewels, gems, and treasures that have been valued over the course of four millennia. Drawn from the MFA’s collection and select loans, these range from a 24th-century BC Nubian conch shell amulet, to Mary Todd Lincoln’s 19th -century diamond and gold suite, to a 20th-century platinum, diamond, ruby, and sapphire Flag brooch honoring the sacrifices of the Doughboys in World War I. Jewels, Gems, and Treasures is the inaugural exhibition in the MFA’s new Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation Gallery. The gallery—one of only a few at American museums solely dedicated to jewelry—will feature works from the Museum’s outstanding collection of approx-imately 11,000 ornaments. It is named in recognition of the generosity of the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation.

“The opening of the Museum's first jewelry gallery provides an ongoing opportunity for the MFA’s collection to shine,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “In this inaugural exhibition, visitors will see a wide range of gems that will both inform and dazzle in a beautiful new space that will allow the MFA to showcase its stellar assemblage of jewelry, which ranges from ancient to modern.”

Jewels, Gems, and Treasures sheds light on how various cultures throughout history have defined the concept of “treasure,” showcasing an exquisite array of necklaces, rings, bracelets, pendants, and brooches, as well as mineral specimens. In addition, the exhibition explains the significance of jewelry, which can be functional (pins, clasps, buckles, combs, and barrettes); protective (talismans endowed with healing or magical properties); and ornamental, making the wearer feel beautiful, loved, and remembered. Beyond functionality and adornment, jewelry can also
establish one’s status and role in society. Rare gems and precious metals, made into fabulous designs by renowned craftsmen, have often served as symbols of wealth and power. This is especially evident in a section of the show where jewelry worn by celebrities is on view, including fashion designer Coco Chanel’s enameled cuff bracelets accented with jeweled Maltese crosses (Verdura, New York, first half of 20th century) and socialite Betsey Cushing Whitney’s gold and diamond “American India Headdress” Tiara (Verdura, New York, about 1955), which she wore to her presentation to Queen Elizabeth II in 1956 as the wife of the US Ambassador to the Court of St. James.

The significance of precious materials in jewelry in the 20th century is explored in the exhibition, where several modern adornments from the MFA’s Daphne Farago Collection examine jewelry’s traditional roles in society. Among them are a 1985 brooch of iron, pyrite, and diamond rough by Falko Marx and a 1993 ring by Dutch jeweler Liesbeth Fit entitled Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. (The Daphne Farago Collection comprises 650 pieces of contemporary craft jewelry made by leading American and European artists from about 1940 to the present.)

“Jewelry is a powerful cultural signifier, and the materials used in its fabrication vary considerably. This exhibition examines both traditional and unusual substances used to create some of the world’s most extraordinary adornments,” said Yvonne Markowitz, the MFA’s Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry, whose position is the first endowed curatorship dedicated to the study of jewelry in a US museum.

Jewels, Gems, and Treasures
begins with a look at jewelry made of organic materials— substances readily available and easy to work with, such as ivory, shell, wood, and coral. These range from a pair of ivory cuff bracelets from Early Kerma culture in modern Sudan (2400–2050 BC) to more sophisticated creations made possible through the advancement of tools. Examples include a gold, silver, carnelian and glass Egyptian Pectoral (1783– 1550 BC) and a Nubian gold and rock crystal Hathor-headed crystal pendant (743–712 BC) recovered from the burial of a queen of King Piye, the great Kushite ruler who conquered Egypt in the eighth century BC. In addition to having magical properties that protected the wearer against malevolent forces, adornments such as these were often buried with their owners as their amuletic capabilities were needed during the arduous journey to the afterlife. On the other side of the globe, Mayans wore ear flares (not in exhibition)—conduits of spiritual energy—made of sacred green jadeite that represented key elements of human life.
Various cultures throughout the ages at one point believed that amber could cure maladies, coral could safeguard children, an animal’s tooth or claw could invest the wearer with strength and ferocity, and gold and silver invoked the cosmic power of the sun and moon. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, many hard stones were believed to have magical properties (some were even ground and consumed), and pendant reliquaries containing a holy person’s cremated ashes or bone fragments were often donned, along with rosaries (Rosary, South German, mid-17th century), as sacred adornments. Even today, zodiac ornaments and good luck charms are sometimes worn as tokens, recalling their earlier mystical importance.

Throughout much of history, jewelry’s role as a symbol of one’s elevated status has inspired the wealthy to seek out stones that sparkle, gold that gleams, and designs that reflect the greatest artistry money can buy. To illustrate this, Jewels, Gems, and Treasures features some of the most opulent works from the Museum’s jewelry collection, including an 1856 diamond wedding necklace and earrings suite given by arms merchant Samuel Colt to his wife (the 41.73-carat suite, purchased for $8,000, is now valued at $190,000) and Mary Todd Lincoln’s gold, enamel, and diamond brooch with matching earrings, which she acquired around 1864, shortly after the death of the Lincolns’ beloved son, Willy, and then sold in 1867 to pay mounting debts. Also on view is a Kashmir sapphire and diamond brooch (around 1900); a gold, silver and diamond necklace made by August Holmström for Peter Carl Fabergé, the famous Russian jeweler to the czars; and cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post’s lavish platinum brooch from the 1920s, featuring a spectacular 60-carat carved Mughal emerald surrounded by diamonds, which she purchased in anticipation of her presentation at the British court in 1929.

Also on view in the exhibition are superb adornments made by leading French Art Nouveau jewelers, which were fashioned for a wealthy and artistic clientele in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The Art Nouveau movement, which originated in Europe, embraced an aesthetic that was avant-garde, sensuous, and symbolic—one that looked to the natural world, the Impressionists, and the arts of Japan for inspiration. In response to the “tyranny of the diamond”—the all white platinum and diamond jewelry previously in vogue—these elaborate, one-of-a kind pieces often featured colored gems and unusual materials, such as horn, enamel, irregularly shaped pearls, steel, and glass.

An example in the show is René Lalique’s fanciful gold, silver, steel, and diamond Hair Ornament with antennae (about 1900). The Arts and Crafts movement, which emerged in Britain during the 1870s as a reaction to the mechanization and poor working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, is represented by Marsh-bird brooch (1901–02) by Charles Robert Ashbee, who sought to create a delicate stained-glass effect with this piece. The refined techniques of the Art Deco movement are evident in Japanesque brooch (about 1925), incorporating platinum, gold, enamel, diamonds, rubies, and onyx. The movement arose after World War I and continued through the 1930s. It was influenced by avant- garde ideology, as was the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements, but instead chose to express its aesthetic through geometric shapes, linear stylization, and a return to platinum and diamonds.

Jewels, Gems, and Treasures also highlights a variety of interesting and unique pieces, such as a Suite of hummingbird jewelry (brooch and earrings, about 1870), made out of gold, ruby, and taxidermied hummingbirds; an ebony, ivory, silver lapis lazuli, and amber casket designed to showcase the amber cameos and intaglios collected by William Arnold Buffum (about 1880–85); an Indian silver and tiger claw necklace (19th century); and a gold, silver, agate, diamond, and ruby animal sculpture,The Balletta Bulldog (about 1910) made by the workshop of Peter Carl Fabergé Fabergé. In addition, the exhibition features jewelry as seen in William McGregor Paxton’s painting, The New Necklace (1910).


The jewelry collection at the MFA is one of the most comprehensive in the world. It numbers nearly 11,000 objects acquired through Museum-sponsored excavations, donations, and purchases made during the past 140 years. The collection includes jewelry from nearly every continent, spanning 6,000 years. Until recently, jewelry came under the domain of the Museum’s curatorial departments where it was stored, studied, and displayed. Then, in 2006, a jewelry curatorship was funded by the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation and named in honor of Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan, mother and daughter, who are not only avid jewelry collectors but also passionate supporters of the study of jewelry history. The Museum’s collection includes ornaments representing a wide array of materials, techniques, and functions. Objects collected range from Neolithic Chinese belt ornaments of jade and excavated beadwork from Egypt’s Pyramid Age, to ancient Greek gold and American colonial and Federal-period jewelry. With the gift to the Museum of approximately 650 pieces of contemporary craft jewelry from the Daphne Farago Collection, the MFA now holds the most comprehensive collection of 20th-century studio jewelry ever assembled.


Named in honor of the generosity of MFA Great Benefactor, The Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation, the gallery’s creation was inspired by Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan, who are interested in broadening the understanding of the meaning and cultural context in which jewelry was made and worn. The Kaplan Family Foundation Gallery will enable the MFA to display in a dedicated space highlights of treasures from its world-class jewelry collection. Future rotations will showcase between 50 and 100 pieces, depending on the size of the works. Adornments will be shown in cases that create an intimate, glowing jewel-box environment, with special lighting to enhance the appreciation of the objects.


Complementing the exhibition is the 210-page book Artful Adornments: Jewelry from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, written by Yvonne features approximately 125 works from the MFA’s jewelry collection. With 200 color illustrations, this volume presents an array of adornments, from an emerald and diamond brooch once owned by the cereal- fortune heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, to a rock crystal and gold amulet found in the tomb of an ancient Egyptian queen, and a 20th -century kinetic necklace influenced by the mobiles of Alexander Calder. Thematic chapters illuminate the many ways in which jewelry has functioned in society. Beginning with some of the earliest known manifestations of the uniquely human urge to adorn the body, the first chapter unveils magical jewels made out of materials believed to safeguard, heal, or confer special powers on the wearer. Ornaments that signify the wealth or power of an individual make up the second chapter, and, in the third, tokens of affection and remembrance are brought to the fore. The final chapters explore adornment as dress and jewelry as an expression of avant-garde art movements. Spanning five continents and nearly six millennia, Artful Adornments presents the variety and brilliance of the jeweler’s art from around the world and throughout the ages. Generous support for the catalogue was provided by Skinner, Inc., Dorfman Jewelers of Boston, and Michael and Karen Rotenberg. It will be available in hard cover for $55 in the Museum’s three shops and online at

The famed Rizzoli Bookstore in New York city will feature the catalogue in their window beginning July 25th for two weeks.