The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston is unveiling their gallery dedicated to jewelry on Tuesday. The gallery gleams with rare jewels ranging from golden 8th century Egyptian pendants encasing hieroglyphic scrolls – to late 20th century treasures including Kenneth Jay Laneʼs bib necklace with fluorescent color gems.
The MFA announced their gallery is the first, solely devoted to exhibiting jewelry in a US fine arts museum. “It is literally a gem of a gallery. I hope itʼs going to make people aware that jewelry is not just a superficial adornment – it represents history, artistry, craftsmanship, and exquisite materials,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “Iʼm really proud of this gallery. It will make MFA visitors realize that jewelry is really worthy of a museum. The exhibit represents all aspects of cultural diversity in an encyclopedic fashion, over several centuries of time.”
The MFA ”keeps collecting jewelry and adding to their jewelry collection, which makes the museum pretty unique,” says MFA Curator of Jewelry, Yvonne Markowitz – the first jewelry curator to be endowed at a U.S. museum. “We have the ability to feature exhibits that cross time and culture because of the diverse nature of our large jewelry collection. The MFA is old, our collection and gallery are so superior – we’ve spent three decades excavating jewelry.”
The gallery’s inaugural exhibition, Jewels, Gems, and Treasures: Ancient to Modern features 75 rare adornments – each piece is derived from the museum’s jewelry collection of over 11,000 adornments – one of the world’s most comprehensive jewelry collections. According to the MFA, the exhibit is designed to highlight how ʻtreasureʼ has been distinguished all over the world throughout history, spanning over four millennia. The older adornments dating back to the BC era are predominantly crafted with ivory, shell, and rock crystal. The more modern jewelry is mainly crafted with diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies and pearls.
Significant items on display include couturier designer, Coco Chanelʼs iconic 1930ʼs gold and enamel cuffs with jewel encrusted Maltese crosses by Verdura New York. And First Lady, Mary Todd Lincolnʼs gold and diamond earring and brooch set are also showcased. Lincoln purchased her jewelry set for $3,200 in 1864 and sold it following her husbandʼs assassination. Other pieces that are symbolic of historical significance include an 18th Century South German rosary that served as a symbol of faith; and a 14th century Chinese headdress adorned with kingfisher feathers, worn mainly by Chinese noblewomen to celebrate their wedding day.
The gallery is named to recognize the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundationʼs endowment at the MFA. “Rita Kaplan and her daughter Susan are passionate jewelry collectors who are committed to funding jewelry scholarship,” says Markowitz.
Markowitz claims most museums feature jewelry “in a case or two, and rarely prioritize investing in jewelry. It’s as if jewelry had become the bastard child of decorative arts”. Unlike other museums the MFA wants to be at the forefront of a jewelry trend by emphasizing its significance – as a form of historical artistry.
Visitors are also starting to take note of the MFAʼs perspective on emphasizing jewelry craftsmanship and cultural influence. MFA visitor, Carole Redden from Boston thinks, “itʼs really unique to see an exhibit that highlights jewelry because the display shows a rare form of artwork that many can benefit and learn from. Learning history through art, fashion, and even jewelry makes a boring subject — like history — more meaningful and very engaging.”
Rogers believes, “itʼs rubbish, many US museums donʼt have jewelry exhibits or galleryʼs because there is a tendency to think that jewelry is not worthy of public attention. There are many museums that feel rubies, diamonds, and other precious stones are part of an inverted snobbery.”
Jewelry plays an integral role in the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing, which opened last year. This exhibit initially started a turning point for museums by displaying jewelry beside paintings, sculptures and other artwork. In the past, jewelry at the MFA was typically incorporated in displays of ancient or non-Western art, according to Rogers.
The new gallery at the MFA is creating a whole new realm of fine arts for curators and historians. “This is just as significant as when museums started to developed art departments and curators for textiles,” explains Reema Keswani, President of the American Society of Jewelry Historians. “It’s transforming these art forms that were once dubbed as ʻcraftsʼ, and then coined ʻfeminine artʼ and now theyʼre in the same caliber as ʻfine artʼ.”