“Would you wear that?” asks the woman, nodding toward the Art Smith Galaxy neckpiece (ca. 1960), a constellation of swooping silver orbs that evokes both celestial bodies and the wind-dispersed seeds of a sugar maple. “Well, I’d like that bracelet,” her friend responds, pointing at Smith’s copper-and-brass Lava cuff (ca. 1946) that is positioned just below the collar. “But you’d have to have a big hand to pull it off.”
The two women, paused in front of a mixed-media display in the new Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, go on to admire earthenware designed by Eva Zeisel, plywood lounge chairs by Ray and Charles Eames, and even a Limoges porcelain bowl enameled in fiery figures by Jackson Pollock (a gift to one of the artist’s Jungian analysts), but they don’t evaluate these other works based on their ownership potential. That criterion is saved for the jewelry.
A few staircases, several hallways, and one cactuslike Dale Chihuly Lime Green Icicle Tower away from this scene is someone dedicated to pushing the conversation about jewelry in museums beyond “Would you wear that?” In 2007, Yvonne Markowitz became the first dedicated curator of jewelry at an art museum in the United States. “I take a very functional approach to jewelry: What is its purpose? What is it meant to accomplish?” she says, seated at a table in the MFA’s Department of Textile and Fashion Arts under the gaze of a mannequin dressed in a fur-trimmed blue coat. “I would like visitors to confront each jewel in an exhibition and ask ‘Why is it there?'”
While the MFA has collected jewelry since its founding in 1876, this July will mark the inauguration of its new Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation Gallery, a home for rotating jewelry shows that will be mostly thematic in nature. “Jewels, Gems, and Treasures,” opening July 19, will draw primarily from the museum’s collection of more than 100,000 ornaments. “The idea with this exhibition is to challenge contemporary notions of what a gem is, and by doing that, you get an appreciation of another culture,” says Markowitz, who trained as an Egyptologist. A 19th-century Chinese headdress studded with iridescent kingfisher feathers will sit among works featuring other prized materials of their time, including a tiger-claw necklace from India and a brooch-and-earrings set adorned with taxidermied hummingbirds, which were all the rage in 1860s England.
“With some of the earliest jewels, the materials were selected because they were thought to have magical powers,” explains Markowitz, who will showcase six deity-topped pendants owned by Nubian queens. Two of them are made of rock crystal, valued for its proximity to the quartz veins containing the gold that formed the basis of the Nubian economy. “That jewelry functioned to protect and safeguard a very anxious world,” she says. “That idea is lost today. We have a slight remnant of that in our culture with the birthstone, but nobody really believes in it.”
But the show is not all dead birds and jet beads. “We also will have quite a bit of bling,” says Markowitz, cradling a Cartier diamond necklace from the 1950s and pointing out its uniquely feminine articulation. “Something like this is very meaningful, because this is all about status and wealth.” Among the other works on view will be Marjorie Merriweather Post’s platinum, diamond, and emerald brooch, a diamond-and-gold suite once owned by Mary Todd Lincoln, and a selection of “studio jewelry”—contemporary craft pieces designed and made by artists including Alexander Calder, Smith, and Sam Kramer.
A handful of other American museums have permanent exhibition spaces dedicated to jewelry. In January, the Newark Museum opened its Lore Ross Jewelry Gallery, which showcases a thematic sampling of its collection that spans 1600 to the present. “It’s what I think of—no pun intended—as a jewel-box gallery,” says Ulysses Grant Dietz, the museum’s senior curator of decorative arts. “I see it as a way to keep the public aware of how the collection is evolving.”
Dietz concedes that much of the Newark Museum’s collection was acquired rather accidentally over the past 100 years. “I’ve really begun to focus and try to bring out highlights and to add things to the collection that focus on major moments and names in jewelry production,” he says. Among the museum’s most recent acquisitions is a unique Art Deco ring-brooch from the 1920s. “It’s Tiffany & Company doing a spin on Cartier, just as Cartier was becoming a huge competitor in the United States,” explains Dietz. “It’s a very exciting piece, because Tiffany tended to be very conservative.”
Like Markowitz, whom he counts as a mentor, Dietz is accustomed to certain prejudices where jewelry and museums are concerned. He tells the story of trying to secure the approval of the museum’s board of trustees to purchase a 30-karat diamond bracelet, a “spectacular” Art Deco specimen that the trustees saw as an expensive string of bling. He encouraged them to view the piece as emblematic of the explosion of modernism in the United States and to consider comparisons to architectural icons such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. “I said, ‘Don’t look at the fact that the diamonds are all flashing in your face, look at the fact that there are six different shapes of geometric diamonds, all of which are cuts that had not existed before the late 1920s, that this instinct toward geometry and Art Deco modernism is expressed through the way the stones are used,'” he says. “And that’s what finally won them over.”
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which has a particular strength in studio jewelry among its wide-ranging jewelry collection, takes a similar approach to its exhibitions. “We relate the individual works to the artistic impulses or movements that they came out of, and we talk about technique,” says Houston curator Cindi Strauss. “We do in many cases talk about function, because some pieces don’t appear to be wearable.”
Curators agree that context is critical, and, for that reason, more museums are not only mounting thematic exhibitions of jewelry but are also more frequently mixing it among other works, from paintings and sculpture to photography and other design pieces. “A lot of institutions are rethinking how they exhibit jewelry,” says Sarah Coffin, a curator at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, who recently organized the museum’s Van Cleef & Arpels exhibition. “I think it’s very appropriate, given all the connections with other design movements and decorative-arts movements, and even artistic ones, like Cubism, that jewelry belongs in art museums as long as there is this design component.”
However, there is the matter of how to exhibit jewelry effectively. “One of the problems I have is that in a lot of shows, they display jewelry as if it’s at a department store,” says Judy Price, founder and president of the National Jewelry Institute. “You’re looking down; you’re not looking up, as you do if you’re looking at a painting or a photograph.” Price prefers to display jewelry at eye level. “We don’t care if someone wants to buy the jewelry,” she adds. “We care that they look at the jewelry, not for the jewels themselves, but as a representation of a point in time or a representation of a person who bought it and why.”
Ursula Ilse-Neuman, curator of jewelry at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, shares Price’s view. “As with any art form, jewelry should not just be pinned down as it would be in a store, and you have to give some context to it,” she says. “I try to loosen it up.” The Museum of Arts and Design’s gallery cases also feature drawers that viewers can manipulate. For future jewelry exhibitions, including one she is working on about the use of photography in jewelry, Ilse-Neuman plans to spread beyond the walls of the designated gallery. She is also working on a show on midcentury studio jeweler Margaret De Patta, whose designs she plans to exhibit in the context of Constructivism, alongside works by the likes of László Moholy-Nagy and El Lissitzky.
Exhibiting jewelry, effectively or not, still presents challenges for museums. “I think we have seen more jewelry shows in recent years, but it’s really pushing a stone uphill,” say Ruth Peltason, who has edited numerous books on jewelry. “For one thing, it’s expensive. You’ve got huge insurance issues and security issues. And there’s the concern about commerce. Like the old saying that the only good artist is a dead artist. That’s like saying the only good jewelry company is one that’s no longer in business—then they can exhibit them. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Another predicament for museums is lack of knowledge, both critical and curatorial. “I think it’s a matter of getting our curators across the board to see jewelry as an art form and also getting people who can write about jewelry from a variety of perspectives, just as we look at paintings,” she says.
As artist-designer Sergey Jivetin explains it, with jewelry “I can subtly transplant the viewer’s attention into a unique miniature world, completely separate from the spectacle and image-based overwhelming daily reality.” Peltason points out, “If we can get intelligent people talking to us about jewelry, then we won’t just see it as ‘Would I wear that ring?’ or ‘Gee, I’d like to own that ring.’ Instead, we look at it as something of its time and ask ‘Who are those great makers? Who are those great artists?'”
Stephanie Murg is a New York–based writer covering art and design. She blogs at UnBeige.com.