Jewels, Gems & Treasures at the MFA
Who would’ve thought that one day we would have a jewelry gallery and a jewelry curator at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston? I never would have predicted this 31 years ago when I started the Skinner Fine Jewelry Department, but it’s clear to me now that people have been craving exhibits devoted to jewelry and fashion all along. Our previews, in fact, serve much the same purpose. And, just look at the success of the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — 661,509 people went to see the famous designer’s work in just three months!
The Museum of Fine Arts Jewelry gallery and the McQueen exhibit are examples of an emerging trend to showcase wearable art in museums. Why? Perhaps it’s because clothing and jewelry are more accessible than a Picasso or a Monet, for example. Fashion is part of mainstream culture, while master painters, while quite popular, have a more select following. When you see great fashion or jewelry in a museum, you can leave thinking, “I can go out and find something like this to wear.” It can inspire your own wardrobe and fashion choices, and that’s one reason these exhibits are so popular.
I also love that these exhibits are more about great design than precious materials. Many pieces of jewelry that earned the honor of display at the MFA don’t have huge diamonds or extravagant amounts of gold. For example, the Arts and Crafts marsh-bird brooch by Charles Robert Ashbee pictured on the cover of the exhibit catalogue is made of glass and metals that aren’t worth much at all. The real value of this piece lies in its fabulous design and careful creation—the interpretation of the feathers, the coloration, and the position of the bird. It was made as a hair comb originally, but got turned into a brooch because it’s so big that it’s difficult to wear in the hair. It’s a quirky piece and I love it.
Historical jewelry was also given a special place in the new gallery. I was particularly drawn to the Colt necklace, which was purchased in 1856 by Sam Colt, inventor of the Colt revolver, for his wife Elizabeth as a wedding gift. I loved seeing what someone of that time period would buy for his wife. It’s elaborate and beautiful and full of gorgeous diamonds. In a way, nothing has changed—if you had money then, you bought diamonds. That’s true today as well.
Walking through the exhibit for the opening was like a dream. I kept saying to myself, “Wait a minute, there’s a whole gallery devoted to this?” As someone in the jewelry field, I love the ongoing research and connoisseurship that go into a gallery devoted to jewelry, and I’m so glad that the general public has made its appreciation of this type of exhibit clear. I very much look forward to the rotating exhibits that will be coming through the Museum of Fine Art’s jewelry gallery in the future.Images courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.