G Force

A gem of an exhibit

(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / July 21, 2011

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Q. What is the new exhibit’s organizing principle?

A. The museum has about 11,000 pieces of jewelry, the oldest dating back to 2400 B.C. The goal is to highlight our own collection, including some pieces never before on view.

Q. In the past, how has the MFA exhibited its jewelry?

A. The goal has always been to put these objects in the cultural context in which they were made. You’ll find several hundred pieces in the New American wing, for instance. In our Ancient galleries we have jewelry alongside ceramics and sculpture. The MFA has been on the forefront of this type of integration. In many other museums, jewelry is the bastard child of the decorative arts, given only a case or two in a single room.

Q. Why?

A. Jewelry is mostly associated with women, a prejudice that wasn’t true of ancient cultures. Also, jewelry associated with big houses like Tiffany and Cartier has never been actively sought by fine arts museums. Until recently, even MFA trustees rightfully questioned why we’d purchase, say, a platinum and emerald brooch worn by heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. With this brooch comes a whole history, though: How it was purchased, who from, etc. Because we’re an arts museum, provenance is extremely important.

Q. What exactly is studio jewelry?

A. People who make studio jewelry see themselves as artists first. Many have also had careers in other artistic fields, Alexander Calder being a good example. Their pieces are usually made in small studios and sold in galleries. Some are even made of paper or plastic. In general, studio artists de-emphasize materials and stay away from diamonds and platinum.

Q. Tell us a story or two behind some of the exhibit pieces.

A. We have a diamond necklace given by Sam Colt to his wife in 1856. Colt was a good friend of Charles Tiffany and one of the 10 wealthiest Americans in his day. It’s among the oldest surviving American-made diamond necklaces. There’s also a gold, diamond, and enamel brooch, with matching earrings, owned by Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln was a shopaholic who got lots of bad press, especially in 1867, when she was left incredibly in debt and was forced to sell off jewelry, clothing, and furniture. Unfortunately, the sale did very poorly and did not help her much.

Q. Will jewelry get more respect with an institution like the MFA creating a gallery and curatorship dedicated to it?

A. It will get a lot more exposure, certainly. It’s a matter of education.

Q. Jewelry has long been an expression of wealth and status. What’s different today?

A. For one thing, starting with 1960s, men are wearing more jewelry. They’re especially passionate about their watches, which now do everything but think for you.

Q. Do you get to borrow any pieces from the MFA collection to wear?

A. I’m afraid not [laughs]. But I have a great job. I get to handle beautiful objects and make recommendations on acquisitions I think are important.

Q. Will the exhibit appeal to someone who’s not necessarily impressed by expensive baubles?

A. Well, it does include a couple of pieces that intellectually challenge the importance of costly materials, the traditional status value that jewelry has. One piece is a rubber bracelet titled “Gold Makes You Blind.’’ It was done by a Dutch artist who said, “I wanted to get rid of the power gold has over people, so I’m covering it up. But I’m telling you there’s gold underneath (the rubber). If you can’t see it, is it still as valuable?’’ Another is a wire bracelet in the shape of a faceted stone, called “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.’’ Where the diamonds would normally be is an empty, negative space. There’s a lot of intellectual playing around going on here.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at

Yvonne Markowitz
Markowitz is the Museum of Fine Arts’ Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry and organizer of the “Jewelry, Gems, and Treasures’’ exhibit currently on view at the MFA. The show highlights 75 objects culled from the museum’s vast collection - ranging from ancient Nubian and Egyptian ornaments to 20th-century studio jewelry - plus many pieces on loan for the show, including enameled cuff bracelets belonging to Coco Chanel. An Egyptologist by training, Markowitz is the first to hold an MFA curatorship in jewelry. The “Treasures’’ exhibit runs through Nov. 1, 2012.