MFA Opens New, Permanent Jewelry Gallery

By Jared Bowen

August 3, 2011

The Balletta Bulldog. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Sidney A. Levine. (Copyright Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

BOSTON — It's a nationwide first: The MFA now has a permanent gallery dedicated to jewelry.

Its opening show, “Jewels, Gems, and Treasures: Ancient to Modern,” shimmers, captivates and even perplexes. It shows the highlights of the MFA’s extensive collection, says Pamela Parmal, the museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts Department head, who spoke on behalf of the exhibition's curator, Yvonne J. Markowitz.

“There are approximately 11,000 pieces of jewelry in the collection which ranges from ancient Egypt to the present—about 6,000 years of jewelry history from across the globe,” Parmal said.

Check out the video piece that aired August 2 on 'GBH's Greater Boston. (Click for larger view)

Although visitors may be enchanted by the beautiful Egyptian pieces on display, most probably won’t believe it has magical powers -- although the pieces' original owners did.
“People would wear it to protect themselves from evil,” Parmal explained. “Or they felt the jewelry had the power to increase fertility, or provide them with a long life.”
A long marriage is surely what gun magnate Samuel Colt anticipated when he gave his new bride an 1856 Tiffany necklace-and-earrings suite estimated at 60 carats.

Shopaholic Mary Todd Lincoln treated herself to a diamond brooch and matching earrings from a Washington jewelry emporium during a $3,200 spending spree (That's about the equivalent of $76,700 today).

But that piece wasn’t nearly as expensive as the platinum, diamond and emerald brooch purchased by heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in the 1920s.

The Marjorie Merriweather Post brooch. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced with permission. (Copyright Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

“It includes a very large carved emerald that was carved in the seventh century in India,” Parmal explains. “Surrounded by diamonds and more emeralds, it was one of her favorite stones.”
There’s much more to this collection than carats. Also on display are the costume-jewelry cuffs that inspired Coco Chanel, a charming Faberge bulldog with ruby eyes and a diamond-studded buckle, and perhaps most disturbing, real hummingbird heads turned into earrings.

Considerable attention is also paid to the Arts and Crafts movement advanced by a group of studio artists in the early 1900s.
“They didn’t value the diamonds and the rubies and the emeralds that we still value today,” Parmal said.  “They looked at other less expensive semi-precious stones and used wonderful technique to incorporate those into their jewels.”
From wooden Egyptian pieces to natural design to Mary Todd Lincoln’s extravagance, the MFA showcases a wide range of jewelry in their new gallery space.
The MFA’s “Jewels, Gems, and Treasures: Ancient to Modern” is on display through November 25, 2012.

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