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John Paul Cooper (English, 1869–1933) English, Arts and Crafts, 1908. Gold (15 kt), ruby, moonstone, pearl, amethyst, and chrysoprase. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Susan B. Kaplan. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

BOSTON.- As the saying goes, “diamonds are a girl’s best friend”—at least in modern times—but as the exhibition Jewels, Gem, and Treasures: Ancient to Modern illustrates,ornaments made of ivory, shell, and rock crystal were prized in antiquity, while jewelry made of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, and pearls became fashionable in later years. On view July 19, 2011, through November 1, 2012, this exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), highlights some 75 objects representing the rich variety of jewels, gems, and treasures that have been valued over the course of four millennia.

Drawn from the MFA’s collection and select loans, these range from a 24th-century BC Nubian conch shell amulet, to Mary Todd Lincoln’s 19th-century diamond and gold suite, to a 20th-century platinum, diamond, ruby, and sapphire Flag brooch honoring the sacrifices of the Doughboys in World War I. Jewels, Gems, and Treasures is the inaugural exhibition in the MFA’s new Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation Gallery, which debuts on July 19.

The gallery—one of only a few at US museums solely dedicated to jewelry will feature works from the Museum’s outstanding collection of approximately 11,000 ornaments. It is named in recognition of the generosity of the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation.

“The opening of the Museum's first jewelry gallery provides an ongoing opportunity for the MFA’s collection to shine,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “In this inaugural exhibition, visitors will see a wide range of gems that will both inform and dazzle in a beautiful new space that will allow the MFA to showcase its stellar assemblage of jewelry, which ranges from ancient to modern.

Jewels, Gems, and Treasures sheds light on how various cultures throughout history have defined the concept of “treasure,” showcasing an exquisite array of necklaces, rings, bracelets, pendants, and brooches, as well as mineral specimens. In addition, the exhibition explains the significance of jewelry, which can be functional (pins, clasps, buckles, combs, and barrettes); protective (talismans endowed with healing or magical properties); and ornamental, making the wearer feel beautiful, loved, and remembered.

Beyond functionality and adornment, jewelry can also establish one’s status and role in society. Rare gems and precious metals, made into fabulous designs by renowned craftsmen, have often served as symbols of wealth and power. This is especially evident in a section of the show where jewelry worn by celebrities is on view, including fashion designer Coco Chanel’s enameled cuff bracelets accented with jeweled Maltese crosses (Verdura, New York, first half of 20th century) and socialite Betsey Cushing Whitney’s gold and diamond “American Indian” Tiara (Verdura, New York, about 1955), which she wore to her presentation to Queen Elizabeth II in 1956 as the wife of the US Ambassador to the Court of St. James.

The significance of precious materials in jewelry in the 20th century is explored in the exhibition, where several modern adornments from the MFA’s Daphne Farago Collection examine jewelry’s traditional roles in society. Among them are a 1985 brooch of iron, pyrite, and diamond rough by Falko Marx and a 1993 ring by Dutch jeweler Liesbeth Fit entitled Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. (The Daphne Farago Collection comprises 650 pieces of contemporary craft jewelry made by leading American and European artists from about 1940 to the present.)

“Jewelry is a powerful cultural signifier, and the materials used in its fabrication vary considerably. This exhibition examines both traditional and unusual substances used to create some of the world’s most extraordinary adornments,” said Yvonne Markowitz, the MFA’s Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry, whose position is the first endowed curatorship dedicated to the study of jewelry in a US museum.

Jewels, Gems, and Treasures begins with a look at jewelry made of organic materials—substances readily available and easy to work with, such as ivory, shell, wood, and coral. These range from a pair of ivory cuff bracelets from Early Kerma culture in modern Sudan (2400–2050 BC) to more sophisticated creations made possible through the advancement of tools. Examples include a gold, silver, carnelian and glass Egyptian Pectoral (1783–1550 BC) and a Nubian gold and rock crystal Hathor-headed crystal pendant (743–712 BC) recovered from the burial of a queen of King Piye, the great Kushite ruler who conquered Egypt in the eighth century BC.

In addition to having magical properties that protected the wearer against malevolent forces, adornments such as these were often buried with their owners as their amuletic capabilities were needed during the arduous journey to the afterlife. On the other side of the globe, Mayans wore ear flares—conduits of spiritual energy—made of sacred green jadeite that represented key elements of human life. Various cultures throughout the ages at one point believed that amber could cure maladies, coral couldsafeguard children, an animal’s tooth or claw could invest the wearer with strength and ferocity, and gold and silver invoked the cosmic power of the sun and moon.

In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, many hard stones were believed to have magical properties (some were even ground and consumed), and pendant reliquaries containing a holy person’s cremated ashes or bone fragments were often donned, along with rosaries (Rosary, South German, mid-17th century), as sacred adornments. Even today, zodiac ornaments and good luck charms are sometimes worn as tokens, recalling their earlier mystical importance.

Throughout much of history, jewelry’s role as a symbol of one’s elevated status has inspired the wealthy to seek out stones that sparkle, gold that gleams, and designs that reflect the greatest artistry money can buy. To illustrate this, Jewels, Gems, and Treasures features some of the most opulent works from the Museum’s jewelry collection, including an 1856 diamond wedding necklace and earrings suite given by arms merchant Samuel Colt to his wife (the 41.73-carat suite, purchased for $8,000, is now valued at $190,000) and Mary Todd Lincoln’s gold, enamel, and diamond brooch with matching earrings, which she acquired around 1864, shortly after the death of the Lincolns’ beloved son, Willy, and then sold in 1867 to pay mounting debts.

Also on view is a Kashmir sapphire and diamond brooch (around 1900); a gold and diamond necklace made by August Holmström for Peter Carl Fabergé, the famous Russian jeweler to the czars; and cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post’s lavish platinum brooch from the 1920s, featuring a spectacular 60-carat carved Mughal emerald surrounded by diamonds, which she purchased in anticipation of her presentation at the British court in 1929.

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Marjorie Merriweather Post’s lavish platinum brooch from the 1920s, featuring a spectacular 60-carat carved Mughal emerald surrounded by diamonds. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Also on view in the exhibition are superb adornments made by leading French Art Nouveau jewelers, which were fashioned for a wealthy and artistic clientele in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The Art Nouveau movement, which originated in Europe, embraced an aesthetic that was avant-garde, sensuous, and symbolic—one that looked to the natural world, the Impressionists, and the arts of Japan for inspiration. In response to the “tyranny of the diamond”—the all white platinum and diamond jewelry previously in vogue—these elaborate, one-of-a kind pieces often featured colored gems and unusual materials, such as horn, enamel, irregularly shaped pearls, steel, and glass.

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Hair ornament with antennae by René Lalique (French, 1860–1945) French, about 1900. Gold, silver, steel, and diamond. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of the Sataloff and Cluchey Family© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Examples in the show include René Lalique’s fanciful gold, silver, steel, and diamond Hair ornament with antennae (about 1900), and Paul Lienard’s gold and mabe pearl Seaweed brooch (about 1908). The Arts and Crafts movement, which emerged in Britain during the 1870s as a reaction to the mechanization and poor working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, is represented by Marsh-bird brooch (1901–02) by Charles Robert Ashbee, who sought to create a delicate stained-glass effect with this piece.

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Charles Robert Ashbee, Marsh-bird brooch, 1901–02,. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The refined techniques of the Art Deco movement are evident in Japanesque brooch (about 1925), incorporating platinum, gold, enamel, diamonds, rubies, and onyx. The movement arose after World War I and continued through the 1930s. It was influenced by avant-garde ideology, as was the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements, but instead chose to express its aesthetic through geometric shapes, linear stylization, and a return to platinum and diamonds.

Jewels, Gems, and Treasures also highlights a variety of interesting and unique pieces, such as a Suite of hummingbird jewelry (brooch and earrings, about 1870), made out of gold, ruby, and taxidermied hummingbirds; an ebony, ivory, silver lapislazuli, and amber casket designed to showcase the amber cameos and intaglios collected by Arnold Buffum (about 1880–85); an Indian silver and tiger claw necklace (19th century); and a gold, silver, agate, diamond, and ruby animal sculpture, The Balletta Bulldog (about 1910) made by the workshop of Peter Carl Fabergé Fabergé. In addition, the exhibition features jewelry as seen in William McGregor Paxton’s painting, The New Necklace (1910).

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Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston