Rapaport Magazine

Celebrating A Jewelry Legacy

The meaning of what makes jewelry fine art is examined in the exhibition “Jewelry: From Pearls to Platinum to Plastic.”

By Phyllis Schiller
Diamond, platinum and velvet Bowknot Brooch
by Koch Frères, circa 1905 to 1910, is part of the
Newark Museum jewelry collection on display in “Jewelry: From Pearls to Platinum to Plastic.”
Gift of Millicent Fenwick, 1989, 89.96.
Photo courtesy Newark Museum.

Carrying on the legacy of fine jewelry established when the city of Newark was a powerhouse of gold jewelry production, the Newark Museum has amassed an impressive dedicated collection of European and American jewelry that spans centuries.
   Ulysses Grant Dietz, chief curator and curator of decorative arts of the Newark Museum, has been overseeing building the collection for more than a decade. Although the scope of acquisitions was expanded to encompass major styles of European and American jewelry, the museum has remained true to its roots with what Dietz notes is “the best museum collection of Newark-made pieces in the country.” In fact an earlier jewelry exhibition, “The Glitter and the Gold: Fashioning America’s Jewelry,” in 1997, displayed many of those prized examples of jewelry made by the local Newark firms that were part of a thriving gold jewelry manufacturing industry centered in that city.

Centuries of Creativity
   The museum’s collection started in 1911, with a donation of an eighteenth-century gold watch by a trustee. Additional donations helped grow the collection through the early 1990s. The only outright purchase was made in 1929 by then-director Beatrice Winser of two Georg Jensen necklaces, one with labradorite; the other, set with moonstones.
   Starting in 1991, the museum has actively been purchasing a variety of jewelry pieces to round out the collection. Exploring various genres, it has acquired many distinctive examples, such as Arts and Crafts jewelry made by England’s first professional woman studio jeweler, Charlotte Newman, bejeweled watches from the 1930s, a custom-made vanity by Fulco di Verdura for Doris Duke, as well as numerous Art Deco, Moderne and Art Nouveau pieces.
   Showing off an array of these fabulous finds is the exhibition titled, “Jewelry: From Pearls to Platinum to Plastic,” displayed in the museum’s newly renovated and reinstalled Lore Ross Jewelry Gallery. Displaying the universality of jewelry as personal adornment throughout the ages, the thematic motif showcases materials as elemental as natural horn and wood as well as precious gems and metals, coming full circle with modern-day plastics used to create new works of beauty.
   The theme of the exhibition, says Dietz, was inspired by the museum’s natural history collection, which includes rocks and minerals and ore samples. Although diamonds and gemstones, gold and other materials are included, Dietz points out that aside from the alliteration, pearls and platinum and plastic “represents three phases of human ‘interference’ in a material — pearls are virtually untouched as found, platinum is processed into a refined metal and plastic is entirely man-made in a lab.”

A History of Wearable Art
   Every one of the over 150 pieces in the exhibition, says Dietz, is “an exemplar of a moment in the history of jewelry — how jewelry is designed, how it’s made and the materials of which it is made. Some of the jewels in the museum are masterpieces, unique in any museum in the country, or even the world, in a couple of cases; other pieces are emblematic of their time and place, but represent typical jewels worn popularly at the time they were made. Still other pieces are, in fact, works of modern art, intended to be worn, but conceived as artworks.”
   All of the pieces are from the museum’s own collection. The time span is impressive. The earliest piece is a Roman gold chain set with faceted emeralds, followed by a fifteenth century Russian pectoral cross with silver-gilt filigree mounts on carved jasper. The newest pieces were made in the past five years. “Every century and style is included,” continues Dietz, “and every decade of the twentieth century, more or less. We have Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Boucheron, J.E. Caldwell, Georg Jensen, plus many other makers.”
   Proving his point, Dietz singles out some impressive “stars” of the exhibition, starting with the “Rehan Jewel,” a plique-a-jour enamel and gold brooch of a cluster of morning glories made by Marcus and Co., circa 1900, for the actress Ada Rehan. It is, he sums up simply, “the most important piece of plique-a-jour jewelry by an American maker in the world.” A particular favorite of the curator is the sculptural Cartier “gear” bangle from 1930. “In silver and gold, it represents a rare departure for Cartier in Paris, but one chic enough that the Duchess of Windsor and Marlene Dietrich both owned examples. Ours is, to my knowledge, the only one in a museum in the world.” Another stellar example, he says, is the 1906 Osborn pearls — a 57-inch strand of 350-plus natural Asian pearls. “It is historically unique in terms of its survival and provenance.”
   The displays are clustered by material, which, says Dietz, creates some very interesting juxtapositions across time and geography. “It forces the viewer to think differently and to see differently. Because the labels are mostly on touch-screen tablets, we have been able to insert videos of living artists whose work is in the exhibition; plus there’s the capacity to add a lot more over time.”
   Summing up the impact of the exhibition, Dietz says visitors will come away with an appreciation of how huge jewelry history is. “And how many different ways there are to combine materials, both precious and nonprecious, to create something arresting and beautiful.”
   “Jewelry: From Pearls to Platinum to Plastic” will be on view at the Newark Museum, 49 Washington Street, Newark, New Jersey, through January 2017. www.newarkmuseum.org.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - May 2016. To subscribe click here.

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