Rapaport Magazine
Style & Design

Legacy: A national treasure

By Phyllis Schiller

Spanning jewelry from the 1700s through the 1920s, the American Wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art — aka the Met — is a repository of 225 examples of American craftsmanship. The oldest example is a heart-shaped hair locket from 1706, when the fledgling nation was just beginning to establish itself, says Beth Carver Wees, the museum’s Ruth Bigelow Wriston curator of American decorative arts, who oversees its collection of American silver, jewelry and other metalwork.

Mourning rings, 18th-century gold rings and brooches are other early examples. Pieces from the 20th century include the work of designers Louis Comfort Tiffany and Paulding Farnham, as well as historically important firms such as Marcus & Co. and Dreicer & Co. The latter, which created beautiful diamond-centric jewelry for an elite clientele, is represented by a diamond and natural-pearl necklace, circa 1905 — an elegant example of Edwardian garland-style jewelry that Wees says was on par with works by Cartier.

Asked to choose six pieces from the collection that reflect the evolution of jewelry-making in America, Wees came up with the following.

A selection of gems

“We have a beautiful hermit conch shell cameo of [former US President] Andrew Jackson mounted in gold with enamel, from around 1835,” Wees says. Cameos were popular in the late 18th century, often bought as souvenirs or carved with images of loved ones. “Around the edge is a quote of Jackson’s: ‘The Union, it must and shall be preserved.’ For mid-19th century, it is a pretty wonderful piece.”

A charming example of a chatelaine is another of her choices. The term is from the French word châtelaine, meaning “lady of the castle.” Indeed, the decorative belt hook was originally for hanging the “keys of the castle,” and later, everyday tools.

This piece by Gorham Manufacturing Company is in the shape of an octopus, so that the tools were suspended from chains on the eight arms. “It was made in 1887, and it’s very amusing,” she observes. “It has red glass eyes with black beads. Gorham was one of the great manufacturers of silver and also jewelry. It was something that could be available for a wider audience than diamonds. And the novelty of it is very 19th-century.”

The collection also includes a dragonfly hair ornament dating from 1904, which Wees notes is one of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s earliest pieces of jewelry. “His jewelry was all about honesty to nature. The piece shows two dragonflies perched on a dandelion-seed ball that’s past full bloom but hasn’t all blown away yet. It captures a wonderful moment in time. It’s beautifully made in gold, silver and platinum. The tails of the dragonflies are black opals, and there are demantoid garnets and rubies. It’s a really beautiful object.”

Another stellar piece is the Paulding Farnham orchid brooch. “Farnham designed these for Tiffany & Co. for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair,” says Wees, “but they continued to be made until 1896. They were amazing in terms of their botanical accuracy. As I understand it, the designers of Tiffany & Co. had both books on orchids to refer to and actual orchid specimens they could study. On gold but beautifully enameled, the orchid has a diamond-accented stem.”

A plique-à-jour enameled brooch from 1900 by Marcus & Co. — a New York firm well known for its Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts jewelry creations — makes the cut as well. This piece, says Wees, “features amazing enameling that has the look of stained-glass windows. The brooch is in the form of a sweet pea, with the buds made of conch shell pearls. The leaves have diamond ribs.”

She also includes a work by Marie Zimmermann, an “amazing artist whose pieces often were historically based.” A frequent visitor to the Met, Zimmermann would visit the Greek, Egyptian and Far Eastern galleries. “She based some of her jewelry on historical precedent, yet the designs were very modern in their own way,” Wees says.

The necklace was made between 1920 and 1928, which makes it a later example for the American Wing. It features enameled gold inset with pearls, green tourmalines and red garnets. “The overall design reflects 16th-century European sources, but the enameling evokes the colors and inlay schemes of Egyptian jewelry,” explains Wees.

Telling the stories

One of the reasons the appeal of jewelry spans the ages, says Wees, is that it is universal. “We’ve been wearing it for something like 300,000 years. Archaeologists have found eagle talons with notches that they think were strung for wearing. It’s also very personal. Jewelry tells who you are. It can show your wealth or status or the group you belong to.”

Equally important, according to Wees, is the memory that jewelry carries. “It might be something inherited or bought on a first trip abroad, or given as a birthday or anniversary present…almost every piece has a story.”

Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2018. To subscribe click here.

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