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The Journey of a Jewel

By Kelsey Fagan


What is fashion if not a tangible form of history? Consequently, as trends in history tend to repeat themselves, the same is true in fashion. Certain motifs and themes are constantly reinterpreted and reimagined, leaving behind subtle references to the past. This notion of continuous adaptation is explored in the "Past is Present: Revival Jewelry" exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Curated by Emily Stoehrer, the exhibition aims to showcase the museum’s outstanding collection of nineteenth-century jewelry, while exposing viewers to different revival styles.

“The theme for exhibitions in the jewelry gallery always focuses on a highlight of the collection. 'Past is Present: Revival Jewelry' exhibits our spectacular, and world-class, collection of nineteenth-century jewelry,” said Stoehrer.

Ties to former aesthetic preferences and practices are ever present throughout the entire collection of exquisite pieces. With influences dating back thousands of years, one might wonder why the MFA’s compilation of jewelry from this period is so saturated with historical ties.

“As American museums like the MFA were founded, and travel increased, many artists were closely studying material culture. Not surprisingly, this made its way into the work of jewelers in the nineteenth century. While the references were many and were sometimes combined into a single work, this exhibition focuses on four revival styles – Archeological, Classical, Egyptian, and Renaissance. These themes were selected because they coincide with strengths in our jewelry collection,” said Stoehrer.

During the nineteenth century, a push toward innovation prompted several archeological excavations. These endeavors, which brought ancient adornments back to the surface, inadvertently affected the jewelry industry. Key designers drew inspiration from these pieces, and they began integrating and reinventing previously forgotten styles and practices. This commingling of past and present, although prominent during the nineteenth century, is not unique to this time period.

“While the exhibition focuses largely on the nineteenth-century jewelry collection, there are also highlights that date to before 1800 and after 1900. I intended to show that revivalism was not just a nineteenth-century movement,” said Stoehrer.

In preparation, Stoehrer dedicated about two and a half years to sharpening all aspects of the exhibit, fine-tuning every last detail. As one would imagine, organizing and presenting a collection of this magnitude was a sizable undertaking. In order to bring the exhibit to life, she worked collaboratively with the MFA’s diversely talented team. She set out to create a cohesive, comprehensive, and informative display, all the while learning as much as she could about each object featured.

“Once the project was approved, I refined the object list, reached out to collectors and collections to confirm loans, and worked with the exhibition designer to lay out the gallery space and flesh out the narrative. With the designer, I mocked up each case with the Museum’s expert mount-making team, who constructs custom mounts for each object. I worked with our head of interpretation as I wrote the labels to further tighten the organization, and the graphic designer who created the logo, labels, and wall graphics. Throughout the process, I worked closely with the conservator to make new discoveries about the objects and how they were made,” said Stoehrer.

The exhibit itself is expansive, covering over four thousand years of jewelry history. There are around 70 objects in total, representing a mixture of both revival and ancient jewels. Although there are so many breathtaking pieces to observe, for Stoehrer, one set stands out.

“There is a pair of earrings and a brooch with a Cupid riding a dove that is a favorite. They are incredibly small, but the craftsmanship and design are extraordinary!” said Stoehrer.

All who attend the exhibition are certain to be taken aback by the level of artistry and grandeur, as each piece is truly awe-inspiring. While the beauty is undeniable, Stoehrer hopes viewers leave with more than just an aesthetic appreciation. Rather, the goal is to help viewers realize the impact of history on the contemporary creative.

“I hope that visitors will leave with the realization that history has always, and will always, fuel the creative imagination in interesting and innovative ways,” said Stoehrer.

"Past is Present: Revival Jewelry" will continue to run until August 19, 2018. Visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to experience the world-class display firsthand, and to come face to face with the ancient roots of jewelry making.

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