It began with a ring so simple, so plain that you’d be forgiven for neither noticing nor caring. But care you should, because this Cypriot bronze ring from the Roman Period was the first piece of jewelry ever acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. That was in 1872, two years after the museum was founded, and four years before it officially opened to the public on Independence Day in 1876. Today, the MFA, Boston not only has twenty-two thousand objects in its jewelry collection, spanning six thousand years, but it has something no other American museum has: a dedicated curator of jewelry. Among the country’s thirty-five thousand or so museums, paintings and sculpture and decorative arts are standard departments, all overseen by curators. Some have special collections overseen by a dedicated curator, such as arms and armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or quilts at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. So why is it that jewelry, artistically made and popular, is left at the doorstep of America’s great museums?
It’s a question that nagged at Susan B. Kaplan, an ardent jewelry collector (she demurs—“Trust me: I’m a shopper, a hoarder”) who put the MFA, Boston on the map when, in 2006, she was the force behind creating the nation’s first jewelry curatorial post. It was subsequently named after her mother and herself: the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry. It was an idea hiding in plain sight. As Kaplan explains, “Jewelry is art. I think jewelry brings people into the museum—and not just women. And if you bring someone into the museum, they’re also going to look at other parts of the museum.”
Malcolm Rogers, director of the museum at the time, told Kaplan about Yvonne Markowitz, then a research fellow in the Art of the Ancient World department, whom he thought would be ideal for the new job. Kaplan attended a lecture that Markowitz gave and knew at once that she was the right person for the position.
Two years after Markowitz’s appointment, the MFA, Boston made headlines when it acquired an exquisite emerald and diamond brooch made in 1929 by the firm Oscar Heyman and Brothers and formerly owned by heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. The brooch, which centers on a beautifully carved Indian emerald dating to the seventeenth century, is a stylistically transitional design: a dressy farewell to the Edwardian era that nods to the ascendant art deco aesthetic. To jewelry historians, it’s an important work, an icon of the period. And yet, there was initial pushback at the museum about acquiring the piece. The sticking point? It had the whiff of commerce. As Markowitz explains, “I think museums are cautious when it comes to purchasing from firms still in existence.” (Oscar Heyman has been in business in New York since 1912.) Still, she says, in the end “provenance was a significant factor in the purchase, especially as Merriweather Post has long been acknowledged a major collector of important, historic works.”
Not only did the brooch open the door to further acquisitions, it got the attention of MFA, Boston trustee Fred Sharf, a well-regarded businessman known as an enthusiastic and wide-ranging collector of art and design. Together, Kaplan and Sharf became the twin pillars of jewelry activity at the museum. As Markowitz tells it, Sharf set about “collecting what he thought was appropriate to a fine arts museum. He was always pushing to expand the MFA, Boston’s collections.” Along with prominent gifts of jewelry, Sharf, who passed away in 2017, donated the archives of Trabert and Hoeffer-Mauboussin, a partnership of American and French firms dating to 1929. (They became known for their “Reflection” line of affordable gold and semiprecious jewelry that anticipated the robust curves of 1930s design.) “To Fred, jewelry was part of design,” says his wife, Jean Sharf. “A piece had to look artistic in some way. As with fashion, which Fred also helped the MFA, Boston acquire, he felt that if you show fashion changing you need to show jewelry changing, too.”
The opening in 2011 of the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation Gallery gave jewelry a permanent home at the museum. Stability marks the role of curator, too. When Markowitz stepped down as jewelry curator in 2014, her protégée, Emily Stoehrer, took her place. Both women advocate looking at jewelry in the context of other disciplines, and at the MFA, Boston jewelry is shown in more than thirty galleries. But the Kaplan Gallery remains the heart of the jewelry department, what Stoehrer describes as “a jewel box that people can visit.” Over the years, notable exhibitions have included Jewels, Gems and Treasures: Ancient to Modern, which inaugurated the new jewelry gallery in 2011; Gold and the Gods: Jewels of Ancient Nubia (2014–2017); and Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry (2008). One recently added standout piece glowing in the gallery is a ruby, amethyst, and gold starfish brooch designed in 1935 by Juliette Moutard for the esteemed Paris firm Boivin. Originally owned by film star Claudette Colbert, it’s a masterwork of design, and a piece well-known among connoisseurs and collectors.
Ancient jewelry, a longtime passion and specialty of Markowitz, is abundant in the MFA, Boston collection, including works from Egypt, Nubia, and Greece. Art nouveau, arts and crafts, and studio jewelry are each well represented, as are works by women, Black, Asian, and indigenous artists. In 2006 art collector Daphne Farago’s donation of 650 pieces of studio and contemporary jewelry made the MFA, Boston a leader in that collecting field, and served as the basis for a seminal show the following year that included works by Art Smith, Alexander Calder, and Wendy Ramshaw. Fashion and costume jewelry complement the broader story, the result of a gift from collector Carole Tanenbaum. As every curator and museum director knows, donations beget other donations.
In 2011, when the Kaplan Gallery opened, the MFA, Boston jewelry holdings included eleven thousand objects; today, a little over a decade later, that number has doubled, a direct result of having a dedicated jewelry curator and gallery. That, too, should send a message to other museums. Stoehrer wants to see other museums step up to the plate: “We won’t be stronger until more museums have jewelry collections,” she says. Moreover, as Markowitz points out, jewelry is popular with museum-goers. That’s true at the MFA, Boston and it’s true for other museums as well: attendance always soars during special jewelry exhibitions. Next is for museum directors and their boards to recognize the partnership between jewelry exhibitions and the bottom line. Perhaps this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, after all.