Jewelry’s place in the world of decorative arts has come a long way in the last few decades, due in no small part to Yvonne Markowitz. As America’s first jewelry curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Yvonne helped museum professionals, trustees, and visitors alike see the worth of jewelry. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how she earned her curator position, how she convinced people to see jewelry beyond the price of its materials, and what she’s working on next. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Yvonne Markowitz. Yvonne was the first jewelry curator in the country. In addition, she’s the author of several books on jewelry, ranging from ancient to contemporary. She’s also the cofounder of the Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts, ASJRA. She has a unique jewelry journey, which we will hear all about today. Yvonne, welcome to the program.
Sharon: Wonderful to have you. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey? Before becoming professionally involved with jewelry, did you like jewelry? Were you attracted to it, or is it something you fell into?
Yvonne: A little of both. I do remember as a child having a favorite uncle of mine save the foil from his cigarettes, so in my paper doll endeavors I could put on silver and gold jewelry. I think I was always attracted to it, but I did not approach it professionally initially. I came to Egyptology a little later in life. I worked for nearly a decade as an art therapist for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Sharon: And then you came to Egyptology.
Yvonne: I did. I burned out, and my husband said, “Just do something you really love.” I was always interested in ancient Egypt as a child, and Brandeis University had a graduate program in Egyptian language, primarily. I went for a couple of years, several years, to that, and I took an internship at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. As my internship was nearing its end, the archeologist in the department said, “Well, we don’t need another language person, but I see that you draw really well. We have a position that’s opened up for an artist.” Initially, for the first couple of years after they hired me, I did archaeological illustration. I was actually trained by the museum to do that. I had a lot of spare time to go down to the Egyptian storage area in the basement of the museum. They had many, many drawers of amulets and scarabs and personal adornments that no one had ever really worked on, so I said, “Could I spend my extra time working on this material?” and they said, “Go for it.” The first thing I did was catalogue 4,000 scarabs, which took me about a year and a half. I learned a lot. I mean, that’s all I did. I did the occasional drawing still, but there was a transition in Egyptian publications from line drawings to photographs, so it was a timely transition for me.
I spent a number of years in the 1990s doing just that, cataloguing, classifying and getting a real hands-on feel for ancient jewelry. I kind of stepped over the boundaries into other departments, because other than the classical department, Greek and Roman art, there wasn’t much of an interest in jewelry in the museum. Jeannine Falino, who became a very close friend, was in the American Art department. She has a strong silver background, and we both started, in our spare time, going through storage, troubleshooting and branching out. At one point around 2005 or 2006, I gave a talk on Ancient Egyptian beadwork. In the audience, which was small, about 30 people—it was held in the Egyptian Department—was a woman by the name of Susan Kaplan. I had not met her before, but she was a museum trustee. She invited me to lunch after my talk and she said, “I’ve had a passion for jewelry my whole life. My mother was a collector and I have very fond memories of shopping with her and buying jewelry and wearing jewelry, everything related to jewelry. Do you know jewelry besides ancient jewelry?” At that time, I was a member of the Society of Jewelry Historians. I was their journal editor, and I already had a broader view of jewelry beyond antiquity. So, I said, “Yes, I love jewelry, ancient to modern.” She said, “I am thinking of endowing a position here for someone in jewelry. I think you’d be the perfect person.” I thought about it and realized I could do this. Egypt will always be my first love, but I learned to love a lot in between contemporary and Egypt. That’s my personal journey in the jewelry world.
Sharon: How long did you do that for?
Yvonne: About 14 years.
Sharon: Wow! So you’re the only one in the country, really, who was a jewelry curator.
Yvonne: This is true. This was a big step for the museum. The director at the time, Malcom Rogers, was very receptive. There have been people around the United States, and to a greater extent in Europe, who have valued the jewelry component of their collections and have published and lectured on the subject, but there had never been anyone who tried to get it all together. If you wanted to learn something about a piece of jewelry, you’d have to determine what department it came from and hone in on it. I had the incredible opportunity of trying to get it all together so I could look at bigger issues, such as the meaning of jewelry, what role it serves in cultures. That was great, because it took our knowledge of jewelry from the merely descriptive—for example, what Art Nouveau jewelry is, what Victorian jewelry is—to another dimension. It could be, for example, what is the difference between jewelry worn by men and women in the ancient world versus the 20th century in America? It’s about bigger issues, and I think I came to that capability at a time when many of the studies related to the decorative arts were moving in the same direction.
Sharon: Wow! Those are interesting and heavy questions. We could sit here and talk for an hour about each of those questions, the things you had the ability to ponder. Did your colleagues at other museums take what you were doing seriously? What did they think?
Yvonne: I didn’t have any problem with the curatorial staff or with scholars. I think the harder part was with the trustees and membership. I can recall being at our collections committee when I was proposing the purchase of an important piece of 20th century jewelry, a piece worn by Marjorie Merriweather Post that was made in the 20s and had this enormous carved Indian emerald in it. It was a costly item to acquire, and before the museum makes that kind of financial outlay, they think long and hard about it. At a meeting where I was trying to convince the trustees that it was an important acquisition, one of the trustees said, “We are not used to buying objects where most of the value has to do with the materials that are used.” For example, in an oil painting, you have oil paints and canvas. In comparison to a piece that has a huge emerald and diamonds and platinum, a lot of the value there has to do with the actual materials used in the object’s construction. That was a tough sell. I think one of my responses was if this was a Renaissance pendant, would it be getting the same kind of scrutiny?
I think what they came to realize, which is something I had thought about earlier, was that if it’s a period piece from a time as far back as the Renaissance, where a large ruby is used in it as an ornament, part of its value has to do with that ruby, and I would not think twice about it. But this, because it was a more modern piece, something that someone who lived not too long ago purchased from a commercial retailer—it was made by Marcus and Company, an American retailer from the early 20th century—I think there was a certain prejudice against it. I had to convince them that 300 years from now, this brooch worn by Marjorie Merriweather Post would be considered as significant as the Renaissance pendant with the ruby. There were little things like that. I have to say that the MFA and other institutions have come a long way in looking at jewelry.
Sharon: That’s interesting. When you’re thinking about whether you should purchase a Van Gogh, you’re not thinking about the value of the materials.
Yvonne: Right. It’s sort of a schizoid attitude. The idea of it being made by a commercial retailer, that was a turn off for the trustees. They wouldn’t have had that attitude toward a Tiffany piece, but Tiffany had already worked its way into our understanding of fine silversmithing. It was poorly thought out ideas that needed to be looked at more closely. I’m happy to say that, at least in my own institution and some other museums in America and Europe, they certainly no longer have that attitude.
Sharon: That wasn’t true when you started thought, right?
Yvonne: Yes. Even my director concurred that was going to be a tough sale. We saw this piece at Maastricht at the fair and he said, “Take me around Maastricht and educate me in jewelry.” I think his doctorate in England was in portraiture. We went around and he was looking at pieces, 18th, 19th century, and when I veered into the 20th century, he kept on saying, “I don’t think our trustees will go for it.” I said, “Well, why not? If this was the year 2200, we would not be talking this way. It would be considered an important early 20th century piece. Let’s give it a try.” It had a cascading effect, because potential donors would say, “I didn’t think the museum collected this kind of thing.” In a couple of years that followed that acquisition, we had some very significant gifts.
Sharon: The museum has an incredible collection. It’s had some wonderful exhibits.
Yvonne: We have. Malcolm Rogers was very keen on not only collecting it, but proudly displaying it. The other thing that was discovered was that art jewelry brings crowds. Susan Kaplan and her family foundation also endowed a gallery just for jewelry that has rotating exhibits. There is the curator to deal with curatorial issues, as well as someone dedicated to keeping exciting exhibitions in the jewelry gallery.
Sharon: The museum and you were so ahead of curve.
Yvonne: It was a coalescence of a lot of things: a trustee who was passionate about jewelry, my own personal journey from ancient jewelry through modern, the work I did for the Society of Jewelry. More importantly, the then-president of the Society of Jewelry and I decided we wanted to have a more scholarly approach to jewelry. We founded our own organization, which you mentioned in your brief introduction as the Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts. We call it “related arts” because we have always seen jewelry within the construct of art and culture in general.
In the past, museums would put together a case of jewelry, but my approach to displaying jewelry, before we had a jewelry gallery, was that jewelry needs to be put in with other decorative arts. If you’re doing something in Art Nouveau, a gallery display, in addition to having examples of furniture and glass, Lalique ornaments or other jewelry by a leading Art Nouveau jeweler would be perfectly at home there. In fact, that’s how it needs to be understood. It’s a very unique form, so it involves a very unique approach to jewelry. It needs to be understood within the context in which it and other objects similar in design and inspiration reside together. The idea of integrating jewelry into other displays is very important at the MFA. The funny thing is that in the ancient world, it had always been that way. Ancient collections have always included displays of jewelry, so for me, that was a natural thing to do. Not so much for other departments.
Sharon: That seems to be the trend now. Not just saying, “Here’s all the pottery that was done,” but “Here’s how it fits in.”
Yvonne: That’s right. Very early on, I would say the late 19th, early 20th century, most approaches to the study of jewelry were by period and culture. You’d have a couple of books on Victorian jewelry or Arts and Crafts jewelry, and they would look at the jewelry and describe it, but often the bigger picture of the time and place where it was made was not fervently explored or, more importantly, not seen within the context of what came before it and what came after it. Victorian jewelry doesn’t begin de novo in the world of decorative arts. It has its precursors, and it leads to other things that are different. That approach is what we do at our jewelry department all the time.
Sharon: When I talk about my interest in jewelry, people think, “Oh, she likes big diamonds.” It’s not that. It tells a story; it fits into a context.
Yvonne: I recall explaining to someone how although we have great marvels of sculpture and wall relief and other works of art from the Amarna period of ancient Egypt, an understanding of when that period begins comes from a ceramic docket from a wine vessel. It’s a broken piece of pottery that gives us a lot of insight into some very grand, culturally significant objects. We understand its beginning through this piece of broken ceramic. For me, it has always been about the bits and pieces of jewelry, particularly things that are excavated. We have a couple of broken beads that date from ancient Nubia excavated by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I came to an understanding of how the beads were made by looking at the broken bits and pieces and working with the lab. Yes, the diamonds attract and, hey, I like diamonds, but sometimes it’s broken bits and pieces that give you the clues to understanding history.
Sharon: That’s interesting. I’m sure that’s true. Besides being so accomplished in this area, you’re an author of quite a few books. Can you tell us about them or the ones you think stand out? What are you working on now?
Yvonne: The book I’m working on now is the best book, but if I had to pick one aspect where I feel I’m very firmly rooted, that would be the jewelry of Egypt’s Twenty-fifth Dynasty, which is really the jewelry made during the Nubian takeover of Egypt where both the Sudan and Egypt become unified. It’s a pretty discrete period of time from around 800 BC to about the first century AD. That is the area where I feel I can make a contribution because of my understanding of the context in which the jewelry was made and worn. But, I’ve done books on Art Nouveau jewelry and others.
My favorite approach now is more of a theoretical approach. I am working on a book for the Getty now that’s just in the formation of the idea. It’s called “Jewelry: An Identity in Art.” I’m an older person, so I enjoyed Johnny Carson when he used to play Carnac the Magnificent. He would take a piece of paper, and the answer would sometimes prompt the magician to give the question. I will look at piece of jewelry in a painting and say, “I don’t know who the sitter is. I know the time when it was made. Does this jewelry tell me that?” For example, if there’s a portrait and someone is wearing what we call the Diamond Eagle of the Society of the Cincinnati, I know from that piece of jewelry that it has to be an image of George Washington. In a sense, a piece of jewelry can be so important that it becomes the identity of the sitter. This whole book will talk about how jewelry identifies people, and it looks both ways. Somehow an individual, because of some activities in his life, has a special relationship with a piece of jewelry. That relationship becomes so fused that, together, they are one. That’s what this book is about.
Sharon: It sounds very interesting. Looking at some of the books you’ve written, the amount of research and thought that’s gone into them is amazing.
Yvonne: It’s a fortunate position to be in an institution that supports scholarship. It’s a luxury in that I’ve had the time to do the research, but I’ve also had the objects at my disposal, so I was never in want of something to do. I could just go down in someone’s storage—the Egyptian storage, European or American decorative arts—and go through and look at things. I often came across things I’d never seen before and nobody had paid much attention to. Sometimes there were important stories related to those pieces, sometimes not, but I had this opportunity to handle pieces and see how they are made. I also had the opportunity, whenever there was a question about construction and materials, to take it to the MFA labs, and they could say, “This is a special type of inlay from this time period.” Then I’d be able to explore the material.
Understanding materials and techniques is one of the most important aspects of jewelry, because it tells you how techniques sometimes come across cultures through trade. It opens doors, and the doors are never-ending. The person who took my place, Emily Stoehrer, is a very fine researcher. She comes from a fashion background, and also she has a doctorate in humanities. She has her own take and also writes a lot. I think for the next 20 years or so, the MFA is going to be exciting not just for Emily, but for those who now look at the MFA as the jewelry place to be.
Sharon: Absolutely, and it is right now, more than any other place in the country. Maybe because I’ve been exposed to it. I knew you were instrumental in doing that. I realize you had a great director and support and all that, if but if you hadn’t thought about putting it all together, it wouldn’t be what it is today. Yvonne, thank you so much for being here today.
Yvonne: Thank you for having me.
Sharon: That’s all for today’s Jewelry Journey. Don’t forget that we’ll have images posted on the website. You can find the podcast wherever you download podcasts, and please rate us. Please join us next time, when our guest will be another jewelry industry professional who will share their experience and expertise. Thanks so much for listening.