Although American jewelry has always been influenced by other cultures, the United States has its own rich history of jewelry design and manufacturing. “Jewelry for America,” a new exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art curated by Beth Carver Wees, explores the evolution of jewelry in America. Beth joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about her role as curator and some of her favorite pieces from the exhibit. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome back Beth Wees, the Ruth Bigelow Wriston Curator of American Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum, where she oversees the collections of American silver, jewelry and other metalwork. She is the curator of a current exhibit at The Met called “Jewelry for America,” which opened in June and runs until April 5th of next year. Spanning 300 years, “Jewelry for America” explores the evolution of jewelry in the United States from the early 18th century to the present day. We’ll learn more about the exhibit and the story behind it today. Beth, it’s great to have you back.
Beth: Thank you, Sharon. It’s nice to be here.
Sharon: So glad to have you. To many of us, your position at The Met sounds like a dream job. Can you tell us about your career path? I never tire of hearing how people ended up in jobs like this. What did you study and how did you make your way to The Met?
Beth: I always loved museums. My family visited them often and my major childhood museum was Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I grew up on the North Shore, and I was amazingly lucky to land a job there after I finished college, albeit as a secretary to a wonderful man named Jonathan Fairbanks, who was the Curator of American Decorative Arts. I had majored in art history at Smith and I was really grateful to have three years at MFA to get a taste of museum work before going on to graduate school, which I eventually did at Williams College. At Williams, there’s a joint program in art history with Clark Art Institute, which is a marvelous museum, and I was able to continue to work on decorative arts there on a collection of silver that they had. When I completed my master’s, I was offered a position to stay on as Assistant Curator at The Clark, which eventually led to writing a catalogue of the Clark’s English, Irish and Scottish silver. Some 20 years later, that catalogue helped me to be offered a position at The Metropolitan Museum to catalogue the American silver, which was a dream come true. When I arrived, I learned that I would also be in charge of all the American metalwork, including the jewelry, which was a topic I loved, but which I have now learned about a great dealmore.
Sharon: What was your graduate degree in?
Beth: It’s a master’s degree in the history of art. I really didn’t study decorative arts. You didn’t in those days. There were a couple of programs, but I didn’t pursue them. It was hard to study decorative art in a university or college setting.
Sharon: I know there are not that many programs around, yes. The Clark, is that in Worcester, Massachusetts?
Beth: No, it’s in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It was opened as a project museum in the 50s. I recommend it to all of your listeners. It started as one man’s collection or a couple of collections of fabulous French paintings and American paintings, amazing silver, prints and drawings, sculpture. It’s really worth a visit. It’s in the Berkshires.
Sharon: I’ll have to put it on the list. Sounds great.
Beth: Yes, absolutely.
Sharon: Tell me, we have younger people working here and somebody asked what a curator does. I gave them my own version, but I’d like to hear from you. How do you describe it?
Beth: It’s many different tasks. I would say a curator’s primary job is the safekeeping and interpretation of the collections under her or his care. That involves research, hands-on examination of objects and, of course, exhibiting and interpreting those objects on our labels, but it also means physical care. Working with conservators at The Met, I’m very fortunate to have a whole conservation department.
You also deal with collectors, dealers and auction house professionals and, of course, colleagues in the field. There’s a category of work that I like to call “all the things they don’t teach you in graduate school,” and those are things like donor cultivation, fundraising, negotiating acquisitions—because sometimes you can talk down the price—and working on one hand with boards of trustees, but on the other with the young interns and junior-level staff who are just learning. That kind of mentoring I really enjoy. Honestly, every day is a little bit different.
Sharon: That’s much broader—you are talking about fundraising, which is an art in and of itself.
Beth: It really is. The Met does have a big development department we can work with. With smaller museums, you’re sort of on your own, but if you want to make an acquisition and there aren’t funds available, then the first thing you think about is, “Do I know anybody who might be willing to help us make this purchase?” It’s a learning curve.
Sharon: How about dispositions? Are you involved in deciding why you keep things?
Beth: Once in a while. When I was at The Clark, I wanted to buy some English silver that was pretty expensive. We looked at our collection and realized that this was a collection of 46 silver dinner plates and we would never be able to show all 46, so we sold two dozen of them and kept 22. That helped us buy the pieces we wanted to purchase.
Sharon: Curating is a word that’s used all the time today.
Beth: It is, yeah.
Sharon: I always think of it in terms of collecting, in terms of fine-tuning.
Beth: Yeah, that’s only a part of it. If an object becomes available that allows you to trade up, let’s say, if you have something by an artist and a better piece becomes available, you might decide to try to swap it, but the main thing at a museum like The Met is that we have such breadths and depths. It’s nice to have comparative pieces—good, better, best.
Sharon: That would be very helpful, I’m sure. The reason I emphasize the “for” in “Jewelry for America” is because I thought it was “Jewelry in America” and then I realized it was “for America.” What was the thinking behind creating the exhibit and the name? What did you want people to take from it?
Beth: We really wanted to underscore the fact that not all the jewelry, especially in the colonial period, that was worn in America was actually made in America. Calling it “Jewelry for America” suggested that a lot of the earliest pieces were imported, either by immigrants coming to the colonies or ordered later from England or the continent. It also, I think, carries that American jewelers were creating a national school, if you will, for their American consumers.
What I hope visitors will appreciate is that although we continue to be influenced by other cultures, there are aspects about American jewelry that are very much essential to our own country. For instance, the use of locally sourced gold in California or silver from the Comstock Lode and other places, native gemstones such as tourmalines, Mississippi River pearls or Montana sapphires. There was a real American industry. In one of the sections of the exhibition, we talk about the amazing American jewelry industry in Newark, New Jersey, which people don’t necessarily know about, but there were 200 factories in Newark in the 19th century. Then there are aspects such as the mid-century modernist jewelers, Art Smith and Sam Kramer for instance, Calder, the Greenwich Village School, working away in the 40s and 50s. There’s a lot that’s very American that was for the American consumer.
Sharon: Mississippi pearls, Montana sapphires, I didn’t learn about things like that until just a few years ago. We’re learning about Newark and the jewelry industry there. There is so much going on.
Beth: Right, Ulysses Grant Dietz and Janet Zapata have done work on that and it’s really a fascinating subject.
Sharon: One that people don’t know about, but it’s very interesting.
Beth: Absolutely, right.
Sharon: How did you decide to organize the exhibit? It’s organized chronologically, but was that something you immediately thought of, or did you think of other ways to do it?
Beth: It was pretty much my intent from the start, because I wanted to be able to exhibit or display how the industry grew. The overall scheme is a chrono-schematic romp through the history of American jewelry and how the styles, materials and techniques changed, but I also wanted to be able to see it within a socio-historical framework. You really can’t look at any art form without considering the era in which it was made, what was happening economically, politically, socially. You really have to consider those, so it seemed like a natural fit. It’s all of The Met’s collection, not just the American wing. I think there are five different departments represented. It wasn’t as though I could borrow things to make a particular point, so I worked with what we had, and we have five sections. Do you want to hear about those?
Sharon: Sure, please.
Beth: The first one I call Sentimental Journey, and that considers the earliest jewelry owned and worn in America, which frequently deals with courtship and marriage or death and mourning, usually pretty small objects like rings or brooches. It’s in that section that you’ll find jewelry that incorporates human hair, which some find disgusting and a lot of people find fascinating, but I think it was a reminder of a loved one, whether someone deceased or far from home. Their hair is a piece of them that survives.
Then the second section we call American Industry, and that is where we discuss the development of the Newark jewelry businesses, how our domestic industry burgeoned in the 19th century against this backdrop of financial prosperity and technological innovations. In that same section, I also include a case of Native American jewelry. We have several Zuni necklaces in turquoise and coral. It’s about all we have in Native American jewelry, but I think it’s an important story to tell.
Then the third section is Fin de Siècle Brilliance, and that displays American firms such as Tiffany & Co. and Cartier, their branches in New York. They started making really dazzling pieces of jewelry, dependent in large part upon the discovery of diamond deposits in South Africa in 1867. It’s not just the familiar names such as Tiffany; we also show some wonderful examples by a New York firm called Dreicer & Co., By Fedora, David Webb, Andre Mediarde.
Beth: I know. It’s a small case, but it really packs a punch. Our strongest holdings are in the fourth section, and that’s called Nature and History as Inspiration. There we find American jewelers and designers responding to the European style called Art Nouveau, which flourished in Europe from about 1890 until the outbreak of World War I. In that section, Louis Comfort Tiffany really shines. We have fabulous works by him and, in many cases, he captures nature in its fragile state. For instance, there’s one—you’ve probably seen this—of two dragonflies just landing on the tufts of the balls that are formed after a dandelion has died. It was just this moment, this momentary glance at this event taking place. That section also includes fabulous works by arts and crafts makers and a number of women. We have Julie Brown and Margaret Rogers, Eda Laura Dickson, Florence Kohler and the amazing Marie Zimmerman. That section’s really quite rich, the two cases of that section.
Finally, we have a section called Creativity and Innovative, where we celebrate the modern and contemporary, Alexander Calder and mid-20th century modernists who began not to feel so restricted by traditional jewelry-making materials like diamonds and rubies and gold. We start seeing base metals and plastics and all sorts of found objects working their way into jewelry, and there are also contemporary jewelers, which is wonderful. We’ve got five or six pieces by living artists, many of whom are still alive, one of whom I think has passed, to give the idea of what’s become of the American jewelry industry. Then there’s a final case that I wanted to have, although several colleagues cautioned me against it, of costume jewelry because for so many women from the Depression through the World War II period, even today, costume was what they bought. I think it had a great effect on style and taste, often taking off from fine jewelry, but also sometimes influencing the styles. I thought that was really important to have.
Sharon: I can see the pluses because it’s so important. Yes, before World War II, but today, it’s so important.
Beth: When I see people wearing something, I’ll say, “What’s that?” “Oh, it’s J. Crew,” or “It’s Banana Republic.”
Sharon: Yes, it’s so important, but it I can see it also opening up another hole, like, “O.K. now you have to have the costume jewelry hall.
Beth: Yeah, exactly. If you put a piece next to a diamond brooch, it’s hard for it to stand up, but I just kept it by itself and I think it looks quite nice.
Sharon: I’m sure it does. That would be a very interesting exhibit, too. What are a couple of your most favorite pieces from the show? When I was looking online, there are some really fabulous things.
Beth: That’s really hard to say. I like them all, but I like a couple of pieces for different reasons. There’s a Tiffany & Co. brooch—we call it a corsage piece; you would have worn it on the bodice of a dress or blouse—made by Tiffany around 1880 to 1895. It’s basically a flexible cascade of flower heads, but it’s diamonds and they are set in silver. It was believed that diamonds looked better on a white metal than on gold, so they were set in silver, but then the silver oxidized to almost black and it’s a very beautiful look to have these shimmering diamonds against the black. It’s also convertible. You can unscrew the three largest flowers and we have alternate attachments that allow them to be worn as separate pins. That’s the one favorite. I also adore a Marcus & Co. brooch. Marcus is not a particularly well-known firm, although they were very important in New York. They competed with Tiffany & Co. and other Fifth Avenue jewelers, and that firm made a number of pieces out of plique-à-jour enamel. Plique-à-jour is a very challenging technique. It’s almost like a stained-glass window; the enamel has no backing, so the light can shine through it. This one is fashioned as a bunch of sweet peas with leaves. The leaves also have diamond spines and the blossoms are made up of four conch shell pearls, those little buds that descend below this amazingly three-dimensional creation. I think it’s just beautiful. There are others, but I’ll stop there.
Sharon: I loved the octopus chatelaine.
Beth: Oh yes, that’s Gorham Company, and that was selected by our graphic designers as a signature piece for the graphics. Do you know what a chatelaine is?
Sharon: I do, but please explain it to everybody else.
Beth: A chatelaine is a device that women wore—I suppose men could have as well, but I’m used to seeing them on women—at the waistband or belt, and it’s physically like a little toolbox. It is a device from which chains hang, and on each of the ends of the chain, you have a pair of scissors or a whistle or a little notepad and pen, eyeglass case, perfume flask, whatever you might need. We have two in the exhibition, one by Tiffany & Co. and the other by Gorham, and they are both really terrific and fascinating. In fact, when I lecture about this, I have a couple of images, one of which is Mrs. Hughes from Downton Abbey with her chatelaine. She was their housekeeper. I’m not sure why, but it was a pretty short-lived device, but really quite wonderful.
Sharon: That’s interesting. I’ll have to pay more attention. I just heard that there’s a movie of Downton Abbey coming out.
Beth: Yes, I saw that as well. Check out Mrs. Hughes.
Sharon: Yes, definitely. Beth, what’s next on your agenda? I’m sure it’s already in process.
Beth: This is sort of an adventure. I’m going to visit Santa Fe and Taos in August to visit the museums that have Native American jewelry. As I mentioned, we have just a few pieces in the exhibition that are in the department The Met calls the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. We haven’t really collected Native American, but we’re starting to collect more of it in my department in the American Wing. I proposed a trip to go out and visit some of the museums that carry it, meet some of the dealers and think about whether that’s something we want to proceed on. I should learn a lot, so stay tuned.
Sharon: It sounds fabulous. It’s full of great museums, Santa Fe.
Beth: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.
Sharon: And bring a lot of sunscreen, too.
Beth: Yes, and a big hat.
Sharon: Beth, thank you so much for being here. It’s always so great to talk to you and hear about the behind the scenes on these exhibits.
To everybody listening, that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. We’ll have Beth’s contact information and information about the exhibit in our show notes. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
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