With more than 8,000 pieces, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an extensive jewelry collection that spans world history. The museum’s most recent jewelry exhibition was initiated by curator Beth Carver Wees, who joined host Sharon Berman on the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about the inspiration for the exhibit, what attracts her to silver pieces and how jewelry holds memory. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, I’m very happy to be talking with Beth Carver Wees, the Ruth Bigelow Wriston Curator of American Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she oversees the collections of American silver, jewelry and other metal work. She’s also one of six Met curators who put on the fabulous and extensive show now at the museum, “Jewelry: The Body Transformed,” featuring jewelry pulled from The Met’s collection, from ancient jewelry to contemporary jewelry from all around the globe. She’ll be talking about the exhibit today. Beth, it’s great to have you here.
Beth: It’s great to be with you.
Sharon: Tell me about the work you do at The Met. It seems like such a cool job. Can you tell us about your career path? What did you study in school? How did you wind your way to The Met? And were you always interested in working at a museum?
Beth: I grew up with a father who loved art, so we visited museums regularly. When I went off to college planning to major in English Literature, all it took was one art history course to make me fall in love with that discipline and then to seek out summer jobs at museums. In fact, I spent two summers during college guiding tours through historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts. That was great fun, and it’s also where I first discovered the decorative arts, although in college courses, you mostly had paintings and sculpture, maybe some architecture. My first job out of college was as Secretary to the Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where I met the most wonderful people and curators involved in that world, including a woman named Kathryn Buhler, who was the great authority at the time on early American silver. I spent three years there.
After that, I went on to graduate school at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which has an excellent program that today is offered in collaboration with a museum called Clark Art Institute. It just so happened when I finished my courses there, there was an opening for an assistant curator, and that’s what truly launched me into my work on silver. The Clark has a fabulous collection, particularly of English, Irish and Scottish silver, which I was fortunate enough to be able to research and ultimately publish. At Clark, I was the entire decorative arts department, so in addition to silver, I worked on porcelain, glass and furniture. It was a small staff, small museum, but it was a great time. Then I got this amazing invitation to join the staff of The Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing. That was in the spring of 2000. In this position, I’ve narrowed my focus to just American metalwork, primarily silver and jewelry—and yes, since I first took an art history course, I’ve wanted to work in a museum.
Sharon: The Clark Art Institute, is that part of Clark University in Worcester?
Beth: No, it’s an independent museum located in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Sterling and Francine Clark established it in the early 1950s. Sterling Clark was one of four brothers who were very much involved in the arts, as was his father, and his grandfather was a partner of Isaac Singer, so that’s where the money came from. It’s a marvelous museum of primarily French painting, but also wonderful American painting and great decorative art, silver and porcelain and other drawings and prints and photographs. It’s in the very northwest corner of Massachusetts.
Sharon: It sounds like it’s worth a visit.
Beth: It’s worth a visit, absolutely.
Sharon: What is it that you like about metalwork and silver? What is it that attracts you more than other areas of decorative arts or art?
Beth: The two things that really guided me toward silver were getting to know and admire the work of Kathryn Buhler when I was first getting started, and also the Clark’s extraordinary collection. One of the things about silver that I love is that it’s not just about the objects, the artistry,how they’re made and what they look like, but it always involves a great deal of social history. It’s about the people who made the objects, the people who owned and cherished them, how they were used, and the different styles that changed in response to historical events. One of the things I always say about silver is that it’s the one art form that is routinely personalized in some way, whether it’s engraved initials, or a monogram, or an inscription or something that helps lead you into the history of the object.
Sharon: That’s really true.
Beth: It’s true of all jewelry to a degree as well; you might know who the portraits are of or who owned a particular work of art, but silver really announces itself.
Sharon: Yes, and when you said cherish, you can picture the silver service on a dining room table in the Victorian era.
Beth: That’s quite right, and it’s something we call presentations silver. It’s often directly related to an event, to a life passage, birth, death, promotion, or a professional accomplishment. The other thing I often do when I lecture on silver is to start with an image of a tennis player who has just won a championship, because it really brings it home. Why is this grown man or grown woman kissing a silver vase? It’s about professional and financial success.
Sharon: That’s a good point and a great image to get people’s attention.
Beth: Yeah, it usually does, and then the jewelry—well, I was just going to say my love of jewelry goes all the way back to my childhood, actually. I always had a little bracelet or ring or something. I particularly remember one bracelet that had my name engraved on it, which made me feel very special.
Sharon: Was it silver?
Beth: It was gold; rather, it was semi-gold-plated. I just remember caring a lot about that bracelet. Then, the leap from silver to jewelry is quite easy, because jewelers and silversmiths have always pretty much been the same people. They use essentially the same tools, the same equipment and the same skills, such as casting and chasing and hammering, and just as with the silver, I love the personal attachment. One of my favorite topics regarding jewelry is what I call memory. Every piece of jewelry we have, we remember. It belonged to my grandmother, or I bought it in Paris, or I got it as a birthday present. Maybe you can subscribe that kind of importance to other art forms, but I think there’s always a lot of it with jewelry.
Sharon: That’s very true. You definitely have a lot of jewelry in “Jewelry: The Body Transformed.” It’s a massive exhibit, so fabulous. Can you tell us about how it came into being and how it’s structured? Sometimes you get so lost in the exhibit that you don’t see the forest.
Beth: Absolutely. The Met owns something like 8,000, maybe over 8,000 pieces of jewelry, and we had to narrow it down to—I think the final number was 230. There is also some sculpture and paintings and other things. I can actually take claim for the original concept.
Beth: Thank you. I can’t take claim for all of it because it was really a village of people here who worked on it. The Met’s former director, Tom Campbell, early in his tenure said, “The departments have become quite vulcanized. Let’s take a look at the museum as a whole and see what we can do cross-departmentally.” The Met has 17 curatorial departments, so they are very different but there’s also a lot of overlap. It occurred to me that there is jewelry in every department, so I found a few of my colleagues I knew were interested in jewelry. We started talking and looking at the collection and where we had strengths and weaknesses, and as it unfolded, we began to see that the greatest strengths in the collection are in the areas of ancient and non-western jewelry, not so much what some of us consider jewelry in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. It ended up being a team of six led by Melanie Holcomb, who is a curator in the Met’s medieval department. There was also Kim Benzel who heads up the Ancient Near East, Diana Craig Patch, head of Egyptian art, Soyoung Lee from Asian art and Joanne Pillsbury, who curates pre-Colombian art in the Department of AAOA—the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.
We divided the exhibition into five major sections. We begin with a large room that has a lot of body parts, starting with the feet and legs and then moving up to the waist, the chest, the ears, the nose and then the head. Along the sides of that gallery, we have arms and hands represented, and there we have a real mix of materials and cultures. A favorite case of mine has a Bronze Age brooch from circa 600 B.C., an art deco brooch and a contemporary piece. They’re all pins; they’re all basically ornaments that could also hold something together. Then we have the five major sections, each of which explores how jewelry acts upon or activates the human body. Although the installation is more or less chronothematic, that is, the earlier jewelry is in the earliest galleries, we mix and match cultures to suit this narrative. Let’s see if I can remember all five sections. There’s the Divine Body, the Regal Body, the Transcendent Body, the Alluring Body and the Resplendent Body. By the way, the checklist is 99% Metropolitan Museum objects. We have one or two loans in the whole installation. But within each of those sections, we created vignettes on different topics regarding the history of jewelry, rather than trying to be a comprehensive, chronological march through jewelry. Despite having 8,000 pieces, we actually have a few gaps in areas such as the Renaissance. We have very little Georgian jewelry, very little art deco. Does that answer your question?
Sharon: I was just thinking about that. You don’t notice the gaps.
Beth: Yeah, because we’re focusing you on particular topics.
Sharon: Right, that’s interesting. Do you have those in your collection, the Renaissance jewelry?
Beth: No, those are the gaps. We included what we could, but because of the way jewelry is collected, a lot of it comes in by gift or by class. You can seek out pieces, but I’m actually hoping this exhibition will prompt all of us to start looking more at where we have gaps, which is something curators do naturally, but especially in regard to jewelry, and seeing if we can find some of those.
Sharon: It seems like this would really clarify that. I thought that when you said there are gaps, I was thinking about the exhibit itself, not so much in your collection. It would be so hard to see where your gaps are when you have so many collections and across so many departments.
Beth: That’s right. Someone asked me why we don’t have more art deco in the exhibition, and I said we just don’t own it. Certainly, The Met has plenty of objects. If you’re trying to tell a complete story, it’s nice to be able to have examples.
Sharon: Hopefully there will be more that come to The Met because of this exhibit. You mentioned that the brooch from 600 B.C. is one of your favorite pieces. Why is that and what are a couple of your other favorite pieces?
Beth: One of the pieces I just love is a collar. You may remember this. It’s from the 12th-14th century in the first gallery you enter. It’s made of spondylus shells, which is also called phony oyster, and to the Chema people of Peru who cherish the material, it was very, very precious. It was mostly harvested off the coast of Ecuador. It was imported material and seemed to have both beauty and power, the way, say, diamonds or emeralds would today. That’s one of my favorites. Of course, there’s a diamond and pearl necklace by Joyce and Company of New York that I was able to acquire for The Met, so that’s a favorite. That’s from about 1905, and it’s a status object, but beautifully made and very much in the Edwardian or Belle Époque taste. Gosh, there are so many I love. I love some of the pareurs, which are jewelry match sets that were especially popular in the 19th century. We call that section “Every Woman a Queen.” Josephine, Napoleon’s wife, had a number of pareurs that were often made with precious materials or cameos, but any woman could parlor at a different price point and make herself feel like a queen.
Sharon: Something like that does make you feel like a queen. That’s also very interesting about the spondylus shells, because the things we think of as precious can change.
Beth: And a lot of contemporary jewelers you might call art jewelers. There was a wonderful exhibit in 1961 at Goldsmith’s Hall in London, curated by Graham Hughes. He says something in the brochure or the catalogue that you don’t need expensive materials to make meaningful and impressive jewelry. I think you’ll see this if you look at this exhibition or consider a lot of contemporary jewelers working in plastic or paper. We have on view a wonderful neckpiece by Kiff Slemmons, an American jeweler, called “Sticks and Stones and Words Breastplate.” She’s referencing the breastplates worn by the Plains Indians in the shape, and she uses pencils and buffalo head nickels and horse hair, but by including pencils, she is also alluding to the false promises made to the native peoples by the U.S. government. Pencils aren’t necessarily something we’d think of for jewelry, but here it has real meaning.
Sharon: That’s a fabulous piece. You look at it and go, “Oh my god, that is just wonderful.”
Beth: You made me remember the last piece in the exhibit, another favorite of mine, which is by an artist named Daniel Brush. It’s a torque, so a big neckpiece made of aluminum tubing from airplane refrigeration coils that he has worked into a beautiful, highly-engraved piece, very densely ornamented and set with many, many tiny little diamonds. It’s so beautiful, but he’s making it out of aluminum refrigerator coils.
Sharon: That was a fabulous piece. I’ve seen his work, but I haven’t seen him work in anything like that.
Beth: He’s very varied in what he does. He’s quite a talented artist.
Sharon: So many of those pieces were just breathtaking. How do you feel when you look at the exhibit now, thinking about the fact that you were there helping give birth to it originally?
Beth: It’s very gratifying to have it up, I have to say. It was such a long process, and as I said, it involved not only the six of us, but two research assistants, multiple designers, and both of the galleries and the graphics, and my favorite heroes are the people who built the little mounts for the jewelry so that it’s not all just pin flaps. Then, of course, in the bigger picture, the development and communications people, who produced the book. It’s really thrilling to have it up and running.
Sharon: It does take a village. I had dinner with my stepdaughter last night and she was wearing the shirt from the exhibit. It’s all—
Beth: Marketing, right.
Sharon: What’s next on your agenda there?
Beth: Right now, I’m working on a smaller jewelry project, but it’s exciting for me because it will be in the American Wing in our Luce Center Study Gallery. It will be more of a survey of American jewelry from colonial times through today. Again, it will be the Met’s collection primarily, and they have one or two loans, but it will look at particular topics and do some deep dives into things like cameos, miniatures and hair jewelry, which I know a lot of people find distasteful but is so important. It will also look at the building of our own jewelry industry. I know you’ve had Ulysses Dietz speak. It will look at Newark’s importance in the 19th century, and then to having our own industry and the birth of firms like Tiffany and Gorham, and the arts and crafts and Edwardian jewelers, coming up into today. I’m hoping to include a section on costume jewelry, because I think, although it certainly doesn’t hold a candle to a diamond necklace, it was so important to women in that era and still is today. So, I think it will be fun, and will include paintings and some design sources and that sort of thing. Come see it.
Sharon: Don’t worry, I will.
Beth: It opens in June 2019, but it will be up for six months.
Sharon: And “Jewelry: The Body Transformed” goes to mid-February?
Beth: February 24. You have plenty of time to see it.
Sharon: It’s worth a trip, and give it time because it takes time to go through it. Beth, thank you so much. “Jewelry: The Body Transformed” is fabulous and we’re definitely looking forward to your next one. To all our listeners, that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would 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. Thanks so much for listening.
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