Did you know that Newark, New Jersey, was a jewelry making hub in the 19th century? Ulysses Grant Dietz, Former Curator of Decorative Arts and Chief Curator at the Newark Museum, joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to discuss Newark’s jewelry history and the collection in the museum’s Laurie Ross Jewelry Gallery. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is someone many of you know: Ulysses Grant Dietz. Last year, he retired as Curator of Decorative Arts and Chief Curator at the Newark Museum in New Jersey, after being there for close to forty years. He was instrumental in expanding and showcasing the museum’s jewelry collection, which began in 1911. We’ll talk a lot more about that. Ulysses, so glad to have you today.
Ulysses: Great to be here.
Sharon: Ulysses, you have such an interesting career path and you are, in jewelry terms, a man of many facets. Can you tell us a bit about your career path? How did you decide you wanted to go into museum work, and what was the catalyst for your interest in jewelry?
Ulysses: That’s a long story, but the jewelry part is easier. Jewelry came into my career later, but I guess anybody who cares about jewelry can say, “Oh, I always loved jewelry,” so I suppose there were flashes of it in my childhood. I came into the museum world in a typical academic way, although I don’t know if “typical” ever really counts for someone who becomes a curator, because I think it’s a strange little group of people in the world. I loved old houses as a kid. I was obsessed with houses and floor plans. Then I fell in love with all the old stuff that was in the old houses. One summer, I worked in an old house as a volunteer and suddenly thought, “I could get paid to do this for a living. What a hoot!” I started studying decorative arts as an undergrad at Yale, where they have an incredible collection of furniture and silver and ceramics and so on. Then I used that as my jumping-off point into a graduate program in Delaware called the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. I got my M.A., which theoretically trained me to be a curator. I got a job right out of school and that’s the job I retired from in December, 37 and a half years later.
All of that was about decorative arts. It was about household furnishings, furniture, silver, glass, ceramics, textiles and jewelry. Since Newark’s collection is huge, but the staff is small, I was also in charge of fashion and textiles. American textiles and American clothing from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were all part of my purview, and that included a jewelry collection. Sort of accidentally, because I was really interested in silver during my college years, I started picking up pieces of Newark-made silver jewelry by firms like Unger Brothers and William B. Kerr. I began to make a connection between Newark’s silver industry and the jewelry industry, about which I knew nothing, and that in turn led to an exhibition in the late 1990s, about 17 years into my career. It was about this industry, which had been the biggest jewelry industry in North America and was now entirely gone. So that’s where that started.
Sharon: What was the status of the jewelry collection? Did people talk about it? Did people know you had such a fabulous collection?
Ulysses: Yes and no, which is always equivocal. I knew there was some jewelry kicking around, because I’d seen a few things. Any museum in any city is going to end up with some jewelry, because old ladies die and leave you their tortoise shell beads or something like that. I knew we had a fantastic piece of French art nouveau jewelry, a plaque de cous by Louis Aucoc. We had attributed it to Lalique, because nobody knew anything that looked like that except Lalique, and it was also catalogued as being made of brass and silver even though it’s platinum and gold. So, it was a piece that was misunderstood and had, to my knowledge, never been shown. I kind of obsessed about that.
Then, in the mid1980s, the aunt of a trustee sent her nephew in with this incredible diamond brooch made by Theodore Bistarai in New York. It was platinum-topped gold, beautiful azure-set diamonds in the form of a dagger with a ribbon around it, very 18th century style, and it was big, five inches long. I thought, “I love this thing,” and I didn’t know what to do with it. I began to poke around and realized we had drawers, terrible old wooden flat files, full of random assortments of jewelry. In the past they had largely been used — brace for this — to pin onto historic costumes when we put them on mannequins. That makes me cringe doubly as a curator, because the jewelry was not cared about in any way other than as an ornamental accessory for the costumes we had.
I began to think about it, and I ended up doing a show in the early 1990s called Human Plumage, a little exhibit in four cases, where I pulled stuff out of the drawers. Quite honestly, I hardly remember what was in that show. It wasn’t very much, but it included Louis Aucoc, this art nouveau piece, and there was a beautiful gold watch with a red poussé case that was made in the 18th century in New York. It was the first piece of jewelry ever given to the museum, back in 1911. I put that together with a recent gift of a beautiful art nouveau gold spectacle case with a ruby clasp button. When we opened the show, the trustee who had given it to us said, “Oh, my grandfather made that in Newark,” and that was the first I’d heard that there was a Newark jewelry industry. That set me off down a path to investigating this huge, vanished industry.
Sharon: I’ve heard you talk about the fact that Newark was once a center of American fine jewelry. Even people who are very knowledgeable don’t know anything about that.
Ulysses: The jewelry was out there, but my sense of it is that the world of antique and vintage jewelry didn’t look if it wasn’t obviously marked with a name like Tiffany or Cartier. They just said, “Oh, American.” That’s it. If it was 14-carat, it was American. If it was 18-carat, or if it was marked with a French mark, it was French. I think the awareness of that evaporated as the industry died, but the fact is the Newark jewelry industry was always anonymous outside of the industry. It wasn’t like Detroit, where everybody knew the cars were American. Newark jewelry was all about the retailer all over the United States, not about the maker.
Sharon: Do you recognize pieces? How do you know if it’s marked Tiffany, but it was made in Newark? Has your eye developed?
Ulysses: I’d love to be able to say, “I have this infallible eye.” On one hand, there are certain makers who made things you instantly recognize. There are certain looks you know are by specific Newark makers, but also, from the 1890s on, the Newark makers began to use little touch marks, these unique insignia. Maybe it would be related to the 14-carat mark. There would be a letter or something next to it. Essentially, they were code marks for the wholesale buyers, so they knew who they had gotten this piece from. Generally speaking, all of the Newark manufacturers — we’re talking maybe 100 makers in different scales with thousands of employees across the city — were selling to their own retail outlets, or they were selling to wholesale jobbers who were then selling to retail. It was an internal industrial code, and there were places like the Jewelers’ Keystone that began to publish these insignia so the market would know who was making what. It was a way for American makers to guarantee quality, because if you had a name associated with a piece, you could blame them or praise them for the quality of their goods. The Newark stuff was aimed at a middle-class market, but a middle-class market in a time when middle class was high quality and jewelers expected good quality because their customers expected it.
Sharon: What happened to the industry?
Ulysses: The Newark jewelry industry followed the path of all the great American industries. It thrived until the 1920s. Newark was producing something like 90 percent of the gold in America, 50 percent of the 18-carat gold, and then the crash hit and decimated the economy. There’s a story in Newark that 200 factories of all kinds closed within the first year of the Depression. It not only shut down the industry, it shut down the desire for luxury goods and the ability to pay for them. At the same time as the fine jewelry industry was struggling against the Depression and the bad economy, the costume jewelry industry began to thrive. Costume jewelry always existed, and it was referred to during that period as cheap jewelry, but that wasn’t a slur; it was just inexpensive. The gold-plated jewelry industry, which was largely in New England, began to thrive. On top of that, in the 20th century, the idea of fashion jewelry grew. People like Schiaparelli and Chanel began promoting fake jewelry for fashion’s sake, and that took away a lot of the high-end consumers. The middle-class consumer went to costume jewelry because they could afford it. You could buy it at Woolworth’s. So, the Newark industry continually lost traction.
I think, although I can’t quite prove this, that in the aftermath of World War II, the massive funding and rebuilding of Europe boosted the Italian jewelry industry, the British jewelry industry and even the German jewelry industry. The energy pumped into building those industries took away more of the American jewelry market. It was still going into the 1980s and 1990s, when we did our project, but the Newark industry had dwindled to three or four manufacturers by the time I was looking at it. I talked to those surviving manufacturers at the time and they’re all gone now, so there’s really nobody left in Newark.
Sharon: I didn’t realize it was going that late, even if you’re just talking about a handful of them. That’s such an interesting history that nobody knows about.
I know you’ve curated more than 100 exhibitions. You spearheaded the reinstallation of the museum’s Laurie Ross Jewelry Gallery and you curated the exhibition “Jewelry, from Pearls to Platinum to Plastic.” Did you launch the gallery with that exhibit or was it something else?
Ulysses: Originally, I launched it with, “Let’s create a jewelry gallery because Laurie Ross, who loved jewelry, left us money.” We patched together a little show based on what I’d collected. It covered the obvious things, showing the pieces off and deep hidden meaning and modern art, the things curators tend to look into. The show you’re talking about, “Jewelry, from Pearls to Platinum to Plastic,” was a second effort, where we decided to repurpose a video gallery and properly design a jewelry gallery so I could show more jewelry. That opened a couple of years ago. It’s based on the idea of looking at jewelry from the point of view of the materials. The Newark Museum also has a natural history division and an enormous collection of natural history specimens, and it was a way to bring the science aspect of materials into the jewelry gallery. That’s why the title is “From Pearls to Platinum to Plastic,” because pearls are natural and used in an unaltered form, and platinum is a human-made material, but it comes out of the ground and is altered, and then plastic is the most artificial of all human materials and is a big player in the contemporary jewelry world.
The show starts with jewelry made with stone, and there are modern pieces with pebbles. There are antique pieces made with carved lava stone and inset pietra dura. There’s a piece of 15th century Russian jewelry with a jasper cross, because jasper’s a symbolic stone, and the show goes from there. I made the progression up myself in whatever seemed logical to me, because it was from stone to semiprecious stones to precious stones to natural materials from the sea and the land, and then man-made materials, base metals and precious metals, and then finally getting into plastics and ceramics and glass and enamel and all of the other human-made materials that are important to jewelry. It’s very mixed up. There’s no stylistic progression. There are things from different periods clustered together by material. If you have diamonds in one piece, platinum may be in another place, so even side by side, it offers a huge amount of variety, which for a typical museum-going audience is better than a dead-on linear presentation, I think.
Sharon: It sounds really interesting. Is it still showing?
Ulysses: It’s still up. The gallery is permanent. I’m imagining my successor, who loves jewelry, will figure out a way to change it someday, but she’s pretty busy, so I figure it’s good for a few more years.
Sharon: I’ll have to go see it. I’ve heard you mention that some pieces of jewelry can be very difficult to show. What did you have to learn? Did you have to find special people? How did it bend your mind to put these exhibits together?
Ulysses: First, you’ve got to realize that curators are created to make exhibits. It’s like a video game or a crossword puzzle. This challenge of how to create an exhibit is fun for us, but museums also have exhibition designers, and they’re the ones who actually know how to show stuff. I say, “Here’s a pair of cufflinks. Figure out how to make it visible.” There’s always trial and error. The first installation in the Laurie Ross Gallery was less successful because, frankly, I picked a horrible color. Nobody told me about it until a year later, and they said, “You know, that’s really ugly.” I had to swallow that one. The second time around, we were very careful. We focused more on putting the jewelry in cases that weren’t too deep, so you could get up close, and having the right amount of light. Jewelry people like the lighting bright. As romantic as the dim spotlights of jewelry stores are, they don’t help you see the jewelry very well. We discovered that the jewelry audience wanted to see the stuff close, and that’s the way we designed it the second time.
Newark was a huge producer of rings and stickpins and cufflinks, and we don’t have a huge amount of it, but we do have some great things. However, they’re tiny and they don’t show well, so you have to struggle through. There’s a whole gallery downstairs that’s all about the Newark metal industry, and half of it is about Newark jewelry. Frankly, there are cufflinks in there that you can barely see, because the lighting defeated us. The lighting wasn’t right for showing jewelry. It looks great, and then you try to look closely, and you realize you can’t see things as well as you’d like. We don’t always triumph.
Sharon: I didn’t see the jar exhibit at the Met, but I heard they were doing exactly what you’re talking about. Wasn’t it very dark, and the jewelry was showcased with the spotlights on?
Ulysses: It was. I’d love to do that if I had $1 million to do a jewelry show. That whole show was obviously controversial. I went to it twice. It was very beautiful. I don’t remember having trouble seeing anything, but then again, I knew what I was looking at. There were oddball things about it, and it was lit to be dramatic and sparkly, but I don’t remember having trouble seeing, except that there was too much stuff. It was very crowded because it’s hard to resist. With jewelry, the more the better, and that instinct seems to have followed that installation. There were also no labels in the cases. You had to walk around with a booklet that told you what things were. From an average museum goer’s point of view, it was not a very user-friendly show. From a jewelry nut’s point of view, it was fine, because people who love jewelry will do anything it takes to see jewelry.
Sharon: I can relate to that. What exhibits have you seen during your career that you thought were well done? What sticks out in your mind? It doesn’t have to be jewelry.
Ulysses: That opens up a whole can of worms if you say everything.
Sharon: Let’s start with jewelry then.
Ulysses: At the Driehaus Museum in Chicago, there’s a wonderful exhibition called Maker and Muse that a friend of mine, Elyse Karlin, curated. I had been asked to do it, but I had a job. I knew it was going to be a tough show, and she did a great job. There are problems in the Driehaus because it’s a house, but I think the installation was 80 percent fantastic. The way they presented it, the way she organized the material, and the way the things looked in the cases was wonderful. If there was a 20 percent off, it’s just because jewelry is difficult, and it’s in big, dark, Victorian rooms that are hard to light. You can’t ruin them to light the jewelry, but I thought it was a great presentation. Of course, the book was wonderful. Books are always important.
I’ve seen the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. It’s a big jewelry gallery that is really spectacular and beautiful, but it’s all black with pin spots, and ultimately you realize, once you stop being dazzled, that it’s hard to see anything. I’ve seen the new V&A Galleries in London, which I thought were fantastic. I’m sure if I was getting analytical, I could find problems, but I thought it was the most delicious, opulent way to show jewelry that I’ve ever encountered anywhere. That would be my fantasy. Of course, their collection is unparalleled, and I think our little gallery is very good for what it does. I’m happy with that. Our gallery is only eight feet by sixteen feet, but there are still 150 pieces of jewelry in it. I would love a big space, so I could play with different ways of showing jewelry, but that’s for someone else.
Sharon: I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the Newark Museum. I haven’t been there. With that said, you are co-director of Jewelry Camp, which is being held at the museum in October, if I’m correct.
Ulysses: Yes. I went to Jewelry Camp for the first time in 1992, when I was 34, and that blew my mind. This is a much smaller version of that mammoth, five-day weekend up in rural Maine. Really, Ed Lewand is doing it; I’m just his helper. Even though I’m the director of the museum, I’m his helper for this day. It’s going to be a symposium, with a chance to study the different jewelry galleries on view at the museum. It will also give me a chance to present this museum as a jewelry venue, so that’ll be fun. It’s a great lineup of speakers and I’m looking forward to it.
Sharon: I’m really looking forward to Jewelry Camp. I haven’t been for a few years. We’ll have a link in the show notes if people are interested. You mentioned books, and I know you’ve written two books on jewelry, as well as several fiction books about vampires. How did you get on vampires?
Ulysses: Using your own name for everything you write is something I argue about with other authors. The vampire books, which have a lot of decorative arts in them, are novels that grew out of my love of Dark Shadows and Anne Rice novels when I was a teenager. I’m a real romantic, and for that reason, as a kid I thought vampires were elegant. Writing fiction is something I do for fun, but I’ve also done jewelry books. Janet Zapata and I with two other co-authors did a big book on the Newark jewelry industry, and she was my muse for that. She’s an authority in the jewelry world, and she took me to Jewelry Camp and taught me everything I learned about jewelry. I’m very proud of the Newark book, because it really looked at an industry from multiple points of view and showed off what the jewelry itself looked like.
My more recent book is much smaller, and if I’m being totally honest, it’s a vanity thing. I wanted to make sure we published a book about the jewelry I had been collecting that was not Newark. Once I realized we had some good jewelry, I thought we should build a collection. Newark represents a certain kind of jewelry, and we needed to represent what the Newark makers were looking at as well. Newark was making for a middle-class market, so what was the upscale market? What was the bigger market? That allowed me to spend a lot of money on jewelry over the last 10 years of my career, and I have no regrets. This little book is basically about the Pearls, Platinum and Plastic Show. It showcases the range and the different periods and materials of the jewelry in the collection without focusing on Newark material.
Sharon: I have the Newark book, which is very interesting. This is the last question, and we could have another episode just about this, but let me ask you: What are the challenges you’re seeing in museums now? As a marketer, I’m impressed with what I see going on in marketing in many museums, but what are the biggest challenges that you see, and what’s around the corner?
Ulysses: The biggest challenge that our museum has in particular, but also museums in general, is competition with all the other things that attract people’s attention. There’s gold at the end of the rainbow with the young audience, because they’re all device-driven and they’re all about Netflix and Snapchat and Instagram. Facebook is already just for old people, so I’m perfectly at home there.
To me, marketing is so critical because I think good marketing can make anything interesting. A good curator can take anything and make it into an interesting show, but only a good marketing director at the museum can make that appealing to different kinds of audiences. While I desperately wish we had more curators at the Newark Museum, I wish even more we had a huge marketing budget. If the biggest museums in the United States spend $1 million a year on advertising, then smaller museums like Newark need to spend just as much to attract attention away from the big museums. We’re only ten miles from Manhattan, and while we have an audience all around us, sometimes we get skipped. If we had a bigger profile, we would have more of an audience, and I think that’s a marketing thing. I may be delusional, but the way you promote a show and the way you get buzz going — and that’s social media as well as print advertising and online advertising — I think it’s critical.
Oddly enough, I’m less worried about the notions of content and relevance. One of the reasons I’m retired is that I wanted younger curators to come in and replace me, so they would have younger ideas. I came in with young ideas when I was 25, and I think you need a new generation of curators. They’ll come up with the ideas and marketing will bring in the audience. That’s my theory.
Sharon: As a marketer, I’m happy to hear that. I’m sure your marketing people are very glad to have support like that, whether it’s money or just a belief in marketing. Ulysses, thank you so much, and thank you to everybody listening. 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 really appreciate that. 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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