Is jewelry simply an accessory or an important aspect of art history? Host Sharon Berman asks this question of Jan Krulick-Belin, an art and jewelry historian, on the Jewelry Journey podcast. Learn about World War II-era “sweetheart jewelry,” how museums are incorporating jewelry into their exhibits and Jan’s memoir about her father, “Love, Bill: Finding My Father Through Letters From WWII.”
Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today my guest is Jan Krulick-Belin, a museum and art consultant, and jewelry historian with more than 40 years’ experience at prestigious institutions around the country. Jan is truly a renaissance woman. I’ve heard her give several presentations on everything from jewelry and Renaissance art to what’s called “sweetheart jewelry,” which is jewelry made during World War II, and she’ll tell us a little bit more about that. She’s also an author and has published a memoir, Love, Bill, which is based on love letters written by her father, who died when she was young. Jan, so glad to have you today.
Jan: Thanks, Sharon. Thanks for inviting me.
Sharon: I’m really glad that you’re here. It’s so great to talk to you more about topics we don’t often get to discuss.
Sharon: Tell me a little bit about the path you took to get where you are. I know you’ve been an art historian and a jewelry historian. Tell us about your journey.
Jan: I grew up in New York City and I started going to art museums very early. I went on school trips and I’ve been a very visual person all my life. When I entered college, one of my interests and passions was taking art history classes, which I eventually majored in. Long story short, usually you either become a professor or a writer in art history. I didn’t realize there was a path for me called museum educator, which I found out about by accident when I was working in Washington, D.C., as an intern at the Smithsonian. So, I entered a graduate program that allowed me to continue in my art history work but also incorporated museum studies, and I’ve been working in art museums ever since then. My jewelry history hat came a lot later over the years. Obviously, I’ve always loved jewelry, especially antique jewelry, and I remember playing in my mother’s jewelry drawer for many, many hours growing up. My husband says I’m kind of a magpie. Anything shiny or blingy I’m attracted to.
Sharon: That’s a great way to describe it.
Jan: At one point, towards the end of my 18 years as Education Director at Phoenix Art Museum, we started going to a fundraiser art and antique show. One year, a couple of the booths were antique jewelry booths, and somebody had a brochure that talked about this thing called “Jewelry Camp.” I was always fascinated by jewelry, as I said, and I thought, “Well, someday I’m going to go to this conference and see what this is all about.” Fortunately, when I left working full time, I had the opportunity to go and I guess the rest is history. I started doing research and saw that my two worlds of art history and jewelry history overlap and blend, and one informs the other. That’s how this all fanned out.
Sharon: It sounds so interesting. I’m curious, in terms of being a museum educator, how much do you know about teaching adults and children? How much does that overlap, if you’re getting a teaching credential?
Jan: That’s a good question, because being a museum educator was never really a field in and of itself until the 1970s. I was actually a graduate of the third program ever, which was started at George Washington University, to offer a degree in such a thing. Most museum and education jobs came out of the art history world. They knew the content, but they weren’t familiar with how people learn in museums, everyone from children to adults. That’s the kind of thing that they taught us: communication skills, how people learn in the museum setting, how to do programming and how to reach different kinds of audiences. So yes, it was a whole new idea of how to give people this extra skill and move into that kind of work.
Sharon: Sounds so interesting. Both of us like all kinds of jewelry. I tend to be in the art jewelry world in terms of the things I acquire, but I like all kinds, just like you do. I’ve seen you wear fabulous jewelry. I’m curious, because in the art jewelry world, there’s a lot of discussion about the fact that those in the art world don’t see jewelry as an art, and there’s been such an effort to get some blending of those fields. How does your art background inform your knowledge of and your appreciation of jewelry? How do you see them overlapping?
Jan: It’s interesting, because other areas of the fine arts, like the decorative arts, have fought that fight for a long time. Being an art historian who had to be more of a generalist because I had to work on every kind of exhibition imaginable, I never saw a clear dividing line between the high and the low art. I think contemporary jewelry and all jewelry falls into art and art history. In terms of one informing the other, let’s say you see a piece of jewelry from a past period, something from the 15th or 16th century, because all arts operate in the same cultural context, there are similarities and they have a look or something about them that overlaps with paintings and sculpture. So, when I look at a piece of jewelry, because I’m trained as an art historian, I pick up on that first thing. I think, “Well, what does this have to do with a 17th century painting, or what are the similarities?” It might be the colors. If you’re looking at a painting from the 18th century in the Rococo style, which is a very light, frothy, pastel-colored thing, if you see jewelry from that time period, you will pick up on those same sorts of qualities.
A lot of my lectures deal with looking at jewelry and portraits from different art historical periods. If you know the jewelry history, you’ll learn a lot more about the paintings and vice versa. If you know about the art history, you’ll learn more about jewelry. I’ve found, interestingly enough, that there are times when paintings have been misattributed and if you knew about the specific pieces of jewelry in the paintings, that would have helped you go down the right road. It’s a lot like detective work; the more clues you have and the more things you can pick up on, the greater the likelihood of you coming to a more accurate decision.
Sharon: It’s really interesting when you say that art and jewelry happen within the same cultural context, which makes more of a case that they are similar fields.
Jan: Yes, and you’ll start seeing that more and more as museums start renovating and rehanging their collections. You’ll see more integration of the decorative arts in the painting galleries. I always tried to include fashion and fashion design. I was lucky enough that Phoenix Art Museum has a phenomenal costume and fashion collection, so when I was still there, I tried to integrate mannequins into exhibitions. Fashion and jewelry go hand in hand, so you can see the connection. One of the biggest shows, which traveled around the world, I think started at the Musée d’Orsay in France, when they did impressionism and modern fashion. I know that it traveled to the States. So, you’re going to see more and more museums are finally getting it and not making that dividing line so clear.
Sharon: In Los Angeles, I can think of several museums where it hasn’t been just, “O.K., this is our pottery section.” It’s all integrated with furniture and portraits and that makes a lot more sense.
Jan: Visually, pottery is not going to operate in a vacuum from painting if it’s made at the same time or in a similar culture. We always used to laugh in art history. There are always the double slides. You always have two images side by side to compare and contrast, and every exam was compare and contrast. Well, now you’re allowing people to compare and contrast and pick up visual similarities and differences. That didn’t happen before. I’m really happy because, as I said, I’ve always been more of a humanities-oriented teacher; I look at everything in its total context.
Sharon: It seems to me like it would give the jewelry so much more context. It’s not just a piece of jewelry; it’s within its context.
Jan: And I think it helps. [This next sentence had confused me. Did Jan mean “we” as in herself and Sharon? Or, as in herself and the man who runs the jewelry camp? At first I thought it was the man who runs the jewelry camp, so had edited accordingly. I now believe it’s Sharon, and that they actually met there. So, I’ve revised my edits and hope it’s not confusing!] When I started going to Jewelry Camp, where you and I met, I learned through lectures given by the man in charge of it that a lot of people in the jewelry business, whether it’s appraisals or designing or whatever, don’t have that art history background and it would help them a lot in their appraising skills and visual skills.
Sharon: Definitely, especially when it comes to appraisals.
Sharon: The most recent talk of yours I heard was the interesting talk you gave in Florida. [If Sharon is saying it was so interesting, she should remember where it was, which I know she does. So, questioning whether it was in Florida doesn’t sit right. Almost makes it sound like the talk was forgetful. So, I’ve edited accordingly.]
Jan: Yes! It was at the Miami Antique and Jewelry Estate Show.
Sharon: Right, which was great. Can you tell us a little bit about “sweetheart” jewelry?
Jan: “Sweetheart” jewelry is kind of a phenomenon. It started during World War I, but really hit its stride during World War II. Sweetheart jewelry is jewelry that soldiers going overseas gave to their wives, their sweethearts, their mothers ortheir sisters as a way to say: remember me, support me while I’m over there. They either purchased it through mail order or through their base exchanges, and they were very, very specific. You could look at the pieces and they would say things like “mother,” “to my sweetheart” or just “sweetheart.” Often women stateside would purchase more pieces in support of the war effort. A lot of the different kinds of jewelry that came out were fundraising efforts. If you bought a brooch that said, “Remember Pearl Harbor,” that money went into the Honolulu War Chest or another fund. Women not only wore fun, whimsical jewelry as a fashion statement, but they would also purchase a piece of jewelry that signified whatever branch of service their loved one was serving in. You see a lot of things Army-related or Army Air Corps. My dad was in the Army Air Corps, so I collected a lot of Army Air Corps pieces. There was a patriotic reason to do it.
Of course, in order to raise money and make it more widely available, the jewelry was made out of cheaper materials, and during the war, a lot of materials were rationed. You didn’t have great stocks of gold. You had silver and you had pot metal, but a lot of the precious products that we know as fine jewelry were not available. We were at war with Japan, so you couldn’t get natural pearls and the diamond industry was interrupted in Belgium and Holland. Even rhinestones were hard to get out of Czechoslovakia. So, you had new materials like Bakelite, plastics, wood, Lucite, etc. Mother of pearl was very popular, especially for jewelry that was purchased for a piece for a mother.
Sweetheart jewelry was a way to support the war effort. It was also a morale builder. We were in terrible times. There were a lot of scarcities, and jewelry became very fun and uplifting and patriotic. You see flags, Statue of Liberty, eagles, everything red, white and blue, even in fashion. If you look at fashion magazines from that period, they were wearing red, white and blue. Obviously, it became very popular during the War, and then right after the War, boom, it stopped. It wasn’t fashionable anymore. It was sort of looked at as passé and kind of cheap, and people were looking forward, not backward anymore.
Sharon: I presume now it’s very collectible.
Jan: Very collectible in some circles. I don’t know that everybody’s interested in it. As I said, I collected it and still do. I started collecting it before I ever worked on this book about my father, but as I became more knowledgeable about it, I started collecting more of it. So, it’s out there and the prices are going up. Condition is an issue in some of the pieces. Bakelite changes color, so red, white and blue sometimes looks red, black and yellow. You have to know what you’re looking for, but it’s out there. It’s amazing what you can find if your eyes are open.
Sharon: You mentioned your father and you’ve written a book about him. I have to say the book is very impressive and touching. I remember us sitting at breakfast at Jewelry Camp when you were talking about writing it, and now it’s like, “Oh my gosh, look at this. It’s published.” You’re giving talks about it. So, tell us about Love, Bill.
Jan: Well, as you mentioned earlier, my dad passed away when I was young, when I was only six years old. My mother rarely talked about him, so I grew up with this understanding that it was a verboten subject to bring up. Right before my mom passed away, about a year before, we had to move her into assisted living. As we were cleaning out her apartment, we came across this box of letters, and my husband started digging through them and said, “Oh my God, these are from your father to your mother.” I had remembered her mentioning them a year prior, but again, I didn’t pursue the conversation. So, she said, “Well, you found them. You may as well take them home with you, but you have to promise not to read them until after I’m gone.” It was kind of an interesting request, but I promised and I didn’t go any further with the letters.
She passed away the next year and it took me another five years to read the letters, but once I did it opened up this whole new world for me. I never expected to write a book. It was not in the forefront of my mind and if I ever was going to write a book, I thought it would be about art or museums, what I spent my whole career working on. As I started reading the letters, I realized that Dad was stationed in North Africa, which is a part of World War II that I knew very little about and many people don’t know much about. I learned that he befriended a family somewhere in Morocco. He became very close to one of the four brothers. He said this young man was like his brother. Dad, by the way, was 32 when he enlisted. He felt very strongly that it was his responsibility to fight the Nazis and save the Jewish religion and race. Anyway, he always swore that after the war he’d go back and find this young man who was conscripted into the new French army before his eyes, and it was pretty devastating to him. After the War, Dad did come back and eventually married my mother, but he passed away in 1960 and never had the chance to find that young man. So, I had this crazy idea, since we were thinking of taking a trip to Morocco, that I was going to not only find where Dad was stationed, but I was going to find this family for him. That was the beginning of the craziest journey because the letters were censored and there was no location, no last name for this family. I knew it was somewhere in Morocco, he was a young man named Maurice and I knew they had a photography business and that’s all I knew.
Sharon: Oh my gosh!
Jan: The rest of the story got crazier and crazier and involved the Moroccan Embassy and D.C. and all of these amazing people who decided they were going to take up this search with me. I won’t give it all away, but I did eventually find the family and it was such an incredibly strange, coincidental and magical story that everybody said, “Oh, my God, you can’t make this stuff up. It needs to be a book or a movie.” I kind of laughed, and I felt like Judy Garland and Andy Rooney, like, “O.K., yeah, let’s put on a show in the barn. I’ll make the costumes.” But my nieces held my feet to the fire. It was their legacy and I promised I would write it so they would know who their grandfather was. So, I did it and wow! Of all the things I’ve accomplished within my life, I must say I’m proudest of having written a book and gotten it out there.
Sharon: Something to be very proud of and I know we talked about the fact that your skills as a historian played such a role in terms of the tenacity it took.
Jan: Any good art historian is really a detective and thank goodness for the internet, of course. That has changed all research in every field possible. It was one of these crazy searches where I just didn’t let up, and I was lucky and had these amazing coincidences happen that led me down the right road. There’s a little part of me that felt like Dad was laying those guideposts there ahead of me, that he had something to do with this, because some of the strangest things happened. They were ridiculously uncanny and almost miraculous. As my husband said, “You’re like a dog with a bone.” And thinking of visual clues too, I had to look at these letters that were all out of order and put them in the right order, matching paper and typewriter face and handwriting. Again, it’s that visual part of me, being an art historian, that certainly helped.
Sharon: Wow! Well, I give you a lot of credit, writing the book and now being able to talk about it. So many times, you must have wanted to just say forget it or this is impossible.
Jan: Oh, I almost did so many times. When you do an internet search and you get no responses, there were times I would sit down and I’d go, “Oh, what the hell! I’ll just trying Googling that name one more time.” Then lo and behold, one day I got a match. It was that particular day, through the help of the embassy — that’s a whole other interesting part of the story — that we found the last name. I had Googled it so many times, and then, that very afternoon, somebody posted something on a Jewish-Moroccan French-language website that had the name.
Sharon: Wow! I get chills just hearing that. It does sound like there was some direction from wherever.
Jan: Yeah, it’s funny how sometimes you just open to those things and put yourself out there in the universe and somebody answers.
Sharon: Right. Well, we’ll have a link to the book, Love, Bill, in the show notes as well as your contact information. Jan, thank you so much. This wraps up another episode of The Jewelry Journey, and we’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest who will give us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thanks so much for listening.
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