Masterpieces of American Jewelry

The World and I, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Masterpieces of American Jewelry


American jewelry spanning 200 years of fashion is on display at the American Folk Art Museum in the new National Jewelry Institute's inaugural exhibition designed as a tribute to the creators and innovators of fine jewelry design.

The elegant show, light-years removed from the folk museum's usual exhibits of art by untrained or "outsider" artists, came about as a result of museum chairman Ralph Esmerian's background as a fourth- generation dealer in precious stones and as vice-chairman of the National Jewelry Institute, a nonprofit organization founded two years ago to preserve, research, and exhibit fine jewelry from all over the world.

A clock made by Cartier inside an Old Grand Dad Whiskey bottle in 1933 to celebrate the end of Prohibition is about as folksy as this show gets.

"Everything in this show comes from 25 collections, including two corporate collections," Esmerian told United Press International. "The show will travel to Somerset House in London next February and then possibly to museums in several other countries. We have tried to show what it is about American jewelry that is reflective of us as a nation, and we've made an attempt to break it down into themes like nature, humor, patriotism, pastimes, and high style."

Most of the more than 200 jeweled items on display in "Masterpieces of American Jewelry" through January 23,2005, are American in origin and include works created by Tiffany, Marcus & Co., and Harry Winston, although some items are the design of foreign-based jewelers such as Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, and Bulgari who have manufactured and distributed their wares in the United States for many years.

Since most of the displays are small, they have been mounted in chest- high showcases scattered throughout the museum's third floor for easier viewing. The show starts with such low-key items as a Federal Period gold "mourning locket" enclosing a watercolor on ivory by Samuel Folwell of Philadelphia and another miniature set as a brooch that depicts a company of War of 1812 soldiers in parade position.

It moves quickly to post-Civil War jewelry by Tiffany & Co., in the Renaissance Revival style, best exemplified by the 1872 "Bacchus" lapel watch, an elaborate pendant affair in gold, diamond crystal, and enamels, and in brooches inspired by fads for Japanese and Orientalist designs that segued into the popular Art Nouveau style that dominated the early 1900s.

Art Nouveau designers were noted for their strongly expressed motifs and use of a variety of colored stones, including fire opals, that European jewelers once regarded as bad luck but were lavishly used in a 1895 Celtic-style belt buckle designed by Theodore B. …

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