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Home » ARTS AND CULTURE » MASSACHUSETTS » Jewels, Gems, and Treasures
Pectoral, Egypt (1783-1550 BC)
Jewels, Gems, and Treasures

Ancient to Modern at the MFA, Boston, Massachusetts

By Danielle Baldassini | October 28, 2011

When first entering the small, dark room that is home to the MFA’s Jewels, Gems, and Treasures exhibition, visitors are greeted by a sparkling, amber-jeweled casket.

Amber Jewel Casket (1880-1885)

Centrally placed, the work dates from 1880–1885, and was commissioned by Boston collector William Arnold Buffum after his love for amber was sparked on an archaeological evacuation in Palestrina, Italy. With the shining, dark stone decorating all sides along with elaborate carving throughout, guests can’t help but marvel.

On display until November 2012, the Museum of Fine Art’s Jewels, Germs, and Treasures exhibition displays a sparkling collection of rare pieces, ranging from 4,000-year-old Nubian cuff bracelets to an ornate nineteenth-century Chinese headdress made of gilt metal, pearl, glass, coral, silk, and kingfisher feathers. This brightly colored piece is embellished with shapes of butterflies, bats, flowers, and other symbols of the natural world.

An elaborate piece of costume jewelry from 1980 also commands attention, with its shining gold chain framing the electric hues of red, green, and blue gems.

1980s Costume Jewelry (R), Gold Plated Copper Ring (L)

Far more than simply a collection of pretty things, the Jewels, Gems, and Treasures exhibit also illustrates the various meanings of jewelry to our culture and history and uses decorative items to tell a story that transcends cultural boundaries and reflects how our view and use of jewelry has changed over time.

While gold, silver, and diamonds are used in many pieces, some items also feature more unconventional materials such as coral, feathers, and bone—illustrating the diversity of materials that are considered valuable to different cultures.

While some jewelry was used as a display of wealth, other pieces were meant to protect, represent ancient gods, or even question our traditional view of what we consider of precious materials, such as a gold-plated copper ring from 1993 that outlines a diamond but only encloses empty space. Is the diamond as empty as the space that serves as its placeholder?

Mini-Bulldog (R) (1910)

Other standout items include the Mary Todd Lincoln’s diamond brooch and earrings from the early 1860s, shaped like the American flag, and a gold and diamond American Indian headdress tiara from 1956, commissioned by U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom Jock Whitney for his wife, Betsey. The sparking tiara is shaped like feathers and pays homage to both modern elegance and Native American culture.

There’s also an ornate nineteenth century hathphul—a hand and wrist ornament worn by brides in Rajasthan, India. I especially loved the miniature bulldog made of semiprecious stone that symbolizes wealth and prestige.

Despite the small size of the room that holds the displays, it’s easy to get lost in the elaborate history, interesting anecdotes, and breathtaking beauty of the exhibits.

History fanatics, jewelry lovers, and anyone just looking for an educational, serene way to pass an afternoon will surely be dazzled by Jewels, Gems, and Treasures.


Museum of Fine Arts

465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115

(617) 267-9300


Opening Hours:

Mon & Tue: 10AM–4:45PM

Wed–Fri: 10AM–9:45PM

Sat & Sun: 10AM–4:45PM

Jewels, Gems, and Treasures is on display until November 25, 2012.

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