You probably already know that the Museum of Fine Arts has opened the first gallery in the United States dedicated exclusively to jewelry. What you may not know is that the MFA was also the first museum to dedicate a curatorship to jewerly, as well. I caught up with Yvonne Markowitz, the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry , to discuss her role at the MFA, her fascination with Egypt, and her own jewelry designs.
KCQ: Let’s start at the beginning: you’re a renowned specialist in Egyptology. What drew you to Egypt?
YM: It was actually a second career. I was an art therapist for many years and worked for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I burned out and my husband said, ‘Why don’t you do something that you really would like to spend the rest of your life doing?’ I always had a passion for Egypt, so I went to Brandeis because they had a great graduate program there. Then I came to work at the MFA.
KCQ: Where does your passion for jewelry come from?
YM: My specialty in Egyptology is ancient jewelry so I spent a good deal of time working on art-excavated collections of Egyptian ornament. Also, the Museum, along with Harvard University, spent several decades excavating tombs in the Sudan, which is ancient Nubia. Nubia and Egypt had a very close relationship in antiquity. We have a wonderful collection of excavated material from Nubia also. Basically that is how I spent my research days here.
KCQ: If you weren’t working at the MFA, what other profession could you see yourself doing?
YM: Well, I make jewelry. I like working with unusual natural specimens, particularly rutilated quartzes and clear quartzes that have pieces of needles made of copper and other metals. The way the needles are arranged in the stone gives the lens a certain type of geometric appeal to me, somewhat random but quite beautiful.
KCQ: Do you have a focus in your jewelry? Earrings? Bracelets? Necklaces?
YM: Primarily pendants or necklaces.
KCQ: Clearly, you get your hands on some of the world’s most remarkable jewelry. Do you have a favorite piece from the exhibition?
YM:I have a couple of favorites. One is the ancient Nubian Hathor pendant. It has the image of the head of the goddess Hathor, she’s the cow goddess. So her sundress is a sun disk with cow horns. Her head rests on this rock crystal orb and in the center there is a gold tube that probably contains a magical piece of folded gold with text on it or images. And I really like the Colt diamond necklace.
KCQ: Tell me about the latter piece.
YM: That was a necklace given in 1856 by Samuel Colt, the gun merchant, to his bride Elizabeth Jarvis, with matching earrings.
KCQ: As the first jewelry curator in the U.S. you are in charge of overseeing the Museum’s extensive jewelry collection. Could you expand more on your position at the MFA?
YM: I guess the most enjoyable part is I get to handle research and write about the collection. I also make recommendations for purchases for acquisitions. I work with donors, donors who are very generous in gifting us wonderful pieces of jewelry or providing funds for us to purchase objects. And I write books and I put on exhibitions.
KCQ: Having studied ancient and contemporary jewelry, do you have a preference?
YM: I like good design, all times, all places. If the piece is well made and the design is good, it appeals to me. Of course, I always have a soft spot for ancient jewelry because I spent a lot of time particularly with ancient Egyptian beadwork. But I like modern studio jewelry also. We have a wonderful collection of contemporary studio pieces, a collection that was given to us in 2006, the Daphne Fargo collection of studio jewelry that is probably the best of its kind in the United States.
KCQ: Do you have a favorite piece of jewelry that you own or have made?
YM: I have some pieces that are favorites because jewelry is unlike most art forms in that it is personal and most we often associate it with special events, rights of passage. So, the wedding band my husband gave me I value. It’s a simple Tiffany ring.
KCQ: Any others?
YM: There is a piece I made, a piece that I like a lot. It’s a piece with rutilated quartz that looks like an abstract landscape of sand dunes with wire grasses just because of the way the rutilation in the quartz are arranged. I put it in a simple bezel and where a sun would be I drilled through the quartz and a diamond has been set in that. It is a diamond sun.
KCQ: Any sources for fellow jewelry enthusiasts who may not have your access to such incredible pieces?
YM: Skinner. They have four jewelry auctions per year.
KCQ: As a keeper of jewelry, I’d think you must be quite conscious of where you place your jewelry. Do you store your unworn jewelry in a jewelry box?
YM: I actually keep each piece in an archival plastic bag. A wooden box is a very bad place to keep jewelry because the wood is acidic and it makes silver tarnish faster. I keep only archival museum-like conditions for my jewelry. And I store them in archival boxes. I have a box for bracelets, a box for rings, necklaces.
KCQ: What’s one piece of jewelry you’ve misplaced that you wish you could go back in time to retrieve?
YM: It was a bracelet that was given to me when I was a young child. It was a gold bangle and I wore it for many years. I thought I misplaced it in the house. But it was never found.
KCQ: When I’m having a bad day, I am guilty of indulging in retail therapy. Do you ever go on therapeutic jewelry shopping sprees?
YM: No, I think I am pretty calculated in the way I go about it. I am more likely to eat chocolate for therapy!