Artists' jewelry on display in Boston

Chris Bergeron

What kind of art has been made from typewriter keys, 24 carat gold and crack vials?

Some of the most consummately crafted and dazzling studio jewelry of the 20th and 21st centuries now displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It was created by Pablo Picasso, photographed by Man Ray, worn by Catherine Deneuve, and looks both fabulous and funky.

Offering a first-time look at one of world's great collections, a new exhibit, "Jewelry by Artists: The Daphne Farago Collection," features 200 spectacular pieces that exist at once as personal adornment and works of art.

While including rare pieces by Alexander Calder and Max Ernst, who mainly worked in other metier, the exhibit showcases creations by 120 master jewelrymakers whose work over six decades combines technical skill and personal vision.

Organizer Kelly L'Ecuyer described "Jewelry by Artists" as "a show to explore and be surprised by."

"These are not bling. They're not commercial and not diamonds," said L'Ecuyer, assistant curator of decorative arts, sculpture and arts of the Americas. "They are one of a kind, handmade, limited production. These are from one particular spectacular collection."

She said the exhibit features 200 pieces of jewelry from a collection of 600 contemporary pieces donated to the MFA in 2006 by longtime benefactors Daphne and Peter Farago. Another 100 pieces, including some on display, have been promised. The exhibit runs through March 5, 2008, in the Loring Gallery.

Daphne Farago "liked pieces that revealed a sense of craftsmanship," L'Ecuyer said. As a result of the gift, the museum can now "introduce visitors to the origins of the studio jewelry movement and its development as an exciting field of contemporary art," she said. "The works in this exhibit demonstrate the innovations in jewelry concept, materials and technique, and they affirm the value of handmade objects as expressions of individual creativity," she said.

A Southborough resident, L'Ecuyer explained that studio craft jewelers combined varied disciplines - including metal smithing, glass and fabric work, and sculpture - to create individualized pieces of singular appearance that were made to be worn.

In highly personal ways, the works on display incorporate several 20th century artistic movements and fashion trends including Modernism, Surrealism and conceptual art, said L'Ecuyer. The pieces in the show were constructed to be worn "almost like a performance" and not merely displayed, she said.

As if surveying the last century of modern art, visitors will see pieces made between 1940 and 2003 that are formal and austere, boldly Impressionistic, sometimes wacky and surreal, and always unique.

John Paul Miller used organic material and designs drawn from nature to create his gold-plated pendant "Polyp Colony." Known as the "Surrealist Jeweler," Sam Kramer worked with his wife, Sarah, to make brooches, bracelets and earrings that displayed his fascination with the dark undercurrents of the subconscious. Mary Lee Hu employed techniques normally used in textile work to make her finely wrought "Choker, #88."

Several pieces challenge the conventional definition of jewelry.

Kiff Slemmons combines forged elements and "found" objects such as typewriter keys or dice to suggest personal narratives. Made from pencil stubs, a piece titled "Protection," which resembles a Native American breastplate, ironically refers to broken government treaties.

Some of the most unusual pieces were made by Nancy Worden and Jan Yager who make jewelry that comments on political and social issues. Working out of Philadelphia, Yager would "beachcomb" the sidewalks around her studio scavenging bullet shells and crack vials which she incorporated into her disturbing piece "American collar." In her intriguing "Dandelion Brooch," Yager uses weeds she found growing through sidewalks cracks to symbolize "the persistence of life in a decaying city environment."

L'Ecuyer said the exhibit has much to offer male visitors who might initially consider jewelry of little interest.

"It's not dainty, fussy, traditionally feminine jewelry," she said. "They can look at it as small works of sculpture."

L'Ecuyer advised visitors to put aside preconceptions about jewelry and consider the pieces on display as works of art.

"Look closely. Think about jewelry not as a way to display wealth and status," she said. "Think of it as jewelry that can tell stories."

THE ESSENTIALS

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is open seven days a week. Hours are: Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; Monday and Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.; (Thursday and Friday after 5 p.m. only the West Wing is open).

General admission (which includes two visits in a 10-day period but doesn't include Gund Gallery exhibitions) is $17 for adults, $15 for senior citizens and students 18 and older. Students who are university members are free.

Admission is free for children 17 and under during nonschool hours.

For general information, call 617-267-9300 or visit www.mfa.org.