If the jewelry in the “The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt” at the Frist merely whetted your appetite, you’re in luck. “Bedazzled: 5,000 Years of Jewelry from the Walters Art Museum” showcases ornament as artifact, lasting representations of society, culture and beliefs. The pieces on display in the upper-level Frist Center galleries include talismans and burial amulets from early civilizations, mourning jewelry from Victorian England, micro mosaic souvenirs from 18th century Vatican workshops, sculptural Jewish wedding rings, and bejeweled Visigothic eagle-shaped fibulae (clasps). Though these items include gifts to the museum as well as loaned pieces, most belong to the collection of Henry Walters, whose eclectic taste led him to acquire contemporary pieces along with ancient ones, religious items with purely decorative ones and, as it turns out, authentic pieces along with fakes—affording a wide overview of jewelry making through the ages.
Walters was at the height of his collecting during the Gilded Age, a time known for ostentatious designs—such as the delicate Art Nouveau pansy brooch with opaque glass petals surrounding a large blue sapphire center. Walters purchased the brooch from René Lalique, master of fanciful floral-inspired works, at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Flowers were also the inspiration for the Tiffany Corsage Ornament made for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. Made of gold, oxidized silver and platinum with sapphires, topaz, citrines and diamonds, the oversized brooch features nine petals (some drooping gracefully) and a long stem with leaves adorned with green garnets. The piece won a gold medal and the jury’s grand prize.
An exquisite diamond choker represents the height of Gilded Age style, particularly as interpreted by Tiffany & Co., but also embodies the timeless elegance usually associated with diamonds. With 265 stones arranged in alternating round and fleur-de-lis clusters, the necklace is stunning against the cobalt walls of the gallery space. (Appropriately enough, the Tiffany & Co. Foundation is the presenting sponsor of “Bedazzled.”) Not far from this luminous necklace is an understated evening bag of gold mesh with sapphire- and diamond-studded trim. “It’s incredibly heavy,” says Sabine Albersmeier, director of the Walters Art Museum. “You wouldn’t believe how heavy it is.” It also might be hard to believe that the bag dates from the early 20th century; its simple, classic lines crop up again and again in the annals of fashions.
Tracing the long-standing popularity of some motifs and styles over centuries in contrast with those that come in and out of fashion is just one way to approach the pieces in “Bedazzled.” Consider, for example, jewelry created by the Etruscans, whose mastery of granulation—soldering small gold balls to a surface—is unmatched even today. Visitors to shops in Mediterranean areas will still find necklaces like the one consisting of zinc-copper beads interspersed with tiny glass ones, which dates from seventh- to sixth-century BCE. Likewise the large embossed biconical beads from the same period.
Meanwhile, other pieces in “Bedazzled” are clearly the inspiration for reproduction jewelry found in museum shops: the large gold “Olbia Treasure” cuff bracelet with inlays of gems is particularly popular. Similarly, examples of “archeological jewelry”—pieces created using different materials, but identical patterns of items found during 19th century excavations of sites in Egypt, Italy and Greece—are included in “Bedazzled.”
There are reproductions and copies, and then there are flat-out fakes, as showcased in a small gallery in the show. One, supposedly a second-century Roman necklace featuring 18 gold-granulated balls, was unmasked just as “Bedazzled” was taking shape. According to Albersmeier, each piece in the show was re-authenticated and evaluated for travel-worthiness; it was then that conservators realized that strands in the necklace were created using 20th century techniques. Nevertheless, the rogue’s gallery tells yet another part of the history of jewelry and the people who created and treasured the items in this remarkable collection.