Installation view of Beyond Brilliance: Jewelry Highlights from the Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Never-Before-Seen Jewels Go on View at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The museum’s reinstalled jewelry gallery puts designs by Tiffany & Co., and Bulgari, on permanent display alongside historic artifacts

Installation view of Beyond Brilliance: Jewelry Highlights from the Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Throughout the world, there are plenty of museums in possession of jewelry objects but these treasures tend to comprise a small fraction of a larger decorative arts collection. And there are limited-time jewelry exhibitions that bring, say, a marvel of Buccellati pieces to the Venice Biennale or a menagerie of gem-set animalia to the American Museum of Natural History. They dazzle visitors for a moment but the experience is fleeting.

So when a museum can offer a permanent space dedicated entirely to jewelry (and lots of it), it’s a rare—and well-received—treat. That makes the mere existence of the new Beyond Brilliance installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which opened to the public in May, a novelty. Ditto its curatorship, helmed by Emily Stoehrer, the museum’s Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry, who has the distinction of being the country’s only dedicated jewelry curator.

Housed in the refurbished, reinstalled Kaplan Family Foundation Gallery, Beyond Brilliance showcases more than 150 objects across 4,000 years of global history. “It celebrates the depth and breadth of the collection by examining objects past and present to discover the universality and creativity that jewelry offers,” says Stoehrer.

Claudette Colbert’s Starfish brooch, 1937, in 18k gold, rubies, and amethysts, by Juliette Moutard for Boivin. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In its entirety, the MFA’s jewelry collection is a kind of dragon’s lair comprised of 22,000 objects, making it among the most expansive of its kind in the world (for perspective, London’s Victorian & Albert museum reportedly clocks in at 3,000 pieces). Most of the objects chosen for feature in Beyond Brilliance are the result of generous gifts, but some were purchased with donated funds.

One such purchase is a life-size starfish brooch by Juliette Moutard for the French house of Boivin, that belonged to the actress Claudette Colbert in the 1930s. “The brooch is roughly the size of an outstretched palm and has dozens of joints that allow movement in three directions and the legs flex and drape with a wave-like motion,” says Stoehrer.

While the Boivin starfish acquisition may be remembered as one of the most important moments in Stoehrer’s MFA tenure, Beyond Brilliance has a multitude of other exceptional works. Among the most impressive jewels on display is an Art Deco brooch with a 60 ct. emerald centerpiece, carved and engraved in India in the 17th century, formerly in the collection of General Foods heiress and art collector Marjorie Merriweather Post. “It’s a piece that really shows the life of a jewel over time,” says Stoehrer. “It would have originally come to India through Colombian or Ecuadorian channels on Portuguese ships.”

Marjorie Merriweather Post brooch, 1929, in platinum, emerald and diamonds, by Oscar Heyman Bros. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The stunning example would likely have been mounted in a turban belonging to a Mughal emperor, Stoehrer explains. Acquired by the American retailer Marcus & Company in the 1920s, the emerald had a channel at the top allowing it to be strung on a necklace but was later reworked into a brooch by Oscar Heyman Brothers (a luxury New York jeweler still in operation today).

Part of the museum’s permanent collection since 2008, the brooch is in many ways the “hero” of the MFA’s jewelery collection; now it has myriad magnificent pieces to keep it company.

Jali brooch, 2024, in 18k gold, diamonds and emeralds, by Bhagat. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One such “companion,” displayed directly alongside the Post brooch, is a present-day design from Bhagat, one of India’s foremost luxury jewelers. The Jali brooch, with its specialty-cut diamonds and Colombian emerald cabochons, is inspired by an ornamental window screen found in India and Pakistan and reflects Bhagat’s signature Mughal-meets-Art Deco style.

The MFA is the first museum in the world to mount a Bhagat jewel (completed just two months before the Beyond Brilliance gallery opened to the public). Its new home, a case titled Jewel Tones, highlights “residents” from all eras, including a Bulgari necklace from the 1980s and a circa-1905 Art Nouveau necklace by Marcus & Co. that incorporates peridots and plique-a-jour enamel.

Forever Dancing – Bright Star, 2013, in yellow diamonds, fancy colored diamonds, rock crystal, mother-of-pearl, butterfly specimen, pearls, and titanium, by Wallace Chan. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In addition to the Bhagat piece, there are four more newcomer jewels making their debut at the MFA. These include a pair of large tassel earrings dripping with more than 200 carats of blue sapphires by the fourth-generation German jeweler Hemmerle, a Galerie 2019 Creative Mind. “The jeweler is celebrated for its groundbreaking jewelry designs, embrace of new and surprising materials, and extraordinary craftsmanship,” says Stoehrer.

Rounding out this quintet are three brooches that center botanical and butterfly themes, including “a surprisingly lightweight statement jewel” by Anna Hu from 2023; a “large and highly sculptural but also delicate, appearing as if held together by air,” design by Feng J from 2021; and one of Wallace Chan’s iconic jeweled butterflies from 2013.

Blue Anthurium brooch, 2021, in Paraiba tourmalines, aquamarines, spinels, sapphires, and diamonds, and 18k electroplated gold, by Feng J. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Pair of tassel earrings and mold, 2018 in iron, white gold, sapphires, by Hemmerle. Photo: Courtesy Hemmerle; Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“If you have walked through an indoor butterfly conservatory at a local zoo or park, you have observed the way the insects move through the air, flying between plants, flowers, and sometimes settling on an unsuspecting visitor,” says Stoehrer. “This is how you are meant to encounter Chan’s butterflies—pinned to a bodice, nestled in the hair, placed as if landed on a shoulder, or perhaps as a flash of light from across a crowded room.”

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Anna Hu’s Lyrical Haute Couture Jewelry Hits All the Right Notes

Scorpion necklace, 1978, in silver, by Elsa Peretti. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One vitrine in the gallery will rotate annually. Currently it houses a tribute to Elsa Peretti, inclusive of two iconic examples of her work—a circa-1978 silver Bone Cuff and silver Scorpion necklace—that are permanently on view in the gallery. The other Peretti designs, presented on loan, emphasize the designer’s use of diverse materials such as silver, jade, rock crystal, leather, and jasper.

The remaining examples effectively go “beyond brilliance” to inspire a deeper, richer and more meaningful appreciation of jewelry. As Stoehrer says, “jewelry history is human history.”

View Slideshow

Never-Before-Seen Jewels Go on View at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Cover: Installation view of Beyond Brilliance: Jewelry Highlights from the Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


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