If the early-20th-century jewelry artists of “Boston Made: Arts and Crafts Jewelry and Metalwork” at the Museum of Fine Arts could see “Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment” at the Fuller Craft Museum and “Adorning Boston and Beyond: Contemporary Studio Jewelry Then + Now” at the Society of Arts + Crafts, they might get the vapors.
Contemporary jewelry can be raw. At the Fuller, Boris Bally’s “Brave 4: Breast Plate” is made of gun parts. Bruce Metcalf’s graceful circular brooch, “Nunc Stans,” depicts flying drops of polymer semen.
Yet in many ways the contemporary artists work in the spirit of their predecessors.
The Arts and Crafts movement began in Great Britain at the end of the 19th century in reaction to industry’s mass production and grueling labor. The philosophy espoused by designer William Morris, critic John Ruskin, and others celebrated the joys and social benefits of beauty, handcraft, and harmonious design. Art Nouveau and Art Deco fell under its umbrella.
British jewelry had a diamonds-and-pearls refinement. In Chicago, another Arts and Crafts hub, jewelers favored silver settings and a prim reserve. But Boston jewelers, led by Frank Gardner Hale, preferred gold, splashy color, and glittering stones that weren’t always traditional or even expensive.
All that sparkling color set amid intricate, scrolling designs makes “Boston Made,” up through March 29, 2020, a ravishing exhibition. It begins in 1897, with the founding of the Society of Arts and Crafts by a cadre of Boston designers, teachers, and curators intent on stewarding the British movement stateside. The society promoted a vital community for jewelry artists such as Hale.
He had studied in England. A terrific pairing here features his peacock pendant brooch beside that of his British teacher, Charles Robert Ashbee. Ashbee’s more regal piece features a fan of gold feathers studded with blister pearls and diamonds. Hale’s brooch is emphatically modern, with a spray of gems (sapphire, amethyst, topaz, more!) aglow against dark enamel.
Of the 14 artists featured in “Boston Made,” nine are women. Art schools and collectives in Boston encouraged women; jewelry’s small scale made it easy to craft at home, and the community of jewelers was collegial. Margaret Rogers and Jessie Ames Dunbar shared a studio and a kaleidoscopic aesthetic. Dunbar’s flower brooch cascades with gold foliage and shows off a shining array of gemstone petals.
Nature motifs dominated these designs. But other themes arise, too; one section is devoted to ecclesiastical jewelry. Hale’s student Edward Everett Oakes, taking a cue from Arts and Crafts paragon Louis Comfort Tiffany, designed a reversible gold cross pendant, setting an amethyst among pearls on one side and a pearl among amethysts on the other.
Jewelry design changed more gradually than clothing fashion, but Oakes leaned into a 1920s style with his tasseled necklace suited to the looser dresses of the day. In the fall of 1929, he had just completed his masterwork, a silver jewelry box adorned with amethyst, pearl, and onyx, when the stock market crashed. He had called the box a casket, which was more on the nose than he knew. The days of flaunting your jewels were over for years to come.
“Adorning Boston and Beyond” at SAC picks up in 1945. Curator Heather White, a jewelry professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, devotes an informative section to modern artists such as Alexander Calder, Fred Woell, and Miye Matsukata, although with only a spare handful of jewels.
Matsukata was known for her careful touch with gold, and the gold tiles in her brooch get equal time among pearls and gemstones. The elegantly modernist piece has a rough grid and a syncopated rhythm.
William Morris had insisted that a jewelry artist craft his or her own work. Separating the design from its creation, he believed, was socially and aesthetically corrupt. That idea remained foundational. But styles shifted. Taking a cue from Warhol and Rauschenberg, Woell incorporated found objects and images from print media in his jewelry.
Most of the work at SAC is contemporary: conceptual, often cheeky, and sometimes disturbing. It exposes emotional wounds, makes political declarations, and grapples with what it means to be human. The title of Nick Heyl’s “Artifice: Intimacy Device” suggests a sex toy, but it’s a small, egg-shaped brick fitted with brass thimbles, so two people may hold it at once.
Handcraft, still valued, is no longer the only way. Joe Wood’s “Vertebral Neckpiece” features 3-D-printed vertebrae that elongate gracefully toward the bottom.
Other artists, such as Hannah Keefe, hew more to tradition. Her slender tasseled chains echo Oakes’s tasseled necklace at the MFA. Both have an eye to the swing.
Through the history of fashion, people, and women in particular, have sacrificed comfort for beauty. “Uneasy Beauty,” a fascinating gut-punch of a show at the Fuller, extends this idea to nightmarish realms, giving the term “statement jewelry” dark new meanings. (“Uneasy Beauty” and “Boston Made” are both part of Mass Fashion, a statewide collaboration of cultural institutions on the theme of fashion.)
Some of the jewels, such as Kim Lilot’s “Lost in Time” bracelet and watch with a silver skeleton crawling around its circumference, are rooted in art history — here, wearable Renaissance-era memento mori. Holland Houdek’s pieces, made from copper, crystals, and breast and penile implants, link adornment to armor and surgical enhancement.
Other works, such as Harriete Estel Berman’s “Gyre-Boa Constrictor,” an enormous, frilly black boa of plastic detritus, parade our 21st-century dystopia.
Frank Gardner Hale would raise his eyebrows — where has the glitter gone? But I like to think Hale, who saw a world change before he died in 1945, would have appreciated that jewelry could express society’s shadows with as much verve as it extolled its sparkle.
BOSTON MADE: Arts and Crafts Jewelry and Metalwork
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through March 29, 2020. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
ADORNING BOSTON AND BEYOND: Contemporary Studio Jewelry Then + Now
At Society of Arts + Crafts, 100 Pier 4, through Feb. 17. 617-266-1810, www.societyofcrafts.org
UNEASY BEAUTY: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment
At Fuller Craft Museum, 455 Oak St., Brockton, through April 21. 508-588-6000, www.fullercraft.org