“Past is Present: Revival Jewelry” at the MFA

Novemeber 1, 2017 | By Xandie Kuenning

Though a small exhibit, “Past is Present: Revival Jewelry” at the Museum of Fine Arts manages to tell the story of 2,400 years of opulence. There are 80 objects on display, the majority of which are from the museum’s own collection, ranging from ancient treasures to modern Cartier.

Revival jewelry is jewelry that was inspired by historical artifacts. It first became fashionable in the 19th century, but has since become a staple of the industry. Inspirations can include the use of certain motifs, such as confronted animals (where two animals of the same species face each other in a symmetrical pose) and techniques, such as cameo carving.

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Photo Courtesy of MFA

“History fuels the creative imagination,” said Emily Stoehrer, the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry, in an online statement. “The dazzling jewels in this exhibition were made by designers who found inspiration from the past—reviving and reinterpreting antique styles for a new age.”

While there are many styles of revival jewelry, the exhibition largely focuses on four: archaeological, Renaissance, Egyptian and Classical. Visual parallels are evident in each of the display cases.


Scarabs are one example of a motif found throughout the Egyptian and archaeological styles. These works became especially popular after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. An example featured in the exhibition includes Louis Cartier’s brooch from 1924, composed of diamonds, emeralds and smoky quartz inlaid in gold, platinum and enamel. There was also an American silver belt buckle from R. Blackinton & Co. dated between 1910-20.

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Photo Courtesy of MFA

Revival jewelry can also be classified by technique, one of the most difficult being the art of gold granulation – decorative patterns formed by positioning and affixing minute gold spheres onto an object’s surface. The Castellani family, based in Rome, were artisans who became known for their recreation of archaeological jewelry using this method. A few of their pieces are included in the exhibition, such as an 1858 lobed brooch and a demi-parure made around 1880 consisting of polished amber set into gold.


Etruscan revival jewelry, so-named for the civilization that flourished in Italy before the rise of the Roman state, is also spread throughout the exhibition. One example of these, in addition to the 1858 brooch, was a gold bracelet made in 1860 by Ernesto Pierret, a competitor of the Castellani family. Featuring a bull’s head, it is reminiscent of Pendant in the Form of a Bull’s Head from 400-330 BC, located in another gallery at the MFA, making a direct connection between the past and present. The importance of these pieces can be found in historical context; Italy at this time was consolidating as a nation and artists such as Pierret and the Castellani family used their artwork to promote nationalistic ideas that looked back on the history of Italy. 


In addition to the jewelry and artifacts, a selection of paintings show the ornaments as they would have been worn in the 19th century. The exhibition, though focused on jewelry, incorporates both historical objects and artwork to create a comprehensive look at how the past can become the present. 


“Past Is Present: Revival Jewelry” will be on view until August 19, 2018.