Curated by Museum Founder and Director Emerita Martha Longenecker, the exhibition was composed of examples of adornment from cultures in North and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe fashioned from silver, gold, enamel, gems, beads, wood, shells, ivory and bone. Although most of the objects in the exhibition came from Mingei International’s permanent collection, several private collections were represented including the major collections of David and Marjorie Ransom and Daniel and Serga Nadler.
Always intended to be beautiful and valuable, jewelry can have other meanings as well. It often identifies its wearer’s culture, beliefs, religion or station in life. Magnificent silver crowns and torques from Guizhou, China, Yemeni necklaces, bracelets and earrings, Norwegian agnus dei pendants and a multi-strand necklace from the Samburu culture of Kenya all indicate a woman’s marital status. Yemeni amulet cases and a Mexican milagro necklace are protective charms. An Omani pendant with a verse from the Koran and Fatima’s hands and a necklace with three crosses from Brazil reflect the wearer’s religion, while also providing protection. A Chinese landlord’s necklace contains an abacus, and another necklace has grooming utensils suspended on it, attesting to their owner’s station and profession.
Traditional work and contemporary design were both on view. Dramatic examples of turquoise from the American Southwest, Ladakh and Tibet—belts, necklaces, rings, bracelets, hats and breastplates; an Ainu necklace from Japan and a group of charming Inuit objects, including a delicate bracelet portraying indigenous creatures, were in the exhibition. An elegant William Spratling-designed necklace fashioned from Pre-Columbian beads, looking as if it could have been made yesterday, was displayed next to contemporary jewelry designed by San Diego designer craftsmen Arline Fisch and Helen Shirk. Not to be missed were simple but stunning shell jewelry from Oceania and intricately worked silver jewelry from Ethiopia.
Curator Martha Longenecker explained that these objects of adornment were only part of the costume and so had displayed complementary textiles. An enormous late 19th century Navajo weaving served as a backdrop for the art of the Navajo and Zuni jewelers and a mid-19th century embroidered textile from Samarkand hung behind cases of jewelry from Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.
Mrs. Longenecker commented as well on the differences between the amount of adornment traditionally worn in different cultures, and compared the exuberant use of jewelry and color in many African cultures to the restrained traditions of the Japanese and the English.
A Foreign Service officer in the U.S. Information Agency, specializing in culture, education and information, Arabic speaker Marjorie Ransom served as Public Affairs Officer in the United States Embassies in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, and Egypt. In her last overseas tour, she was Deputy Chief of Mission, the number two job in the U.S Embassy in Syria. She bought her first piece of Middle Eastern jewelry in Damascus in 1960, when she was a graduate student in Middle East Studies at Columbia University and collected additional pieces during the 30 years she worked in Arab countries. Now retired, Ms. Ransom has devoted more time to her extensive interests that include U.S. public diplomacy towards the Middle East and researching traditional silver jewelry of the Middle East.
Ms. Ransom has lectured in Washington, DC on the traditional jewelry of the Middle East at the Textile Museum, as well as the Jerusalem Fund, the Society of Women Geographers, the Washington Bead Society and the Freer Gallery Symposium on the Cultural Heritage of Yemen. She also lectured at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the 20th Century Club in Pittsburgh, and the Jefferson County Historical Society in Watertown, New York.
The Nadlers’ collection began when Daniel, an Egyptian by birth, gave Serga a simple Bedouin coral and silver necklace. Having grown up in Iran, where her circle was accustomed to gold and fine gems, a silver necklace was something of a novelty to Serga. Daniel Nadler says, “Our entire silver collection has been an attempt to satisfy my Persian lady’s need to find pieces to match my original lowly silver necklace offering.” Along the way, the Nadlers have obtained many remarkable objects. Their search has taken them from the bazaar in Jerusalem and suqs of Egypt and the Maghreb, to India, Burma, Thailand and Southeast Asia and from Indonesia to the American Southwest. John Loring, Design Director, Tiffany and Company, says, “The Nadlers’ discernment and sense of fashion in collecting their silver jewelry is exemplary. Theirs is the haute couture of ethnic fashion.” The Nadlers’ book Silver: from Fetish to Fashion was available at The Collectors’ Gallery during the exhibition.