Jewelry ancient to modern

People have always worn jewelry. Their reasons for doing so have stayed pretty much the same and, in many cases, so have the functions of particular articles.

The badge still signifies office or rank. The ring may denote an association or symbolize union. the pin serves decorative as well as utilitarian purposes. The ostentatious gewgaw proclaims wealth. anyone who questions the amuletic and mystical symbolism of jewelry might think back a few years to the time when the gullible were so easily sold on mood rings.

The precious articles now in the display cases at the Walters Art Gallery for the exhibition "Jewelry -- ancient to Modern" span a period of 6,000 years. It is one of the most comprehensive jewelry shows ever held in the United States.

Many of the oldest pieces demonstrate the immutabilities of human nature, like the gold and bronze eight-century Greek fibula, an ancestor of the safety pin, which kept the folds of an ancient garment together while serving as an ornamental object.

Beyond that, the articles evidence lost skills. No one understands how in 700 B.C. the Etruscans produced the fine granulations of their gold pectorals and earrings without tools. The art disappeared along with later hand skills that ceased to be practiced after the industrial Revolution.

The 1,000 objects in the exhibition, which are on view through Jan. 20, represent only a portion of the museum's riches. Henry Walter's passion for rare jewelry reached its height in the 1920s, when the pieces he purchased in Europe and New York were shipped to Baltimore by the crateload.

His father, William T. Walters, made a fortune in railroads and became one of the 19th century's great american connoisseur-collectors and art patrons Henry Walters enlarged the family art holdings further, sometimes combining pleasure cruises on his yacht, the Narada, with extensive purchasing tours. In 1900 he dropped anchor in the harbor of st. Petersburg (alongside the yacht of the Czar) and went ashore on a foray into the shop of the court jeweler, Carl Faberge. some of the jeweled parasol handles that Mr. walters selected on that buying spree are in the current exhibition.

The finely wrought Faberge trinkets are unspectacular when compared with a showpiece like Louis Comfort Tiffany's "Irin corsage." A nine-inch-long stemmed blossom rendered in gold and silver, it is set with 120 sapphires as well as numerous diamonds and dematoid garnets. The piece was seldom if ever actually worn.

"It was never tested whether you could dance with the lady who was wearing the 'Iris Corsay,' says anne Garside, head of publications for the Walters Art Gallery.

Among sybaritic items that Mr. Walters collected are pieces wrought by Rene Lalique. When Mr. Walters spotted the French Craftsman's display at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, the collector bought the whole lot.

In today's terms, the Lalique orchid comb (a five-inch flower carved from a single piece of ivory and enclosed by three plique-a-jour transparent enamel leaves veined with diamonds) was a staggering bargain for $1,000. Lalique's brooch with fruit clusters (a large pale pink pearl surrounded by enamel laurel leaves and mother-of-pearl fruit) seems equally cheap for the $1,8000 Mr. Walters paid.

The prize of the Walters collection is probably the Estarhazy marriage collar , a dazzling decoration of South German or Hungarian origin, which Palatine Miklos esterhazy wore from shoulder to shoulder on his doublet in 1611. a marvel of workmanship and symbolism, it links up 14 multilevel pieces of gemset enameled gold in a layer-by-layer buildup of such subjects as clasped hands, parrots and doves, and the cornucopia of prosperity.

Somewhat less magnificent are the Renaissance hanging pendants that nobles and their ladies attached to the big sleeves of their velvets and silks so the jewel would be visible from all angels.

Themes of these pendants reflect the Age of Discovery (many are galleons of fish), as well as a time when sanitation and cleanliness were not at their peak. Many pendants are hinged containers for musk or ambergris to mask unpleasant odors. The double-eagle design of a 16th-century German pendant of design incorporates a toothpick -- a curved claw that issues from the beak of an eagle.

It is in barbaric jewelry that the Walters Art Gallery collection surpasses any other in the world. The simple design concept of the Hunnish goldsmith who created the beaten gold carnelian-studded trappings of a fourth century horseman are quite contemporary in feeling. The garnet-encrusted eagle brooches that once fastened the cloak of a Visigoth chieftain look as if they could be worn today. But there you are. as the French are fond of saying, "the more it changes, the more it is the same things."

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