After sitting unstudied in the Wellesley Special Collections for some time, three gem pieces gifted to Wellesley College in the 19th century are now displayed in the Davis Museum’s current “Gold, Glass, and Pearls: Ancient Mediterranean Jewelry” exhibit. On Oct. 5, Nicole Berlin, the College’s assistant director of Collections, and Dr. Laure Marest, associate curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, spoke about the three gem pieces on display in a discussion. The two women have worked together on other art exhibitions and have known each other for several years. The three pieces were of interest to both Marest and Berlin because they represent pieces that individuals in a range of social classes would have worn.
The event was focused on these three pieces because of Marest’s specialty in gems and because the larger exhibit focuses on ancient gold, bronze, and glass jewelry of all kinds from the Mediterranean. Part of the reason that these specific pieces are being exhibited now is because they were inaccessible to the public while they were in the College’s Special Collections, and Berlin has noted that they are extremely interesting pieces that are important to study and allow the public to view.
During the event, students and others from the larger public gathered to discuss the pieces. The three pieces being discussed are extremely small in size, and can require a magnifying glass to fully appreciate the details. When referring to one of the pieces or a specific image on one of them, Dr. Marest often displayed an enlarged printed version as well. Listeners were encouraged after the talk to view the pieces closer for themselves with provided magnifying glasses.
The first of the pieces on display is a garnet ring with an engraving of a woman from the Hellenistic era. Dr. Marest explained that in the different imperfections and chips on the piece, the patterns of use of the ring become apparent.
“The stone had been worn in a way that the head was not facing towards the person that was wearing it, but instead was facing away. To me this indicates that this is probably not a portrait. The person wearing it … is interested in what [the engraving of the woman] projects and what other people see,” Marest said.
The technique for making any ring on such a small scale includes the artistic medium slurry, which engraves the ring and obstructs the creator’s view of what they are making on the face of the stone. It is not until the slurry is wiped away that the image engraved on the ring becomes clear.
The second piece in the exhibit is what Marest described as a “modern ring,” which would be known as a “swivel ring.” On one side, it depicts a scarab, and on the other, it has two warriors. Made around the third to fourth century B.C., the ring is one of the oldest in the exhibit. At the time, many rings were used as seals, and this specific ring appears to have been a seal on the side with the beetle.
The last piece of the three is a ring from the second century which depicts Zeus holding a thunderbolt and an eagle at his feet. During the time that the ring was made, the Hellenistic period, this image was extremely common. It is likely that the piece was mass produced, making it an affordable piece of jewelry that Berlin likened to “costume jewelry” for individuals at the time.
A large part of Marest’s enthusiasm for speaking about her work with Greek and Roman art history, specifically, gems, is because work with smaller art mediums is largely under-studied due to a modern bias towards sculpture, paintings and other more common media.
“Very small objects, very humble objects can actually teach you sometimes even a whole lot more about the lives of normal people than some of the bigger sculptures or paintings could do, which were often made for a very specific context … not all people would have had access to [these works] until the age of globalization” Marest said.