Jewellery? Definitely an art for Susan Kaplan

She has treated gems as artworks — and has helped museums to do so too

Jewellery tends to be kept out of the limelight when it comes to museums, but Susan Kaplan feels differently: “[Jewellery] should be part of the mainstream in the art world,” she says.

Before retiring in 1995, Ms Kaplan, 65, ran the New England division of the education provider Kaplan, Inc, the company her father, Stanley, had founded in 1938 to prepare students for standardised tests. The family used some of the proceeds of the sale of the business to the Washington Post Company in 1984 to establish the Rita J and Stanley H Kaplan Family Foundation, which makes grants to non-profit organisations.

Ms Kaplan’s mother, Rita, used to collect Victorian jewels and took her daughter after the school day to the homes of women in Brooklyn who went antiquing and then sold their finds from their dining room tables. “It was a bonding experience for me,” says Ms Kaplan.

In recognition of their shared love, her family’s foundation endowed the position of Rita J Kaplan and Susan B Kaplan Curator of Jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, in 2006 — the first curatorship for jewellery at an art museum in the US. A jewellery gallery bearing the foundation’s name followed in 2011.

Slide bracelet (1950s/1960s)

© Bill Horsman

When she was a child, Ms Kaplan’s mother took her hunting for decorative Victorian “slides”, which were originally used to change the length of a necklace. Her “very creative” mother found one bracelet made from slides and had someone put her own slides — mostly made from her birthstone of opal — on gold chains to make two more. The three strands are held together with a clasp to create one favourite bracelet.

Ms Kaplan loved and played with the piece and, about 30 years ago, asked her mother if she could have it. “It’s not precious . . . in terms of gems but it’s really precious in terms of the fact that my mother did it and I was a part of it,” she says. She appreciates both a piece’s design and materials. “The joy of jewellery is part adornment, but [also] being able to wear art,” she says. “You can’t carry around a painting.”

Amethyst, diamond and platinum ring (early 20th century)

© Bill Horsman

Ms Kaplan’s own birthstone is amethyst. Her parents bought her this “elegant” Edwardian amethyst ring with millegrain decoration — where the metal has a fine, beaded texture — for her birthday in 2009. The three found it when together in Florida at the Palm Beach Jewelry, Art & Antiques Show months before her father’s death. She says she did not spend as much time with him as she would have liked because of his “seven-day-a-week business . . . My father worked very hard to provide for his family . . . and the special time I had with him was very meaningful.”

Gold and glass micromosaic brooch by Castellani (before 1888)

Ms Kaplan loves micromosaics — a technique that uses small pieces (of glass, in this case) to create an image — and admires the precision of her 19th-century lion brooch. “It almost looks like it’s painted but when you go up close you see the individual pieces of glass.” Regarding it as “practically perfection” — she has never worn it for fear of damaging it — Ms Kaplan bought the brooch in 2012 at Wartski, one of the antique jewellery shops she likes to visit when in London, and intends to donate it to the MFA in the future.

Long gold chain (19th century)

© Bill Horsman

Unlike the lion brooch, Ms Kaplan often wears the gold chain she bought the same year. One of the attractions of 19th-century jewellery to collectors is its symbolism, and Ms Kaplan’s chain has a glove, inset with a tiny ruby ring, as its clasp. “One of the symbols of the hand is friendship,” says Ms Kaplan, which makes her feel that it is friendship which keeps the whole thing together.

Cross River diamond bracelet by David Webb (1965)

© Bill Horsman

Ms Kaplan’s bracelet caught her eye at the Macklowe Gallery in New York thanks in part to its mix of circular, rectangular and marquise cut diamonds. “I said to Ben Macklowe, ‘I love this bracelet. Seriously, how long do I have to pay it [off]?’ I was being facetious but it was not something you sat there and wrote a cheque for.” The bracelet’s “silky” movement also reminds her of “the one that got away” — a diamond necklace made by Chaumet. This was beyond her financial reach when she saw it in London in the 1990s and had been sold when she returned a year later. “I’m closing my eyes at the moment and reimagining what it felt like,” she says, “because I will never forget.”

“Past is Present: Revival Jewellery” is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until August 19 2018

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