By  on June 5, 2007

BOSTON — Kelly L'Ecuyer, decorative arts and sculpture curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, remembers the first time she saw Daphne Farago's jewelry collection.

The Rhode Island philanthropist pulled L'Ecuyer aside, threw open her dressing room and unveiled 60 years of studio and artist-designed jewelry displayed like sculpture in custom cabinetry. L'Ecuyer got to try on masterpieces such as Mary Ann Scherr's Loops Neckpiece (1987), a high-necked, forged silver collar bristling with hinged loops that evokes an Elizabethan ruff.

The dress-up days are over because 700 pieces of the collection have been bequeathed to the MFA. About 200 works are on exhibit, some for the first time, until March 5 in "Jewelry By Artists: The Daphne Farago Collection.''

It's another chapter for the new, more stylish MFA crafted by museum director Malcolm Rogers. With exhibits on Ralph Lauren's cars and Paris couture in recent years, the MFA has been pushing into fashion, style and design.

The Farago collection, covering the Forties to the present, is thought to be one of the largest and the most complete assemblages of contemporary studio jewelry.

"What's important about these works is, this is jewelry made inside an artist's studio by the hand of the artist," L'Ecuyer said. They are limited-production or unique pieces, made of found objects and nonprecious materials — yellow measuring tape, eggshells, lobster claws.

The Farago show includes pieces designed by Pablo Picasso, Man Ray and Alexander Calder. There are large brooches by surrealist Sam Kramer, who specialized in Dali-esque, biomorphic silver and copper forms embedded with taxidermy eyes. Mary Lee Hu's Choker #88 (2005), a twisted collar necklace woven of gold thread, is a contemporary masterwork. The pieces are beautiful, bold and sometimes peculiar. They are sculptures that rely on, and are defined by, their interaction with the body.

Seeing an area overlooked by major museums, Farago in the late Eighties began focusing on early works of artists she considered important. The collection is deep in Robert Ebendorf, who creates primitive, tribal-flavored pieces from found objects, conceptual metalsmith Kiff Slemmons, and Louis Mueller, who used commercial logos (Camel cigarettes, 7-Up) in lieu of gemstones in rings.Farago kept records of her purchases, commissions and correspondence with artists like Ebendorf, whose letters are a collage of thoughts, sketches and bits of materials he was investigating.

"I've never really identified with great big stones like diamonds and emeralds," Farago said. "For me, the question is what's the workmanship and what does the artist put into the piece?"

"Daphne gathered the work of living artists of this century," noted Philadelphia jewelry artist Jan Yager. "She has been quite visionary in understanding that jewelry speaks to humanity in a really powerful way."

Some works, such as John Paul Miller's Polyp Colony (1975) necklace, are masterpieces of craftsmanship.

"Miller became fascinated by gold granulation used in antiquity," L'Ecuyer said. "On the underside of the polyp we have hundreds of these granules, each half the size of a poppy seed, that he hand-formed."

Other pieces, like Yager's Masai beaded collar necklace (strung entirely from crack vials gathered off the sidewalks and alleyways in her north Philadelphia neighborhood), make political statements. Yager's dandelion pin, complete with insect-chewed, straggly leaves and set with a sliver of auto glass, is at once a send-up of classic suit brooches, a commentary on the collision of man and nature and an homage to the beauty that pushes through the cracks of her neighborhood.

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