Hillwood Museum’s new exhibition stopped me in my tracks. It had me at the title wall, which proclaimed Spectacular with elegant clarity. Would this exhibition live up to its title?
Nestled in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, Hillwood was the last residence of Post Cereal heir and General Foods founder Marjorie Merriweather Post. When she died in 1973, she endowed her mansion, collections, and gardens to “future generations,” and Hillwood opened as a public institution in 1977. In addition to her comprehensive collections of Russian imperial art and 18th-century French decorative arts, Mrs. Post created one of the most extraordinary private jewelry collections in the world. Hillwood’s exhibition Spectacular now provides a showcase for the iconic “grand pieces” she acquired over a 50-year period.
Mrs. Post started amassing her treasure trove in the 1920s. Like others among the era’s new-money elite, she viewed jewelry as an important social marker, and she enthusiastically embraced the notion, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” (Jeffrey Post interview with AH, 7/26/17) But she had a more serious intent as well. According to Hillwood director Kate Markert, “Post was not just interested in wearing jewels, but was a connoisseur. Her resulting collection represented the finest assembly of gems, historic jewels, and 20th-century jewelry in America.” It also reflected her belief that great jewels, like the artistry of Rembrandt and Picasso, were “dazzling works of art.”(Quoted in Hillwood press release, 5/1/17)
Right: Marjorie Merryweather Post
Spectacular is a show made to dazzle. The jewels are stunning of course, but what makes this a “wow” museum experience is that it doesn’t just say “ta da!” Going through the exhibit, I was fascinated by the stories describing why Mrs. Post bought each piece. The narrative thread unfolds smoothly, and the exhibit design creates an effortless flow from section to section.
As I stopped once again at the title wall, it struck me that this exhibition has accomplished something very special in today’s museum world: Spectacular is a prime example of successful curating. It is an entirely different world than the “ta-da school of curating,” in which things are randomly put on display without an original idea, a purposeful theme, or coherent storytelling. No, Spectacular represents “public scholarship” at the highest level, with a strong curatorial hand invested in the entire production. Curator Liana Paredes clearly had a great deal more to say than “ta da!”
Left: Turquoise and Amethyst necklace (1950), Cartier, NY. Turquoise, amethyst, diamonds, gold, platinum.
The exhibition focuses separately on Mrs. Post’s historic and 20th century jewels. In the historic section, one of the most iconic pieces is a diadem tiara once owned by Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise of Austria. Created in 1810 as a wedding gift, the diadem was originally set with 79 emeralds. In the mid-1950s the gems were remounted in rings, brooches, and bracelets and the diadem was reset with turquoise—a gemstone Mrs. Post loved. She bought the diadem in 1971, and it became part of her extraordinary bequest to the Smithsonian Institution.
The legend is that she brought some of her priceless gems to Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley in a shopping bag. Jeffrey E. Post, curator-in-charge of the Museum of Natural History’s gem collection, confirms the story, and explains that Mrs. Post indeed brought Mr. Ripley a bag containing the Marie-Antoinette earrings, the Napoleon diamond necklace, the Maximilian emerald ring (once owned by Mexican Emperor Maximilian), and the 30.62-carat Blue Heart diamond.
Right: Sapphire and Diamond necklace, Cartier, sapphires, diamonds, platinum
She was especially proud of the Blue Heart diamond, which had once belonged to Empress Eugenia, wife of Napoleon III. She considered it “the star” of her collection, and when it was put on exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, she was overheard saying, “My blue diamond is prettier than that other one”—the “other one” being the Hope diamond. Mrs. Post also encouraged her well-appointed friends to make donations, and is credited as a major force in the creation of that museum’s renowned National Gem Collection. (Jeffrey Post interview with AH, 7/26/17; Catalogue, 37, 45)
Mrs. Post’s 20th century jewelry is as dazzling as the historic pieces, and the exhibition focuses on how she built her collection by working with such influential jewelry designers as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Verdura, and Harry Winston. Cartier helped Mrs. Post launch her collection in the 1920s with the acquisition of the 21.04-carat “Maximilian emerald.” She purchased the gem from Cartier around 1928, and wore it in a ring when she was presented at the Court of St. James in 1929. Cartier remounted the emerald in a stunning Art Deco setting in 1949.
Spectacular also reveals a lighter side of Mrs. Post’s collecting: there is a delightful brooch designed by Raymond Yard in which a bunny carries a tray of drinks. He is totally covered in diamonds except for the rubies that fill the glasses on his tray and the bottle he carries; there is also a fine ruby stripe running down the side of his pants.
Right: Diamond Necklace (1965-66), Harry Winston, NY, Diamonds, platinum
Another small delight is a diamond, ruby, emerald, and platinum ballerina brooch from Van Cleef & Arpels (1942). It was a gift from Mrs. Post’s then-husband Joseph E. Davies and represents a famous 18th century Paris Opera ballerina. As the catalogue points out, New York City Ballet choreographer George Balanchine has credited Arpels for inspiring his renowned 1967 ballet Jewels, whose three sections are devoted to “Emeralds,” “Rubies,” and “Diamonds.” (Catalogue, 105)
Spectacular succeeds as an exhibition because it uses dazzling objects to tell a captivating story. The curator’s labels are unusually evocative, as when the George Headley pearl and moonstone necklace is described as a piece that “incorporates large and irregular baroque Burmese pearls with the icy glitter of diamonds and the soft coolness of moonstones.” (wall text)
Right: Diamond Engagement Ring, Harry Meyers.
Exhibition design plays a vital role in telling Spectacular’s story visually, and designer Lee Weaver worked closely with curator Liana Paredes to convey the essence of her ideas. He explored the “diamond district” in New York to see how jewels there were displayed and lighted, and was particularly impressed with a gray color used by Bergdorf’s. Weaver ultimately adapted shades of grays and blues for the exhibition, including the title wall’s “mysterious blue.” He also designed the lighting so that each jewel is encased in an individual light box and illuminated by fiber optics and pin-spotlighting that create a glow-from-within magic. (Lee Weaver interview with AH, 8/1/17)
Spectacular is the real thing: it deserves its title.
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
Spectacular will be at Washington’ D.C.’s Hillwood Museum through January 1, 2018. Liana Paredes has written a full-color 200-page publication to accompany the exhibition, available online or at the Hillwood Museum Shop.
Thumbnail (top, right): ‘Marguerite’ Ruby and Diamond Brooch (detail), 1969. Van Cleef & Arpels, Paris. Rubies, diamonds, gold, platinum.
Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery, and writes frequently on media and culture.