Jewels with a Past

By Pamela Ellertson | Photography by Jack Foley

The first exhibition to be held in the newly created gallery spaces at the Eustis Estate will feature jewelry dating from 1750 to the present. The exhibit is titled, “Mementos: Jewelry of Life and Love from Historic New England,” and will include over 130 pieces. Each artifact possesses aesthetic flare and has a story.

“This show is about storytelling and personal connections,” says Laura Johnson, an associate curator at Historic New England, which is sponsoring the exhibition. When determining which stories to tell, Johnson faced an enviable dilemma—there were almost too many options. Historic New England’s immense jewelry collection is comprised of private jewelry collections from dozens of historic properties that the group owns and gifts of jewelry from donors.

Stephen Henry Phillips chose this necklace from Boston jewelers Shreve, Crump & Low for his bride-to-be, circa 1871.

One of Johnson’s favorite pieces that made the cut is a bracelet made of human hair. To her, the piece represents the bond between two sisters living in the mid-1860s, Anna and Mary Wigglesworth. With incredible intricacy and precision, Anna’s light brown hair, which resembles silk thread, is woven into several circular bands of varying patterns. The bands are braided together creating the bracelet and the ends are attached with an ornately etched golden clasp. The bracelet is inscribed with “A.W. to M.W.,” the date of Mary’s engagement and the address of the church on Park Street in Boston where she was married. The piece commemorates Mary’s 1864 wedding, says Johnson, and reveals an intimate connection to her sister Anna.

“Jewelry has inherent value and a personal resonance especially in pieces given for special occasions,” says Johnson. Several examples of mourning jewelry are also included in the show. One preferred material for mourning jewelry was a black stone called jet, made from fossilized wood. Several jet necklaces and different types of mourning rings are part of the collection. Mourning rings were given out to family members and sometimes anyone who attended funerals. Some rings are as simple as a gold band inscribed with the deceased person’s name, while others are extremely detailed—and a little haunting—like the one adorned with tiny crystal coffins inhabited by miniature skeletons.

Some of the jewelry will be paired with related artifacts. Portraits of the owners wearing their pieces, an 1844 wedding dress, a silver posy holder used to carry small floral bouquets and some sparkly men’s shoe buckles are just a few examples of historic tokens that will complete the story.

Several contemporary pieces will also be displayed, including a shell necklace made by Wampanoag artisan Elizabeth James-Perry and a string of plastic pop beads that were the rage in the 1950s. “People want to preserve the deep meaning associated with jewelry items,” says Carl Nold, president and CEO of Historic New England, “and museums like ours are willing to record and share the stories on their behalf.”

Learn more about Milton’s Eustis Estate in the feature, “Making a Museum.”


A small purse from the Rhoades family of Providence with three carved rings from around the globe. circa 1860

Mehitabel Bangs from Brewster, Massachusetts, received this coral necklace inscribed with her name in the 1840s.

Earring from the pearl set

A 1947 platinum and sapphire ring by Boston jeweler Edward Everett Oakes.

A pocket watch fob commemorating “The Pageant of Cape Cod,” a play celebrating the opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914.

A sand dollar, kept as a souvenir of favorite beach walks in Plymouth, circa 1970-80

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