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Greek Jewelry Opens Door to a Rich Past : Gold: 4,000 years of culture is seen through display at the San Diego Museum of Art.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Balboa Park’s Museum of Art has done it up right for the “Gold of Greece” exhibit--muted lighting, cases lined in black, reverential music.

Thing is, it doesn’t really need the help. This display would pack a punch laid out on linoleum.

“Gold of Greece: Jewelry and Ornaments from the Benaki Museum” is a dazzling look at 4,000 years of Greek culture, shown through a medium still popular today--jewelry. Ceremonial wreaths, pendants, earrings, bracelets, some worn thousands of years before the birth of Christ, are part of the 205-piece display.

While visitors may be “seduced in here by the gold,” said Carol Benson, the Museum of Art’s curatorial associate, the hope is that they’ll leave with a better understanding of the glory that was Greece.

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“These works can really bring the past to life in a way no other works can because these were personal adornments,” she said, “and they reflect the intimate lives of individuals just like ourselves.”

The exhibit is from Greece’s world-reknowned Benaki Museum, which put together the traveling show with the help of the Dallas Museum of Art. It is the first time the Benaki has allowed its jewelry to journey to the United States.

San Diego is the third stop on a two-year national tour that started with Dallas and New York and continues with San Francisco and Baltimore.

The Benaki was founded in 1930 by Anthony Benaki, a member of a wealthy Greek family that played an active part in the political, social and cultural life of Greece. He turned his family’s neoclassical mansion into a showcase for Greek art as a way to preserve and continue his homeland’s heritage.

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The museum is “very strong in the decorative arts, and the jewelry is the absolute gem core of the collection,” Benson said. Thus, the “Gold of Greece” exhibit is the cream of the cream of the crop, she said.

Although the show chronologically spans millenia, from the Bronze Age through the 19th Century, the bulk of the exhibit is classical, Benson said. “This is the finest work of the Greek ornamentation. This was the time (480 B.C. to 323 B.C.) that Greek jewelry making and goldsmithing was at its most sophisticated. So you really see some fabulous antiquities.”

Although techniques vary by eras, much of the work was done by tapping gold sheets over forms or by working patterns into the metal by punching it from front or behind.

In the Hellenistic period, from about 323 B.C. to 31 B.C., Greeks had more access to colored, semi-precious stones and began to incorporate them into their jewelry.

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Painstaking attention to detail--in an era long before machines and mass production--is evident in each of the 15 display cases. Necklace beads are latticed in swirls of gold, individual feathers are visible on the wings of an Eros figure no bigger than a thumbnail, and a golden Aphrodite, goddess of love, dries her hair on the head of a pin.

Some of the items were worn as religious objects, others as magic charms, and some simply to keep hair in place or to denote social status.

But above all, jewelry was “not just what people wore on their fingers,” Benson said, it was art.

Benson said she has high hopes for the popularity of the exhibit. “Everyone relates to jewelry. We all wear it, and we all love it. And some of the styles are so timeless we wear them today.

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“Gold is a tremendous draw, and it’s something that really does have a power for all of us. It really is somewhat magical.”

“Gold of Greece: Jewelry and Ornaments from the Benaki Museum” is on display today through March 31 at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children ages 6 to 18, free for children under 6. For information on the exhibit or related events, call 232-7931.


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