In March 2017, National Museums Scotland acquired a rare and wonderful Renaissance jewel. This outstanding gem, known as the Fettercairn Jewel, had been part of a private collection of the Forbes family of Pitsligo, whose home was Fettercairn House in Aberdeenshire. But who made it, and for whom? When did it come into the family’s collection?
These are all questions our curators are currently addressing – so to document this process, we decided to make a short film to take everyone along on the journey of discovery. My role in all this was to commission its making and arrange the various shoots required. But along the way, I found myself becoming increasingly fascinated by this tiny, perfect and mysterious piece of jewellery.
With Edinburgh Film Company on board, our first port of call was the National Museums Collection Centre in Granton, where we filmed Artefact Conservator Stekfa Bargazova talking about how the Jewel was cleaned and prepared for display.
The Jewel was fairly dirty when it came into the collection, but under Stefka’s care it was transformed into a gleaming treasure. And while conserving it, she discovered some intriguing facts.
The Jewel opens like a locket, with space inside for a portrait, yet that space is now empty. Stefka noted that marks around the edge of the frame indicate that a portrait may have been forcibly removed – which made me wonder who it might have depicted, and why someone was so desperate to be rid of it. A jilted lover, maybe? A grieving widow…?
Okay, so I’m getting carried away – but there’s something about the Jewel that seems to encourage excited speculation. Exquisitely tiny and lavishly decorated, it promises to hold great secrets. Yet opening it up only adds to the mysteries. To unlock them, we need to turn to science, through analysis of the Jewel’s make up, and good old fashioned library research.
Which brings us to our next port of call for the film: the National Library of Scotland.
Housed in this venerable institute are the records of the Forbes family of Pitsligo: box loads of fragile letters, accounts and invoices dating back to the 17th century, charting the minutiae of the life of one of Scotland’s most prominent families.
Suddenly we’re torn away from the melodramatic intrigue of a possible doomed romance and plunged into MR James territory.
Curator Helen Wyld has assembled a keen team of research volunteers who are currently making their way methodically through the 300 boxes of paperwork, looking for any trace of the Jewel and how it came into the family. So far it has proved elusive – although the team have discovered many other fascinating insights into the family, from purchases made while on a Grand Tour of Europe to a propensity to purchase expensive wigs!
Thanks to the participation of the National Library of Scotland, we were able to film some of the documents – which looked exactly as I hoped they would: elegant scripts flowing across sepia-coloured parchment-like paper that looks as if it’s been soaked in coffee for a school project, sealed with solid wax stamps.
Edinburgh Film Company interviewed some of our intrepid researchers for the film, as well, of course, as capturing the Jewel itself in minute, close up detail – a task which proved easier said than done. Its highly polished shine (thanks, Stefka) made it hard to film without bouncing reflections spoiling the shot, while its oval shape gave it a tendency to skitter away from the lens. Or maybe it didn’t want to be filmed…
Or maybe I’m getting carried away again.
Our final shoot involved interviews with curators Helen and David, who are carrying out research into the Jewel’s provenance and meaning. Can unlocking the symbolic significance of the images on the reverse of the Jewel lead to the identification of its owner?
Well, I guess you’ll have to watch the film to find out. Here it is:
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my Jewel journey of discovery – but it’s not over yet. And as research continues into the mysteries of the Jewel, we’ll keep you posted…