Syracuse University Magazine

mary-gilbert-palmer.jpgMary Gilbert Palmer '65 and Laura Marsolek '13 in Rome.

Mary Gilbert Palmer ‘65

Gems of History

At S.E. Needham Jewelers in Logan, Utah, a customer has brought in a piece of jewelry to the store’s historian to see what she can learn of its provenance. It belonged to her grandmother, but she doesn’t know much about its value or history. She’s come to the right place. For Mary Gilbert Palmer, a piece of old jewelry is far more than ornamentation—it’s an artifact with its own story. “The store has a gemologist who can help customers determine the intrinsic value of a piece, but I help them with the history,” says Palmer, a jewelry historian who specializes in 19th-century British jewelry. 

Often, a piece is older than the customer thinks, such as the one Palmer is looking at today. “It may have belonged to her grandmother, but it dates from 1870,” she says. “It probably came from the grandmother’s grandmother.” Palmer has been affiliated with Needham—the state’s oldest jewelry store—since 2000, when she was invited by the store to sell her Palmer Collection of fine antique and estate jewelry, pieces she collects from biannual trips to Europe. The jewelry ranges from pieces made of gold, silver, and gemstones to those constructed of more unusual materials, such as seeds and hair. “The wonderful thing about jewelry is that it functions the same today as it did 100 years ago,” she says. “Folks may not think they enjoy history, but when they fall in love with a fabulous piece of antique jewelry it immediately connects them with the past.” 

Palmer found her calling as a jewelry historian after working as a schoolteacher and a caterer, earning a master’s degree in theology, and raising a family. An avid traveler, she began buying antiques at flea markets abroad and selling them from a card table in her driveway. Eventually she opened a shop, honing in on jewelry. She went back to school to earn a master’s degree in history, writing her thesis on British jewelry made during the reign of Queen Victoria. 

Palmer credits her love of travel and discovery to an SU undergraduate semester spent in Florence, where she visited an art museum for the very first time. “I was a Trustee Scholar and my trustee [Dewitt LeFevre ’25] generously stepped up and funded a semester abroad,” says Palmer, who majored in political science in the College of Arts and Sciences. That transformative experience inspired Palmer to establish her own endowed scholarship to fund travel abroad experiences for future SU students through a charitable remainder trust. 

She also serves as a mentor to Laura Marsolek ’13, a double major in art history and metalsmithing. Marsolek’s Honors Capstone Project focuses on the history and fabrication of Renaissance jewelry, and Palmer is her Honors’ reader. After meeting on campus, Palmer visited Marsolek in Florence during her junior year abroad. They viewed jewelry collections at the Palazzo Pitti and the Bargello, and Palmer introduced Marsolek to the historian of Bulgari Jewelry in Rome and the curator of jewelry at the British Museum in London. They also attended the Society of Jewellery Historians in London.

Upon returning to the United States, Marsolek spent a month in Utah, working side by side with Palmer and her customers. “Jewelry historians are rare,” Marsolek says. “It’s a very specialized field of art history, and I feel so fortunate to have met Mary through the University.”  

No one is more pleased than Palmer herself. “I enjoy sharing my passion,” she says. “Working with this young scholar has been one of the most interesting and satisfying experiences I have had with Syracuse University.” 

 —Renée Gearhart Levy