My first post about Jewellery…Where to start as there is so much to say? I will begin the series which a theme that is core to my work: jewellery to signal one’s identity. I am perfectly aware I might state the obvious but sometimes it is worth putting together quotes, writings or projects about a theme and see what kind of picture is coming out of it.
I will start with the (not so obvious) question: why do we wear jewellery?
An attempt to classify the reasons we wear jewellery can be found in the paper written by David Poston in November 1994 to accompany the Craft Council’s exhibition: “What is Jewellery”?
According to his survey, we wear jewellery for:
· Imposed identity
· Functional purposes
The full map is the following (mind map made from David Poston’s paper)
In her Manifesto for Schmuck 2009, Marjan Unger makes another engaging description of the main current incentives for the making and wearing of jewellery:
· “Jewellery as a signal to express one’s identity in a turbulent world dominated by globalisation
· Intimacy, jewellery as a tool in personal relations and body adornment
· The pure pleasure in decoration, including the simple shapes, the sensitive combinations of colours, the manifestation of joy in jewellery
· The expression of things that matters in life like political or moral statements, care for materials, humanity […]
· Memory […] personal meanings […] to remind of times forgotten…”
Lin Cheung confirms that when she says in the book “New Direction in Jewellery II” (Black Dog Pub Ltd, 2007): “Common to all the reasons why the women chose the pieces they did are thoughts about suitability, flattery, appropriateness and inappropriateness; who they are, what they do, who they want to be, their interests and what they say and want to say about themselves”. (p. 21). If we refer to David Poston’s map, Lin Cheung seems to locate the wearing of Studio jewellery as a mix of “self”, “status” and “alignment”.
This view seems to be shared as well in the cultural theorist Ted Polhemus’s lecture at the Koru2 International Contemporary Jewellery Symposium (see klimt02 website) : “no human society has never been found which has no ornament (by which I mean simply some objects worn on or attached to the human body)... it is our unique inclination to decorate, adorn and transform our bodies which makes us special...”. He then explains that the meaning of ornament was inevitably social in nature “ a visual symbol of one's culture” and that in our post-modern world “our need is to find ornaments ...which visually advertise that which is special, unique and distinctive about us as individuals...a style statement”. He thinks we live today in a world where there is unprecedented choice, a kind of “Supermarket of Style” and that the solution to the question “how do I find people like me?” is emerging in translating “our personal values, beliefs, visions and dreams into the language of style”.
Jewellery is a way of expressing one’s identity but we can even go a step further: it might be a kind of language as well. Actually, Polhemus says that the “most fundamental and most indispensable function of all forms of adornment is visual communication”. And “to decorate the body with found or specially crafted objects is to transform it into a meaningful system- a language”. Comparing the wearing of adornment to a language is an interesting view. Tim Dant in “Material Culture in the Social World” (Open University Press, 1999) states “we express ourselves as part of this society through the way we live with and use objects. Material culture ties us with others in our society providing a means for sharing values, activities and styles of life in a more concrete and enduring way than language use or direct interaction”. Clothes, and by extension jewellery, are so close to our body that they “become an extension of that body, an outer layer or shell with which we confront the social world”.
Both Ted Polhemus and Tim Dant speak about a visual language, a way of standing out from the amorphous mass and of confronting the outside world with objects (jewellery is one of them) people choose to reveal something about them. For Tim Dant, this is even a more concrete and enduring way than direct language.
To illustrate those writings I have researched projects that could support those theories. And I found three specific ones (I am sure there are many others) that are perfect illustrations of what we could call: “read my jewellery (and you will know who I am)”.First project is the artist Mah Rana’s one called “Meanings and Attachments: a photographic and written report of people and their jewellery.” It explores and illustrates the concept that the decision-making process that leads us to choose and wear particular items of jewellery is not solely attributable to the design aesthetic and monetary value of the materials used to create the objects themselves. I am particularly interested in her project as to me her work poses precisely the question ‘Why do we wear jewellery”? By photographing real people with their jewellery the answers are not theoretical. They are anchored in everyday life and try to understand people’s instinctive attachment to meaning in jewellery and its role as a social signifier. It is amazing to see how jewellery seems to reveal or to complete people’s personality. The choice of colours, shapes, sizes communicate about them: imagine the blond lady in the first picture without her necklaces and you will have a completely different reading of her personality.
Here are some pictures extracted from Mah Rana website :
Mah Rana “Meanings and Attachments”
Another project attracted my attention as well: it was an exhibition held by the Dutch Gallery Marzee in St Andrews, Scotland: twenty four guests with connection with the region of Fife were invited to wear jewellery selected by the owner of the Gallery according to the description they made of themselves. The jewellery was therefore supposed to speak for those people’s personality, activity, and preferences. One of the guests, a poet and novelist, wore a brooch and “was happy that somebody looked at my work and responded with this piece. It says something about me. It reveals something to me about me as well.” (Marzee Catalogue, Organised by Fife Contemporary Art & craft, 2009). Another one said: “It’s just beautifully austere, minimalist. It’s just absolutely me. I love it”.
This project, somehow similar in the outcome (a collection of portraits of people wearing jewellery) is very different to Mah Rana’s investigation. It is not about the everyday jewellery people wear, but about choosing a piece of jewellery for people you just know by the description they made of themselves, to speak about them. A very interesting film showing interviews of the participants accompanied the exhibition (Marzee website). In this film you learn that people felt usually very happy with Marzee’s choices and that the jewellery always matched one of the personality traits. But when asked what jewellery they normally wear and why, you learn that the only jewellery that really matters for them are wedding rings, pieces related to an event or of sentimental value (being given by somebody, or having belonged to a relative).
So for those people, the first reason to wear jewellery is usually sentimental but when offered to wear a statement piece that says something about their personality, they find the experiment very interesting and exciting. And that is why I find Marzee’s project so fascinating for the Studio Jewellery community as it gives the tastes of how it feels to wear “statement jewellery”.
Gallery Marzee’s exhibition catalogue, St Andrews, Scotland Organised by Fife Contemporary Art & craft, 2009
The last example I would like to mention is the “Read my pins” manifesto of Madeleine Allbright. Appointed US Secretary of State, she realised the power of wearing a certain kind of brooches for certain events. It started when she was compared to an unparalleled serpent by the Iraqi press when criticising Saddam Hussein and decided to wear a Victorian serpent pin for the next visit. She then started to play with her brooches and pins to suit her mood, her intentions and to use them to make political statements.
Her collection of 200 eclectic brooches has been exhibited at the end of 2009 at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York accompanied by a book written by Allbright herself. Her pieces, contrary to Marzee’s ones, are usually classical (fine jewellery with precious materials, stones and classical design) but what makes their statement is the connection made between the brooch’s theme and the event where she wears the piece. The jewellery becomes a powerful communication medium.
Madeleine Albright book’s cover: Read my Pins
So those writings, theories and projects put together give a very strong demonstration about the extraordinary power of jewellery to express someone’s identity. Read my jewellery and you will learn a lot about myself.
So next time you chose a piece of jewellery, try to keep that in mind…