To many, jewelry serves little purpose beyond personal appeal. We wear necklaces, rings, earrings, and bracelets because we like the way they look on our bodies. But what we don’t often think about is the myriad means by which jewelry works to achieve a particular end. Take the wedding ring, for example, and note its function as a physical representation of the trust and devotion of marriage entails. Or take the ancient Egyptians and their gold-wrought jewelry etched with scarabs and note their religious and cultural significance. And, take, finally, a traditional Indian marriage ceremony and its accompanying jewelry, complete with stacked bangles and intricately designed necklaces. Here, the pillars of self and culture join. If we take this idea one step further into the world of film and television, jewelry takes on a third use: a tool that communicates a story.
Apart from jewelers themselves, nobody is quite as familiar with jewelry, its uses, symbolism, and history as journalist and writer Melanie Grant. In her book, Coveted: Art and Innovation in High Jewelry (2020), she offers a comprehensive look at jewelry as an art. Her commentary, along with that of successful jewelers, fosters an appreciation for the craft and sparks a conversation on its role in society. Throughout her musings, Grant explores jewelry’s commercialist undercurrent, which quietly undermines its artistic integrity by discouraging freedom and innovation.
Jewelry & Culture
Like any other art form, Jewelry does not exist outside the realm of culture and history. In the past, it has “built bridges between civilizations,” forming an integral part of their trade route (Grant 7). Even today, western and eastern jewelers take inspiration from their cultures and the cultures of others. In marketing their pieces globally, they must consider this. For example, the Chinese assign significance to specific colors based on a traditional system (61). Red – symbolizing good fortune – “is deeply ingrained in Chinese identity” and rules its jewelry. For Western jewelers to communicate with Chinese collectors, they must “see color theory from a Chinese perspective” while maintaining their sense of identity in design.
In Armenian culture, artisans opt for the cold, malleable silver to create intricately designed wearable art pieces for daily and special use. I myself like to wear anywhere between one and six Armenian silver rings at once. Grant notes that as a material, the metal “offers respite from our unrelenting preoccupation with intrinsic value in jewelry.” It provokes less emotion, “whereas gold is undeniably tied to power, passion, and sensuality” (43). Indeed, the image of gold brings forth ideas of glamour, grandeur. Its intrinsic value may be high, but this shouldn’t hinder jewelers from exploring cheaper metals like silver and titanium, especially if they find inspiration and cultural significance in them. The need for commercial success in keeping one’s business afloat can hamper innovative design progress with these alternative metals.
Jewelry & Art: Applied v. Fine
For centuries, it seems, jewelers have been fighting for their work to be taken seriously as art. Typically categorized as applied art, jewelry fits the term’s definition as “an application of artistic design to utilitarian objects in everyday use” (Ellis). Whereas works of fine art such as paintings provide only visual or mental stimulation, works of applied art are both aesthetically pleasing and functional objects. The category includes a wide range of products, from a teapot to a train station, but also includes decorative arts like tapestry, glassware, embroidery, and costumes.
Whereas fine art is rooted in pure forms and aesthetics, jewelry is still rooted, to a degree, in commerce. According to Grant, “the inevitable tension between jewelry as art and jewelry as a commodity still hampers its progress” (22). As jewelry battles for acceptance from the art world, “design must come before commerce” in order for the medium to progress along the path to art. (86). As it were, “commerce” still “detracts from the purity of the designer’s intention” (86). A designer might want to use a particular diamond for their designs, but its cost alone can prohibit innovation or experimentation because of the need to recoup losses. Furthermore, precious gemstones, diamonds, and materials like gold carry such symbolism, such as intrinsic value, that one might easily get lost in it and forget the design element. After all, “gemstones may be potent carriers of symbolism and wealth, but they mean nothing without the harness of design” (28).
Jewelry & Storytelling in Media
Though the functional aspect of jewelry seems to hinder its ascendance to a higher level of art, its connotation need not be so negative. Personally, I believe that the sheer beauty of this craft lies in its versatility and functionality. Not only a vessel of cultural symbolism or an enhancer of the wearer’s beauty, jewelry aids in the telling of the story.
In my article on the Brooklyn Museum’s online exhibition of The Crown costumes, I explore the way that costumes – which includes jewelry – further the story. A single strand of pearls worn around the neck highlights Queen Elizabeth II’s elegant style and character. Gone are the days of opulence that was the norm during, say, Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. The monarchy has since changed its public appearance in accordance with Britain’s stark reality of unemployment and political turmoil. Still, large glittering gems are brought out from the crown’s collection every so often to remind the public of the monarchy’s wealth and deeply rooted position in the country and the mind of its people.
In regards to storytelling, perhaps my favorite example of the applied arts in action is the costumes in Game of Thrones. Designer Michele Clapton puts an incredible amount of effort into not only the show’s clothing, but its hand-sewn embroidery. Through changing fabric colors, dress silhouettes, and embroidered house sigils and symbols, she weaves each character into their very clothing. For example, Lady Sansa goes from light, and delicate frocks to the rich fabrics and gold embroidered lions of her captors to the black, scaly, armor-like gown of a teenager aged too quickly. From her clothing alone, we can read her entire story.
Jewelry & Notions of the Self
While most of the uses we might find for jewelry are innovative and explorative, I recognize the darker effects of its products. Men have acted as its principal customers throughout history, buying jewelry with big stones for their partners, buying “trophies meant to be worn by trophies” (49). And yet, women have also made jewelry uniquely their own. As women began buying their own jewels, they opted for more adventurous and innovative designs.
For most of documented history, power has been male. Straining against society’s underestimation of their competency, “women had to be both strategic and creative in order to rule” (165). Queen Elizabeth used jewelry to create a spectacle, a centerpiece, layering strings of pearls around her neck and covering her fingers in large glittering rings. She established an image for herself that was opulent, grand, and almost immortal, challenging any man to defy her.
Still, other women use jewelry as a form of protection. Designer Solange Azagury-Partridge describes her daily ritual of “bedecking oneself” with jewelry before leaving the house in order to protect herself “from the many forces that conspire against women in their daily lives” (175). In my Armenian culture, and many Middle Eastern and Western Asian cultures, jewelry heavily features the evil eye symbol; the dark blue bead with its beady black eye protects us from those who might wish us harm. Whenever my family prepared to visit family friends or go to a party, I was instructed to wear my evil eye necklace and bracelet to give myself added protection. Today, I wear the evil eye for safety and feel both powerful and beautiful as I represent my culture.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (1/2/21) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Portrait painting of Queen Elizabeth I, featuring her pearls | Getty Images
Ellis, Brett. “What Is the Difference between Fine Arts and Applied Arts?” Shiksha.com, 27 Feb. 2020, shiksha.com.
Grant, Melanie. Coveted Art and Innovation in High Jewelry. Phaidon, 2020.