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 present incentives for the generating and wearing of jewellery:
- “Jewellery as a signal to express one’s identification in a turbulent world dominated by globalisation
- Intimacy, jewellery as something in personal relations and body adornment
- The pure pleasure in design, including the easy shapes, the sensitive combinations of tints, the manifestation of joy in jewellery
- The expression of things that things in life like political or moral statements, care for materials, humanity […]
- Memory […] personal meanings […] to remind of times forgotten…”
Lin Cheung verifies that after she says in the book “New Direction in Jewellery II” (Black Dog Pub Ltd, 2007): “Common to all of the reasons why the ladies chose the pieces they did are thoughts about suitability, flattery, appropriateness and inappropriateness; who they truly are, whatever they do, whom they would like to be, their interests and whatever they say and wish 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 provided too into the social theorist Ted Polhemus’s lecture at the Koru2 International Contemporary Jewellery Symposium (see klimt02 website) : “no individual culture has never been found which has no ornament (by which after all simply some objects used on or connected to the individual body)… it’s our unique inclination to decorate, decorate and transform our anatomical bodies helping to make us special…”. He then explains that this is 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 can be special, unique and distinctive about us as individuals…a style statement”. He thinks we live today in a world where there is unprecedented choice, some sort of “Supermarket of Style” and that the clear answer towards the question “how do I find people like me?” is appearing in translating “our personal values, beliefs, visions and ambitions in to the language of style”.
Jewellery is a means of expressing one’s identity but we can also go a step further: it might be a types of language aswell. Actually, Polhemus says that the “most fundamental and most indispensable function of all kinds of adornment is visual communication”. And “to decorate the human body with found or specially crafted objects is to change 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 element of this society through the way we live with and make use of objects. Material culture ties us with others within our culture providing a means for sharing values, activities and designs of life in a far more concrete and enduring way than language usage or direct interaction”. Clothes, and also by extension jewellery, are so close to your 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 globe with objects (jewellery is certainly one of them) people choose to expose something about them. For Tim Dant, this is also a more concrete and enduring way than direct language.
To illustrate those writings I have researched projects which could support those theories. And I found three specific ones (I am sure there are numerous other people) that are perfect pictures of exactly what we could call: “read my jewellery (and you’ll know who I have always been)”.
First project is the musician 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 select and wear particular items of jewellery is not entirely attributable to the design aesthetic and monetary value of the materials used to generate the objects themselves. I am particularly interested in her project as to me personally her work poses precisely the question ‘Why do we wear jewellery”? By photographing real people with their jewellery the responses are perhaps not theoretical. They are anchored in everyday life and you will need to understand people’s instinctive attachment to meaning in jewellery and its role as a social signifier. It is amazing to observe jewellery seems to show or to complete people’s personality. The choice of colours, shapes, sizes communicate about them: imagine the blond lady in 1st picture without her necklaces and you need an entirely different reading of her personality.
Another project attracted my attention since well: it absolutely was an exhibition held by the Dutch Gallery Marzee in St Andrews, Scotland: twenty four guests with connection with the region of Fife had been invited to wear jewellery selected by the owner of the Gallery according to the description they made of themselves. The jewellery had been therefore expected to speak for those people’s character, activity, and preferences. Among the guests, a poet and novelist, wore a brooch and “was happy that someone looked inside my work and reacted with this particular piece. It says one thing about me. It reveals one thing to me about me since well.” (Marzee Catalogue, Organised by Fife Contemporary Art & craft, 2009). A different one said: “It’s just beautifully austere, minimalist. It’s simply absolutely me. I love it”.
This project, somehow similar in the results (a number of portraits of people wearing jewellery) is extremely different to Mah Rana’s investigation. It is not about the everyday jewellery people wear, but about choosing a bit of jewellery for people you just know by the description they made of themselves, to speak about them. A tremendously interesting movie showing interviews regarding the participants accompanied the exhibition (Marzee internet site). In this film you learn that people felt usually happy with Marzee’s choices and that the jewellery always matched one of the personality traits. But when asked just what jewellery they normally wear and why, you learn that the sole jewellery that matters for them are wedding rings, pieces related to an event or of sentimental value (being given by someone, or having belonged to a relative).
Therefore for those people, 1st reason to wear jewellery is usually sentimental but when agreed to wear a statement piece that says something about their personality, they find the test very interesting and exciting. And which is why I find Marzee’s task so fascinating for the Studio Jewellery community as it provides tastes of how it feels to wear “statement jewellery”.
The very last example I would like to mention could be the “Read my pins” manifesto of Madeleine Allbright. Appointed US Secretary of State, she realised the power of wearing a specific kind of brooches for specific events. It started whenever she was contrasted to an unparalleled serpent by the Iraqi press when criticising Saddam Hussein and made a decision to wear a Victorian serpent pin for the following visit. She then started to try out with her brooches and pins to fit her mood, her intentions and to put them on to produce governmental statements.
Her collection of 200 eclectic brooches was exhibited during the end of 2009 during 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 interaction medium.
So those writings, theories and tasks placed together give a very strong demonstration concerning the extraordinary energy of jewellery to express someone’s identity. Read my jewellery and you are going to learn a lot about myself. So next time you chose a piece of jewellery, decide to try to keep that in your mind…
From Thinking Through Things