A woman’s job evaluation included the observation that she showed unmistakable signs of penis envy. “The unmistakable signs were. . . her dangling earrings. Why would a woman wear jewelry that dangles if she did not envy the one thing in nature that dangles naturally?”
In a column by Calvin Trillin, standards for evaluating boyfriends for daughters of “serious-linkage age” were examined. Guys with four earrings in one ear were in the “…simple no. So don’t even think about it” category. Trillin declared, however, that, “lf he’s enrolled in a fully accredited graduate or professional program, one earring is OK.”
The United States Supreme Court upheld a ruling against two Peotone, Illinois policemen, who were severely reprimanded (including a demotion and pay cut) for wearing ear studs. The court said the ban on ear studs should apply even when the men are off duty, “because the community is small and most people know who the officers are even when they are out of uniform.”
A photograph covering two pages in The New York Times Magazine. A slender woman is lying crosswise on a bed in a dimly lit room. (1) She is sleeping with one knee sharply bent, in a semifetal position. Her satiny slip is pulled up to reveal her thigh. She is hugging a pillow and holds a string of pearls loosely in one hand. Around her on the bed are seven more pieces of jewelry, a small book and a bunch of roses in a cellophane wrapper. At the bottom there is the caption, “2:48 AM, Paris. Marya asleep on a bed of pearls.” This is an ad for the spring jewelry collection of Victoria International.”
In most cultures, the function of jewelry is to affirm values, symbolize commonly held beliefs, define social status and demonstrate wealth. As the above items illustrate, there are some rather odd ideas about what jewelry means, definite rules about which gender is allowed to wear it and some very curious ways of advertising it. What are our commonly held beliefs about jewelry? Just what does jewelry mean, and how does it function in our culture?
Do women who wear dangling earrings really envy male anatomy? The woman in the interview was a Ph.D. family therapist, and the job was at a psychoanalytic institute. To those who believe in Freudian psychoanalytic theory it is true (and anyone who disagrees is repressing the truth). This is an example of looking at the world through the frame of a particular belief system, which is not (thankfully, in this case) endorsed by our culture in general. Most people would find this interpretation absurd.
The readers of this magazine share beliefs about jewelry that are different than those held by the culture-at-large. These beliefs have not been canonized and do not have the following of Freudian psychology, but they color our understanding of jewelry in a similar way. To many people, our ideas about jewelry seem equally absurd.
The belief that jewelry is an art form is one that most of us share. Yet this idea is rejected by the “art world.” There are only a handful of galleries in this country that represent jewelry artists. Garth Clark, who expected his CDK Gallery to be, “an acknowledgment of jewelry as an art form,” elevating its status in the eyes of curators, collectors and critics of the art world, closed its doors after only eight months. He “…found there was active hostility from the art community towards the jewelry. At best, they were passive about it, but often they actively disliked it as being pretentious and trying to emulate art.”
In our culture, which includes the “art world,” jewelry is something other than art. Jewelry is defined by a different and separate system of commonly held beliefs about its function and meaning. The meaning of the word “jewelry” is not found in the actual jewelry object but in a concept of jewelry that functions within our cultural system. The cultural values and beliefs about jewelry that are symbolized by an object are what makes it jewelry. In other words, jewelry is a concept or belief system. An object that is consistent with our system of cultural beliefs about jewelry is jewelry.
The concept of jewelry is contained in a system of beliefs that includes everything about it. The type of object, its function, proper size, materials, cost, who can and cannot wear it, where and how it should be obtained, what status it conveys, who can give it to whom and the implications of receiving it, are all parts of this system. Objects that fit within the frame of this belief system are jewelry. Objects that do not, are not jewelry.
The meaning of jewelry is also contained in its difference from other concepts and belief systems. Art is a different belief system, with its own myths. Because jewelry and art are different systems of cultural practice, a jewelry object will be understood only as part of the system that identifies it as jewelry. The particular qualities of the object have nothing to do with whether or not it is art. It will not be understood as art, because it is jewelry. (Cultural beliefs about art also prevent jewelry from being understood as art, but that is another story.) The primary reason that jewelry is not art is that it is jewelry.
The meaning of art is a subject of endless debate. No aspect of culture is examined more carefully. In contrast, the meaning of jewelry is presumed. Common beliefs about jewelry in our culture are considered “natural.” Why is it that women can wear earrings, but that certain men have been forbidden to wear them by the Supreme Court? Why is jewelry advertised with a picture of a sleeping woman? What is the meaning of jewelry?
What appears to be “natural” is really a screen that obscures a hidden agenda. Cultures tend to conceal their ideological interests in this way, because if we were aware of the cultural agenda, we might not conform. What could we learn about jewelry if we looked at our “common sense” beliefs and beyond? What cultural agenda lurks behind jewelry? How can we determine what is behind conventional thinking about jewelry? Where can we find clues?
Marshall McLuhan said that “. . . historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities.” Advertising is, of course, intended to make you want to buy something. It does so by promoting the system of beliefs that makes something desirable. Advertising does not create our consumer fantasies, it merely exploits ideas that already exist in our subconscious minds.” Advertising isn’t trying to sell you the thing but is telling you how you can fulfill your dreams and desires by buying something. While there may be merit to some claims that advertising creates the need for useless items, and jewelry has no “use,” jewelry and its mythology have a much longer history than advertising.
Jewelry is a luxury item. Its meaning is culturally constructed, and its use is symbolic. Jewelry advertising explains its symbolism and serves as a guide to using jewelry to obtain desired social responses. Advertising and jewelry seem made for each other. The myths of jewelry are some of the most fertile ground for advertising. There is a flourishing hidden cultural agenda, and it all seems so “natural” that we do not even see the garden.
Advertising is believable because it tells us things that we already “know.” In context, the ads seem predictable, familiar and harmless. Because they are advertising, we don’t stop to study and think about what we are seeing and reading. We tend to dismiss advertising for traditional, commercial and manufactured jewelry as unimportant because the jewelry objects are different than our own. We overlook the fact that what is being promoted is not the actual jewelry in the picture but a whole system of cultural beliefs about jewelry. Whether we like it or not, all jewelry is understood through a single mythic frame.
The ads selected for discussion here were published in magazines during the past three years. After dozens of ads were examined critically, a number of themes became apparent. The ads presented here are examples that typify these themes. While some of the “readings” of these ads might seem niggling, it should be remembered that they are very expensive, carefully constructed productions. Nothing in these ads is accidental.
So, why is “Marya asleep on a bed of pearls?” (1) Why, at 2:48 AM, Paris? The little book is probably her passport. She has just arrived in Paris, which, everyone knows, is the most romantic city in the world. A woman lying on a bed is a conventional expression of sexual availability. The roses in cellophane mean that someone was there to greet her. She fell asleep on the bed while “playing” with her jewelry. Her position reminds one of a child who has fallen asleep with favorite toys. The message here is that jewelry and romance go together and that women are like children when it comes to jewelry. The ad suggests that someone should tuck her in.
The ad is also about the happiness of being envied by others. Our peek at Marya allows us to observe her stare of happiness and to imagine our own happiness, were we observed in her shoes (or in this case, her bed). The promise of advertising, according to social critic John Berger, is not simply pleasure, but the promise of happiness as judged from the outside by others. “The happiness of being envied is glamour.” Paris, romance, roses and the jewelry represent a fantasy in which the viewer can imagine him/her self being envied by others.
Jewelry is traditionally connected with the glamour of rich and famous people, especially movie stars and royalty. Their wealth, status, power and romantic attraction are symbolized by jewelry. Two great romances of the century, between King Edward VIII and Wallis Warfield Simpson and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, were accompanied by extravagant jewelry. They are glamorous because we imagine and envy their supposed happiness.
Some of the most memorable jewelry ads based on glamour are the Paloma ads. (2) As the daughter of Picasso, she symbolizes the tradition and authority of art (which will be discussed later), and, as herself, she symbolizes the glamour of the international jet-set. Sociologist Diane Barthel says that “Today, jet-setters, rock stars and fashion models have the most glamour, because they presumably have the most freedom; their lives resemble adolescent fantasies devoid of adult responsibilities. Their work, if they work, appears to be play; the world is their playground.” In the author’s estimation, the unimaginative jewelry designed and modeled by Paloma Picasso is successful because it is so mindless; in an odd twist, the mediocrity of her jewelry contributes to its glamour.
Another example from a series of ads reads, “Diamonds as exceptional as the woman who wears them.” (3) Here a flawless woman, wearing diamond earrings and a diamond necklace, is staring down dreamily at her own image in a mirror. Her foggy reflected image gazes out toward the viewer through unfocused eyes.
This type of image has been described by sociologist Erving Goffman as licensed withdrawal. He says that women, more often than men, are pictured engaged in involvements that remove them psychologically from the social situation. They appear disoriented and dependent on the protectiveness and good will of others who are (or might come to be) present.
The theme of woman-with-a-mirror is a leftover from art history. It symbolized women’s vanity self-absorption and passivity, and was used by men in the last century to represent “her perverse unwillingness to recognize that it was her natural, predestined duty to yield her ego to man’s will.”
Advertising is often derived from themes and images from art history. John Berger explains that “Art is a sign of affluence; it belongs to the good life…” and “…suggests a cultural authority, a form of dignity, even wisdom, which is superior to any vulgar material interest…” In this case, the art reference works on several levels. It establishes that this is the good life and that, therefore, these diamonds are not vulgar. And the wisdom of centuries of patriarchal cultural tradition reminds us, visually, that vanity and self-absorption are feminine traits.
“Diamonds as exceptional as the woman who wears them,” in this ad, implies that diamonds are comparable to exceptional women. Does this mean women with high IQs? No, it means women with exceptional beauty, like the woman in the picture. The message is that a woman’s value is in her beauty.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art had a hit in its gift shop last year. “Venus Earrings” were reportedly seen al I over New York. They were copied from pearl-drop earrings worn by the goddess of love in Venus Before the Mirror, painted by Peter Paul Rubens around 1616. The museum’s jewelry catalog explains that the “painting shows the nude Venus in front of a mirror held by the boyish god Amor. The position of the mirror allows Venus, through the reflection in the glass, to gaze flirtatiously at the viewer, expressing the alluring coquetry which is central to her being.”
The catalog goes on to explain that the painting is in the “Princely Collections of Liechtenstein… now the only surviving principality of the Holy Roman Empire,” and was “acquired to decorate their splendid palaces and to display their wealth and connoisseurship.” And finally, if that isn’t enough cultural authority, prestige and glamour, it adds the myth that pearls are associated with love, and “may have represented drops of water that fell from the love goddess as she stepped from her bath.”
Pearls are, in another ad, “The gem that is most woman.” (4) In this ad, a attractive young woman is seated in front of what appears to be a lectern (gripped by a male hand) and a classical bust on a pedestal. We feel the authority of art again. She is leaning forward and slightly to one side and is looking intently yet without expression in the direction of the sculpture. She appears lost in thought. Her licensed withdrawal is this time “anchored drift.” While she has mentally drifted from the physical scene, she is in the presence of a man who appears ready to cope with anything that might present itself. The man behind her on the right appears protective and even a bit threatening.
She is wearing a formal black dress that covers her arms and legs but is falling, apparently without her knowledge, off one shoulder. She is also wearing a lot of pearls. Behind her are seated three more formally dressed men. They are looking at the viewer with knowing smiles. She is like the sculpture on the pedestal, she is something to look at. This is an art history lecture, and here, as throughout western art history, women have been on display for men. She is the object, an object, of the male gaze. She is like the gem. “The gem that is most woman.”
In another ad, a young woman is slouched in a richly upholstered wing chair. (5) Her head is turned to one side and her forehead is resting on the side of the chair. She appears idle, as if she is waiting for direction. She is looking directly at the camera, smiling slightly at the viewer, as if to signal agreement. The picture is dark except for her face and one hand, which is positioned carefully to display a large diamond ring. The caption reads, “While it’s exciting to observe beauty it’s even more thrilling to enhance it.” The copy states, “Some men have the ability not only to embrace beauty, but to revel in it. They joyfully acknowledge that there is a particular pleasure in giving something rare and lovely. The rarest and loveliest object of all being a fine quality diamond of a carat or more.” This “tells the world that you delight in that which is truly and eternally beautiful.”
Here again, the woman is a beautiful “it.” She appears to be left out of the conversation, but she doesn’t seem to mind terribly. She seems satisfied with the ring. It contains a three carat diamond and 30 baguettes. This ad suggests that “some men,” are better than other men. “Some men” can recognize beauty. They can “embrace” and “revel” and “delight” and get “particular pleasure” and use words like “rare” and “lovely.” The ad suggests that a man can gain the status of a connoisseur by making the “right” choice. By buying diamonds, a man “tells the world” that he knows what the best gift is – diamonds – and that he is a rich and generous fellow.
The passive woman in the chair recalls many images from the 19th century of women seated in chairs in domestic settings. Although upper class men worked, the only socially acceptable role for upper class women was idleness. Women themselves were considered decorative objects. Idleness and passivity are constant themes in recent jewelry advertising. Not one ad, in the dozens examined, pictured a woman engaged in any task. In fact, most of the jewelry pictured looks as if it was intended to encumber the wearer, making even the idea of work seem inappropriate. The message is clear: idle women wearing jewelry symbolize upper-class status.
A large percentage of jewelry advertising suggests that jewelry be given as a gift. Jewelry is a particularly suitable gift because it has no use. Gifts are meant to be social statements, not contributions to the recipient’s well being. The above ad suggests that a man who buys diamond jewelry as a gift is making a statement about his social status and generosity.
Other ads intended for men suggest that jewelry is a way of getting what they want. Through the bestowal of gifts, a man not only demonstrates his superior economic position, he ties the receiver more closely to himself. In giving jewelry to a woman, he establishes the terms of the relationship. “The gift comes to represent the power contract, his economic power in exchange for her sexual power.” In this way, “jewelry is presented as the measure of what a man is willing to pay for a woman. It represents the reward for feminine virtue, or for its surrender.”
A man and woman are pictured in a rowboat. (6) The picture is slightly grainy and unfocused, like a dream. The scene reminds one of an Impressionist painting. The boat, of course, symbolizes that they are embarking on a journey. The man is seated holding an oar, in position to row, signaling that he is in charge here. The woman, who appears dwarfed by him, is leaning against him with her head on his shoulder. His other arm is around her. He states, “We were just drifting. Then I gave her a diamond so breathtaking, she was swept away.” The ad is very specific about the actual cost. It takes two months salary to buy a “breathtaking diamond. ” The idea of courting a woman with jewelry has been around for a while. Shakespeare observed in Two Gentlemen of Verona, “Dumb jewels often in their silent kind, more than quick words, do move a woman’s mind.”
Barthel states that diamond engagement and wedding rings symbolize, in our culture, “not simply individual commitment, but commitment to social adulthood,” and acceptance of traditional adult roles. She goes on to explain that cultures often select certain older, “wiser” people to give advice in explaining the significance and performance of its ritual steps. Anthropologists call these people adepts. She points out that in “magazine advertisements the leading adepts are the jewelers. These wise men (they are always shown as men) help the young couple” make the right choices in the ritual of ring exchange.
The role of jewels in the giving of gifts was also mentioned by Edward Lucie-Smith in his introduction to The Story of Jewelry. Apparently an expression of good will, the gift carries an overtone of hostility because it puts the recipient into our debt, and therefore into our power. In European culture, in recent centuries, jewels have essentially been the gift of the man to the woman, the expression of a wish for physical possession.” There are numerous jewelry ads that show women in a state of ecstasy, swooning or appearing disheveled or ravished. (7) This could imply that they have been “possessed” by a man, or that they simply have been transported by happiness.
Lucie-Smith goes on to comment on the “ambiguous” symbolism of slave bracelets, chokers that resemble collars worn by dogs or slaves, and bracelets that look like manacles. (8) One could add heavy chains to the list. The theme of the female as slave is not uncommon in both jewelry and ad images in recent years. (9) One cannot help but recall the popularity of the theme of the nude female slave in 19th century sculpture.
He also pointed out the “aggressive phallic symbolism” in many designs, especially the many examples of snake jewelry from the 19th century. This type of imagery could be extended to include the prevalence of ads for all types of jewelry picturing women as creatures from some primordial swamp. In these ads women appear in jungle settings, naked and caked with mud or dressed and made up to resemble animals. They are depicted as untamed, uncivilized creatures with primitive instincts and undeveloped intellects, and they wear jewelry. (10)
Misogynist fantasies such as these, which equate women with a primitive “nature,” are also left over from the last century when it was thought that females had not been able to participate in the great evolutionary process that was guiding the intellectual male. Women of color often are pictured as the subhumans in these ads, rendering the ads racist as well.
While it seems natural that women wear jewelry, this reoccurring linkage of jewelry with the primitive female is troublesome. Perhaps women, by wearing jewelry, maintain and exhibit a connection to their physical being, while men, having assumed a position of intellectual superiority reject jewelry in order to evince transcendence over their bodies. Perhaps jewelry symbolizes a cultural agenda – a desire to differentiate the intellectual male from the intellectually inferior, and more physical, female.
Why does the notion of jewelry on a man seem “unnatural” and “unmanly?” Berger suggests that “A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies.” His appearance communicates his power to affect others, either physically, with his larger more muscular body, or through his financial power and authority. A woman’s presence, and her identity are determined solely by her beauty. Her “attractiveness,” her ability to attract others through her appearance, determines how she will be treated. A woman’s appearance, and how successfully she plays her beauty role, determines her status and identity.
Men are simply not expected to use jewelry to establish an identity to create their status or maintain their presence. Perhaps men who wear ear studs upset fathers-of-daughters and small Illinois towns because they raise questions about the meaning of manhood. Perhaps jewelry has become linked to the absence of power in the wearer and appears as a compensation. A man who wears jewelry thus appears to be unmanly, threatening the universal promise of power men are supposed to embody.
There are, of course, a few exceptions to the male jewelry taboo. A man may wear a watch, an ID bracelet, a wedding or class ring, a tiny lapel pin, a tie tack or cuff links. He can wear a western belt buckle or bolo if he is a cowboy and a gold chain if he is a pimp or a baseball player. He can even wear large diamond rings if he happens to be Fats Domino, Liberace or Sammy Davis Jr. Other than these, when the symbolism is obvious and/or intended, it raises questions. As Clark observed, “when a man wears jewelry… everybody comments…. people can’t understand why you are wearing something.”
An advertising campaign for men’s jewelry was run in Ms. magazine in 1988, before it went ad-free, “The Man’s Diamond. When a Woman Loves a Man.” (11) It is subtle . The woman appears slightly larger, higher and in front of the man, dominating the picture. This role reversal is repeated by the fact that the man is leaning off balance, and the woman appears upright, stable and in control. The woman has a simple, straightforward hairstyle and is wearing a dark suit and white blouse. She looks businesslike, except that her skirt is very short and we see a lot of leg. The man is wearing a mismatched light colored plaid jacket, light-colored trousers, striped shirt and tie, and if you look carefully, a very small tie tack. She has her hand on his shoulder and is tugging playfully on the tie. They do not appear to be married. “Because we can’t always be together, here’s a little part of me you can always take with you.” He is looking directly at the viewer and laughing, because he knows it’s a joke.
The ad is in black and white because it is a dream. Everything about it is a fantasy of role reversal. Women do not yet have economic equality with men. Most women do not earn enough money to buy gifts of diamond jewelry, and men don’t wear jewelry anyway. Everybody knows that men traditionally exhibit proprietary “ownership” of women; men give diamonds to women (sometimes an implied payoff for guilt) and men are the ones who are expected to have the high-paying, important careers. This is a fantasy about having it all; a high-paying job, a man who plays along and sexy legs.
Other ads that allude to new post-feminist thinking are the ones suggesting that women buy jewelry for themselves. (12) In this one, the photo is framed like a portrait and, again, borrows the dreamy soft illusion of Impressionist painting. A pretty young woman with Pre-Raphaelite hair and a gold necklace looks down demurely in licensed withdrawal. “The ad reads: “It had been staring at me from the window for, I don’t know, a month I guess. Every day, walking to and from work, I’d see it. And every time I’d think to myself, ‘Oh, someday. Someday when I’ve got something to celebrate.’ And then, yesterday, I finally realized that this gold necklace was something to celebrate, all by itself. I think it’s that beautiful. The way it looks around my neck is just that perfect. And really, how often do you get to feel that way?”
This is a young woman with a job, but apparently no financial responsibilities or financial plan. It reflects and reinforces old notions about women working for “pocket money,” for extra spending money, while men work because they must support families. In addition, she reinforces the stereotypes about women being narcissistic, self-centered, indecisive and likely to make purchasing decisions on impulse for illogical reasons.
She may have a job, but she still represents “traditional” female roles. She has no goals that would require her to save the money she earns. “Someday,” meaning someday when she finds a man (to take care of her), she will have something to celebrate. But until then, she will have to substitute something “that perfect” around her beautiful neck. Here, as well as in the ad with the boat, jewelry is equated with fulfillment. In the boat ad, the man is told that the diamond is “as beautiful as the way she makes you feel.” In this ad, the question, “How often do you get to feel that way?” refers to the same thing, sexual fulfillment. The man can get it from a (beautiful) woman, but the woman (who isn’t supposed to have any sexual feelings of her own), can get it from jewelry. The woman is supposed to retain a childlike, virginal innocence and like Marya, get her pleasure from jewelry.
Finally, we are told, “When you really want to treat yourself, nothing makes you feel as good as gold.” In other words, if you want to buy yourself happiness, if you want to be envied, you should buy the thing that gives you the most status, “real” gold jewelry. What is implied is that jewelry made of any other material will not not produce the desired social result (and you won’t feel as good).
The majority of ads feature jewelry made of precious stones, mainly diamonds and pearls. Out of dozens of ads, there are many promoting gold, and few showing even silver jewelry. (Some exhibit jewelry of other materials, but these are fashion ads.) One is forced to conclude that jewelry requires the use of precious materials. Objects not made of precious materials do not fit cultural practices associated with jewelry, cannot function as social statements and do not carry within them the commonly held beliefs and easily understood symbolism of jewelry.
Objects made of other materials are not advertised or sold as jewelry but as fashion. Fashion is a different belief system that is based upon rapid social change and personal transformation. Although objects may appear similar because of their function, they belong to separate belief systems because of their different materials. For example, titanium earrings and gold earrings appear to have the same function but belong to different belief systems. The belief system that defines jewelry requires the prestige of precious materials.
Most of us understand jewelry as an object, as a thing apart from cultural beliefs about jewelry. As artists, we choose materials for our own, independent and esthetic reasons. We understand jewelry as the product of an artistic process. We experience jewelry on a variety of levels, in many of the same ways that we appreciate other art forms. We recognize formal and conceptual concerns as well as process and technical proficiency. In addition women metalsmiths and men in this field who attempt to wear jewelry may experience additional levels of awareness. We experience jewelry as art because of this perspective.
Many of us believe that we are making art, and we want the objects that we make to be understood as art objects. But jewelry can only be understood as jewelry. The cultural baggage carried by jewelry just won’t fit through the doors of art galleries. It’s not that the objects themselves are not art, it is that they can only be understood by our culture as jewelry. For the same reason, the objects many of us make will also not “fit in” at the jewelry store at the local mall.
Jewelry according to our cultural belief system, does not require an artist or any artistic intention. Its meaning is written by the anonymous hand of cultural authority. Its quality is determined by its precious materials, and its cost and its value are determined by its capacity to indicate status. Its symbolism and significance are provided by our culture.
But status is not the only, or even the primary function of jewelry. The main function of jewelry in our culture is to symbolize and sustain the gender hierarchy. Jewelry provides ritual objects for paying homage to the patriarchy. Jewelry is not about love and beauty; it is about power. Jewelry symbolizes the unequal positions of women and men in our culture. It symbolizes men’s claim to intellectual superiority and women’s supposedly primitive nature. It serves as a visual reminder of men’s economic power and women’s dependence upon men. It promotes and perpetuates almost all the misogynist myths and stereotypes about women that evolved during the last century.
These cultural myths that define jewelry do not frame a pretty picture. Jewelry is not what it seems. Jewelry is admired for its beauty desired for its status and is believed to symbolize the universal, timeless themes of love and beauty. Jewelry seems so seductive, so innocent, so harmless, that one simply does not expect to find a hidden agenda. And that may be why the myths of jewelry are so very, very effective.
Susan Kingsley is a feminist and artist/metalsmith from Carmel, CA.