As the only magazine of its kind, Metalsmith is many things to many people. In an effort to encourage not only excellence in practice and design but also to stimulate dialogue and critical thinking in the field of metalwork, we will on occasion print articles that focus less on individual practitioners and more on broader issues regarding: the history of the art form, questions about some of our basic assumptions about jewelry, and a far ranging discussion of ideas regarding the future of the field. This article is the first in a two part series investigating some of the history of metalwork and some ideas concerning the traditional and contemporary functions of jewelry.
The images reproduced herein are meant to serve not so much as illustrations of specific points but rather as examples of the variety of contemporary metalwork and its approaches. These images are also a representative sampling of some of the work of jewelry recently donated to the Charles A. Wustum Museum of Art in Racine, Wisconsin, by Karen Johnson Boyd. We can only hope that a gift of such scope and aesthetic importance bodes well for both the Wustum and other public collections throughout the country. Whenever collections of metalwork achieve their well deserved place in museums and galleries everyone in the field will benefit.
As a part-time jeweler and a full-time teacher, I occasionally wonder where the boundaries of jewelry lay, and what aesthetic potential the field offers. Unfortunately, intelligent writing on jewelry is scarce, and the vast amount of theorizing about painting and sculpture offers little of real value, as the basic agenda of the traditional “fine arts” does not really confront the issues properly belonging to jewelry. To date, most writing on Jewelry has stressed design, craftsmanship, and physical usefulness, with a few efforts directed toward expanding the familiar definitions of the art. But I have come to believe that Jewelry more than most other disciplines in the visual arts, is characterized by social and psychological utility. The personal uses to which adornment is put suggests an aesthetic possibility that few observers have noticed: Jewelry has the ability to touch people.
Jewelry has been produced by almost every known society since the beginning of culture. Seeking an exact definition of the term “jewelry” is a bit of a futile exercise, perhaps, but one hopes the effort will shed new light on the subject. Unfortunately, while it’s possible to define chemical elements like “carbon”, or rigorous constructs like an “equilateral triangle” with some precision, terms in the arts defy accurate elucidation. Such terms are invariably messy and vague. Critics and theorists have been arguing for centuries about the exact meaning of “painting” or “sculpture”, and one generation’s answers disintegrate as the next generation looks at the questions anew. No doubt, getting a firm grasp on the idea of .jewelry is equally difficult.
While attempting to define the field, I have found it useful to investigate the vast production of historical jewelry. By examining earlier works, especially the adornment employed in pre-literate cultures, and by scrutinizing contemporary western jewelry objects, one is able to compile a list of qualities and functions that together help to define both the form and the practice. The definition is loose, of course, and some aspects may seem almost mutually exclusive. But in trying to define an enormous body of work, one should probably be excused for some imprecision.
Initially, it seems that jewelry falls between sculpture on one side and garments on the other. Like sculpture, most jewelry consists of a physical object that has its own discrete existence. Some jewelers even intend their work to be viewed isolated from the human body. But unlike most sculpture, jewelry is also inextricable from the presence of a living person: most jewelry is made to be worn, or to be imagined being worn. So, like garments, the site of jewelry is the body. However, unlike garments, jewelry is rarely made to protect people from heat, cold, precipitation, and the gaze of our neighbors. Yet, the line between garments and jewelry can still be vague. Certainly garments can be metal – chain mail, for instance – and jewelry can be made of fiber. Similarly, the scale and the enveloping quality of garments have become the province of some jewelers: Caroline Broadhead’s veils and Susanna Heron’s hats come to mind. So, jewelry occupies a territory between sculpture and garments, overlapping both to a considerable degree, but also maintaining a distinct identity.
Traditionally, jewelry is made to be attached to the body or to clothing. Some types conform to the anatomy, as in rings, bracelets, necklaces, head-dresses, and the like. Other types of jewelry are designed to be fixed to garments, as in pins, penanular brooches, and buttons. Some varieties demand alteration of the body itself, as in earrings for pierced ears, nose ornaments, and lip plugs or labrets. A vast array of other forms remain, (hairpins, combs, barrettes, pasties, pocket watches, etc.) but the common element is that they are all fastened to the human form.
As far as we know, jewelry has always been used to decorate the human figure. The word “decoration” may seem pejorative in certain purified regions of modernism, but I use the term without any negative overtones. In formal terms, the decorative function of jewelry has been to provide visual accents, color, contrast, and texture, as well as to focus attention to specific parts of the body. In these senses, jewelry serves as a compositional device in the layout of the human form.
But the urge to decorate satisfies psychological purposes, too. Jewelry beautifies, within the value system of the local culture, and sometimes renders the wearer socially or sexually desirable. One cannot underestimate the power of jewelry to enhance self-image and to alter social perceptions. A caricature of this effect can be found in the prototypical disco-era “groovy guy”, hoping to impress others of his ilk, with four or five strands of gold chains about his neck.
Yet, decoration can be more than the mindless application of gop. Especially in pre-literate cultures, most decoration is a carefully orchestrated collection of signs, each with particular meanings and overtones. When worn, jewelry constitutes a complex statement of social fact and personal fantasy, which other people in the same culture recognize and interpret. In spite of the devaluation that decoration has received from several generations of artists, critics, and teachers, personal ornamentation still exerts a subtle control on the coded message the wearer imparts. On the body, decoration has a subtext.
Probably the most significant subtext of jewelry is seen in how it marks social identity and status. Adornment has always been used to either distinguish from or merge the wearer with social groupings. The coded information that societies evolve for jewelry can be employed to make the wearer different from his neighbors, or the same. Military insignia do both, for instance. The stars that a general wears identify him as belonging to a particular branch of the armed forces (and thus the same as everyone else in the army), but they also indicate a high rank, placing him in a superior class to colonels, majors, and enlisted men. In civilian life, diamond rings and razor blades are equally coded. A large diamond announces wealth, while the razor blade declares the wearer to be of the punk demi monde. Diamonds at a country club indicate conformity and a bid for acceptance; but in the same place, razor blades hung around the neck would quite intentionally invite suspicion and raised eyebrows. In each case, jewelry is instantly recognized as a marker, a cipher in a language of signs.
Another traditional function of jewelry is to serve as a redeemable investment, a portable bank account. Women all over the world wear a substantial portion of their wealth in jewelry, which can be converted into goods and services should the need arise. In this way, jewelry is also a financial insurance policy guaranteeing the survival of a woman and her family in the event of her husband’s death. For cultures without banking institutions, keeping wealth attached to the body offers a convenient alternative to a savings account. One suspects the form is also a safeguard against theft: a woman could always protest loudly when her investment was being stolen, and the small scale of jewelry allows such wealth to be easily hidden.
For as long as we know of, jewelry has been associated with the spiritual and the supernatural. Amulets and talismans appear in every culture, offering magical power and protection to the wearer. Sacred symbols are frequently made portable, as in crucifixes, stars of David, or Islamic protective hands. In these cases, the object of jewelry is a condensed symbol for an entire cosmology, summarizing the relation between God and human. The intimate contact between symbol and skin, as jewelry is worn, becomes a constant reminder of one’s faith, and the promise of security and salvation.
Each of the above mentioned functions partially defines jewelry. Most ornament, however, fulfills several functions simultaneously, setting up a layering of use and meaning that can be confusing and contradictory. And in spite of all of our technical sophistication, westerners still use jewelry for much the same reasons as the most “primitive” of African tribesmen.
I have, so far, outlined five functions that traditionally have defined jewelry: attachment to the body, personal decoration, displaying socially meaningful codes, serving as portable and redeemable wealth, and mediation with the spiritual. But, I also think that other constants exist in the history of jewelry.
One such constant is the astonishingly wide variety of material employed in making jewelry. The idea that metal is the medium of choice for adornment is a rather narrow Western European view, sanctified by tradition and education. Even in Europe, stone, wood, glass beads, leather, animal horn, coal, and human hair, among other materials, have been applied to jewelry making. A cursory study of non-Western cultures reveals an even greater range: feathers, clay, cloth, straw, lacquer, shell, and dozens of other materials have all been used for adornment. The rebel jewelers of the early 1980s who disdained metal shocked only those who discounted or ignored the world history of jewelry.
Additionally, the majority of jewelry is caught up in issues regarding sensual and sexual appeal. The basic impulse for decorating the body has always been connected to a bid for acceptability trying to be secure and likable. The powerful human desire to belong is a basic motivation for the use of jewelry, and one of the means to that end has always been to look as good as possible. Every society of course, has its own standards as to what looks good, but a common thread is found in sensual and sexual appeal. The shine of polished metal and the glitter of faceted gemstones on wedding rings are typical of the seductive allure of jewelry. In the yaake dance of the Wodaabe tribe of Niger, young men adorn themselves to accentuate the local standards of masculine beauty: straight noses, white eyes and teeth, and slender bodies. During the dance, young women can choose the man they find most attractive, and they later discretely spend the night together. Just as in your average pick-up bar, good looks pay off.
On the other hand, playing into the sexual appeal of fine jewelry can reinforce unfortunate, stereotypical roles for women. In most societies, women have long been regarded as sexual objects, not as complete human beings (see Metalsmith, Volume 11, Number 3). Since women are still the primary users of jewelry, one must question whether jewelry reinforces the idea of women as yet another possession, or an equal partner in the social process. I don’t know what the answer is, but if jewelry is to stress sexual allure, it must also maintain the dignity of men and women alike, and refuse to treat women as amusing sex objects. Perhaps the younger generation is now or will be more sensitive to the way social codes (of which jewelry is one) can reinforce role stereotypes.
While this discussion has concentrated on the traditional functions and qualities of jewelry please do not think that I am advocating a slavish adherence to convention. To the contemporary practitioner, the past can be a rich and valuable resource, as well as an inspiration. Unfortunately, the modernist view holds that tradition creates stagnation and repression. (As if in agreement, the word “tradition” appears as a synonym for “oldness” and “decline” in my copy of Roget’s Thesaurus.) The early modernists struggled against a system of art and thought that was intolerant of fresh, new ideas. To thinkers such as Adolph Loos and Walter Gropius, the ridiculous and restrictive rules promoted by the academies and the powerful critics of the time proved that all tradition had to be discarded. The modernist distaste for historical reference came from a confusion between self-righteous academicism and the authentic lineage of the past. Quite contrary to Loos and Gropius, tradition should be preserved because it allows for variation and invention within structured continuity.
The trick is to regard tradition not as a collection of ironbound rules, but as a loose structure that allows room for creative movement. It may be a typically European misunderstanding to regard tradition as simply dogma. A close look at any pre-literate or ancient culture will reveal that tradition in the visual arts allowed for ongoing, organic changes. It also allowed for considerable variation and personal invention. At first glance, a Western observer may think that all the patterns in non-western or tribal cultures are identical, and thus every individual within those societies must be the prisoner of custom. But a more concentrated look reveals that within a group or tribal style there is also divergence. Further study reveals that these styles gradually evolved and continue to evolve, reflecting changes in community and environment. Clearly, pre-literate peoples regarded tradition as a framework and a starting-point, not as a rule book to follow blindly.
My point is this: the traditions of jewelry can be honored and understood, but not taken as holy writ. The history of jewelry is far older than the history of painting, and far richer than the history of sculpture. Jewelry is firmly grounded in the human condition, and we are neither so enlightened nor so creative that we can afford to ignore the combined experience of hundreds of cultures and innumerable generations. At the same time, we must realize that not all lessons from the past are relevant today, and tradition can, and should, be tailored to fit present conditions.