Next time you go to a museum look at the jewellery. Not just at the beauty, craftsmanship or sparkle of the materials but at the space around it. That place where the body fits, the hole in the centre of a ring, the pin that goes through an ear, a clasp that secures around a neck. Then imagine who once wore that piece of jewellery. The once proximity of these objects to their wearers can tell us much about who those people were and what they considered important. Why else would you wear something so close unless you feel its meaning intensely?
The Past and the Present
I visited the British Museum some months ago (I wrote about the visit here if you want to know more.) Since then the experience has percolated through both my thoughts and my creative practice into new work and these ideas about jewellery and identity.
However technologically advanced our world gets a connection with the past is always important. I don’t mean from a nostalgic point of view but a historical, human point of view. The links we can make with our ancestors on a human level and the empathy we can feel with their distant lives unites us as part of one human species. Right down to the way we think.
We developed the ability to use “symbolic thinking”, using or wearing objects to express who we were millennia ago. Although if you are talking jewellery and self-adornment, we can feel a bond with another human species too, archaeologists found Neanderthal jewellery in 2010 that meant they, as well as us Homo Sapiens were capable of expressing themselves through ornamentation. An impulse we still take great care over today. We’ve come a long way baby, but we are still the same in many ways. That’s a pretty humbling thought.
Expressing Strength: Two Ways
Fast forward to the Iron Age, those craftspeople who made the objects in the British Museum’s room 50 were doing the same thing, using hands on metals this time. Pulling objects from raw materials that did not exist before they made them. Decorating, taking shapes from the world around them to signify, adorn and enrich their lives and the lives of those they made for. Jewellery that celebrates physical strength in its scale and weight.
Further forward in time to the Cheapside Horde, Elizabethan and early Stuart valuables buried under a jewellers shop near St Paul’s in London by a jeweller possibly going off to fight in the Civil War from which he never returned. It’s all about the gems and colour here; fine enamel work is preponderant, light, refined and speaking of a gentility of culture utterly absent in the substantial golden torcs of the Iron age. This is a different kind of strength and the jewellery expresses this.
I have made two torcs and several fibulae brooches since my British Museum visit. The timeline of jewellery is full of common signifiers, and I have included bold shapes and defined lines in my latest works to reflect the strength of the past and the energy of the culture of the present. The music that fires off my synaesthesia and inspires my jewellery is of this time and this moment (although it too has its creative genealogy) and makes for a heady combination with the strength in the underlying structure taken from the ancient forms of jewellery.
We are free to dip in and out of a variety of identifying symbols and signifiers, trying on whatever suits our mood. Ever in search of our tribe, it is down to us to satisfy our urge to adorn our bodies. Who are we? What message do we give to the outside world about our status, strength, mood, passions and personality? It is in that essential human use of symbols and signifiers as a means of self-expression and identification that jewellery comes into its own. What are you wearing today?
This post was inspired by my memory of a line from this poem by John Donne:
When my grave is broke up again…
…And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
Will he not let us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls, at the last busy day,
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?
The Relic – John Donne