I’ve been musing a bit about jewellery lately. I usually wear the same favourite, meaningful pieces every day but seeing as I have more meaningful pieces that I have body parts to legitimately wear them on, I’ve been instituting a casual rotation. Taking out something new each day has reminded me about why I have that piece, when I got it, and what it means to me. It’s been a nice trip down memory lane, but has also made me think more about our personal adornment.
I am a jewellery person. From wide-eyed admiring the scale and sparkle of my parents’ friend’s (massive) engagement ring as a small child, to falling desperately in love with the work of Rene Lalique and Louis Comfort Tiffany as an adult, my attraction to the three dimensional, tangible art forms has always won out.
See how I equated jewellery with art there? Because I think it is. Most of it anyway – as with all artforms, there is the sublime, the controversial, the middle-of-the-road, and the simply crap.
The first thing for me is the workmanship, the skill of the artisan – it’s the design, the execution, the manipulation of precious metals and gems to make something useable and wearable and ‘real’. I love the tangibility of it – that I can touch and feel and move it myself, and not have to admire it from a distance. Something hand-made is precious in and of itself for the work and thought it involves, and the knowledge that the tiniest of tiny millimetres can make the difference between a piece soaring or sinking. When things are mass-produced too, there can be beauty in both the form and the intent. I love the story behind Elsa Peretti for Tiffany’s ‘Diamonds by the Yard’ – it was created so that every working girl (a dated concept, but summing up the new emancipated and self-sufficient breed of young woman of the time) could wear diamonds every day. This is jewellery acting as both status symbol and democratic equaliser all at once, because jewellery is a powerful signifier of who we are.
I think this is true both internally and externally. Internally because we select items that appeal to our personal aesthetics and that are often chosen by us to commemorate a significant event in our lives, and externally because we are choosing to show something of that to the world, and this is coupled with a number of other markers that jewellery carries around price, taste and status. Jewellery is also a more permanent display of these things, as when we choose ‘good’ jewellery we usually intend that it will be with us for a while and that we will wear it reasonably frequently. Unlike clothing (although also a powerful marker of status) which we discard at the end of the day and probably replace more readily as fashions change, jewellery is often chosen to last a significant period of time and is therefore a more considered and longer-term view of the self. Jewellery can be what we want to represent us now and in the future. The same cannot be said of a pair of bumster jeans.
Each piece I have is not encrusted with gems or dripping in platinum, but I have tried to buy the best quality I could at the time (in itself a potted history). I believe in buying quality things as much as possible, if they are to be used for a long time, or heavily. This isn’t to say I don’t love the odd piece of tatty plastic delight from Diva or Lovisa, and in fact some fun paste can often be just the ticket, on trend and budget friendly. But these things are reserved for fun and giggles, not for long-lasting memories and heirlooms.
The second, and most important, thing for me about jewellery is in its emotional significance. Jewellery has historically been created for and used as a marker of events – sad (see memento mori jewellery) to solemn and significant (see the Crown Jewels, or wedding rings) to joyous (I would put the modern-day ‘push present’ in this category, or perhaps more traditionally the use of jewellery as a gift for birthdays or anniversaries). We choose something permanent and beautiful to remind us of something or someone or some time, knowing that by wearing the memento close to us we are close to the memory behind it. As wedding rings symbolise connection and permanence between a couple, when passed down in families they tie us to those before us who we loved and remember. The same could be said for other items of personal used that are designed with form as well as function in min – watches, pens or cigarette cases, for example. The day before my wedding my mother-in-law gave me a powder compact that her father had bought for her. It was a way to connect me to her family, and it couldn’t have been a sweeter thing to do. Has anyone ever passed down a pair of underpants or a pair of toenail clippers? Thought not. Not the same. A nail file isn’t art, but a silver-backed hairbrush is.
My own ‘collection’ (ha! Elizabeth Taylor’s collection is not threatened) ranges from my grandmother’s wedding ring that my dad gave to me on my twelfth birthday, to my own wedding rings, to various things I have bought to mark an emotional phase in my life. I wear each and every one, and I remember each and every reason that I bought each and every piece – and if I also happened to buy things just because they were beautiful, then I remember that too.
I like that it’s a collection of similar things. If I had been given a laptop to celebrate finishing university and a nice set of sheets for a birthday and a lamp for Christmas, I would still appreciate it as a gift but I just don’t think that it would add to a roadmap of important things, people, places and experiences in my life. Much as the organisation principle ‘store like with like’ applies to my house, I think that by collecting in this way I am creating a bit of a capsule of things that I both love and that provide a deeper connection with something important. A gift of a foot spa wouldn’t have the same effect.