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The Unifying Power of Jewellery

With the ongoing Brexit debate over whether to stay or leave - a metaphor for divorce reoccurring in newspaper headlines; the unifying message of Valentine’s Day holds greater importance. We may love and live in close proximity to one another, however, the impermeable membrane of our skin ensures that we can never inhabit exactly the same space as another individual: we are islands. In 1956, Aldous Huxley eloquently wrote, after his psychedelic experience under the influence of mescaline: “From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes”. Huxley recognised that these ‘island universes’ are not totally isolated: through speech and touch “most island universes are sufficiently like one another to permit of inferential understanding or even of mutual empathy...”[1] This mutual empathy can manifest as love and, more sensually, in lust. Jewellery is a fundamental tool exchanged to express love and lust in an attempt to lay claim to, or to enter, the physical realm of another’s bodily island.

Cabinet Containing Gold Medieval Wedding Rings, Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme, Paris

The display of a jewel upon the body is a simple sign of possession; the gift receiver and the gift giver are both bound together in the exchange. Valentine’s Day is a clear example of this emotional exchange embodied through a material gift. The flurry of anxiety, in trepidation and excitement surrounding Christmas consumerism dwindles by the middle of February and Valentine’s Day provides the perfect excuse to indulge in more gift-giving. In the weeks preceding February 14th, shops are awash with red hearts and cards containing messages of love, inspired by the legend of St Valentine and iconography adapted from the ancient mythic figure of Venus and her mischievous son Cupid.

The story of St. Valentine, the early Christian martyr, is filled with as much bloodshed as it is with the sweet sentiment of love. St. Valentine of Rome was believed to have been born in Terni, in the 3rdcentury AD. His feast day is February 14th. In the Middle Ages, St. Valentine became a champion of courtly love. His attributes included birds and roses, in addition to hearts pierced with Cupid’s arrows. Although St. Valentine is best known for his powers to unify the hearts of those in love, his short hagiography describes his physical healing powers. He is also one of the saints called upon to protect against the plague. Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend (1260) describes St. Valentine healing a girl with epilepsy and restoring the senses of sight and hearing to his jailor’s deaf and blind daughter. An elaboration to this story has grown and in many people’s minds St. Valentine is a doomed romantic, torn away from the woman he loved (who, in many stories, is the jailer’s daughter) to be martyred. The legend describes St. Valentine leaving behind a letter signed “Your Valentine”. Another popular legend describes St. Valentine as a rebel priest, preaching to persecuted Christians in Rome and performing secret marriage services for Christian couples about to be killed by the Romans.

The heart and the rich, red hues of blood have long symbolised lust and love, thereby the red and pink have become associated with the passions of the heart. In the jewellery industry, these sentimental colours are becoming increasingly popular. In November 2018 the “Winston Pink Legacy” diamond set a new world record for coloured gemstone sales at Christie’s Geneva for 50,375,000 dollars. The fancy vivid pink diamond weighs 18.96 carats and was previously owned by the Oppenheimer family. The Oppenheimer family owned De Beers diamond company for many years. The family, therefore, developed an exquisite eye for stones, with access to the world’s most expensive and high-quality gemstones. Jewellery, ever an appropriate gift to be given as an expression of love, is a particularly popular gift in February. An individual can feel and see the glittering light of their lover in a brightly-coloured gemstone. The material worth of the precious stones and metals used in creating a particular piece of jewellery reflect the value that the gift-giver believes the gift-receiver has.

Jewellery has a long history of acting as a tangible bridge between partners to express the ephemeral emotion of love. Wedding rings have been exchanged for centuries to mark the union of a couple in one continuous circle. Wearing a precious stone or metal close to your skin is an intensely sensual act. The durability of materials typically used to make jewellery, such as gold, silver and precious gemstones, provides another reason for jewellery being an appropriate gift to symbolise unending love.

Material tokens of love, such as a pendant or brooch worn on the breast or a ring encircling the finger in an infinite band, have been exchanged and imbued with a sentimental value often far above the physical material value of the stones and metal. Diamonds are an example of this phenomenon. A calculated marketing campaign transformed carbon into an exceptionally valuable commodity and the ultimate symbol of luxurious love. The 1948 De Beers’ advertising campaign sentimentalised diamonds. In antiquity, diamonds were not cut or polished to reveal their brilliance but had a dull translucent quality and were primarily valued for their hardness, acting as a useful tool, rather than as a precious, aesthetic object. In the eighteenth century, with the advance of cutting technology through the Industrial Revolution and the discovery of new mines in South Africa, the diamond’s brilliant light-refracting quality was revealed. De Beers exploited the diamond’s durability by proclaiming “diamonds are forever”, and thereby launched the diamond as the ultimate symbol of love.

One could analyse this practice of gifting love tokens as a form of fetishism. Freud defined a fetish as the “doctrine of spirits embodied in, or attached to, or conveying influence through, certain material objects”. Freud also, more specifically, defined a fetish in the terminology of psychoanalysis as the “transference of the libido from of the whole object of affection to a part, a symbol, an article of clothing”. In the case of jewellery, the article of clothing is an object of affection. For example, the exchange of wedding rings is an ancient and cross-cultural practice for expressing the union of two individuals.

On a recent trip to the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme, Paris, I was intrigued by a cabinet containing a dozen gold medieval wedding rings. The thick bands of gold were decorated with elaborate patterns; quatrefoil flowers are outlined in gold wire and scrolls of gold are placed in concentric circles around the edge of the band. The finger rings were predominantly produced in Italy, especially Venice, by Jewish craftsmen in the fourteenth – sixteenth centuries. Many of the rings were topped not by a gemstone as was typical in Christian engagement rings, but instead by an exquisite miniature palace, castle or temple. Some of these gabled rooftops were decorated with red or blue enamel. The architectural feature gives the rings a weighty presence and fortress-like appearance. The rooftops symbolise the marital home of the newly made couple or can be read as a reference to the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The dual references for this decorative motif in representing the spiritual and material aspects of marriage are appropriate for an object which is exchanged as a visual unification of a couple. The elaborate, unwearable scale of such wedding rings suggests that they performed a ceremonial function during the wedding ceremony rather than being worn every day by the bride. However, the materiality in exchanging a ring can be seen as a physical embodiment of the transactional nature of the wedding in uniting two ‘island universes’. In the Jewish tradition, the Erusin (betrothal) is the moment when the groom takes a ring and says in Hebrew “behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring, according to the laws of Moses and Israel”.

The commodity exchange of precious stones is also an important way of uniting nations through trade, and particularly in the fourteenth century, marriage was an important way of uniting powerful families, property or businesses. Today, the sentimental transaction of marriage is emphasised but the activity of marriage during the Middle Ages treated women as a commodity to be exchanged and bought with gold. This is as problematic for feminists today as it was for Jewish law: it was written that the groom should “give to the bride a plain ring, with a value not less than one perutah”. A perutah was the lowest denomination of coinage during the Talmudic time. By this, it is clear that the value of the bride should be greater than the ring. The development of highly ornate wedding bands, as seen in Paris, were ceremonial.

Huxley may well have been right that an individual is an ‘island universe’, but jewellery can embody a powerful and tactile bond by which our ‘island universes’ can be bound together.

[1] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009) pp. 2-3.

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