Jewellery As Memento Mori

This article was previously published in Issue 19, ABSENCE (December 2018).

On a recent visit to the Royal Academy’s exhibition, ​Oceania​ (29/09/18 - 10/12/18), a necklace on display caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly, it was accompanied by the most basic description, ​including only a vague placement in time and origin with a simple list of the materials. It struck me as odd that there was so little to give the viewer a better understanding of what the object was, or what it was used for.​ ​Perhaps the limited description is accountable to the universal nature and understanding of a necklace as ornament.

This particular piece was made in the nineteenth century by an unknown craftsman, on a small Pacific island untouched by the industrialisation which was tearing through Europe at the time. Nonetheless, if one were to place it next to the creations of contemporary nineteenth century European jewellers, like Cartier and Boucheron in Paris, or Phillips Brothers in London, ​ ​certain structural similarities would become apparent. The rough fibre stringing together long urchin spines forms an unevenly graduated pattern similar to a Phillips Brothers piece with sleek and even gold pins soldered to a torque of the same colour. Although their cultural contexts are far apart, the viewer can assume the function of both pieces from their familiar form. In other words, we can easily imagine the absent neck on which both the sea urchins and the gold pins once hung.