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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.

Illustration by Rosie Fitter

Pick up any book about jewellery and its introduction will undoubtedly define it the same way; put simply, jewellery acts as an ornament to adorn the body. Its presence is often dazzling​, ​and generally more noticeable than its absence. As Andy Warhol pertinently said, 'Jewellery doesn’t make a person more beautiful, it makes a person ​feel​ more beautiful'. True, jewellery​ ​rarely ever takes away from an appearance, and by its very nature, adds. Perhaps the transformative psychological power that jewels lord over us is the key to their enduring presence in human society.

However, the precise function of an individual piece of jewellery often dies with the wearer, becoming lost in time with the absence of the original​ ​body it once clung to. Taking the sea urchin necklace from ​Oceania​ as example, its precise meaning is now lost after being stripped from context. The museum display​ ​removes the life from the necklace, converting it to a limp flat circle where it might otherwise slink over the contours of human shoulders. The urchin necklace could have been worn and loved as an everyday ornament for a woman, ​or, as is more likely, worn only on a specific and special occasion. For instance, the row of unequal spines could have bristled around the neck of a man during a ritualistic ceremony​ ​preceding war. When examining an object, from a ring to a crown, the meaning is dependent on knowledge of the body that originally carried it.

The commemorative power of jewellery is consequently derived from the strong link between a piece and its wearer’s body. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current​ ​exhibition, ​Jewelry: The Body Transformed​ (12/11/18 - 24/02/19), explores the relationship between jewellery and the human body by displaying pieces from the MET’s vast collection. The wide variety of locations and periods from which the pieces are drawn are connected thematically, into groups such as: ‘The Divine Body’, ‘The Regal Body’, ‘The Transcendent Body’, ‘The Alluring Body’ and ‘The Resplendent Body’. The key point of this exhibition seems simple enough​, the enduring presence of jewellery on the human body. But understanding why gold, precious stones and other metals have maintained their value in society throughout the ages as markers of material and spiritual wealth is more complex.

Jewellery has also played a major role in adorning the absent body. The tombs of Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs exemplify the lavish practice of using gold and precious stones to bring the body of the deceased back into the minds of the living. An iconic example of gold marking the absence of the living body lies in the tomb of the infamous Egyptian Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, whose body was laid to rest in a gold sarcophagus inlaid with lapis lazuli. The durability of gold and gemstones has provided them with an immortal status compared to the fragile human body which so quickly decays to dust. As Genesis 3:19 (King James Version) reminds us, “thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”. Diamonds are ranked ten on the Mohs Hardness Scale and are ten times harder than corundum (sapphires and rubies) in the preceding rank. By contrast, the enamel on human teeth is ranked a mere five. The power to endure the wearing of time is perhaps the strongest reason that​ jewellery is so consistently linked with the Gods and afterlife throughout human history.

The contemporary New York-based designer, Erica Weiner, ​points out that 'people started making memorial jewellery because there was no photography, and if your loved one died you wanted something as a touchstone to remember them every day'. Gold, silver and precious stones last longer than bone​ ​and are therefore appropriate materials to commemorate the absent, mortal body. On a more domestic level, it is common practice to leave jewellery to relatives upon death. This simple practice is part of the larger memorial role jewellery plays. Being left your grandmother’s ring is not only a way of ensuring the protection of the object’s material worth, but also preserves the memory of the absent.

Adorning one​’​s body with an emblem has long signalled remembrance. In the west, these objects of adornment are frequently made from precious materials that last the test of time, however, this is not always the case. Each November, for a short period, the brooch returns to the UK. Brooches are by now a somewhat archaic piece of jewellery rarely worn by young people today. However, as a sign of remembrance for the bloodshed during​ ​the two devastating World Wars, young and old alike in Britain wear a poppy brooch for a few weeks preceding 11t​h​ November. This tradition is to mark the absence of those who suffered and perished in war. But these paper brooches are hand-made by the British Legion for charity and are intentionally as short-lived as the bloom of an actual poppy picked from the field. Their short lifespan, from being pinned to coat labels to inevitably falling to the ground as victims of the wear and tear of moving, is deeply symbolic of the short lives of the soldiers. Although these paper brooches are very loosely categorized as ‘jewellery’, the symbolic function they serve in commemorating the dead places them in the long-standing phenomenon of mourning jewellery.

Adorning the present body to commemorate the absence of another body after death has driven skilled craftsman across the globe for generations. The common choice of gold and gemstones for such objects is significant as it creates a striking paradox. The fragility of human life is placed in stark contrast to the enduring lifespan of the gemstones and precious metals. However, as the paper poppy and urchin necklace reveal, ​ornaments are not limited to​ ​rare and lasting materials. Perhaps​ ​the ubiquitous presence of adornment in human society, whether rendered in precious stones, organic materials like urchin spines, or just paper, is a result of the human condition which wants to extend itself past the mortal body inevitably fading to dust. All that is to say that neither personal sentiment or symbolism in jewellery is rarely, if ever, absent.

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