Jewelry, it's not a pretty picture. (abridged)
By Susan Kingsley(topSusan Kingsley is a California artist and metalsmith)

(...) In most cultures the function of jewelry is to affirm values, symbolize commonly held beliefs, define social status and demonstrate wealth. (...)
What are our commonly held beliefs about jewelry? Just what does jewelry mean. And how does it function in our culture? (...)
In our culture, which includes the "art world," jewelry is something other than art. Jewelry is defined by a different and separate system of commonly held beliefs about its function and meaning. The meaning of the word "jewelry" is not found in the actual jewelry object but in a concept of jewelry that functions within our cultural system. The cultural values and beliefs about jewelry that are symbolized by an object are what makes it jewelry. In other words, jewelry is a concept or a belief system. An object that is consistent with our system of cultural beliefs about jewelry is jewelry.The concept of jewelry is contained in a system of beliefs that includes everything about it. The type of object, its function, proper size, materials, cost, who can and cannot wear it, where and how it should be obtained, what status it conveys, who can give it to whom and the implications of receiving it, are all parts of this system. Objects that fit within the frame of this belief system are jewelry. Objects that do not, are not jewelry.The meaning of jewelry is also contained in its difference from other concepts and belief systems.

rt is a different belief system with its own myths. Because jewelry and art are different systems of cultural practice a jewelry object will be understood only as part of the system that identifies it as jewelry. The particular qualities of the object have nothing to do with whether or not it is art. It will not be understood as art, because it is jewelry. (Cultural beliefs about art also prevent jewelry from being understood as art, but that is another story). The primary reason that jewelry is not art is that it is jewelry.The meaning of art is a subject of endless debate. No aspect of culture is examined more carefully. In contrast, the meaning of jewelry is presumed. Common beliefs about jewelry in our culture are considered "natural." (...)

What is the meaning of jewelry?What appears to be "natural" is really a screen that obscures a hidden agenda. Cultures tend to conceal their ideological interests in this way, because if we were aware of the cultural agenda we might not conform. What could we learn about jewelry if we looked at our "common sense" beliefs and beyond? What cultural agenda lurks behind jewelry? How can we determine what is behind conventional thinking about jewelry? Where can we find clues?Marshall McLuhan said that "...historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities."

dvertising is, of course, intended to make you want to buy something. It does so by promoting the system of beliefs that makes something desirable. Advertising does not create our consumer fantasies, it merely exploits ideas that already exist in our subcon­scious minds.  Advertising isn't trying to sell you the thing but is telling you how you can fulfill your dreams and desires by buying something. While there may be merit to some claims that advertising creates the need for useless items, and jewelry has no "use," jewelry and its mythology have a much longer history than advertising.Jewelry is a luxury item. Its meaning is culturally constructed, and its use is symbolic. Jewelry advertising explains its symbolism and serves as a guide to using jewelry to obtain desired social responses. Advertising and jewelry seem made for each other. The myths of jewelry are some of the most fertile ground for advertising (...)

dvertising is believable because it tells us things that we already "know." In context, the ads seem predictable, familiar and harmless. Because they are advertising, we don't stop to study and think about what we are seeing and reading. We tend to dismiss advertising for traditional, commercial and manufactured jewelry as unimportant because the jewelry objects are different than our own. We overlook the fact that what is being promoted is not the actual jewelry in the picture but a whole system of cultural beliefs about jewelry. Whether we like it or not, all jewelry is understood through a single mythic frame. (...).The ad is also about the happiness of being envied by others (...)
The promise of advertising, according to social critic John Berger, is not simply pleasure, but the promise of happiness as judged from the outside by others. "The happiness of being envied is glamour (...) Jewelry is traditionally connected with the glamour of rich and famous people, especially movie stars and royalty. Their wealth, status, power and romantic attraction are symbolized by jewelry. (...)
They are glamorous because we imagine and envy their supposed happiness. (...)A large percentage of jewelry advertising suggests that jewelry be given as a gift. Jewelry is a particularly suitable gift because it has no use.

ifts are meant to be social statements, not contributions to the recipient's well being.The above ad suggests that a man who buys diamond jewelry as a gift is making a statement about his social status and generosity.Other ads intended for men suggest that jewelry is a way of getting what they want. Through the bestowal of gifts, a man not only demonstrates his superior economic position, he ties the receiver more closely to himself. In giving jewelry to a woman, he establishes the terms of the relationship. "The gift comes to represent the power contract, his economic power in exchange for her sexual power." In this way, "Jewelry is presented as the measure of what a man is willing to pay for a woman. It represents the reward for feminine virtue, or for its surrender."(...)

he idea of courting a woman with jewelry has been around for a while. Shakespeare observed in Two Gentlemen of Verona, "Dumb jewels often in their silent kind, more than quick words, do move a woman's mind."Barthel states that diamond engagement and wedding rings symbolize, in our culture, "not simply individual commitment, but commitment to social adulthood," and acceptance of traditional adult roles. She goes on to explain that cultures often select certain older, "wiser" people to give advice in explaining the significance and performance of its ritual steps. Anthropologists call these people adepts. She points out that in "magazine advertisements the leading adepts are the jewelers. These wise men (they are always shown as men) help the young couple" make the right choices in the ritual of ring exchange.The role of jewels in the giving of gifts was also mentioned by Edward Lucie-Smith in his introduction to The Story of jewelry. "Apparently an expression of good will, the gift carries an overtone of hostility, because it puts the recipient into our debt, and therefore into our power.

topIn European culture, in recent centuries, jewels have essentially been the gift of the man to the woman, the expression of a wish for physical possession." There are numerous jewelry ads that show women in a state of ecstasy, swooning or appearing disheveled or ravished. This could imply that they have been "possessed" by a man, or that they simply have been transported by happiness. Lucie-Smith goes on to comment on the "ambiguous" symbolism of slave bracelets, chokers that resemble collars worn by dogs or slaves, and bracelets that look like manacles. One could add heavy chains to the list. The theme of the female as slave is not uncommon in both jewelry and ad images in recent years. One cannot help but recall the popularity of the theme of the nude female slave in l9th century sculpture.He also pointed out the "aggressive phallic symbolism" in many designs, especially the many examples of snake jewelry from the 19th century. This type of imagery could be extended to include the prevalence of ads for all types of jewelry picturing women as creatures from some primordial swamp. In these ads women appear in jungle settings, naked and caked with mud or dressed and made up to resemble animals. They are depicted as untamed, uncivilized creatures, with primitive instincts and undeveloped intellects, and they wear jewelry. Misogynist fantasies such as these, which equate women with a primitive "nature," are also left over from the last century when it was thought that females had not been able to participate in the great evolutionary process that was guiding the intellectual male. Women of color often are pictured as the subhumans in these ads, ren­dering the ads racist as well.While it seems natural that women wear jewelry, this reoccurring linkage of jewelry with the primitive female is troublesome.

Perhaps women, by wearing jewelry, maintain and exhibit a connection to their physical being, while men, having assumed a position of intellectual superiority, reject jewelry in order to evince transcendence over their bodies. Perhaps jewelry symbolizes a cultural agenda - a desire to differentiate the intellectual male from the intellectually inferior, and more physical, female.Why does the notion of jewelry on a man seem "unnatural" and "unmanly?" Berger suggests that "A man's presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies." His appearance commu­nicates his power to affect others, either physically, with his larger more muscular body, or through his financial power and authority. A woman's presence, and her identity, are determined solely by her beauty. Her "attractiveness," her ability to attract others through her appearance, determines how she will be treated. A woman's appearance, and how successfully she plays her beauty role, determines her status and identity.

en are simply not expected to use jewelry to establish an identity, to create their status or maintain their presence. Perhaps men who wear ear studs (...) raise questions about the meaning of manhood. Perhaps jewelry has become linked to the absence of power in the wearer and appears as a compensation. A man who wears jewelry thus appears to be unmanly, threatening the universal promise of power men are supposed to embody.There are, of course, a few exceptions to the male jewelry taboo. A man may wear a watch, an ID bracelet, a wedding or class ring, a tiny lapel pin, a tie tack or cufflinks. He can wear a western belt buckle or bolo if he is a cowboy and a gold chain if he is a pimp or a baseball player. He can even wear large diamond rings if he happens to be Fats Domino, Liberace or Sammy Davis Jr. Other than these, when the symbolism is obvious and/or intended, it raises questions. As Clark observed, "when a man wears jewelry... everybody comments.... people can't understand why you are wearing something."(...)

inally, we are told, "When you really want to treat yourself, nothing makes you feel as good as gold." In other words, if you want to buy yourself happiness, if you want to be envied, you should buy the thing that gives you the most status, "real" gold jewelry. What is implied is that jewelry made of any other material will not produce the desired social result (and you won't feel as good).The majority of ads feature jewelry made of precious stones, mainly diamonds and pearls. Out of dozens of ads, there are many promoting gold, and few showing even silver jewelry (Some exhibit jewelry of other materials, but these are fashion ads). One is forced to conclude that jewelry requires the use of precious materials. Objects not made of precious materials do not fit cultural practices associated with jewelry, cannot function as social statements and do not carry within them the commonly held beliefs and easily understood symbolism of jewelry.Objects made of other materials are not advertised or sold as jewelry but as fashion. Fashion is a different belief system that is based upon rapid social change and personal transformation. Although objects may appear similar because of their function, they belong to separate belief systems because of their different materials. (...)

The belief system that defines jewelry requires the prestige of precious materials.Most of us understand jewelry as an object, as a thing apart from cultural beliefs about jewelry. As artists we choose materials for our own, independent and esthetic reasons. We understand jewelry as the product of an artistic process. We experience jewelry on a variety of levels, in many of the same ways that we appreciate other art forms. We recognize formal and conceptual concerns as well as process and technical proficiency. In addition women metalsmiths and men in this field who attempt to wear jewelry may experience additional levels of awareness. We experience jewelry as art because of this perspective.Many of us believe that we are making art, and we want the objects that we make to be understood as art objects. But jewelry can only be understood as jewelry. The cultural baggage carried by jewelry just won't fit through the doors of art galleries. It's not that the objects themselves are not art, it is that they can only be understood by our culture as jewelry. For the same reason, the objects many of us make will also not "fit in" at the jewelry store at the local mall.Jewelry, according to our cultural belief system, does not require an artist or any artistic intention. Its meaning is written by the anonymous hand of cultural authority. Its quality is determined by its precious materials, and its cost and its value are determined by its capacity to indicate status. Its symbolism and significance are provided by our culture.But status is not the only or even the primary function of jewelry. The main function of jewelry in our culture is to symbolize and sustain the gender hierarchy. Jewelry provides ritual objects for paying homage to the patriarchy. Jewelry is not about love and beauty; it is about power. Jewelry symbolizes the unequal positions of women and men in our culture. It symbolizes men's claim to intellectual superiority and women's supposedly primitive nature. It serves as a visual reminder of men's economic power and women's dependence upon men. It promotes and perpetuates almost all the misogynist myths and stereotypes about women that evolved during the last century.

hese cultural myths that define jewelry do not frame a pretty picture. Jewelry is not what it seems. Jewelry is admired for its beauty, desired for its status and is believed to symbolize the universal, timeless themes of love and beauty. Jewelry seems so seductive, so innocent, so harmless, that one simply does not expect to find a hidden agenda. And that may be why the myths of jewelry are so very, very effective.  top