Gold and Mind by Pravu Mazumdar

Published: 20.10.2022
Pravu Mazumdar
Edited by:
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© By the author. Read Copyright.

The following essay is based on a book length essay in German published in 2015. [1] In most of the traditions familiar to us, gold is connected with the sun. (A remarkable exception are the Kogi of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia, who associate gold with the darkness of the earth.) Since the sun is experienced as a metaphor of truth across cultures, gold has been enmeshed with religion and politics since ancient times. The essay, consisting of five sections, begins with a description of the archaic triangle of gold, money and jewellery and ends with a reflection on the use of a material like gold in contemporary jewellery.
I. The unleashed surface


As Moses descended from Mount Sinai, his face was shining. For he had experienced God. And the height of his experience manifested itself in the luminosity of his skin.

The King James Version spells out the details:  “And it came to pass, that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony … the skin of his face shone while he talked … And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him.” [2] The light issuing from his skin revealed the presence of the Highest and caused fear and awe among the children of Israel, creating a threshold of inhibition between them and Moses: a pathos of distance, to speak with Nietzsche, which was to become the source of all future hierarchies among God’s chosen people.

The ancient Upanishads strike a more technical note: “The first results of Yoga they call lightness, healthiness, steadiness, a good complexion, an easy pronunciation, a sweet odour, and slight excretions.”  [3] Almost all of the effects enumerated are physical in nature and accessible to the senses. As the reality of the world-soul germinates in the depths of human nature, it reveals itself through voice, odour, skin.

Even though these documents originated in quite different cultural environments and periods of human history, they refer to the same pre-modern experience that human surfaces, particularly that of the face, can function as a stage, on which transcendence reveals itself as radiance and litheness. Like parchments stretched out between the height and depth of transcendence, such surfaces can be inscribed by forces that emerge at unique historical moments from a metaphysical recess and manifest themselves as a signature on a human surface to create awe and power in human collectives.

In the context of such experiences, jewellery in pre-modern worlds could be taken as an extension of the signature of transcendence on human surfaces. It could simply mean something like adorning oneself with the heights and depths of the human condition.

In today’s world, things like radiance and vitality are guaranteed by a global beauty industry that does not necessitate any prior transformation of the self. “Instead”, as Manfred Schreiber observes, “the cosmetic industry takes charge of our skin to kindle a mosaic glisten on our faces without divine aid, enabling us to descend from the heights of our daily bath to the banalities of everyday life with a radiance, as if we were about to proclaim divine laws to our fellow humans. [4]

There is no doubt that contemporary practices of beauty are derived from the laws of advertisement, providing us with things like freshness, gloss and eternal youth to keep us in circulation. The skin no longer indicates a given inner nature. It has become the base and starting point for a sustained production of technically reproducible effects like smoothness and lustre that constitute the impression of a normed and pre-existent inner nature.

The depth of the soul no longer exists prior to the surface of a human body, revealing itself through the surface, if the latter is transparent enough. Depth is instead a carefully calculated fiction generated repeatedly by a surface for the needs of a consumerist environment, so that the familiar metaphysical hierarchy between surface and depth is turned upside down. Such an inversion is typical for a modernity that resulted not only from the scientific, technical and political upheavals glorified in our history books, but also from a cosmetic revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, manifested in a series of heated public debates on the morality of makeup. [5]


A soon as the sun comes out and the bodies slip out of their garments, one can observe a strange practice of the surface, focussed on the skin as its art and artefact. Through a sustained, technically informed treatment, the skin attains a transparency that seems to empower it with an ability to manifest and at the same time also to obscure an inner state, whereas it generates in reality the impression of an inner state. Thus the skin is no longer a window letting a gaze traverse it, but a mirror throwing back an impression of interiority. Life in modern societies thus seems to function as an archaic ritual, in which we mask ourselves with gloss and freshness before we do our daily dance in tune with the steps prescribed by the channels of popular culture.

The cosmetic treatment of the skin in contemporary societies has a negative and a positive side. In the negative mode, it masks biological processes like disease, aging, dying. In the positive mode, it confirms and illustrates dominant codes of appearance. Ultimately, the skin becomes a playground for a process of free floating signification generating the fiction of a normed interiority.

The unleashed semiotic material on the surface of the body can spark off the typically modern practice of self-fabrication that Baudelaire saw in the carefully constructed bearing of the dandy or the beauty techniques of modern women. [6] A core feature of such contemporary care of the self is its inbuilt tendency towards automatism. If we could sum up with a single gaze all that goes on in the interiors of contemporary living spaces or on a beach, we would glimpse at certain times of the day a teeming mass of hands, responding as it were to an invisible baton and extracting strange substances from jars, bottles, little caskets and applying them to arms, legs, cheeks, eyelashes, hair.

What we could thus witness, is our daily mass-production of gloss, texture and colour, giving us the appearance of cloned descendants of nineteenth century dandies, swarming out in myriad formations and taking over the public spaces. In the process, the individual actors in the cosmetic drama of modern life are swamped by a flood of seasonally dictated ideals of beauty and resorbed ultimately by a huge mass of identical bodies, gestures and glamour.

II. The shine of the surface


As a surface throws back light, a twofold imitation takes place. Firstly, the reflected beam imitates the beam of incident light. There is no reason to see reflected light only negatively as a reduction of incident light. It is in fact real light with all its visual splendour and appeal, for it re-creates incident light without, however, regaining the strength of the original. Secondly, the luminous surface resulting from reflection imitates the source of incident light, which, in its most spectacular form, is the sun itself. The light of the sun transfers its nobility and power to the reflecting surface, which attains with increasing fidelity a certain solar splendour as it throws back incident sunlight. At the point of maximum fidelity of reflection, the shine of a surface reminds us of the sun, as is the case with the surface of a noble metal like gold. Their mirror-like surfaces seem to counter and confront the sun with its double.


With its imitational energy, the reflecting surface separates light from fire. It imitates the sun as it produces light through reflection. But it retains nothing of the fire of the sun. For centuries, European thought separated light from fire, defining them as two distinct principles. In the tradition of the Old Testament, it placed the light of the mind between its flaming source in God and the darkness of matter. In the tradition of Christianity, it distinguished between the light of God and the fire of hell. In its Greek mode, it distinguished between a God of light and a God of fiery intoxication. In a similar vein, a reflecting surface disconnects light from its flaming source, to create the optico-theological effect of a cool, distant and transcendent shine.


The solar nature of the luminous surfaces of noble metals constitutes their value and power, rendering them attractive to the human mind, which begins by desiring the experience of shine and ends by desiring the shining objects themselves. Not only because they are beautiful, but also because they promise power. The very act of possessing them is like possessing the sun itself. In many cultural contexts – from the alchemists of Renaissance Europe to the sacred rites of ancient American civilisations – gold played a fateful role as a symbol of the sun. Due to qualities like lustre, durability and malleability, it was seen as a privileged material with a symbolic connection to the sun and all things sacred. If any power – sacral or mundane – needed to present itself as a representation of the divine, it needed gold as a representation of the flaming transcendence of the sun.

Thus, it was not mere vanity that prompted Louis the 14th, the sun-king, to surround himself with gold, but the necessity of a symbolic legitimation as a ruler. The central role of gold in his extravagant solar cult gave him the political and theological instrument necessary to sustain his power. In other contexts, gold could literally envelope the body of a monarch and blend into his essence as a sovereign, as in the Eldorado cult of ancient Columbia, where the body of the king was sprinkled with gold dust or clad in a shamanistic garment of gold as part of a traditional ritual of enthronement.

III. Origins of money and the economy of excess


Lustre is of course not a property of gold alone, but also of things like precious stones. However, gold is different through its properties as a metal, which can be cast, wrought, cut into units of the same weight, shape and volume and embossed with a symbolic motif. Contrary to precious stones, gold can be transformed into coinage.

The genealogy of money reveals a complex network of relations between gold, money and jewellery, which goes back to prehistoric times. Whereas jewellery existed before money and money is older than coinage, gold – as a metal that became increasingly and systematically privileged in many civilisations since its discovery in the bronze age – is logically and chronologically older than its function as currency. In later economies, two functions of gold could co-exist: its sacral function as a symbolically powerful substance and its utilitarian function as currency. In still later stages, this duality reappears in the sense that gold is not only the abstract and general equivalent regulating the exchange of commodities and the transfer of credit, but in itself also a commodity that can be bought and sold. The archaic duality of gold as a sacred material and currency transitions into its more modern duality as currency and commodity.


Prehistoric interest in jewellery, readable in objects and trophies created and used long before the discovery of metals, reveals an urge to hoard that can also be felt in subsequent treasure troves and curiosity cabinets. The urge to hoard is intimately bound up with the initial instant of attraction to things that glitter: an instant that reveals their beauty or power and constitutes their potential for becoming jewellery. In the step that follows the initial instant, one wakes up, as it were,  from the trance of attraction and endeavours to collect these strange and luminous objects, in order to possess them as the insignia of rank and power. The archaic hoard, as historians of economics speculate, [7] is a possible origin of money. Initially, the hoard provides a basis for the archaic practice of gift exchange, which would later transform into an exchange of useful things regulated by money.


From the ancient chaos of archaic substances functioning as money – like metals, stones, clay, bones, teeth, plant and animal tissues etc. – gold, venerated from time immemorial as a sacred solar metal, emerged as a substance tuned to its employment as currency. In the 7th Century BCE, simultaneously with the emergence of Pre-Socratic thinking, a particular type of hand-washed gold surfaced in the city of Sardis in Asia Minor. It was known as the electron, had a certain content of silver and turned out to be a material optimally suited for the minting of coins. Bernhard Laum, a prominent German historian of coinage, suggested the possibility that the coin-form was derived from jewellery, speculating that the flat and embossed form of a gold coin might have originated in seal plates struck off from signet rings. [8]


The introduction of coinage reveals a technical and intellectual process, which is simple and mysterious at the same time. The transition from sacred gold to gold coins entails a process of contraction of the immeasurable value of a sacred substance to the measurable value of a useful substance functioning as currency. It is, as if the possibility of a limit had to appear in the limitless and sacred value of archaic gold, as a pre-condition for its transformation into coinage. As with all great innovations, a transformation in thinking preceded and accompanied the actual technical step of minting coins in the 7th century BCE.

The idea of the limit as codified in the Greek term péras did in fact play an essential role in the cosmogonic speculations of the early Pre-Socratic thinkers of the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, who lived in Milet in Asia Minor, not far from Sardis, where coinage originated in the western world. Their speculations revolved around the concept of a finite and liveable cosmos, surrounded by a surging ocean of materiality that was characterised as water, air, fire. [9]  Whatever its concrete nature, the materiality that enveloped the cosmos was termed apeiron, meaning the Limitless. For early Pre-Socratic thought, the essence of the cosmos is order and the essence of all order is the limit. Everything finite is an order and all order is finite, because it can only exist by virtue of a limit that distinguishes it from the infinite. It is the limit that renders the cosmos visible within a primordial order of things.


Thus in the 7th century BCE the limit emerged almost simultaneously in the spheres of economic value and the cosmogonic discourse of the Pre-Socratics. A material like gold is initially infused with limitless value, since the value of the sacred is immeasurable. The transformation of a sacred material into coinage requires the introduction of a limit that would render its value quantifiable and directly proportional to its mass, so that the material can be cut up into units of the same weight, size and shape. Georges Bataille associates the limitless and immeasurable value of the sacred with what he terms a sacred or general economy. This is an ancient economy that manifests itself as an economy of excess, sacrifice and gift exchanges. It is older than what Bataille terms a limited economy, familiar to us as an economy based on a circulation of commodities regulated by money. The transformation of sacred gold into coinage indicates an important phase in the historical process of transition from a general economy to a limited economy.

Bataille’s concept of the sacred, which remains vague and unspecifiable due to its origin in the idea of an immeasurable value, is associated with an entire constellation of related concepts such as excess, transgression, sacrifice, expenditure. These concepts become clear, when they are contrasted with their common opposite, which is the idea of utility. Bataille emphasizes the necessity of a fundamental critique of utility prior to the introduction of categories like excess or expenditure. [10] Before things can function as values within the setup of a limited economy, they have to be reduced or limited to their utility, which would regulate their production and circulation within the space of a market. It is not surprising, that the ontological tenet propagated by liberal governmentality and utilitarianism towards the late eighteenth century could be formulated as: Whatever exists, is useful. Whatever is useful, exists. The utilitarian ontology has in fact remained more or less uncontested in our daily lives till today, as we acquire useful things to build fortresses of utility around ourselves and work hard to make ourselves useful, in order to be able to circulate as currency in our social and professional lives.

Celtic Coinage, Treasure Trove of Roman Settlement in Manching (Bavaria), late La Tène Culture, 500 BC – 100 BC. Source: Wamser, Ludwig & Rupert Gebhard, Gold. Magie Mythos Macht. Gold der alten und neuen Welt, Stuttgart: Arnoldsche, 2001, p. 79, p. 87, pp. 287-8.

Signet ring, Egyptian, gold. Owned by Sheshonq, inscribed with his name and title "Chief Steward of the divine adoratrice“ 26th dynasty, 6th century BCE. Source:

Ring, Greek, gold. Reading: "Present to Kleta“, 350-325 BCE. Source:

Signet Ring, Byzantine, silver. Reading "Of Mark“. 6th century. Source:

Gold Stater, Macedonian. Reign of Philip II, 359-356 BCE. L: Head of Apollo R: Charioteer driving a racing biga. Source:

Gold stater, Mysia, Pergamum after 360 BCE. Source:

Silver Tetradrachms, Rhodos, ca. 201 – 190 BC. Source:

Silver tetradrachms as pendants, Macedonian. Ca. 167-148 BCE. Source:

Coin ring, Parthian, gold and sterling silver. Silver drachm of King Mithridates II. Ca. 123-88 BCE. Source:

Coin pendant, Thracian, gold plated silver tetrachdrachm, with Alexander motif. Coin of Lysimachos, king of Thrace, 297-281 BCE. Source:

IV. Suspending the limit: Contemporary Jewellery

… I am trying to take the piss out
of the material. These material
traditions are like my dad: he tells
me what I “should” be doing and I
sit in my teenage self and say,
“Screw that!”
- Aaron Decker (2022) [11]


In a market economy, commodities and their consumers seem to be sheathed in a skin of utility that reduces and limits the possibility that they attain other kinds of value. Long before the Industrial Revolution and the dawn of modern consumerist societies in the late eighteenth century, coinage emerged as the encasement of a sacred material like gold within the skin of its utility as currency. Nonetheless, the utility of a material or an object can be subverted from time to time within the context of a limited economy, as towards the end of the Roman Empire, when an oncoming fiscal chaos led to such an instability of the nominal value of coins with respect to their metal value, that people tended to withdraw them from the market and transform them into jewellery, thus returning them in a sense to Bataille’s sphere of a general economy. [12]

Such an example manifests an elementary rule concerning the production of art in limited economies. Creating a work of art from a material makes it necessary to suspend the limits of utility of the material itself. Basically, the process of artistic production can involve two distinct steps (a) the intellectual act of suspending the utility of a material by substituting its utilitarian value through a new value and (b) the technical act of transforming the material into an object. Art is only one of numerous other practices of excess, in which the logic of profitable exchange is subverted by ripping open the skin of utility of an object and uncovering its other, non-utilitarian modes of existence.


In the modern context, beauty and use tend to be associated with mutually exclusive modes of perception. In general, modern art has an ingrained tendency to resist the onslaught of utility – expressed not only in Oscar Wilde’s famous dictum “All art is quite useless”, but also in Duchamp’s introduction of the readymade, when he dissociated the object from its (utilitarian) function by placing it on a plinth and declaring it as art. [13]

Video still from "Marcel Duchamp talks with Martin Friedman about the readymade" 18th October 1965. Source:

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. Replica, ceramic, 1964. Source:

Marcel Duchamp, Hat Rack, readymade, 1917 - 1964. Source:

Marcel Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm, readymade 1964, 4th version after lost original of November 1915. Source:

An ancient example for the suspension of the limit of utility is the hoard or the Wunderkammer, which involve the acts of detaching objects from the context of their utility and embedding them in a collection of things, which are not meant to be used in any way, in the case of jewellery often not even to be worn, but simply to be displayed under specific curatorial rules.

In contemporary jewellery, one can witness experiments in simulating the archaic hoard as in the works of Robert Baines and Peter Bauhuis. In the works of Bernhard Schobinger or Lisa Walker the hoard is incarnated in individual works by reworking a single readymade as in Schobinger’s toothbrush bangle or stringing together daily objects of use as in Lisa Walker's Low Culture Necklace. The latter involves a technique not unlike the late Roman practice mentioned above of stringing together solidi to form necklaces. In a similar vein, the use of materials associated with low value can indicate a suspension of limits and the possibility of excess: as in the case of materials like wood, plastic, steel, wool, rusting iron, felt or fur, employed at times in traditionally impossible combinations of the high and the low, like iron and gold or wool and silver. In such works, the initially low utilitarian value of a material or an object is transformed into a nonutilitarian value characteristic of jewellery elements. The lowest common denominator of all such works is the critique of utility inscribed into the process of their making.

Robert Baines, The Gold Hoard from the Phoenician Colony. Settlement at Freshwater Point ..., ca. last half of the 7th century BCE., gold, 1997-2008. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Peter Bauhuis, The Gallium Hoard of Obertraun, Gallium, 2011. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Peter Bauhuis, Kolomna Findings, Jewellery, Coins, Vessels and other Artefacts made of Bronze and Copper, 2013. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Lisa Walker, Low Culture Necklace, neckwear, magazines, brass, thread, 2010. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Lisa Walker, Necklace, neckwear, mobile phones, lacquer, thread, 2009. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Bernhard Schobinger, Sonja with Brain Saw, neckwear, 1986. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Bernhard Schobinger, Old Toothbrush, bangle, 2000. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Annamaria Zanella, Fire, brooch, iron, silver, enamel gold, 1996. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Dorothea Prühl, Bundles, alder wood,  1976. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Gijs Bakker, Stovepipe collier, neckwear 1967. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Constanze Schreiber, Katharina, neckwear, fur, lead, silver, 2003/2007. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Iris Bodemer, rings, silver/bronze, wool/bast, different stones, 2004. © By the author. Read Copyright.


In pre-modern societies, noble metals and precious stones were not only privileged materials in the production of jewellery but also a yardstick for measuring value, as well as substances of the highest possible value. Whenever they were employed in coinage, they were not merely currency, but also valuable materials. As symbols of a Beyond pertaining to a God or a King, they participated in the transcendence of both. Such materials thus never existed merely as collections of physical properties and technical functions, but also, in addition, as bearers of culturally prescribed meanings emitted by a kind of semiotic skin on their surfaces. Such semiotic skins on material surfaces function in the paradoxical manner typical of all semiotics. For they involve a signifier as well as a signified. They function as material signifiers and are readable as immaterial signified. As signifiers, they need to relie on the physics& of the surface, so as to be accessible to the senses. As the signified, they are perceivable as non-physical properties like value and power, that blanket the material and reveal it as whatever it is culturally expected to be. In jewellery, the semiotic skin of the material foundation of a piece has to be distinguished from the layers of meaning on its surface presenting it as an indicator of status or as an element of the quasi-mythical narrative the piece is embedded in. By contrast, the semiotic skin is fused with the surface of the material itself, constituting something like an elementary material discourse that dictates the perception and selection of a material before it can be used to create an object. It is, as if the material would be constantly murmuring to us: “Look, how special I am! Take me and create your piece out of me!” The cultural meaning emitted by the material always precedes the object that emerges from it.

To illustrate this point, I would like to draw attention to some of Otto Künzli’s works, in which he deflects attention from the object to its material source by scraping off the semiotic skin of the latter, suspending all traditional interpretations and neutralising the material before processing it into jewellery.


One example is Künzli’s golden ball for the armpit, made in 1980. The ball, placed in the armpit, remains invisible and exemplifies the possibility of a jewellery object that remains invisible as long as it is worn and can only be made visible through x-ray. The mode of appearance of the object is thus distributed between a haptic presence for the wearer and a visual presence as an X-ray photograph. The very act of wearing the piece covers the surface of its material, as the covering itself, which is the wearer’s body, becomes a new surface of the piece, rendered transparent in the X-ray image. The same effect can be observed in the other famous piece made in the same year, titled Gold macht blind (“Gold makes blind”), a bangle consisting of a black rubber tube with a little golden ball in it, indicated by a bulge in the tubing. The presence of the golden ball can be felt on the wearer’s wrist, but it attains visibility only as a bulge in the blackness of the rubber. The bangle hangs from the wrist as a metaphor of modernity, reminding us of Hölderlin’s Gods, as the gold with all its shine and solar divinity recedes into the cosmic night of a rubber tube.


If gold functioned in many pre-modern cultures as a symbol of the divine, its presence and importance can hardly be felt any more in contemporary societies. It is no longer accompanied by spectacular displays of wealth and luxury revealing its symbolic authority, as was the case in pre-modern spectacles of power. Jean Baudrillard in fact suspected in 1976 a connection between two significant and almost simultaneous events, which took place in the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century: the termination of the subject in poststructuralist discourses and the termination of the gold standard in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the oil crisis. [14] The disappearance of the subject seemed to be in tune with the disappearance of the residual symbolical function of gold as a guarantor of fiscal stability.

Four years later, in 1980, Otto Künzli wrote a footnote in gold on Baudrillard’s interpretation by creating two pieces titled Code and Gold that symbolised contemporary subjectivity and consisted in two rectangular brooches in the form of industrially produced name cards. The first brooch is a card with a bar code slipped into the plastic sheath typical of name cards, functioning as an identification of the wearer and showing that contemporary subjects function as commodities that can be rapidly identified by scanning their code. The second brooch displays a rectangular gold plate instead of a name card, implying that the name and identity of a subject is the wealth possessed by the individual associated with the subject. Gold in contemporary societies no longer symbolises the divine. It symbolises the affluent subjects of contemporary capitalist societies. Both brooches reveal a subjectivity that functions alternately as a commodity and a currency.


I would like to mention a final example. Künzli’s exercises in suspending the limits of traditional interpretations of gold unfold between two extremes. On the one hand there is the concealment of gold through the body of the wearer or the opacity of a material like rubber. On the other hand, gold remains visible as a substance, but connotes something radically different from what it is traditionally supposed to mean, as it attains a new semiotic skin in Künzli’s work, adapted to its modern context.

A whole series of further works by Künzli displays different degrees and proportions, in which the two modes, in which gold is obscure or visible, can coexist. A subtle form of such coexistence is displayed in a small series of rectangular pendants called Nare, made between 2008 and 2011. The surfaces of the golden rectangles are painted over by a traditional Japanese master in about two dozen steps with three different types of lacquer. The surface of the gold is first treated by raw lacquer, which is burnt into the surface. Then there are several layers of the black lacquer called roiro urushi. Finally, there are layers of the red lacquer called kijiro urushi, so that the pendants gradually assume the colour of the sun on the Japanese national flag. The sun-metal is covered by the colour of the Japanese sun symbol and can only reappear in its own luminosity, when the lacquered surfaces thin out with use and allow the gold to shimmer into visibility as if through a symbolic curtain.

Otto Künzli, Ball for the armpit, gold, 1980. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Otto Künzli, Gold makes you blind, bangle, gold, rubber, 1980. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Otto Künzli, Code, brooch, readymade, printed paper, 1980. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Otto Künzli, Gold, brooch, readymade, gold, 1980. © By the author. Read Copyright.

Otto Künzli, Nare, pendant, Urushi lacquer on gold, silk, 2008-2011. © By the author. Read Copyright.

V. Jewellery and transcendence


The practice of making and wearing jewellery manifests a basic human urge to transcend human “nature” in its naked, unadorned state and let it appear as an Other. Jewellery can be seen as an attempt to mask the finitude and frailty of human anatomy. Yet, even as it is meant to transcend the naked body, jewellery remains physically determined by human anatomy despite its protestations of autonomy towards the body of the wearer and the act of wearing, as in the wearablity-experiments of contemporary jewellery.  [15] Thus the diameter of a necklace cannot fall below a minimum, whereas that of a ring cannot exceed a maximum. The body, that tends to be overgrown and masked by the elements of its own adornment, ist also the yardstick that restricts the physical format of jewellery as well as the springboard, from which jewellery can attempt to jump off.

In this sense, what jewellery actually enacts can be characterised as a kind of parasitic transcendence. This is what the jewellery artist Karl Fritsch alludes to in giving one of his projects the title Metrosideros Robusta [16]  which is the name of a species of myrtle that begins to grow in the branches of a host tree, sends its roots down to the soil and kills the tree as it takes over its place. Similarly, jewellery can be seen as a process of formation and transformation in one. In Metrosideros Robusta, jewellery is not only the process of overlaying a preexistent material or an older piece of jewellery – taken as an objet trouvé – with an immaterial form and letting a new object emerge in the process. On a different plane, jewellery overlays the human body in its physical, spiritual, political and erotic reality und transforms it into something that is different from its originally unadorned state.

Thus, one can discern in the making and wearing of jewellery the characteristics of a practice reminiscent of what Michel Foucault termed an “aesthetics of existence”. Why, asks Foucault, are there objects in our culture called works of art and individuals called artists? Why should individuals not be able to fashion works of art of themselves? An aesthetics of existence in this sense involves numerous technologies of the self like philosophical epistles, journals, dream interpretations, which Foucault sifted through in his studies on Graeco-Roman antiquity. Maybe also jewellery – in the sense of making and wearing objects of adornment and self-enhancement – can be seen as a technology of the self and ultimately as an element of an extensive art of one’s own self, the art of re-fashioning oneself and coming into appearance by becoming an Other.

Such practices involve the art of becoming more than what one is, not in the sense of a linear approach towards a target or adapting oneself to a pre-existent, transcendent ideal, but rather in the sense of ripping open a crust of habits and self-imposed identities and letting in a flood of possibilities of becoming something different. As modern life unfolds beneath the empty sky that arches above it, jewellery, masks and fashion no longer function as the traditional bridges connecting us with a mythologically or theologically defined otherworldly reality, but rather as autopoetic proposals inviting us to experiment with ourselves and break out of the straitjacket of the present to unfold the diversity lying fallow within us.


[1] The following reflections are selective translations based on my German publication Gold und Geist. Prolegomena zu einer Theorie des Schmucks, Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2015. A section of the book was delivered in 2016 under the title of the present essay as a keynote address for the National Jewellery Conference in Auckland.
[2] The Holy Bible, containing the Old Testament, and the New. Imprinted at London: By Robert Barker … 1611, Chapter 34: 29-30.
[3] Svetâsvatara Upanishad, 2.13, in Friedrich Max Müller (ed.), The Sacred Books of the East, translated by various scholars, vol. xv, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884, p. 242.
[4] Schneider, Manfred, „Altersflecken auf der moralischen Haut. Das Diktat der zeitgemäßen Körperpflege verordnet apollinische Glätte und mosaisches Glänzen“ in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 05.08.2011. Translation by
[5] See Chapter 1 in Ramsbrock, Annelie, Korrigierte Körper. Eine Geschichte künstlicher Schönheit in der Moderne, Göttingen: Wallstein, 2011.
[6] Baudelaire, Charles, “Le peintre de la vie moderne” in Oeuvres complètes, vol. II, Bibliothèque de la plèiade, texte établi, présenté et annoté par Claude Pichois, Paris: Gallimard, pp. 683-724. See chapters IX, “Le dandy” and XI, “Éloge du maquillage”.
[7] See Gerloff, Wilhelm, Die Entstehung des Geldes und die Anfänge des Geldwesens, Frankfurter wissenschaftliche Beiträge, Frankfurt/M.: Vittorio Klostermann, 1947.
[8] Laum, Bernhard, Heiliges Geld. Eine historische Untersuchung über den sakralen Ursprung des Geldes, Tübingen: Mohr, 1924: p. 79.
[9] The Greek term cosmos incidentally means jewellery, order, as well as the world as a whole. The later term is signified exclusively by the word in its modern sense.
[10] See Bataille, George, “Der Begriff der Verausgabung“ („La notion de dépense“) in Die Aufhebung der Ökonomie, 3rd edition, Munich: Matthes & Seitz, 2001, p. 9 ff.
[11] See:
[12]  See Ziegaus, Bernward, „Antikes Münzgold. Vom frühen Elektron zum merowingischen Triens“ in Wamser, Ludwig & Rupert Gebhard (eds.), Gold. Magie Mythos Macht. Gold der alten und neuen Welt, Stuttgart: Arnoldsche, 2001, pp. 96-99.
[13] In Duchamp’s readymades the utility of the object is suspended by substituting its utilitarian function through its display-function. One is reminded of Walter Benjamin’s understanding of the display-value (Ausstellungswert) as an essential constituent of modern artworks.
[14] See Baudrillard, Jean, L’échange symbolique et la mort, Paris: Gallimard (tel), 2016, chapter 1 ("La révolution structurale de la valeur“).
[15] I am thinking of examples as varied as Pierre Degen’s Square Frame (1982), Otto Künzli’s Wolpertinger (1985), Marjorie Schick’s A Plane of Sticks (1986), Lisa Walker’s Low Culture Necklace (2010).
[16] See Fritsch, Karl, Metrosideros Robusta, Cologne & New York: Darling Publications, 2006.