- Julia Wild
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The Trier University Remake project jointly with the Simeonstift enabled students from the Gemstone and Jewellery Department to reflect on the museum space and its function as well as the jewellery they were making and to relate them to each other.
Article published at the book Nsaio 6, New Jewellery from Idar-Oberstein.
Museums are social institutions which, viewed from the standpoint of cultural history, are relatively recent. Although their beginnings lie in the Age of Enlightenment, they only gained in importance over the course of the nineteenth century. The jewellery departments of many museums – such as, for example, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – are very popular with the public. Is it just the sparkle of the diamonds and the precious, costly materials used in jewellery making that draw people as if by magic? The material aspect is bound to play an important role, yet the object character of jewellery, in which the material used for it is first expressed and is experienceable in the jewellery, is just as crucial. After all, very few people are equally fascinated when glancing at the portraits of high-ranking persons that stare down at us in such numbers from the walls of the world’s museums. There, too, a wide range of jewellery might be admired and, what is more, in its functional context. But in a picture, jewellery loses its object character, the idea of tactility, hints of which are given in museum displays even though the jewellery remains closed off behind glass. The two-dimensional picture does open up a wearing situation, but viewers can only appropriate the piece of jewellery in their ideas of it, empathise with it, when it is presented as an object in a museum. Thus a museum creates a situation in which a work displayed stimulates viewers’ perceptions and, in the best case, appeals to their emotion by moving them.
The Trier University Remake project jointly with the Simeonstift enabled students from the Gemstone and Jewellery Department to reflect on the museum space and its function as well as the jewellery they were making and to relate them to each other. Inspired by the museum as a place and the objects displayed in it, pieces of jewellery and installations were made that express the impact a place of memory like this can have. It represented a dialogue on several levels that is to be touched on here: students reacted with their work to pieces in the museum, which were then exhibited alongside the works that inspired them in order to stimulate visitors to view the museum objects with different eyes.
- The museum and its exceptioneal atmosphere make it possible for this aura of the things in it to be perceived and experienced. One steps outside the everyday flow of time, stops to reflect and is consciously present to an exceptional degree when viewing an object.
Why is a museum – especially a municipal history museum – suitable for a project of this kind with students who study jewellery and gemstones? First of all, it is the institution, regardless of its thematic orientation, that makes linkage with jewellery interesting on the theoretical plane as well. Art-historical scholarship speaks of museums as ritual places where visitors and the objects on display can meet in a setting that is supramundane. Even museum architecture as a rule alludes to the exceptional status of the museum as a site. When a museum is not already housed, as it is in Trier, in a grand, formerly sacred building, museum architecture has in the past two centuries often been inspired by temple precincts. Impressive porches and showy, hall-like entrance areas create a situation that is intended to clearly demarcate the outside world from the museum itself and compel visitors to stop and recollect themselves before entering. Because they are stepping out of their mundane everyday existence when they enter a museum, visitors’ perception of the exhibits inside changes. They are now things that inspire reflection and no longer utilitarian objects. The head of the museum ascribes a meaning to the objects by contextualising them. Viewers experience them via the descriptions in the label texts and the dialogue with the things that belong to the exhibition. Moreover, the object provides a sensory added value which elicits in visitors memories and associations that often elude the guidance of curators and viewers alike.
The museum and its exceptioneal atmosphere make it possible for this aura of the things in it to be perceived and experienced. One steps outside the everyday flow of time, stops to reflect and is consciously present to an exceptional degree when viewing an object. History museums in particular are underpinned by a narrative structure because they bring the past out from the archives, wresting it from oblivion to transfer it to the present and bringing influence to bear on the future by visualisation. Thus a museum – especially a municipal museum – shapes the identities of visitors and residents of the place that is the museum catchment area. However, the sight of a given object can remind even visitors from further away of something. Viewing can make one aware of something that in some circumstances can change the way one sees oneself.
- Jewellery is regarded as man’s most ancient symbolic form of expression that has come down to us. The reasons for choosing jewellery for oneself and wearing it and the way in which jewellery is perceived by observers have remained the same over thousands of years in a great many civilisations.
In a museum, the exhibition space, visitors and objects interrelate and this makes experiencing possible on both the intellectual and emotional planes. The impact jewellery makes develops in the relationship between the persons who have chosen the jewellery for themselves and wear it, those who look at the person wearing the jewellery and – especially where contemporary jewellery is concerned – the person who has made the jewellery. Since jewellery has always played a role in ritual observances, the behavioural mechanisms associated with experiencing jewellery and a museum are similar in many respects and are what make a project of this kind so interesting. After all, jewellery, too, is all about the supramundane, about presence, about becoming aware of the moment in the temporal course of history. What is at stake here is the construction of identity, as it can be designed and conveyed by wearing jewellery.
Jewellery is regarded as man’s most ancient symbolic form of expression that has come down to us. The reasons for choosing jewellery for oneself and wearing it and the way in which jewellery is perceived by observers have remained the same over thousands of years in a great many civilisations. Only the semantic focus and the interpretation of the signs that jewellery can contain are subject to historical and cultural change within an established paradigm.
Thus the various reasons for human beings’ desire to adorn themselves can be traced: first, the need to change their appearance, to make themselves more beautiful, to adorn themselves in the conventional sense – without a purpose, playfully, as can already be observed in children. Another motive is grounded in the desire to possess and wear a badge reminding the wearer of a special person or a place that has been significant for him or her. It can, however, also keep the memory of a special moment in the wearer’s life – a farewell or a fresh start – alive. Being the vehicle for memory represents by far the most important aspect of jewellery in today’s world. This mnemonic function develops its impact above all internally, less so externally: viewers cannot know that the necklace belonged to the wearer’s grandmother or was brought back from the wearer’s first trip to Asia. Only the wearer knows the true meaning of the piece of jewellery s/he is wearing.
- In societies with traditions based on oral transmission, jewellery is often the starting point for communitarian narratives and recollections. In our society, too, in which the nuclear family or one’s circle of friends shape social life, jewellery and the memories associated with it can become an important communal narrative core.
Wedding rings and badges of honour, on the other hand, are jewellery that is a remembrance of something and is, within a specific framework, legible for viewers as well. Nonetheless, only the wearer has access to the complete range of memories of the situation in which a given piece of jewellery has played a special role and to why it can recall the past in the here and now. For others the jewellery object can become a constitutive element of community by virtue of being a focal point of narratives. In societies with traditions based on oral transmission, jewellery is often the starting point for communitarian narratives and recollections. In our society, too, in which the nuclear family or one’s circle of friends shape social life, jewellery and the memories associated with it can become an important communal narrative core.
The quest for protection that may be expressed in such forms of jewellery as amulets and talismans is another motive for adorning oneself. Such jewellery has the function of protecting the wearer from the evils of the real world – disease, enemies and dangerous animals – as well as from dangers that are incorporeal, such as evil spirits and curses. The wearer of specific jewellery can feel empowered to deal with situations and problems. These pieces of jewellery usually also have a commemorative aspect. Because these pieces remind wearers of the past, positive experiences or particular persons, they feel affirmation in any given situation. Here one realises that distinguishing definitively between the various functions of wearing jewellery is impossible and accepts the fact that they can influence each other or be perceived differently with each different situation.
Necklace Kragen / Collar by Stefanie Thalhammer. Tampons, garn.
Last but not least, jewellery serves as a status symbol. It designates the wearer’s social rank, his or her position in society, which society must recognise by accepting the sign as worn. Jewellery in this sense is embedded in a complex social system of signs which is subject to societal control and refers to a system of ordering. In this context I should like to go into the crown as a form of jewellery in order to show how the function of a jewellery object has changed within our culture even though it has not lost its meaning as a status symbol: In medieval Europe, the crown designated its wearer as a member of a social class and defined his role within a community. The crown also alluded – on the basis of the precious materials used to make it – to the wearer’s wealth, yet its actual meaning lay in its symbolic character, which clarified claims to absolute power, divinely conferred, and referred above and beyond the iconographic programme of the crown to a metaphysical frame of reference. The wearer of the crown was not only a representative of a community but also saw him- or herself as participating in the tradition and the succession of the biblical kings and of Christ, Lord of the World. The wearer’s coronation and adornment with the crown on special festive occasions affirming the power and social role of the person crowned were accepted as such by the community in a ritual framework. Hence it would not have been possible in the early modern age to opt for wearing a crown for purely aesthetic reasons. Nor was it the financial means available to a person that determined the decision about what jewellery might be worn; it was solely that person’s social status. Numerous sumptuary laws governing the wearing of clothing and jewellery in the Middle Ages and the early modern age attest to this interpretation of order, aimed principally at the rising mercantile class that was outside the established order of the estates yet also attained via jewellery a symbolic place in society.
In some European countries there are still monarchies, and the traditional coronation of a king or queen takes place according to precisely prescribed ceremonies. They no longer have any political significance, however, because the monarchy in Europe now possesses only ceremonial functions. The crown is no longer a symbol of power but rather the symbolic point of reference for a nation. The crown is no longer a link in a community based on personal relationships that is mutually affirmed by the nobility present during the coronation ceremony and the crowned monarch. Instead the crown is a material, albeit radiant, sign of the history and identity, of, for instance, the British nation. The crown continues to be the sign for recognising the social estate of the crowned. Moreover, the material of which the crown is made alludes to the riches of the British royal family. However, the significance of and the reason for adornment with this particular jewellery has shifted primarily towards its unifying, representative function. It is still within the referential field of a status symbol, but over the course of time the perception and interpretation of the crown as a sign have changed.
- Jewellery only develops its full social impact through reciprocity. Hence the significance of jewellery as a status symbol still exists but the focus is now more strongly on the self, the individual who opts for the jewellery.
One can appreciate how much the meaning of the use to which a piece of jewellery is put is context-dependent when one considers how today’s society would react to someone adorned with a real crown driving through Beverly Hills in a convertible, stepping onto a public bus, or appearing at a private evening party, using the crown as a stage prop, or putting it on show in a display case at a private museum. The examples enumerated are supposed to make clear that the choice of jewellery – be it a crown or a simple necklace – and the concomitant intentions of adorning oneself remain up to the individual and will be evaluated by observers depending on the given context of the act of adornment yet will not be disapproved of. Regardless of the performance context one might opt for, in the case of adorning oneself with a crown it would invariably have something to do with status, yet in a sense that differs from the significance attached to this act in early modern Europe: in these hypothetical situations we as observers of the situation would not assume the role played by nobles in the past – that is, as affirmative actors in a ritual which defines them and those who behold them in their societal roles. Instead we would be passive onlookers watching various different forms of self-representation. We might be amused at the oddness of the situation or, alternatively, look away because we are indifferent to it. The event would provide opportunity for small talk with an unknown guest standing to our left at a drinks party that had been dull up to then or it might provide a pretext for an erudite conversation on how the crown has been translated into design and whether its contextualisation has been successful or not so successful after all.
The example of the crown as a jewellery object is intended to demonstrate how the societal action space and the interpretation of the symbols used can change within the referential field that is a status symbol. For instance, the primary function of jewellery in today’s society is representing the self rather than standing for a transcendent order. No viewer is needed for self-representation – one might adorn oneself with a crown, even within the four walls of one’s own home, and have fun doing so. Yet even if the art of adornment is based on decisions one takes oneself and relates primarily to the self, it still as a rule also would like to communicate or represent something externally. Jewellery can, for instance, refer to both the material and the non-material background of the wearer, his or her education level and tastes shaped by his or her social and ethnic origins. The desire to communicate one’s own self-image and to externalise it makes the wearer also continue to be dependent on viewers’ perceptions and appraisal. Jewellery only develops its full social impact through reciprocity. Hence the significance of jewellery as a status symbol still exists but the focus is now more strongly on the self, the individual who opts for the jewellery.
Necklace Beffchen / Band by Tianqi Li. 2016. Horshair, steel.
The motive of self-representation leads directly to the reason for adorning oneself that is so important nowadays: the search for one’s own identity or the desire to design and firmly establish one’s identity with the aid of external signs. What is known as contemporary jewellery or auteur jewellery deserves mention in this connection. In this field the creator of the jewellery plays a particular role because s/he incorporates his or her personal history and identity as well as experience and perception of the zeitgeist in designing such works in jewellery. Thus the pieces of jewellery are unequivocally related to the person who created them but are in the best case so polysemic in their symbolic character that they represent for the wearer a supplemental vehicle for self-expression. The viewer, by contrast, is inspired to perceive the piece of jewellery on the one hand in its singularity and, on the other, in relation to the wearer. What in a museum is the space that creates an atmospheric situation for viewing the things in it and inspires reflection is in the case of jewellery the wearer, who gives the piece of jewellery a platform for unfolding its aura by linking various identities – that of the wearer, the viewer and the person who created the jewellery – in the aspect of being adorned.
The experience of visiting a museum and the reasons for wearing jewellery seem, when viewed superficially, to be very far apart indeed. Yet in both cases the focus is on human dealings with objects. The interrelationship between human being and objects causes something new to emerge in the exhibition space or the wearing situation because perception of a piece, be it as jewellery or as an artefact, changes through the conscious handling of things. In both cases the human being, either as wearer or viewer, is addressed on both the rational and the emotional planes and can use this duality as an opportunity for feeling that that s/he and his or her beingness have been affirmed or, alternatively, called into question.
About the author
Julia Wild (b. 1970) has been an academic assistant at the Department of Gemstones and Jewellery at the Trier University of Applied Sciences since 2010. She studied German studies and history at the Ruprecht-Karl University Heidelberg. Her focus lies in the field of ritual and symbolic communication, space and body, which she seeks to bring together in her teaching with the social phenomenon of jewellery.
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