Semantics of the word jewel

Article  /  Debates   CriticalThinking
Published: 26.01.2006
Semantics of the word jewel.
Manuel Vilhena

It addresses the work we do as artist-jewellers and the conotations the word "jewellery" has for the public in general and to some extent to ourselves. By changing that concept, we would be able to present a larger audience with a different perception of what we do. Unfortunately, up to now, no new name has been coined. Maybe it will, maybe not. This is a seed for change.
jew.el ( n.
1. A precious stone; gem
2. Costly ornament of precious metal or gems
3. Little pieces of happiness
4. Small, hard to find, get or keep, beautiful things or people
5. The result of the process of speaking jewellery
6. An object that pierces or is pierced by the body
7. Bodily ornaments.

jew.el ( n2.
1. Object to be worn on/in/by the body - to be worn on the head such as crowns, diadems, tiaras, aigrettes, hairpins, earrings, nose rings, ear plugs; on the neck in the form of collars, necklaces, pendants and chains, on the limbs in the form of rings, bracelets, armlets, anklets and toe rings; as touch objects carried in the hand or pockets; implemented in the inside of the body via the digestive or other tracts, or by surgery.

Jewels have always fascinated man. Independent of the reasons for such attraction, which explanation will surely fall into the domains of anthropology, psychology, philosophy or metaphysics and where I feel uninvited to wander, they have been present throughout the ages in the lives and times of our ancestors and are present in our lives nowadays.

Probably, if not surely the oldest art form in itself, jewellery has always inhabited a space of its own, creating a border lined definition of what is what and what goes where. The use of specific materials, the ways of using them, the idea of preciousness, unattainability. The obvious is that, independent of its own definitions and rules, jewels keep, have always kept and surely will continue to keep this attractiveness and desirability that seduces men and women alike to fall out of grace and spend their hard earned money on an object many would deem logically, practically and definitely useless.

So what is the driving force of this seductive power that jewels possess? We could draw a simple four fold diagram showing the words: Body, Mind, Soul, Spirit and then proceed to explain how and why wearing jewels actually fulfils such parameters (ornament, social status recognition, the landmark of a feeling, talismans, etc.). I will not do that, it would be matter for another discussion.

The seductive power lies in the fact that a jewel is to be part of the body, its function is one and one only, in absolute reality terms: to be worn by the body - nothing else. That sometimes it serves as an ornament or identity badge, as a reminder of days gone by, or feelings, or whatever is a secondary and, in my opinion, quite discardable issue in the context of this text. This brings us to a semantic dilemma though. What about those gold boxes, set with precious stones and magnificent music box devices in hand crafted platinum set with diamonds, gold wrist watches, stone set belt buckles and the like? They surely qualify as Jewels in their own terms, a very broad term, I say. They do not qualify as Jewels in a "related-to-body" term.

If in the past the concept of the word "jewel" was related to temporal preciousness, nowadays, that relationship has collapsed as a result of artistic endeavours, social changes and, I dare say, self consciousness. A new word is urgently needed to help identify things which are different by nature.
For over forty years now, experimentation in the field of artistic jewellery has led to a breaking of the traditional boundaries associated to the concept of jewellery and jewel. A tangible change of values that started to manifest itself from the early sixties transpired to the Jewellery made by individuals who chose this media as an artform and free expressive language ("big name" jewellery houses failed to observe such changes...).

Entering a new century, as we are about to, one of faster-than-light communications, worldwide information, global villages and so on and so forth; now that the illusion of "knowing" is slowly creeping up our sleeves, at least it is time to address things for their name. Let us credit all these artists with enough synergistic power to redefine a concept (as many politicians of charisma did for social paradigms), one that has a new definition at present.

Hence, the word "Jewel" stands for - any object which primary function is: to be worn by the human body and "Jewellery" stands for - a particular kind of language that uses a plethora of construction techniques, with a goldsmith's "anima" to produce pieces intended to be worn by human(s) (bodies).

We, as jewellers, should not forget our ancestral legacy but should also not fail to address dictionary compilers and the minds of people in general to remind them of this important change of paradigms. Or else, the historical work of hundreds of people, for such a long time has been no more than self indulgence and by no means has it been so.

© Manuel Vilhena, Portugal. 2000