As austerity approaches in the wake of global uncertainty, you might wonder why jewellery matters to modern-thinking women. However artfully draped, does diamond frivolity mesh with wearing sweatpants at home, with the current political turmoil, or with the COVID-19 epidemic?
History tells that it takes more than disease or economic instability to rattle our jewellery rituals, of which we are understandably possessive. The earliest beadsn date right back to the Neanderthals. Jewellery endures because it answers the profound human need for self-adornment – and complicated moments in history tend to fuel that desire, not kill it. It’s a strange truth but jewellery shines brightest in the midst of war, political and economic turmoil and even pandemics because that’s when its deeply embedded significance and cultural role glows on fingers and earlobes, like hopeful beacons through dark days.
"It’s a strange truth but jewellery shines brightest in the midst of war, political and economic turmoil and even pandemics"
Early jewellery was used as a preventative charm against evil, disease, witchcraft and general mischief. Collectively we are less superstitious now, relying on the NHS rather than an amulet to fend off illness. Nonetheless, jewellery provides something bonding to hold on to when life feels ephemeral and isolated. Sure, it’s a brilliant fashion accessory, an emblem of status and style employed to catch a room’s attention like Marie Antoinette’s dazzling hatpins, but that is just jewellery’s frothy and fun-loving party public guise. We’ve all got one.
Jewellery’s finest hours happen when engaged in meaning-of-life moments. Throughout lockdown I absentmindedly turned my Bee Goddess diamond eye ring round my finger. It’s so pretty, and, while I’m really not superstitious, the eye is a universal symbol of wisdom and protection. It meant something more than just simple adornment.
"The importance of jewellery is complex. It holds ideas of place, being embedded with pieces of the earth’s landscape and history that might be billions of years old. It has hidden meanings and is often a gesture or reminder of those we have lost or loved. All this wrought within a small gleaming structure"
These pieces move with the wearer, carrying with them a dynamism, a link connecting past to present, while accompanying us to new places, new situations and sea-changes. This precious part of jewellery has nothing to do with money and everything to do with sentiment and memory. These slender rings of metal, fragments of stone and pieces from the past lying close to the skin, act as witness to an experience, a love affair and sometimes, a whole life. Nothing else we wear defines us, and our era, in the same way. Every civilisation has divulged its secrets through surviving adornments left behind in burial sites. Jewellery bears our meaning in perpetuity.
Historical details are hammered and drilled into each piece, telling romantic tales of connoisseurship and who wore it. Pieces are often invested with stories of how we lived, loved, battled and died. The turquoise ring with which Napoleon first bewitched Josephine will still exist somewhere today, the forget-me-not blue stone eternally beckoning love. This idea of permanence is reassuring to humans.
Of course, it can’t protect us from what the future holds, but it can lend us a spirit-lifting sense of tribal belonging, of knowing that we’re part of something much bigger and more meaningful beyond ourselves. Jewellery’s value is often cited as transportable wealth, and the theory goes that this is why its value is currently riding so high. Through the ages jewels, precious metals and gems have served as a survivor’s meal ticket for émigrés and crowned heads fleeing war and revolution.
"Through the ages jewels, precious metals and gems have served as a survivor’s meal ticket for émigrés and crowned heads fleeing war and revolution"
For kings it has been a handy way of raising cash to fund an army when it’s needed: Charles I established his own pawn bank to help to finance the English Civil War against Oliver Cromwell. When Italy came out of lockdown, among the first shops to reopen were the pawn shops – which probably received their fair share of tide-me-over jewels.
No matter how much we learn about the price per carat of emerald-cut diamonds and brilliants or recycled gold, at the end of the day all jewellery is worn as a symbol of self-expression. It does not matter whether that is the finest pigeon’s-blood ruby or a tiny hammered gold bead. A jewel is a solid manifestation of something uniquely intimate. Culturally speaking jewellery is in our ancient DNA, inherited from the first human being all the way down the centuries to you. It is your own story.
PHOTOGRAPHY CREDITS: “Rankin for Stephen Webster”
The New Stone Age: Ideas and Inspiration for Living with Crystals by Carol Woolton is published by Ten Speed Press. It is out now in the US $32.99 and on 5 June in the UK £26.00.