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“From his neck he unclasped the collar of gold,
valorous king, to his vassal gave it
with bright-gold helmet, breastplate, and ring,
to the youthful thane: bade him use them in joy.”
“Ere from his bosom departed his soul”, Beowulf handed the torque and the insignia to the young Wigelaf. Barbarian dignity is transmitted with power, through jewels. For jewels, Beowulf is slain in his battle with the Dragon and, in his death throes, asks to contemplate them in order “more sweetly to depart this life”.
Here then is the jewel: the ambiguous and mysterious fascination of the mound; the transgression of its “pagan” origin; the temptation of the Dragon, as a Snake or Evil Spirit; the symbol of power, heightened by the accumulation of “princely” gems and those of “earls”; the consolatory strength of “contemplation” in the moment of final renunciation.
Likewise, in primitive societies, the jewel is the daily practice of all these things: fire of desire and seduction, symbol of status and wealth. Also, however: “In Africa, jewels serve mainly as a form of magic defence… worn preferably… on the vulnerable parts of the body, its orifices… fulfilling the dual purpose of arousing admiration and discouraging evil influences. Among the Lega and other highly hierarchized societies, jewels can distinguish up to 6 or 7 different ranks. Among the Bambara, necklaces can signify, by their form and colour and material, a vocation for the art of speech and its mastery, and as for the rings… their meaning differs according to which finger they are worn on”.

Susan Rodgers, on the subject of Indonesia, has discussed at length the value of jewels in terms of rank and social roles, interfamily exchange and relations with the supernatural, indicating them as a pivot essential to the functioning of that society and hence for its comprehension and description.

In India the situation is perhaps even more complex, where by tribal tradition the jewel is essentially religious and associated with the dowry. That tradition contrasts with the cultivated and courtly one derived from Iranian and Greek-Alexandrian models, later revisited by central Asian and Muslim influences, identifiable in terms of dignity of caste and nobility; and in that sense the Indian subcontinent is the right place for anybody wishing to approach the subject of jewelry from all angles.

In both cases (among the most striking examples) the reason why certain powers are crystallized in the jewel remains obscure, and the realisation of the established fact is liable to be confined to a description of types, and of their uses and functions.

An initial explanation might be that of basic materials, their rarity and preciousness: the shell, ivory, coral, tortoisehell, horn, coloured stones, metals. And with this, a taste for the unusual, for beautiful, curious and far-fetched form: the beetle, the feather, the tusk, beak and claw.

So much for the material: which is then subjected, by manual skills and refined techniques, to transformations and metamorphoses and interconnections. The end-result is the one before our eyes: formal perfection, the capacity to combine diverse materials, and just enough of the spectacular and exuberant in colour and proportion to kindle desire in other people’s eyes.

Well, one day we took each of these objects off a neck, a wrist, a finger and an ankle: objects that had previously been awaited, cherished, given and received - never gratuitously or randomly. A young Zuni girl forwent her virgin’s ear-rings because she had got married; and in Nias only a headman is entitled to wear a “gaule” ear-ring and why? What are these if not fragments of a language, waiting to be fully interpreted and described? Why again, even so, through flashes of intuition, news gathered and traditions narrated, does the jewel remain pure and bare, a precious relic, incomplete memory?

Because the primitive does not bejewel himself: he adorns himself, and in grand style, in the impressed eyes of the village. The narcissist greases and colours his skin, dyes his hair or shaves it and dresses it in elaborate fashions, and makes up his eyes. He may perhaps have had a deformed skull since childhood; his teeth may be filed, his lips and ears pierced, and he may also have tattooed and scarified himself or wear busts that tighten and shape: he is the butterfly born of the caterpillar.

The language grows complicated, the message superabundant; the jewel becomes part of an articulate and difficult statement, exhibited by the primitive while feigning indolence: the jewel is not only a precious object to be flaunted. Nor, however, is it an object to be read in primarily anthropological terms: for the jewel has a “natural place” of its own. Just as for the mask it is impossible to leave out the costume, the sound of music and the dancer’s gestures, so for the jewel, is it impossible to think of it outside that complex world of the “arts of the body” as described by Leiris: which is moreover the physical display of a way of being, in a rigidly formalised society for whose members the jewel manifestly indicates status and lineage.

Thus contextualised, we might suppose that the jewel plays a particular (particularly important) role in this “corporal code”, to become its most mobile, transmittable and treasurable element. Thus, in the space of generations, it may become the refuge of ancestral sacrality, close-knit groups and vital strength, magic force and talismanic virtue.

And so, in the daily effort to recompose our being and to bridge the gap in our history, I believe this approach to the jewel is not only correct, but animates and humanizes it, ultimately rendering it more precious and familiar, almost still imbued with the caressable warmth of other people’s memories and bodies.

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