To Georg Simmel, adornment is a contradiction – on the one hand, it displays the wearer’s value, aesthetic taste, membership of a particular group, on the other, it is visible to the viewer, giving pleasure to her, as well as to the owner. In his 1908 essay ‘On Adornment’, Simmel elaborates on this theme, outlining a spectrum, with tattoos at one end, since they are closest to the skin, and dress in between, moulded by the wearer’s figure and marked by age, and finally, jewellery placed on the body, but separate from it. Jewellery thus has special status, its uniqueness resides in its economic value, authenticity and style, but it always seems new, and supplementary to the wearer’s individuality. While choice of fine jewels surely reflects personal taste, it is interesting to consider the ways gems interact with the wearer and add to her social value.
I was reminded of Simmel’s essay when I visited Bonhams’ view day for an auction of fine jewellery last month. Guided through the delicious rows of glittering rings, bracelets, necklaces, brooches … by Emily Barber, Director of the Jewellery Department, I was continually struck by Simmel’s comments about the pleasure given to both wearer and viewer by these gems – a fleeting relationship created by the bright light reflected by a diamond brooch as you glance across a room, or the deep red glow of a spinel cut to display its clarity as the wearer moves her hands. In so many interactions, jewellery catches the eye and draws our focus.
Simmel describes how ‘the radiations of adornment, the sensuous attention it provokes, supply the personality with such an enlargement or intensification of its sphere: the personality, is more when it is adorned.’ As such, wearing fine jewellery is ‘a synthesis of the individual’s having and being,’ it implies wealth, but also personal qualities – of taste, discernment, perhaps even beauty and style matching the gems. At the heart of this is jewellery’s ‘brilliance’:
‘By virtue of this brilliance, its wearer appears at the centre of a circle of radiation in which every close-by person, every seeing eye, is caught. As the flash of the precious stone seems to be directed at the other – it carries the social meaning of jewels, the being-for-the-other, which returns to the subject as the enlargement of … [her] own sphere of significance.’
So, as you look at these photographs of the jewels I saw at a Bonhams, consider Simmel’s words and the ways that, once purchased, they might infer what the wearer has, but also who she is. As Simmel notes, ‘Adornment, thus, appears as the means by which … social power or dignity is transformed into visible, personal elegance,’ – a magical process brought about by the jeweller’s skill at cutting and setting each gem.
With thanks to Emily Barber, all images by permission of Bonhams.
Fine Jewellery, 27 April 2017 (London: Bonhams, 2017)
Georg Simmel, ‘On Adornment,’ (1908), in Daniel Purdy, Ed., The Rise of Fashion: A Reader (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), pp.79-84