“Jewelry is the world’s oldest art form, predating cave paintings by tens of thousands of years…” So begins the journey through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest exhibit Jewelry: The Body Transformed, a thoughtful exploration of the very nature of adornment and our human fascination with fine jewelry. “Through history and across cultures, jewelry has served to extend and amplify the human body, accentuating, enhancing, distorting and transforming it,” the exhibition tells us. No wonder we are so obsessed with it.
From head to toe, according to the Met curators, “jewelry activates the body it adorns.”
Exotic Egyptian gold sandals with toe sheaths greet the viewer on a journey traveling up the body to carved jade and bejeweled belts at the waist, pearl bracelets at the wrist, silver collars on the shoulder blades, dazzling earrings for lobes and even gold hair rings and emerald crowns. These precious metals and gemstones attract the eye and imbue the wearer with a sense of status, beauty or even divinity. From the trappings of royalty and prerogatives of privilege to the embodiment of the divine itself, jewelry has been used for centuries to communicate meaning in an unspoken universal language. Luckily for the pearl obsessed, many of the standout pieces in this display were primarily made of pearls.
Power Pearls – The Regal Body
One of the many human transformations that jewelry enables lies in the realm of status, how other people perceive us. Jewelry is inherently valuable and creates the perception of enhanced value in its wearer. Crafted from our most prized resources, jewelry is designed to endure. Throughout recorded history, it has signified royalty and aristocracy.
“It should never be hard to spot the king,”
the exhibition tells us. From Maharajahs and Queens to Emperors and modern day politicians, women and men of great status have always adorned themselves with power pearls. The rarity of large pearls, coupled with their magnificent luster, brings a radiance of grandeur when worn in necklaces or tiaras or woven into cloaks and stoles. In the “Every Woman a Queen” section of the exhibit, regal collections of matching sets called parures feature gem and pearl-studded necklaces, brooches, earrings, bracelets and tiaras. The parure proved to be the perfect adornment for European Neoclassical gowns in the Napolean era. And the Mughals of India procured international treasures like pearls, jade and gold for adorning everything from their robes to their turbans, cane handles and dagger hilts. Jewelry still equates to power in modern times, even on a personal level, as many of us gleefully relive our childhood princess fantasies whenever we don our favorite strand of pearls.
The Seductive Pearl – The Alluring Body
“On a fundamental level, we wear jewelry to be seen,”
the curators remind us. Pearls naturally reflect the light, attracting the human eye and shimmering with luster. Their inherent femininity is both alluring and mysterious. An entire section of The Alluring Body portion of the exhibit was devoted to “The Seductive Pearl.” A radiant five-strand necklace of all natural pearls from Cartier (1928) steals your breath near the exhibition opening, a tantalizing taste of what is to come. Photographs of Josephine Baker, Coco Chanel and Princess Yusupov of Russia, each draped in long layered strands, appear next to ladylike seed-pearl necklace and earrings, as well as an enamel and pearl encrusted hair comb. A particularly naughty surprise awaits nearby in the form of a discreet viewfinder looking through to reclining female nudes who wear only the pristine perfection of iridescent pearls. According to the Met, the turn-of-the-century showgirls and later the ubiquitous flapper embraced the multiple meanings assigned to pearls, wearing them as a “symbol of a wholly modern liberated woman.” In the current era of female empowerment, is it any wonder that pearls are now enjoying a huge resurgence in fashion and popularity?
Divine Pearls – The Resplendent Body
“Jewelry operates as readily on a spiritual
level as on an earthly one.”
Given its rarity and durability beyond human lifetimes, jewelry also enjoys an association with heritage and the celestial. Jewelry in the ancient world was believed to possess extraordinary powers, literally signaling divinity or conjuring deities through both sight and sound. Noisy menat-necklaces in ancient Egypt were believed to summon the goddess Hathor during her worship rituals. The Mesopotamian myth of the goddess Inanna-Ishtar tells how she was stripped of jewelry on her way to the underworld. Void of adornment, her power diminished immediately and seriously hindered her ability to return to the living.
Jewelry was also thought to invoke ancestors. Beautiful portraits of beloved family members on mother-of-pearl medallions adorn bracelets near the entrance to the exhibit. And a pair of Byzantine gemmed bracelets also captures the eye in front. Another Byzantine assortment features hanging earrings with a series of four pearls dangling from long golden rods and a necklace with sapphire and pearl pendant crosses that allude to the status and the morality of its owner. Interestingly, the Byzantines were fascinated by the luster of pearls. They spoke of pearls possessing their own light source, believed to be a miraculous remnant of lightning that had penetrated the oyster causing the formation of the pearl. While modern science may have proven the more accurate origin of pearls, it does feel like a little jolt of electricity to this pearl obsessed girl whenever she puts on a highly lustrous strand. If you want a similar kick, do yourself a favor and stroll the elegant galleries of the Met while invoking your own inner goddess. Be sure to wear your pearls, of course!
Jewelry: The Body Transformed was on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 2019. Shop for your own splendid jewels here.