The Elegance Of Antique Jewelry
The title should in fact be extended further than this: The Elegance of Symbol in Antique Jewelry.
Of all the properties, be it aesthetics or material value, that people, since the dawn of time, have invested in jewelry, the symbol of power is the most important.
Only very few could afford to be adorned with jewelry, so this extravagance is concentrated in upper classes of the civilizations we know. This can be documented from the finds in graves whether they date back to the Bronze Age (2.500 B.C.) or the Middle Ages. Rich graves are better preserved and gold, silver and gems better survive through centuries than leather, wood, textiles, bone, etc. which common people could afford.
All levels of classes are involved in producing jewelry, from the workers in the mines to the jewellers and goldsmiths. We find this to be true whether we talk about the Antiquity or the present.
But also poets, musicians, healers, astronomers, astrologers, painters and philosophers have illustrated the beauty and meaning of gems and jewelry and this narration of culture are shared by all members of society.
These different descriptions and approaches also share the immanent and common purpose that culture invests in meaning: to identify and legitimise power and class differences. Jewelry is always used to signal power, distance, control, prestige, status and place in hierarchy.
Most cultures combine different gems and metals with different level of status, hierarchy, medicine, stars, destiny and the likes.
Symbolic meaning and jewelry also associates power with the beauty, value and magic. Even if each culture intermix and exchange ideas, their cultural representation and different traditions, religion and way of control can be identified through the study of jewelry.
It is the elegance of this symbolic distribution throughout societies, which contribute to the maintenance of hierarchy as culture. As long as all members of a culture love songs and stories about the beauty and bliss of jewelry, they play a role in making symbolic meaning narrated in a meaningful way. Hereby binding together culture, history and hierarchy.
Mountains and gems, find perfection from transparency and beautiful colors. To them belongs the precious stones we so desire: carnelian, jasper, emerald and similar gems. There should be nothing and more beautiful than these’. Plato, Phaedo c. 400 BC.
Plato (427- 347 BC) used precious stones in his dialogue Phaedo to illustrate the future paradise where the soul – freed from the body – exists without disfigurement or disease. He also used gems to illustrate the stars, animals and plants. He believed in his mentor Socrates, when making the use of images of flawless jasper, carnelian and emeralds to render notions of spiritual bliss.
Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) wrote about the power and effect of precious stones and similarly, Theophrastos (370 – 287 BC), a pupil of Aristotle, informed his readers that like Plato, he especially valued emeralds: Some of the stones, for example, jasper and lapis lazuli, are unusual in their appearance, but in addition to its beauty, the emerald most certainly possesses magical powers’.
Antique Jewelry was invested with bliss or magical and healing powers and in the same time they signified status and place in hierarchy. The slave based and stratified societies in the Antique world surely used gold and gems to legitimise dominance, control and exploitation by elegantly referring to the aesthetics and poetic value of gems and workmanship as well as the magical powers embedded in the stones.
The nobles demonstrated status and wealth openly as if it were the most natural thing of the world. In his History of Asia and Europe (c. 130 BC), the Greek historian and geographer Agatharchides of Cnidos writes about the noble residents of Sheba and Gerrha: The furnishings of their houses were made of silver, gold, ivory and precious stones’.
Historical jewelry is thus an interesting subject of study as it helps identifying different cultures and traditions.
By: Anirban Bhattacharya
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