Belt with Clasped Hands
France, 1934. Silk, plastic
Displaying Elsa Schiaparelli’s evening belt – a jewel that ‘wraps the body in a literal embrace’ – alongside a Tang Dynasty waist plaque, illustrates just how deftly considered this exhibition is. Led by Melanie Holcomb, curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, the show’s six curators apply as much weight to creatively significant pieces as they do to ‘important’ ancient artefacts. The production design, headed by Emile Molin, of the MET’s design department, in its use of see-through panes and a barely-there colour palette, emanates a visceral sense that we are looking through history, including our own.
‘So great, so glorious!’: last chance to see the MET’s outstanding show ‘Jewelry: The Body Transformed’
Art and design institutions often struggle with the notion of jewellery design as a serious art subject, blinkered, perhaps, by surface connections to fashion, handcraft and the carelessly wealthy. All hail New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, then, for brushing away clichéd connotations in its continued universal exploration of jewellery’s multi-faceted reflection of the human condition. Its latest rumination on the subject, the exhibition ‘Jewelry: The Body Transformed’, ends this coming Sunday (24 February), so this week presents a last chance to see it. Why should you go? Because it’s one of the most captivating, thought-provoking and, despite its academic underpinnings, enjoyable exhibitions you are likely to see. Whether you are interested in jewellery or are convinced that you are not, you’d be sorry to miss it.
Belt with Clasped Hands
Gold Sandals and toe stalls (left)
Egyptian, Tomb of the Three Foreign Wives of Thutmose III, Thebes, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, ca. 1479–1425 B.C.
Bone Cuff (right)
America, 1971–74, Sterling silver
(Left) The exhibition begins with a tour of the body – where we wear jewels, why and how. The ankles and feet are represented by anklets from Asia and Africa, but the various Egyptian gold sandal and toe-stall pieces on show are intensely fascinating. Luxurious funereal jewellery for royal or high-ranking figures, gold sandals and stalls – for the fingers and the feet – were included in tombs to aid a gilded passage to the afterlife, with added protection.
(Right) The inclusion of select designs by the great Italian-American designer Elsa Peretti, renowned for her work at Tiffany & Co, reflect her own academic leanings, which she brought to life in commercially savvy jewels with a keen, feminine wit. Her ‘Bone’ cuff sits just as easily with the historic pieces on show. This show exalts her position as one of the most important contemporary designers of our time.
Large Brooch with Spirals
Eastern Europe, Carpathian Basin region, Bronze Age, ca. 1200–800 B.C, Copper alloy
The infinite form of the spiral was a recurring motif in European Bronze Age jewellery. The discovery of bronze, over three millennia ago, not only put the metalsmith at the economic centre of communities as far apart as China and Greece, but at their cultural hearts too, fashioning decorative adornments for those who could afford to wear them. This oversized brooch would have emitted a dazzling golden light, all the better to capture the reflective rays of the sun.
Ear Ornaments for a hunter (batling)
Ilongot Luzon Island, Philippines, late 19th–early 20th century. Hornbill ivory, metal, shell, glass beads
From the Americas to Korea and Oceania, ears ‘could be decorated to convey deeper symbolic or metaphorical associations,’ says co-curator Joanne Pillsbury. ‘Maya of the Classic period considered ear flares to be small-scale portals into the human body that transformed the sounds heard by wearers into sacred and perfumed phenomena.’ Tinkling metal fringes, as seen here, add a mystical, musical quality, transforming the character of the wearer and the perception of the beholder. Just as when one 17th-century English ambassador remarked of Jahangir when he first set eyes upon the great Mughal Emperor: He is ‘clothed, or rather laden, with diamonds, rubies, pearls… so great, so glorious!’