Jewelry is one of the oldest known forms of human dress. Our first necklaces and bracelets were made of shells, bones, feathers and stones, and later clay and glass. We found beauty in a variety of less-than-vivid objects, not all glittering and bright, but treasured for ways that were powerful, yet subtle.
So why is it now that jewelry — which, of course, has the word “jewel” right there at the term’s lead — is sumptuous, conspicuous, luminous and often very, very expensive?
In this month’s issue of Psychology Today, Aja Raden, jeweler and author of the new book Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World, points out that our shift from jewelry simply being something that looks interesting to something that looks rich is twofold: First, human beings, like many intelligent animals, are naturally drawn to sparkly objects. To our ancestors, a “crumpled up piece of tinfoil” would likely have been adored simply because of the amazing way the light flitted and bounced off the surface of that strange material. Furthermore, unlike sparkles on the water, these bits of light could be picked up and fashioned into other objects. That means there’s “something special about it.”
Which is what’s so important about the second part of the jewelry equation: Seashells might be pretty, but they’re also ubiquitous. Jewelry, as we understand it today, travels with the idea that what is being worn, even if it’s nothing more than a well-polished rock, is believed to be rare, even scarce.
“A thing becomes precious when it’s thought to be in short supply,” said Raden, adding that an item becomes absolutely “priceless” when we believe it’s running out. So when we add the dazzle of what glistens and shines to the sensation that such an object is singular, unique, we have something we want to share with the world … insofar as we want to be associated with its value.
In a separate interview with NPR, however, Raden leaves open the possibility that it’s precisely because of that link between what is rare, what is cherished and what might therefore be conspicuously consumed by way of jewelry that the baubles of tomorrow won’t feature what we conceive of as actual jewels today.
“There will always be something that is the rarest rare, that is the most valuable,” she said. Something that communicates class, privilege and, above all access, which is tantamount in many ways to power. But Raden adds that “whether it’s diamonds in the 20th century or emeralds during the Spanish Empire or glass beads among the Iroquois, those things absolutely do change … At some point, we may be trading rocks from Mars as though they were big sparkly jewels no matter what they look like.”
But is that truly the case? Can precious gems ever really be outdone by rocks that look as if they might as well have been plucked off a Nevada highway?
Let’s again consider the jewelry of early man: Among burgeoning societies, jewelry wasn’t necessarily worn to woo, but, for example, to protect its possessors from evil and ill health. Hunters wore strings of teeth, horns, bones and claws believing that these amulets would bring luck in future hunts. None of these items of jewelry were likely what one would call pretty, but among one’s family and neighbors, they were conductors of magic, and therefore beyond price.
For us to see other-planetary rocks the way we see diamonds (or the way we once saw delicate bones), most of us would have to hold such stuff in our hands and feel as though our breath is taken away. And for that to happen, our passions would have to align, meaning we’d all have to become astronomy geeks.
Of course, we’ve had centuries for that to happen, to no avail. Perhaps that’s because intellect (science) and romance (diamonds) are so often hard to mix.
I doubt any jeweler can tell us when the tide will turn and the riches of today will fall out of favor for … for what? But what they can hint at is that, whatever will next rest close to our skin, and yet available for all to see, will not be so unlike what’s been en vogue for thousands of years: the stuff of uniform envy.
(under the courtesy of care2.com)