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Exhibitions/ Jewelry: The Body Transformed/ The Resplendent Body

Jewelry: The Body Transformed

At The Met Fifth Avenue
November 12, 2018–February 24, 2019

The Resplendent Body

On a fundamental level, we wear jewelry to be seen. It catches the light, attracts the eye, shines, reflects. When the conditions are right, it can be resplendent. Here, we explore the spectacle of jewelry: the value of materials, the quality of design, the virtuosity of craftsmanship, and the potential to surprise and even shock. Whether made from precious gems or sharpened pencils, these objects excite our desire to be looked at—to flaunt and display. The most extreme examples divert the gaze even from the body itself, as it recedes behind a pageant of splendid artifice.

Dazzled by the appearance of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, one seventeenth-century English ambassador described him as "clothed, or rather laden, with diamonds, rubies, pearls, and other precious vanities, so great, so glorious!" Jahangir, along with his son Shah Jahan and other rulers with a connoisseur's passion for gems and luxury ornaments, birthed a jewelry tradition that continued and evolved in the courts of the Indian subcontinent well into the twentieth century.

The brilliant bodies of maharajas, nizams, and other dignitaries were achieved through a preponderance of precious stones combined with jade, enamel, and gold. It was a cosmopolitan aesthetic that showcased gems from around the world and employed technical methods both local and European. The jeweled style was all-encompassing, appearing not only on necklaces, armbands (bazubands), and rings but also on turban ornaments, cane handles, and dagger hilts. It could play off the textures and patterns of woven silks and beaded robes, but extraordinary pieces of jewelry were also sometimes set against simple white muslin or undyed wool in order to highlight their multicolored splendor.

Selected Objects

Jewelry by firms such as Castellani, Lalique, or Tiffany & Co. is perhaps the most familiar to us today; we might ask why. In the late nineteenth century, jewelry houses began to construct their individual identities into a set of recognizable characteristics: archeological references in the work of Castellani, fluid organic forms for Lalique, jeweled natural specimens by Tiffany & Co. As these luxury brands took hold, a new social currency emerged, a hidden language of consumption among those who recognized the visual vocabulary. Dazzling creative risks flourished in a market that quickly embraced them.

It is the magic of retail to leverage these brand associations, using the body as a billboard to propel and solidify status. A certain loyalty follows and, for the many historical brands that still thrive, a perception of legacy and quality that stretches back to a century-old competitive spirit.

Selected Objects

So heavy was the weight of the many gold armlets worn by the nineteenth-century Asante chief Osei Tutu Kwame at a court festival that he had to prop them up on the heads of young boys. Gold was an integral component of art and belief among the Asante and the other Akan and Akan-related peoples of West Africa. Considered an earthly counterpart to the sun, it was the physical manifestation of a vital force and was worn confidently and extravagantly on the body of the chief to convey his purity and vigor.

Enabling this aesthetic of effulgence was the abundance of gold in the region. Further north, Songhay women ingeniously used golden straw to emulate the artistry of gold jewelry, if not its radiance. Meanwhile, the silver ornaments favored by the Fon peoples (in the present-day Republic of Benin) spoke not to local resources but to foreign ties. Silver was imported, melted down, and fashioned into tiny sculptures, such as cannons and cars, that reflected European influences. Worn as brooches or bracelets, they signaled the wearer's cosmopolitanism.

Selected Objects

The resplendence of jewelry from Sumba Island resided as much in its metaphysical power as in its material. The Sumbanese believed all precious metals to be of celestial origin; gold therefore signified divine favor. The very shapes into which jewelry was formed contributed to cosmological balance, a core value often expressed through the idealized union of complementary aspects such as male and female. The omega shape of mamuli pendants alluded to feminine reproductive energies, while the objects were made of a material regarded as masculine. On the occasion of marriage, a groom presented mamuli and other metallic objects to his bride and received in turn textiles and other items considered female. The perfect symmetry of the bladelike marangga pendants also reflected this desire for balance, as did scenes of head-hunting—a practice understood as crucial for restoring cosmological order—which appear on some mamuli.

So potent was certain gold jewelry that it was rarely seen, much less worn. Charged with the intense "heat" of spiritual power and secreted in clan treasuries with the most sacred relics, it maintained strong links with departed ancestors, who saw to the vitality and overall prosperity of the community.

Selected Objects

Contemporary artistic jewelry often resists and rebels. Sometimes it abandons not only historical notions of preciousness but all the characteristics traditionally associated with jewelry: glamour, expense, wearability.

By the mid-twentieth century, avant-garde artists had reassessed jewelry's function and begun to subvert it, questioning conventional assumptions about material worth and adornment. Costly metals were replaced with aluminum, rubber, plastic, resin, or even paper cord and pencils. Overt messages often charge these works with a significance that moves beyond the decorative. In many examples, art nearly conquers the body, and the emphasis shifts fully to the jewelry itself—as object, creative endeavor, or political tool.

Selected Objects