Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Great Jewelry Massacre

By Edith McClintock

Like Sangeeta in yesterday’s blog, picking a cross-cultural art blend was difficult. Not for lack of choices, but for the diversity of art forms in multicultural societies. Yesterday evening, I finally sat down to write about the evolution of salsa and timba music and dance, and instead found myself indulging in a six-hour jewelry destruction, creation, rearrangement and repair extravaganza. I’ve been planning this for years with little momentum, other than a growing collection of stray beads, rings with missing gems, broken chains, and piles upon piles of beautiful clip-on earrings from my grandmother that either pinch my ears or fall off and lose their partners.

Many pieces I collected while traveling – turquoise earrings from a street market in Amsterdam, a beaded bracelet from a Mayan girl in Belize, a necklace from a lone woman at the entrance to an empty archeological site in Jordan. But most of it is costume/vintage jewelry collected from garage sales in Fort Myers, Florida, and passed along from my grandmother and aunt. Some of the jewelry I once loved, and some I’ve never worn. But regardless of origin or current sentiments, I’ve saved it all for a future day when I’d create something I could love again, see anew, or simply wear without pain.

So when the urge came yesterday, I didn’t fight it. And while I was working, ripping off clip-on earring backs, rearranging necklaces and threading turquoise and red beads, my mind kept wandering to the museums I’d visited this past year in Georgia, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Jordan, and Turkey, many with ancient jewelry made with turquoise, cornelian, lapis lazuli and gold, colors and materials that were not so dissimilar from my piles of broken or unwearable jewelry.

Since none of the museums allowed photos, I found myself searching the internet for inspiration. What I found confirmed that in its use of colors, metals, gemstones, beads, shells, designs and motivational intent, the art of jewelry has changed little across the ages and cultures. Personal adornment with jewelry is so universal that it began with the dawn of civilization, and has crossed disparate and unconnected cultures and societies.

One of the oldest known art objects in the world is, in fact, jewelry in the form of beads made from perforated snail shells dated from the Middle Stone Age, or about 75,000 years ago. Discovered in a South African cave, the beads may demonstrate early evidence of self-recognition and the ability to use and appreciate symbolism, what many researchers consider modern behavior. Maybe even artistic creativity.

But jewelry, of course, has many uses, including and beyond an expression of beauty, creativity or self-adornment. It’s also a form of currency and wealth storage. It can be functional, whether for use as a buckle or as an object of protection.  And it can decorate nearly every body part, from a hairclip to a toe ring. But perhaps its most important role remains in its assumed origins, as a symbol to display cultural membership or status, whether it’s the wearing of a crucifix, an eyebrow ring, or pearls.

From very early on in the history of jewelry, humans also began creating substitute materials to imitate rare and scarce metals or gemstones, which brings me back to my piles of rarely worn costume jewelry. Our modern idea of costume jewelry was introduced in the 1920s and 1930s as cheaper, disposable accessories worn as a fashion statement. My grandmother was a world traveler and collector and had carefully labeled and valued most of her jewelry. And although none of mine are worth an excessive amount, many are considered vintage, collectors pieces from around the world.

So it’s been hard for me to consider messing with this jewelry from the 1920s through the 1960s. I feel the destruction and loss with each clip-on removal, each rearrangement of design. But they’ve been sitting in my jewelry box for years unused, and ultimately jewelry is mean to be worn. Right?

But in rearranging the pieces across cultures and periods, using what’s in front of me, am I being green and artistic, or am I destroying a slice of history? I’m not sure which is the truth. But either way, not so far removed from our Stone Age ancestors who picked up those shells and envisioned something new.

New jewelry on the right. 


  1. Jewelry is ideed meant to be worn, and Edith you should definitely wear that necklace you recreated with the red beads and turquoise. In Persian culture, turquoise is supposed to bring good luck.

  2. Jewellery can hold so many memories, but we sometimes need to create our own so that we keep making memories!!

  3. I love it, Edith, especially the new pieces you recreated. They're both beautiful to look at and nostalgic for you to wear, like wearing a piece of your personal history.

    Just curious, though: how will you dispose of or store the ivory pieces?

    1. Was looking for an answer and ran across a story about how difficult it is to tell ivory from bone. So perhaps it's not really even ivory, just made to look like it. I'll probably save it for now.

  4. With a title like 'The Great Jewelry Massacre' I had to read! I think I share a lot of mixed feelings about jewelry with you. I used to have this thing where I'd only wear jewelry which had been given to me, since as a professional jeweler I have access to so much jewelry. The bits that were gifted had some more sense of meaning to them I guess, so I'd mostly wear them until people started asking all the time why I was wearing only cheap costume jewelry when I sold many famous designers work. Then I started to add in some pieces from them and I came to really realize so much more why people say jewelry can be both fashion statement, status symbol and currency. It's been all those things to me.

    Could I do what you did, Edith, and set my plyers to stuff people had given me? I think it would be a challenge but it looks like you've honored the original sentiment. If you can take the feeling the person gave to you when they gifted you the jewelry and turn it into a form you can use by reworking it, I think it's a good thing. As I say, I've had jewelry which is both cheap and expensive and the thing that matters most is the feeling you get from it rather than the price tag alone. That's my 2c worth!

    1. Thanks, Misae. I see you sell a lot of clip on earrings, so there must still be a strong market for them. I am trying to keep the original character of many of the pieces and just make them easier to wear.