Review: "Jewelry, The Body Transformed"
Updated: Apr 5, 2021
For those who feel guilty about their desire for jewelry, know this — humans have been adorning themselves with handcrafted objects since prehistoric times. Literally since pre-history. Thousands of years before the first recorded cave drawings were made, women and men decorated their ears, arms, wrists, necks, ankles, hands, hair, waists, and feet. Love of ornamentation is simply part of human DNA.
The Met’s current exhibition, “Jewelry, The Body Transformed,” showcases objects of this desire across time, cultures, and purpose. I had the pleasure of perusing this tightly curated show during a recent trip to NYC, and came away awed by the world’s oldest art form and yearning to see more.
Upon entering the first velvety black gallery, my eyes were immediately drawn to pair of gold sandals with individual toe adornments that gleamed at my feet. These Egyptian funerary pieces looked ready to step out of their case, even though they were created almost 3,000 years ago. Thus began a thought-provoking look at more than 200 jeweled objects from around the world displayed starkly by theme in a non-chronological melange.
It was almost amusing to view three pairs of massive earrings exhibited together, one in gold from fifth century Korea, another in horn and shell from the 19th century Philippines, and the third a pair of YSL rhinestone bows I would have worn in the ‘80s. Each was beautiful in its own right, and artfully rendered. The trio worked well together.
One of my favorite spaces was devoted to regal headgear. In addition to a magnificent emerald and gold crown, I was particularity entranced by a set of intricate Chinese gold-and-ruby ornaments. Each featured a unique, three-dimensional design and could stand alone as a brooch, but these were meant to be worn together, covering the entire top of the head. It seemed a more understated way to proclaim one’s importance than a 10” tall crown, but because of the incredible level of detail and careful arrangement, a more significant achievement in jewelry design and execution.
Another standout was an important Art Nouveau collar by master jeweler Rene Lalique that featured the era’s signature enamel motifs of flowers, amphibians and plant life, further accented by multiple round opal cabochons, each about the size of a nickel, completely encircling the neck. This one magnificent piece encapsulated every important element of the Art Nouveau era of design.
The exhibit featured pearls more than any other gemstone, perhaps because natural pearls were discovered and worn just as the oyster formed them, long before modern lapidary techniques were developed for polishing minerals. An incredible five-strand, graduated pearl necklace by Cartier hung suspended in air. Its pearls were natural, not cultured, and the diamond clasps were the perfect finishing touches to this rare piece. Created in 1905, it was a triumph for its time, but marked the end of an era. Within a few years, the new industry of pearl culturing would transform the market, eventually making pearls affordable for almost everyone.
Of course, I couldn’t help but notice how many of the ancient pieces could be worn today, as design themes echoed through the generations. A pair of tapered gold cuffs, some seven inches wide, worn by an African prince, looked runway ready. Elsa Peretti’s iconic sterling “bone” cuff will be eternally stylish. A Georgian diamond-and-silver floral spray brooch would be enchanting tucked into a bride’s updo.
Works by modern designers are included, notably those by Shaun Leane through his association with Alexander McQueen, but I would categorize these pieces primarily as “art-to-wear.” There was little representation of high fine jewelry from the last 75 years or so. The exhibit was aggressively edited to tell its story, and I appreciated not being overwhelmed by its scope. It was an admirable undertaking, but in simple jewelry parlance, I wish there had been a bit more sparkle.
If you’re in New York, go check it out and let me know what you think. “Jewelry, The Body Transformed” is on exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 24th.