Till Death Do Us Part:
Jewellery and its Human Host



’Till death us do part: A structurationist approach to jewellery’ Noris Ioannou (ed.) Fremantle Arts Centre Press (1992)

The gem which saw thee near and loves thee still,
Is pledge and image of my heart and will,
My heart is not less white or pure than this,
And though less hard, ’tis quite as firm I wis.

George Buchanan

The ties that bind people together can often be very material things. This, at least, is what Mary Queen of Scots had hoped when she had a special ring prepared for Queen Elizabeth of England. Mary wanted to guarantee Elizabeth’s protection. The ring was called a ’gimmal-ring’, a ring that joins with another to complete an image—in this case the diamonds of two rings formed a single heart. Mary sent Elizabeth one half and kept the other. Elizabeth, looking at this ring, should have felt that Mary was an essential part of her life, necessary to complete the image before her. Clearly, this strategem failed and Mary was eventually separated from herself as much as from Elizabeth.

In an event like this, one wonders what the ring has to say for itself, having so badly failed to keep Mary alive, as was hoped. In writing about the ring, the Scottish poet and publicist George Buchanan takes the point of view of the ring itself: ’The gem which...loves thee still’. Surely Buchanan has it the wrong way around. How can a jewel love a human being? Though it seems the case that members of the human species can become attached to precious objects, we think little of the possibility that such objects can become attached to us. Though this possibility is outside common sense, it is the kind of change of perspective that can reveal what has previously been invisible about the relationship between people and things—not how things can be better used by people, but how things themselves can control people. What this change of perspective entails is a framework that puts things and people on the same level.

To follow this path—where things are people and people are things —may not be that common in thinking about the crafts. But please don’t think it’s a wild goose chase. There is a connection with the previous arguments in the crafts. This path can be mapped according to what are two main axes of judgement in the crafts: form and function. Like Mary’s gimmal-ring, readings of the crafts seem to consist of two matching spheres of meaning. The first closes meaning to the object itself and the second opens meaning to the world around the object. Simply, there is form in the object, and function out of it. It’s according to these axes that we’ll locate where the life of a precious object begins.

The ins and outs of objects

The formalist reading abstracts the object from its context of use and considers only those features specific to the object itself. This approach reflects a modernist concern to uncover the individual essence of particular artistic practices—the medium is more important than the message. Normally, the effects of this idea are gauged in the fine arts, such as literature and painting, yet the individual crafts were certainly given much of their identity as a result of this ethic of differentiation.

In jewellery there are two consequences of this idea. First, it promotes an interest in the techniques of construction rather than any social meaning that might be gathered once the object is made. Here, the value of craftsmanship is uncomplicated by what the object has to say. A second consequence is the question of the object’s ’authenticity’. Just as a person’s true inner nature might be distinguished from their surface personality, so a piece of jewellery might be divided into the jewel itself and the setting in which it is contained. The call of the formalist approach resembles a call to liberation from the limits of all that does this ’containing’. Maholy-Nagy asked designers to: ’catch the stones in the air, make them float in space—don’t enclose them’. To ’enclose’ the stones would be to confine them within the limits of tradition and use. To ’make them float’ is to release the authentic essence of the jewel. Perhaps this is the best way to deal with objects: to leave them alone.

By contrast, the functional reading of jewellery considers its relation to particular individual and collective ’needs’. Such a reading asks the question: why do people wear jewellery? From this perspective, one considers the object in the light of the needs of producers and wearers, much the same as one might consider government policy in terms of the needs of the people, or universities by regard to the demands of students and industry. This kind of perspective acknowledges the value such an object has in our world, though such value is read exclusively in terms of the human species. This is an anthropocentric perspective: it is human thoughts and desires to which the cosmos is accountable.

So how do these relate, the formalist and the functionalist readings? When placed together in argument, they represent competing interests. Formalism liberates the object from use in order to reveal its essence and functionalism provides an audience for the demands which users place on the object. One champions the thing itself, and the other argues for the world which contains that thing. Both readings have limitations.

The formalist is liable to the criticism of commodification: i.e., it renders the meaning of the object independent of context, and therefore may be more easily exchanged in the markets—as westerners we can more easily stand back and apprehend the formal ’beauty’ of a primitive artefact than participate in its ritual significance. And what is wrong with making objects accessible to a greater range of contexts? One significant problem with commodification is that it deprives the object of its source of meaning. Removing the object from its place in the world is like uprooting a plant: it denies the object’s origins and source of sustenance. For precious objects, this is to deny the material and traditional aspects of their production, as well as the structures which cause them to circulate outside of workshops. The object lives by drawing on elements outside of itself: matter, thoughts, bodies, etc. Take those elements away and you have a sterile and secure environment that is not touched by unstable factors, but you also have a setting which reduces the capacity of the object to find its mode of being. Thus, in the end, art loses its audience.

Formalism has provided spaces which have been enormously productive in the creation of institutions of knowledge—think of the scientific laboratory, art history, etc. Each of these spaces serves as an internal reference for institutions: they reveal the autonomy of the particular phenomena for which the institution is dedicated. But formalism certainly casts its shadow. In the art world, a formalist appreciation of visual representation removes the capacity to refer to the world beyond the gallery—the gallery is thus protected from outside forces.

Indeed, it is very possible to develop a sinister appreciation of formalism. Looking into its shadows, it appears as a device whose purpose is to insulate a powerful group from the demands of the world. The least you could say about the bad effect of formalism is that it has tired out the world. One hears in institutions constant complaints about the very world on which they draw their support: gallery owners complain about the tastes of viewers, university lecturers demean the capacities of students, etc. — there is a feeling that only inside these institutions do people know how to respect objects of taste and knowledge.5 It appears that, as formalism has given up on the world that supports it, the world has had enough of formalism.

At this point, we should be in a fairly righteous mood, supporting any opponent of formalism. The main contender, functionalism, furthers the status of the consumer: rather than the object itself commanding an exchange value in the market, the object is valued according to use. This seems to place the needs of the individual at the centre of the picture: shouldn’t that always be the case?

The priority of human need in a picture of the world is obviously the subject of much argument and political action. The movements that brought down Communist governments in Eastern Europe were partly about placing a Western capitalist notion of individual needs in the place of the Marxist concept of collective identity. Those from the old communist way have justified their change of values by simply claiming that they are striving for the same end but by more efficient means: they claim that the goal of Marxism has always been to improve the material welfare of people, and the recent substitution of state planning with a free market represents a change of strategy not a change in direction. Nothing has changed, it’s just that needs—for food, clothing, kitchen items, etc. —are being served by more efficient means. But is that all that politics is about: serving people’s needs? Yes, yes, yes. I don’t want to stop anyone satisfying their needs, but how do you know what the needs are? How does the government determine which needs it will meet? (The Communist Party?) How do Western consumers decide what they need in life? (Advertising?)

Needs must be deciphered. If I feel unhappy, it might be because I am forced to engage in alienated labour due to my class position, or it might be because I lack a compact disc player. In one instance, a feeling is identified with a collective subject, and on the other with an individual subject. Argument about the definition of needs will always come prior to market research and electioneering. Definition of needs depends on prior ideological positions about what kinds of agencies there are in the world: class factions, individual human beings, nature, etc. To talk about needs therefore, one has to allow some room to determine the kinds of structures in which those needs are housed.

In terms of the object, formalism is the inside and functionalism is the outside. Formalism reveals the properties that make it an object apart from all other objects, which guarantees it a separate status in the world. And functionalism lays the ground on which the object plays a part in the world. At the same time, formalism closes the object off from its source of support, and functionalism restricts the agencies that matter in the explanation. What’s needed here is an account of the ’life’ of an object that doesn’t have any heroes or great causes. Wanted: a plain realistic tale of the object in the world.

The life of objects

Realistic tales normally involve matters of chance and necessity: what is left up to fate and what a person must decide to do. To think about the life of objects in this way requires a dualistic framework. One such framework we already have at hand is the Darwinist theory of evolution. Here the development of species is dependent on two different processes: mutation and selection. Genes mutate to provide a range of possibilities which are selected on the basis of their capacity to gain the necessary means to reproduce in the environment. Here were have a process that is internal to the organism—the accidental change in genetic code —which interacts with a process that is external—the capacity of the outside world to provide sustenance. As you can tell, such an explanation suggests one way of placing together the perspectives of form and function in a narrative framework.

The survival of species may seem a long way from understanding the life of precious objects, but recent approaches have taken the evolutionary perspective beyond its original biological reference to an understanding of social life. I’m referring to the school of thought known as structurationism, which developed in argument with structuralism. By the time of May ’68, structuralism was seen as a totalitarian kind of theory which reduced the diversity of human action to a simple set of structures, such as a limited number of binary oppositions. These structures were seen as ’natural’ —part of the given world. However, in structuration theory these structures are seen as part of the created world. Within this context, a phenomenon like language is examined not simply as a ready-made set of structures, but as the product of its practitioners, who everyday keep language alive in speech and writing. Within structuration theory, language is a living phenomenon that depends on its speakers for sustenance.

Where do humans fit into the structurationist perspective? The answer is quite simple: nowhere. We are the structures which we reproduce. I am a particular unique version of some melody that was accidently found and will keep being reproduced until it loses its audience. If I write ’This text has written its author’ you probably will be familiar with the kind of reverse logic of structuration theory that has entered our common theoretical discourse.

This is the bargain of structuration theory: while individuals are granted significance in the reproduction of structures, that’s all they are. A chicken is the means by which one egg reproduces itself. In this sense, structuration theory might be called a ’misanthropocentric’ doctrine. But apart from the appeal of novelty, why should a doctrine which deprives individuals of their position at the centre of meaning be adopted? Could structuration theory be simply an elaborate attempt at false modesty? The proof of structuration theory will be how far it can take us in a new appreciation of the craft of jewellery.

Why jewellery wears people

As form, jewellery is explained by an essence within the object itself. As function, it is judged in terms of its uses. Both readings see the meaning of jewellery as something given in the world, rather than constructed by individual wearers and makers. Within structuration theory, objects are examined as reproducible phenomena that require intervention to take on significance, yet whose meaning lies outside individual subjectivity. The question to ask of jewellery is not so much why people choose to wear it—a question which grants no status to the object outside of its usefulness —but why jewellery wears people.

Jewellery is a class of object that attaches itself to people and disengages itself from people. Where does it enter into our lives and where does it depart? What is it that governs the trajectory of objects in our lives? One way of looking at this question is to examine the value of the object. Objects are commonly associated with us because they represent a value in the world. A person acquires an expressionist painting, for instance, because it enhances their status as an art collector, confirms their identity as a bohemian type, adds to the value of their assets, etc. In each case, it is not an individual’s need which is the centre of explanation, rather it is the kinds of exchange which different values enable. Enhancing one’s status as an art collector, for instance, can be cashed in for greater credibility at art openings. Confirming one’s identity as a bohemian can give one permission in other people’s eyes to act less conscientiously. In each of these cases, the means of exchange are set outside of the individual’s control, just as the values of a currency exchange fluctuate beyond any one individual’s wishes. Value systems are the tracks along which humans tread with their objects; they are like rivers worn by time and nature.

So what is the value of jewellery? What are the tracks along which jewellery travels, and what happens when these tracks come to an end? There are three kinds of value that will be looked at here: economic, social and sentimental. Economic is probably the least interesting kind of value that jewellery can have.8 Unlike the precious metal from which it can be made, it is very difficult to transfer the economic value of jewellery without significant loss. Legend goes that pirates were the first to wear jewellery such as golden ear rings because it was the only way of safekeeping their wages from other pirates. But that was before bank accounts. Now the value of second-hand jewellery is notoriously low.

The social value of jewellery is much more obvious. Think about the presence of jewellery in a conversational setting. There are a number of advantages which jewellery provides its wearer. Most directly, it sets up an immediate source of conversational material: ’Where did you buy that?’, ’I think it suits the colour of your eyes’, etc. In simple terms, jewellery draws the attention of others towards oneself. The German sociologist Georg Simmel writes about the ’radioactive’ quality of jewellery—how it radiates a glittering light which captures the gaze of others.9 And it can serve as a visible sign of one’s social status. This can sometimes be written into the law, as in medieval France when a decree pronounced that only the nobility were able to wear certain kinds of jewellery, or in ancient Rome, where a gold ring was taken as the sign of a free man, and slaves were forbidden from wearing them.

Clearly there are differences in the way jewellery circulates among the members of a community. While in medieval France and ancient Rome, jewellery was seen as limited to an upper class, in a modern Anglo society it could be seen as the kind of ostentation that belongs to the lower classes. An Anglo culture sees power as governed by an interior moral force more than an external display. There is a suspicion of ornament and surface forms of status: ’all that glitters is not gold’. Status for a modern person is normally inscribed on paper and thus objectively codified rather than be dependent upon the recognition of others. In a modern world, then, jewellery finds appealing those groups whose sense of power depends upon the eyes of others—this is particularly so for entertainers, socialites, etc.

There is a third track followed by jewellery which is less visible than the one of social value. This is the sentimental meaning carried by the piece of jewellery. How can sentiment be made present? The simple band of gold that signifies a wedding ring is testimony to the weight of emotional value attached to it. Because its value is not entirely visible, the significance of the ring is seen to be private and based on a shared confidence rather than a meaning that is open to the public. Here lies its paradoxical nature: this intimacy is presented so that all can see it, it is a public sign of a private space. What happens, then, when that private space is vacated, either because of the break-up of a marriage or the death of one of the partners? Where does the ring go when its hosts have departed?

Off the straight and narrow

Outside the space of a marriage contract, the wedding ring is in a less circumscribed space. There is no established route for it to follow and its companions are likely to be less civilised. There are stories about rings that have lost their way because of divorce. In Chicago, apparently, it was the fashion to have wedding rings made smaller so they could fit on the little finger—these became known as ’divorce’ rings. In moving to a different finger, the ring changed its meaning from prohibition to invitation. And in Germany, the jeweller Otto Kunzli purchased over a hundred of these abandoned wedding rings and linked them together to form a necklace. Here the owner of the ring releases it onto the economic circuit of value where it is recuperated by an artist. The ring now forms part of a drama that is a mixture of tragedy and comedy: while the ring is first lost because of a broken personal contract, it finds new life as a member of a glittering chorus—its initial status as a precious object to be bought and sold is the opportunity for its regained power as a work of art. These stories from USA and Germany demonstrate the kinds of fate experienced by rings once abandoned by their patrons, but what happens when the patrons themselves are abandoned by fate? Does the obligation of wedding rings to their owners extend beyond ’till death us do part’?

Again, the case of death sets the ring on an uncertain path, though the company it encounters is likely to be more respectful than when it is voluntarily cast aside after divorce. According to funeral directors, relatives of the deceased are often unprepared for the decision about whether to intern personal jewellery to the grave with the body. In most cases, children of a dead parent will initially think of burying the problem with the deceased, though with some coaxing they will begin to consider its potential value for the grandchildren. The private marital value of the ring is a delicate good that must be transfered carefully like a handful of water to other cupped hands. It commands a respect which will not travel into the realms of pure ornament. Some jewellers are asked to incorporate part of the ring of a parent or grandparent in a wedding ring. While the rest of the ring may then be destroyed, there is still a trace of it that regains its marital role—it survives by graft. Still, many couples insist on having a previously unused ring. Some feel that a ring should respond utterly to the romance between two lovers—a romance unheralded by past generations. Thus a new ring is born. But as it is born, so it will die. A new generation will spurn the rings of their ancestors. But where do these forsaken objects go?

Does it stay or does it go?

One solution is to consign the ring to oblivion with the body. Cremation is probably the most dramatic extinction of mortal traces. A Roman writer (Elegy of Propertius, 49-15BC, on the ’Shade of Cynthia’) dwells on the macabre consumption of person and things on the fire:

She still had the same eyes and hair as when on the funeral couch; but her garments had been burned away. The flame had destroyed the beryl which used to grace her finger, and the infernal stream had discoloured her lips

Indeed, there are particularly important rings that seem to come into their own on the death of their wearer. When Richard II died he asked to have no jewellery on his crown and sceptre, though he ordered a ring with a precious stone to be made for his finger so that he could be buried with it. And King George IV, who had a special ring made for himself and his wife, asked the Duke of Wellington to place the ring on his breast when he was buried. In these cases, the ring’s last duties provide a form of emotional closure which humanises the dismal work of nature.

But closure may not be what is required. For various reasons, one of which may indeed be greed, the ring can be plucked from its dead host and given a fresh life on a new hand. A Melbourne painter who comes from a family in Southern Tasmania described the scene of her grandmother’s funeral. This grandmother was matriarch of the family, and would normally be the one organising this funeral, if it were not her own. The family were left in confusion by an unexpected hitch: they could not prise the ring from the matriarch’s finger. They were just about to give up and let the grandmother take the ring with her when, without any consultation, a stoic maiden aunt matter of factly sliced off the finger to retrieve the ring. A dead body is just a lump of flesh, no matter how great a respect it commmanded when alive. From being the source of movement and display for a ring, the body becomes an obstacle to be overcome and replaced, like a dying horse.

But there are other destinies for a bereaved ring besides its material survival as an object. Given the weight of sentimental value it has carried, its subsistence has much to do with the emotional charge attached to it by the people involved in the relationship. Anne Brennan is a contemporary jeweller who pays particular notice to the narrative value of crafted objects. She wrote a story about finding her dead mother’s wedding ring: ’A golden presence on my small white hand’ Brennan’s story about discovering her dead mother’s wedding ring recovers an earlier story about its loss while she was alive. Both stories set up the ring as an emblem of her mother’s life:

For my mother, on her hands and knees on the floor, the ring was her marriage, lost precipitately down some fatal crack in the floorboards of her life —her anxieties and anger fuelled by who knows how many insecurities, silences, anguished failures of communication between her and my father. 

Brennan’s initial uncertainty about what to do with her mother’s wedding ring is resolved at the end of the story by the very construction of a story to be told about it. It is no longer some silent baggage that is thrown in with certificates and passports—it now has something to say for a past that has previously kept silent. The ring speaks to the daughter. Though physically it is deprived of a host finger who will give it life again, its intractable presence allows it to carry a message from what has passed. It is as though while the finger remained in the ring, its lips were sealed. Once the finger was removed, the private knowledge it contained was released into the world. It was then up to someone else who could listen to what it said. The life of this ring thus ends as a kind of witness for past events.

A large part of the life of a ring is involved in bearing an emotional attachment between two biological individuals. Once that attachment fails, whether biologically or emotionally, the ring’s future is subject to great uncertainty. This kind of uncertainty contains many creative possibilities. But it is somewhat of a mystery why this situation occurs in the first place. From a functionalist perspective, shouldn’t it be possibility to find an means of representing attachment which is more subservient to this end? Why isn’t a different kind of adornment chosen to represent union—one that isn’t likely to stick around awkwardly after the others have left?

You’ll never walk alone

The tattoo is a form of adornment that seems to have no existence independent of the wearer. Its yours for life, and death. In this way, it’s quite a different kind of adornment to jewellery. It seems fixed on one track —a tattoo can’t be exchanged, abandoned, or left to its own devices. In this way, it is perhaps a more faithful companion to love than jewellery.

Indeed, there are some societies which use tattoos as we use jewellery. Catholic Bosnians wear a circle and cross tattooed on the back of their hand as a sign of their Christian allegiance. Religious faith here does not seem to be presented as a matter of belief, it is arranged according to tribe rather than class. Identity is fixed on the surface rather than emerging from unstable individual beliefs and wishes. And in the Hell’s Angels, it is known for certain women to wear on their ’arse’ an inscription that reads: ’Property of...[man’s name]’. This is an extreme version of the various hearts and sentimental motifs that are inscribed with the name of a loved one. Like a wedding ring, its purpose is to ward off other men, though the indelible nature of the device may in fact produce the opposite effect—providing a pretext for being a ’bad woman’ that is a challenge to other men.

Despite the seeming fatefulness of a tattoo, there are some ingenious means by which the tattoo can be altered. The principal tattooist of a studio called Lifelong Designs said that he is often called upon to draw portraits of loved ones, though he is also sometimes asked to adjust these portraits to suit new partners: he does this by changing the colour of the hair, eyes, etc. And in some very exceptional cases, it is possible to keep one’s tattoos in circulation after one’s death. There is a man with a particularly impressive body tattoo who wrote off to China to have his skin turned into a lampshade after his death. In contrast with the ring, the tattoo is a much less independent agent in the world. If it is to have any life after death, extraordinary measures must be put into action.

Jewellery and tattooing are alternatively private and public manifestations of a relationship. A wedding ring requires the active maintenance of the wearer. Its presence needs to be monitored and its condition maintained —its very being is depend on the minor series of daily private acts that keep it in place. In this manner it accumulates the labour involved not in its manufacture but in its use. It thus becomes a medium for symbolising the kind of daily consent involved in a modern marriage. By contrast, a tattoo requires only that its host once subject him or herself to the ordeal of the needle. After that, its fate is sealed with the wearer, regardless of any change in circumstances. The tattoo is sheltered from life.

The daily grind

The daily life of ornament provides a field rich with potential for jewellers. One Melbourne artist who actively works with this potential is Susan Cohn. The range of objects which she draws on include those devices that regulate the flow of bodies through urban space. A walkman helps bound the mental space of an individual within a strictly private area. A security badge admits the individual access to restricted spaces. With the accumulation of these devices, the city inhabitant provides a display which not only admits entry to specific public and private spaces, but also provides visual tags that fix the identity of the wearer. These devices have a double life; they are both functional and representational.

But it is Cohn’s wedding rings which have most to say about the path we have been exploring in this chapter. Cohn’s rings usually contain two layers: a relatively common band of aluminium and an expensive band of fine gold. As the outer layer is worn, it reveals the layer beneath: this is either an exposure of worthlessness or a revelation of value depending on the order of layers. Cohn’s wedding rings are purposely designed to bear the marks of their daily grind—their inner core is ’revealed’ in their use. These objects are more than commodities that float passively around the circuits of exchange. They are designed to have a life of their own. Cohn’s work provides a bold paradigm for what jewellery could be.

From a structurationist perspective, the precious object is not a thing for itself, nor is it purely a subject of human needs. Rather, it is an object with its own life, sometimes regulated by value systems, sometimes abandoned to the winds of fortune, but at all times requiring some kind of value—whether economic, social or aesthetic—in order to stay alive. In being sensitive to the different paths of these objects, the possibility is open to jewellers not simply to make objects, but also to capture them, set them on different paths and give them new lives. This kind of jeweller is not the traditional metalsmith, whose objects exhibit craftsmanship pure and simple; this jeweller is not a formalist. Nor is this jeweller a post-modern bicoleur, grabbing what is available from the field of objects in daily life to make something bright and colourful; this jeweller is not a functionalist.

Of the various models available, this kind of jeweller might be looked on as a tutor of objects. In anticipating the kind of world into which an object might partake, the jeweller can prepare it for the future roles and hazards that might be faced. In Emile, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book of advice to tutors, he recommended against concentrating on specific practical skills. Rousseau’s attitude towards his pupil is captured in the words: ’Life is the trade I would teach him’. Jewellers can place themselves in this picture as tutors for objects—crafting their character and preparing them for the different tracks on which they might tread. These are the tracks along which people and things measure their lives, sometimes meeting, sometimes parting.