By Katerina Juszczak
Its alluring glow in the dark surroundings of the exhibition hall is purposefully staged to invite visitors to take a closer look at it – jewelry: a massive golden breast piece, golden calf covers (probably a part of royal armor), massive golden earrings that could hardly conceivably be worn through piercings. Hall after hall of masterfully arranged jewelry pieces that represent different periods, traditions, and geographic regions draw the attention with their exquisite beauty, unusual appearance, or sheer opulence.
The name of the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of art is “The body transformed.” I will extend this notion to the idea that jewelry also transforms the mind – both of the wearer and the observing audience through its perceptual impact on all parties involved. Since the very first time that decorative pieces were added to enhance the appearance of a person beyond the utilitarian need for clothing, jewelry has been, among other things, a powerful communication medium at nearly all levels of conveying a message (as described by Hanson in the sixth edition of “Mass communication”): intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, and, in some rare instances, even mass level of communication.
Jewelry presents to the world an individual’s notion of self – who he or she believes to be (in other words, at the intrapersonal level, choosing and wearing a particular decorative piece evokes certain feelings that are aligned with our self-image). More importantly, however, jewelry implies how we want to be perceived by others. Through careful selection of decorative enhancements, a person creates and communicates a self-image to any audience without the need for verbal expression. Depending on the size of the audience, the level of impact can be seen in one of the three remaining aspects of communication, as mentioned above. Because it is entirely visual, the message created by the presence of jewelry is striking and immediate: observers perceive rank, status, and wealth, maybe religious affiliations or something about the character or individual preferences of the adorned person. The bejeweled individual in return effortlessly evokes an array of behavioral responses to the projected image of self about the way he or she should or expects to be treated.
Ever since the advent of the Bronze age, when more sophisticated techniques for transforming base and noble metals into intricate jewelry pieces emerged, kings and queens, priests and members of the higher echelons of society in multiple cultures around the globe have adorned themselves with the most exquisite and opulent masterpieces to convey power, wealth, and distinction. The imagery that these striking visual presentations must have created was certainly intended to command immediate obedience and veneration, and as such was probably one of the first expressions of a non-verbal mass communication in ancient times (as long as one was present or heard about the event). The visual message sent through the display of lavish status ornaments evoked desired and predictable emotions and behaviors from the observing audiences and thus impacted the minds of people in ways conducive to sustaining the power of ruling elites.
Some particular pieces of jewelry, such as a crown, have become powerful status symbols on their own right and, because of that, are great examples of profound impact at the extreme ends of the communications spectrum: within the person and in front of the largest audiences. The mass communication aspect conveyed by the presence of a crown is self explanatory. At the intrapersonal level, this significant headpiece seems to completely shift the power dynamic between wearer and adornment from person to object, almost as if wearing a crown can bestow kingly qualities on anyone who would put it on. Grand coronation ceremonies throughout history bear witness to the radical change in self-image when given the opportunity to wear this archetypal symbol of ruling omnipotence. These opulent events have often involved a spiritual component where divine powers have been invoked to bestow special blessings on the new ruler merely by the act of receiving the crown.
As the exhibit guides the curious visitor from one hall to another, the same message keeps repeating itself regardless of historic period or culture: we wear jewelry because of the way it makes us feel and because of the way others perceive us. In other words, we wear it, because of its subtle ways to convey meaning to us and to those around us. For the Egyptian priestess, her image-laden headdresses and necklaces might have represented a special connection with and maybe even impersonation of divine powers; for the Aztec warrior, his peculiar lip attachments and body ornaments might have conveyed his fearsomeness, bravery, and divine protection; for the young woman living on the cusp of the 19thand 20th centuries, wearing a pearl necklace might have meant either one of two diametrically opposed notions: conformity with society’s expectations or emancipation and independence. Ritual jewelry, such as an engagement ring or a wedding band, communicate to all that the person wearing them is in a committed relationship, and, in return, reinforce the committed relationship notion in the mind of the wearer. In all instances, jewelry seems to be a powerful communications tool that more or less subtly influences the behavior of the wearer and the behaviors of those around the adorned person.
Looking at my own jewelry box, I think about my own jewelry choices and the resulting communications I am inadvertently sending. I have jewelry for work and jewelry for fun. I know that wearing different decorative pieces can positively influence the way I feel. As I am selecting my adornments for the day, I am thinking about the interplay between internal and external communications that my final selection conveys: Who do I want to be today? How do I want to be seen?