Art

The History of Jewelry, from Ancient Mesopotamia to Today

While the pieces on display are beautiful, The Met’s Jewelry: The Body Transformed exhibition is lacking in curatorial vision, dividing the objects into blandly-broad thematic sections.

Gold Sandals and Toe Stalls, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Thutmose III, ca. 1479–1425 BCE, from Egypt, upper Egypt, Thebes, Wadi Gabbanat el-Qurud, Wadi D, Tomb of the 3 Foreign Wives of Thutmose III, gold, sandals: L. 10 3/8 inches, W. 3 15/16 inches; W. at heel 2 3/4 inches (image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1922 , and Fletcher Fund, 1921–22)

Jewelry: The Body Transformed features some 230 intriguing objects from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s vast collection, from ancient Egyptian flip-flops made of gold to Alexander Calder’s loopy “Jealous Husband Necklace.” The exhibit demonstrates both the pitfalls and successes of a collection show; Transformed is loosely held together by an uninspired curatorial concept that is contrived to bring together motley items. However, it also demonstrates the impressive depth of the Met’s collection — the jewelry does not disappoint.

Marriage Necklace (Thali), late 19th century, India (Tamil Nadu, Chetiar), gold strung on black thread, bottom of central bead to end of counterweight: L. 33 1/4 inches (image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky, 1991)

“Jewelry is the world’s oldest art form, predating cave paintings by tens of thousands of years,” states the exhibition’s introductory wall text. The distinction between fine art, craft, and fashion is conveniently blurred in this bold statement — isn’t clothing an art form? It likely predates jewelry — but the notions that humans used their bodies as the first canvases is certainly intriguing. Unfortunately, the exhibition doesn’t continue with this level of curatorial boldness. Instead, Transformed is divided into blandly broad thematic sections: The Divine Body; The Regal Body; The Transcendent Body; The Alluring Body; and The Resplendent Body. These categories are too vague — and in the case of “alluring” and “resplendent,” too alike — to provide a stimulating organizational lens. The strength of the show therefore resides in its dazzling individual objects — including ear ornaments, necklaces, nose rings, headdresses, and other baubles — whose function and effect often transcend the stated thematic categories.

Jeweled Bracelets (500–700), made in probably Constantinople, gold, silver, pearl, amethyst, sapphire, opal, glass, quartz, emerald plasma, overall: 1 7/16 x 3 1/4 inches (image courtesy  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917)

Some of the obvious appeal of Transformed is, simply, beautiful things. For example, while viewers are likely familiar with bracelets, rings, necklaces, and brooches, toe stalls might be a revelation. Gold sandals with accompanying individual toe covers (ca. 1479–1425 BCE) from the tomb of a wife of Thutmose III were meant to keep the body of a piece in the afterlife. Each toe stall is solid gold, and complete with a toenail imprint. Even though the origin of these pieces was funerary in nature, it’s hard to not feel a seductive joy at the notion of covering each individual toe in gold — like toenail polish or a toe ring but much more sumptuous. Another personal favorite is a large bronze brooch with spirals (1200–800 BCE) from the Carpathian Basin region. With its use of a simple, abstract form, the piece looks incredibly modern. The spiral was a popular motif in jewelry from the European Bronze Age (3200–600 BCE); it likely had a spiritual meaning and also served to show off the bronze-smithing skills of its maker. 

Large Brooch with Spirals (1200–800 BCE), made in Carpathian Basin region, bronze, 10 15/16 x 4 x 2 9/16 inches (image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Caroline Howard Hyman Gift, in memory of Margaret English Frazer, 2000)

The exhibition is most interesting when it presents jewelry in the explicit context of gender or class. Items associated with marriage serve this function particularly well. A late 19th century marriage necklace from southern India is over two feet long. Constructed of gold on black thread, its heaviness is such that counterweights where the clasp might traditionally be balanced sit atop a wearer’s shoulders. The piece’s ornaments are meant to reference floral garlands, and it functioned both as a religious and spiritual symbol and as a literal manifestation of the wealth a bride brought to her marriage. The necklace is so startlingly heavy, so gaudy, and so overpowering to the average female form. It is a reminder of the weight of marriage for women in many eras — adornment functioning here as a literal bodily prison, and as an external manifestation of the concept that a woman was a piece of monetary wealth for her in-laws.

Broad collar of Senebtisi, Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, late–early 13 (ca. 1850–1775 BCE), from Egypt, Memphite Region, Lisht North, Tomb of Senwosret (758), Pit 763, burial of Senebtisi, MMA excavations, 1906–07, faience, gold, carnelian, turquoise, falcon heads and leaf pendants originally gilded plaster, restored in gilded silver, eyes originally gilded beads restored in gilded plaster, outside diameter 9 13/16 inches, max w. 2 15/16 inches (image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1908)

A more focused curatorial lens might have teased out how jewelry cemented or circumvented gender and class. While the exhibition touches on these issues throughout every section, sometimes explicitly, the exploration of these topics could have been deeper. Another possible lens would have been an examination of artistry: Who made these objects? How was skill passed down? Why were certain materials used? Even with Transformed’s frustrating organization, it’s a worthwhile show for anyone interested in craftsmanship, material culture’s relationship to power, or, simply, shiny beautiful things.  

Pair of gold earrings with Ganymede and the eagle, Hellenistic, ca. 330–300 BCE, gold, rock crystal, emerald
H. 2 3/8 inches (image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1937 )

Jewelry: The Body Transformed continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 24. The exhibition represents a collaborative partnership of six curators—lead curator Melanie Holcomb, Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, consulting curator Beth Carver Wees, the Ruth Bigelow Wriston Curator of American Decorative Arts, The American Wing; Kim Benzel, Curator in Charge, Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art; Diana Craig Patch, the Lila Acheson Wallace Curator in Charge, Department of Egyptian Art; Soyoung Lee, the Landon and Lavinia Chief Curator, Harvard Art Museums; and Joanne Pillsbury, the Andrall E. Pearson Curator, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas—assisted by Hannah Korn, Collections Management Coordinator, Medieval Art and The Cloisters, with Moira Gallagher, Research Assistant, The American Wing.

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