The worlds of jewellery and art are arguably even more intertwined than those of art and fashion. From jewellers taking inspiration from artists to artists themselves turning their hands to goldsmithing, the two fields enjoy a fruitful symbiotic relationship. It’s surprising to learn then that, until now, no modern art museum has ever staged a significant jewellery exhibition.
“I think there are four taboos around jewellery from a ‘purist’ art perspective which could explain why such a show hasn’t been done before,” says Anne Dressen, curator of Medusa: Jewellery and Taboos at Paris’s Museum of Modern art. “It’s seen as too feminine, too precious, too dependent on the body and too primitively linked to superstition and ritual.”
In order to expand the dialogue around these taboos she’s brought together over 400 pieces of jewellery from wildly different genres and eras, some of which confirm these clichés, others which completely dispel them.
Take the idea that jewellery is entirely ornamental; too dependent on the body to be appreciated in the same way that a painting or a sculpture might be. “There’s this idea that jewellery is sort of a sub-sculpture - that it’s miniaturised to fit the body and is therefore a ‘minor’ art form,” explains Dressen, who counters this argument with examples of jewels which stand on and for themselves: from royal crowns, which act as a proxy for the monarch who owns them, to intentionally unwearable pieces such as Sheila Hicks’ body-sized, technicolour fibre necklace - “more like jewellery for architecture than for the body”.
Included in this Body section is the Secret Garden jewellery box by London-based contemporary jeweller Solange Azagury-Partridge. Presented in 2013 as part of the Metamorphosis collection and four years in the making, at first glance it appears as a majestic objet: a miniature greenhouse of plique-a-jour enamel sat atop a lotus flower of rose quartz and aventurine, inside which are precious furnishings of miniscule proportions. It’s a charmingly whimsical piece, and all the more so when it transforms into a suite of jewels.
The summer-house walls fold into a pair of cuffs, a central diamond-paved panel in the floor detaches to become a pendant, onto which you may string as many of the summer-house accoutrements as you like. ““Jewellery is rarely considered an art form maybe because there’s a practical element to it, but this piece is so impractical it challenges that belief,” says Azagury-Partridge. “It’s like a toy.”
Elsewhere, the exhibition considers the themes of Identity, Value and Instruments, with the opening section debating the notion that jewellery is an overtly feminine domain. Images of famous bejewelled beauties, from Elizabeth Taylor to Beyoncé, line the walls, and while some exhibits conform to this definition - an exquisite Van Cleef & Arpels ballerina brooch from 1953, for example - others challenge it: one glance at Liberace’s fabulously gemstone-encrusted Piano watch and ring puts paid to the idea that diamonds are only a girl’s best friend.
Throughout the show, Dressen cleverly juxtaposes very different types of jewellery to provoke thought: that Van Cleef ballerina, for example, sits next to a childhood candy necklace, while a 19th-century chastity belt is presented next to a modern ‘True Love Waits’ purity ring.
The breadth of jewels on offer is one of the most striking aspects of the show: from signed high jewellery from the likes of Chanel, Boucheron, Buccellati, Lalique, Belperron, Verdura and Cartier - whose Serpent necklace, commissioned in 1968 for Mexican actress María Félix, is a highlight - to artists’ jewels by Man Ray, Picasso, Dali (a reproduction of whose famous Ruby Lips brooch appears on the front of the exhibition’s brochure), Calder and Bourgeois; and unsigned pieces made by anonymous hands across the centuries.
“All of the different types of jewellery are sort of taboos between themselves,” says Dressen. “Contemporary jewellers dismiss artists’ jewellery; high-end jewellers dismiss costume jewellery - so the taboos just as much apply to the different jewellery families looking at each other as they do to the art world looking in.”
The scope even includes a necklace made of pasta (a popular infant school activity for mother’s day), presented in the Value chapter, which riffs on the theme that jewellery is too precious to be considered an art form.
“We have a lot of wonderful examples of high-end jewellery which assert great financial value through precious metals and hyper-technicity, but we also have a tiny headdress made out of feathers from a rare bird, which in China in the 19th century was more valuable than gold,” says Dressen. “The preciousness of the material depends on the context you’re in. Sentimental value is very important too and is unrelated to preciousness, such as the pasta necklace, and there is another kind of value in the political statements that jewellery can make.”
The fourth chapter, Instrument, examines the belief that jewellery is too inextricably linked with superstition, magic and rituals to be of any practical use. Ancient amulets and talismans, used to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune across cultures since the beginning of time, are presented alongside more modern pieces associated with life milestones: baptism medallions, charm bracelets and the like.
In turn, the lines between ornament and use are blurred with highly decorative combs, rattles, mirrors and spurs; rings which double as perfume-holders or clocks; Betony Vernon’s Boudoir Box full of erotic jewellery; and hi-tech ‘connected’ pieces such as the Apple Watch.
Each chapter is accompanied by text outlining the various clichés and contradictions within, but even without getting into the scholarly aspects, the exhibition is an eye-opening demonstration of the sheer breadth of the jewellery world, and its importance within society.
“There are so many psychological aspects of jewellery: power, self-expression, celebration, transformation, and hundreds of different stories you can tell,” says Solange Azagury-Partridge. “You can tell as much of a story with jewellery as you can with a painting, or a song or a film. That’s why it’s so fascinating.”
Medusa, Jewellery and Taboos is at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris until November 5, 2017; mam.paris.fr