Through the ages

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 November, 2008, 12:00am

Culture and tradition continue to determine the symbolism and meaning of different types of jewellery and how and why we choose certain pieces today

Jewellery is worn by people of varying ages and cultures. To some, a piece can be a symbol, a charm or a statement; to others, it may just be a fun way to accessorise an outfit. Experts share their thoughts on the history of jewellery and how it is viewed today.

Ran Boytner, director for international research at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California in the United States, said: '[With] jewellery, you are probably thinking about a fashion item made for personal decoration.' But the word jewellery itself is relatively new, and the professor dated the beginning of its use back to the 13th century, when the French first used the term joaillerie. This term does not cover the whole range of items that have been used for personal adornment through the ages, when people used various materials to create items that represented a wide range of values.

Some objects were meant to display merit, for example, such as an item that could be worn only by the best hunter, while others denoted status, personal wealth, identity, profession and religious affiliation. More often than not, these 'jewellery' items symbolised more than one thing. 'It may send a message about the religious belief of the owner, but also of their status in society and the storage of their individual wealth,' Professor Boytner said.

Materials for these objects also varied greatly, and throughout time, different materials were significant to different people, depending on their values and the scarcity of the material. The Inca people, for example, were at a loss to understand the Spaniards' thirst for gold, a thirst which can be likened to the Native Americans' fascination with glass beads that were produced so widely and cheaply by the Europeans. What people valued in their everyday lives also came into play. If goats played an important role in their lives, for example, then goat hair and bones may have been considered appropriate materials to be used for jewellery making.

'In this way, the use of materials is cultural specific and must be understood within the context of [the] society under investigation,' Professor Boytner said.

Nowadays, everything from diamonds and jade to shells and string can be used as materials for jewellery, and the broad range serves as an indication of the many and varied ways in which people view jewellery.

Culture and tradition are still largely responsible for determining the symbolism and meaning that a particular type of jewellery has, and Joanna Hui, chief designer of Be'vish Fine Jewellery, used jade as an example, noting the important ties that Chinese people still have to the stone.

'Asians saw jade as a stone that had the power of providing calmness to an individual,' she said, explaining that this belief still accounted for the stone's popularity among Chinese people. She added that jewellery designers have been using the traditional stone in more modernised designs, however, in an effort to target younger consumers.

'Younger generations view jewellery very differently compared to their parents,' said Nathalie Moisy, founder and jewellery designer of Ensemble International. 'It is more fashion than value orientated. They are more creative, less conservative.'

With this emphasis on fashion trends, which by nature tend to be fleeting and temporary, some of the jewellery created for younger consumers tends to be made with less precious materials, and therefore comes with a more manageable price tag. Ms Moisy described these items as 'everyday jewellery', meant to have less symbolic meaning and are often interchangeable objects that are playful and fun.

This is not to say that younger generations are not aware of the traditional values linked to certain types of jewellery, but simply that their priorities are elsewhere, according to Brenda So, product manager of King Fook's jewellery division.

Younger consumers may understand the history, tradition and craftsmanship involved with jade jewellery, for example, but they would still rather spend their money on 'something more immediately gratifying', such as diamonds or designer jewellery. 'They do understand the value of traditional materials, it's just that their philosophy is different,' she said.

Professor Boytner said that these differences in perception often took place as a response to different events and social, cultural, economic and political trends, and that 'like everything else in life, the use of jewellery - including choice of materials, their combination and design - has to evolve throughout time.'

Individuals that he named 'traditionalists' are those who choose to retain the traditional meaning of jewellery, using the items to signal the 'continuation of tradition'. More transient individuals, however, were referred to as 'pioneers' by the professor and represented those who rapidly changed their tastes and choices.

Professor Boytner said that neither can claim to be better than the other, and that often both trends would be observed within a single society.

'It is impossible to state any generalisations, but [it is possible] to state that in human life, we are always changing and shifting our ideas about what is beautiful and what is acceptable,' he said.

Type A Burmese jadeite featuring Shouxing, the Chinese god of longevity, carved with portions of green and yellow jade.