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A history of personal adornments at the Cantor Arts Center

July 20, 2012
Image credit: Pui Shiau

Why is it that society seems enamored of beautiful objects? No matter the time or the place, each culture has used the materials available to it to create beautiful objects, either for utilitarian purposes, decorative purposes and even courting purposes. Join me on a short journey exploring some of these pieces at the Cantor Arts Center.


Despite their age, these earliest necklaces from Ancient Egypt (c. 1627-1295 BC) exhibit bright hues and intricate floral and graphic motifs.  The earliest hieroglyphic images show that both men and women wore adornments in life and in death. Jewelry indicated social status and rank as well as serving as amulets protecting the wearer.

It was believed that colors were associated to certain gods and their inherent powers.  Reddish hues were associated with menstrual blood, childbirth and fertility and reflect the powers of the god of fertility. The blue lotus, a sacred plant, transformed itself everyday; every evening, the blue lotus would close, go under water, then rise and bloom again in the morning. Therefore the blue-green color of the lotus was associated with sun and creation, resurrection and worship of the god Osiris.

Many people today still believe in the protective qualities of gemstones. Amethysts and quartz, among others, are touted for their restorative and balancing powers.

South Africa

The Nguni tribe of South Africa can be divided into four distinct groups depending on their location and/or the language they speak. By the time this piece was made (1880-1905), glass beads already were being imported from Europe, which led to the creation of more opulent jewelry that replaced the earlier pieces made from local materials.

In Northern Nguni, these body adornments marked the milestones of a person’s life. Young men and women exchanged lavish gifts of beadwork to express their interest.  They would then wear layers of these gifts as a display of their popularity. This particular mannequin shows how a young woman would wear her beadwork, not only as a sign of her popularity but also to indicate that she was unmarried and that potentially she could bring a considerable dowry to the marriage.

To this day, Zulu (a Nguni tribe) beadwork continues to adhere to many traditional design elements and you will find many of these pieces sold in South Africa and on the Internet.


Federated States of Micronesia

The Federated States of Micronesia are comprised of thousands of islands in the Western Pacific. It comes as no surprise that they looked to the ocean as a source for materials.  This 20th century 

coral and sperm whale tooth necklace and shell belt from the state of Yap are perfect examples. While whale was a valuable source of food, whale teeth were used for ornamentation or currency. So, wearing whale teeth was seen as an outward display of wealth.  As in Egypt, some believed that the whale tooth possessed divine powers that offered protection to the wearer.

While it has been illegal to import sperm whale parts into the US since 1973, contemporary jewelry designers use alternative materials, such as plastic or faux ivory, to fashion the whale tooth and retain the cultural significance. As homage to the sea, surfers have made wearing this style of necklace extremely popular, whether off the coasts of Bondi Beach or Waikiki.


Jade is the one stone that comes to mind when it comes to Chinese adornments. The stone can be found in varying shades of milky white to deep emerald green. These two belt buckles come from the Eastern Zhou dynasty (480-220 B.C), right, and the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911), below right. Originally crafted for a utilitarian purpose to secure leather belts, the belt hook evolved over time and served more as an accessory, a hook from which to hang decorative seals or objects. Displaying elaborate animal and floral motifs, they became symbols of status and wealth.

While the belt hook no longer serves a utilitarian or decorative function in contemporary society, they have become coveted items for antique collectors.  Furthermore, the interest in genuine jade jewelry shows no sign of waning, as it remains a strong category in jewelry auctions in Hong Kong. In the April 3, 2012 Sotheby’s jewelry auction, a jade pendant of a laughing Buddha sold for US$1.9m.


United States of America

This next collection dates from the end of the Gilded Age (late 1860’s-1896), a period vast economic growth in industry that was accompanied by the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. During this period, jewelry for the most part was purely decorative and a means for displaying wealth.

Jane Stanford owned an enviable jewelry collection that she amassed over the years as gifts she received from her husband. It was comprised of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and pearls. She intended to sell off the collection as a way to raise funds for the establishment of Stanford University, but she wanted to retain a permanent archive for herself. She meticulously laid out her jewels on a red velvet cloth and had the collection photographed. She came to love the photograph so much that she subsequently commissioned San Jose artist, Astley Cooper, to paint a replica (c. 1898) that would capture the actual size and color of the individual pieces.                                                                           

Jane Stanford was an innovator before her time. Her linear and thoughtful display of jewelry strikes a remarkable resemblance to the inspiration boards made popular by contemporary style bloggers and trend setters.

The desire for beautifying one’s self with bodily adornments persists today.  While most serve no utilitarian function whatsoever, some traditional purposes still remain. Engagement and wedding rings indicate ones marital status, while Christian cross and Jewish Star of David necklaces display ones religious affiliation. Even though gemstones are also believed to possess healing powers, the long lasting tradition of personal adornments may simply reflect the joy they bring to the wearer.