For many collectors, a key aspect is whether a piece of jewellery has been used. Signs of wear are welcomed (to a certain extent, though; damage is often a bridge too far), and jewellery pieces that do not display any wear are sometimes dismissed as ‘too new’. With the presence of wear and age, it seems, comes the notion of authenticity. There is a category in between however, that is both brand new and old: pieces that have been purchased when they were new, but that have never been used. Is wear a reliable factor in determining authenticity?
This is a silver pendant from Oman, that would have been one of a pair. Both were worn on either side of the head, suspended from a leather or silver strap. This particular style of head jewellery was worn in the region of Sur.
Now this pendant here has never been used. It feels sharp to the touch: the dangles are as edgy as the day they were made, and each raised decoration on the body of the ornament is still pristine. Yet, this item was purchased roughly 30 years ago.
The same is true for these five silver braid ornaments, also from Oman. Ornaments like these were worn in the region of Dhofar, but these five have never been worn as such. They come from the personal possessions of Shirley Temple-Black, and were most likely acquired during her years of service as a diplomat during the 1970’s and the 1980’s.
So are these real?
Yes, they are. An important thing to keep in mind is that by collecting vintage jewellery, you train your eyes to look specifically for signs of age. After all, collectors do not want to be duped into buying newly made copies that are passed off as vintage. That means that the absence of these signs of age (rounded edges, worn decoration, soft patina, to name but a few) casts doubt over the authenticity of a piece. Yet, there is a category of pieces that is new, but not produced recently.
The time of collecting
This category stems from the early days of collecting. Most traditional silver jewellery from the Arab world started to be collected in large numbers from the 1960’s onwards. The first wave was during the hippie-age, when many people flocked to the Middle East, a trend which then continued during the oil boom. That timeframe saw massive changes in clothing and adornment nearly everywhere in the world: traditional jewellery slowly ceased to be worn, but was still produced, old silver was traded in for gold, and jewellery items ended up for sale. This was before large scale tourism, before the Internet, and before the spike in interest for disappearing material culture: jewellery was still being created, but not especially for tourists, as a souvenir. Jewellery items newly bought in those years are now 60 years old.
The murky field of authenticity
Authenticity is one of the most debated topics within the field of material culture. A first observation is who determines what is, and what is not ‘authentic’ – I will talk about that in a future post. For jewellery, older objects are quicker to be accepted as authentic (‘this is at least 120 years old, it must be authentic’), but also in the past, things were passed off as traditional or specifically created to cater to the demand by others. Authenticity is not solely dependent on temporal aspects (age), but rather the intended interaction between the object and people is a vital aspect. Both jewellery examples shown above have been produced locally, to be part of a local attire that was still worn regularly, but were purchased by a non-local when they were still brand new. They are for all intents and purposes authentic parts of Omani culture: they just have never been used.
But how to discern between old-new and new-new…?
This category of newly made items that have been collected half a century ago depends mainly on sound documentation to attest its provenance. It’s a catch-22: without signs of age, it’s near impossible to tell whether it has been made yesterday or decades ago. Stylistic analysis may help: certain techniques are not mastered as well these days as half a century ago, the size of an object can be an indicator, or the materials used. But more than anything, this category depends on its documentation to connect it to its proper timeframe. So, if you own such a piece and you do remember more or less when and where you bought it, make a note of it. Very helpful are additions like an old photograph of the piece hanging on a wall in your house, for example, or a picture of you yourself wearing it. Both serve to confirm a timeframe when this piece was created, and help preventing misinterpretations when you are no longer there to share its story. This is especially important as this category has an unexpected added value.
A hidden value
Jewellery items like these might prove to possess an additional value: they are among the few surviving old pieces that are new. All jewellery once was new, of course, but after having been worn a lifetime, the surviving majority nowadays shows signs of wear. From a perspective of material studies, it is interesting to be able to compare a new item and a worn item that are of the same age. Having the original, newly made piece to compare to a similar piece that has been worn a lifetime provides another layer of information about the everyday life of the person who once wore this jewellery. Because after all, the story of jewellery is a story of people!
‘Authentic’: of undisputed origin; genuine
For more on Omani silver jewellery, see www.omanisilver.com
Jones, S. & T Yarrow 2013, Crafting authenticity: An ethnography of conservation practice, in: Journal of Material Culture, March 2013, Vol.18(1), pp.3-26
L. Broekhoven & A. Geurds 2013. Creating authenticity : authentication processes in ethnographic museums. Sidestone Press (read online for free)
In the Collection Management-series, I share best practices, tips and guides on the many aspect of collection management. I have listed a few pointers for you to get started in my free workbook, which is available for download here.