Jewellery is an important part of transitions in life, such as marriage, and wearing certain items of jewellery is closely related to various stages in life. This is the key principle in the exhibition Splendor and Shine in the River of Time, held in the Liechtensteinisches Landesmuseum, and its accompanying publication. I have not been able to visit the exhibition, but the book is a veritable treat. What makes it especially interesting is the range of traditional jewellery from a wide geographical area: the basis is formed by European dress, enhanced by many jewellery items from the Arab world and Central Asia (and to a lesser extent Africa and Oceania) for comparison.
This comparison is not just for show or aesthetic reasons only. In the first chapter, the author outlines several issues regarding the study of traditional dress and adornment, which provide a solid setting for the rest of the book. She points out for example that the study of personal adornment and dress is potentially layered with projection, as no information or documentation from the original wearers’ perspective exists, and addresses how approaching traditional dress from a colonial perspective obscures the result of migratory movements, cultural contacts and subsequent style exchanges. Reading this first chapter calls our attention to the many aspects, potential pitfalls but also possibilities of the study of traditional dress and jewellery, and this critical eye really is an asset to the book.
The book starts out with an exploration of traditional dress in Liechtenstein itself, followed by a chapter on headgear: crowns, bonnets, combs, pins, all beautifully illustrated. Several examples from outside Europe serve to widen the perspective on the reasons for wearing head decoration. The next chapter on a supra-regional classification explores principles, colours, cultural exchange and techniques used in European traditional jewellery, which I found to be very enlightening. The chapter on amulets combines jewellery from various areas in the world to illustrate the need to protect young life: from babies to young adolescents. The wish for fertility and healthy children is explored worldwide and makes for interesting similarities and differences. The same exploration is carried out in the chapter on belts: once a clear symbol of status, their function has now changed as a result of changing fashion.
The meaning of jewellery in the various stages of life is discussed in the chapter on regional festive jewellery, again with supportive examples from elsewhere in the world. This theme continues in the chapter on ethnic jewellery in Europe, Asia and Africa, followed by a chapter on amulets and beliefs during the course of life. Next is a chapter on mourning jewellery and jewellery as protection against death, followed by the final, extensive chapter on regional dress in Europe. Here, not only history and the jewellery and dress themselves are presented, but also their survival, reinterpretations and changing meaning. In between the chapters short excursions are placed, for example on the restoration of a filigree apron closure, or a letter to ancestors on hair flowers (in German only), which add another personal perspective on traditional dress. The book ends with notes and literature for each chapter.
Throughout the book, emphasis is placed on cultural exchange and changing styles, as well as on the perspectives offered on traditional jewellery. The texts are not only very informative on large and small aspects of particular jewellery, but also on the study of jewellery itself. One example is how the author remarks that the discourse on non-European jewellery is strongly Eurocentric, and only a few interpretations from within the cultures themselves exist (p. 127). That is certainly true for most large collections, which have indeed been both collected and published by European and American collectors and authors. The statement made me wonder however if this Eurocentric view is not also furthered by the fact that Westerners fail to notice publications within the cultures themselves: because of language barriers and/or their availability, for example. I do know of several publications by authors within the Arab world that are impossible to obtain in any other way than traveling to the country itself and picking up a copy there. Being aware of what else is out there besides readily available publications certainly is a main point of improvement, and to me, having this and other discrepancies pointed out in this book significantly adds to its value.
This book has much to offer: not only do the many, many photographs of jewellery and dress items (and there are hundreds of individual items to admire!) make for hours of visual pleasure, but the well-researched text has a very high density of information. I have learned a great deal while reading it, which is hardly surprising as I know woefully little about European jewellery and adornment, and I enjoyed the critical view of the author on how traditional jewellery is perceived, treated and studied. You will love this addition to your bookshelf!
Splendor and Shine in the River of Time. Traditional jewelry and costumes throughout the life course, by Irene Steiner. 194 pages, full-colour, bilingual German/English. Available through the webshop of the museum.
See the review by Sarah Corbett here.
The exhibition is on until Sept. 20, 2020 in the Liechtensteinisches Landesmuseum
The book was a much loved gift from Sarah Corbett.