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From Shells To Precious Stones | The History of Wearable Art (Part Two)

It is the nature of all things that humans value most – someday that which is deeply coveted will cause a rift between those who ‘have’ and those who ‘have not’. In this respect the allure of jewellery can be a double-edged sword, capable of awakening a bloodthirsty greed.


Gold in the Americas

The most widely-known example of historical avarice is the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors, who, like the rest of wealthy Western Europe, ravaged the primitive New World, during the somewhat insularly-named ‘Age of Discovery’. When those huge warships arrived in the lukewarm waters of the Americas it must’ve seemed inevitable that they would attempt to seize vast quantities of Gold, hidden deep within the steamy jungles. At that time jewellery making had existed in the Americas for some 3500 years and was popular across Central and South America, where plentiful stores of Gold had already been uncovered. The people living in the Americas at that time were divided into scattered tribes, including the Aztecs, Mixtecs, Mayans and Andean cultures, as well as the nomadic Mochica of Peru, who were famed for producing some of the most unique jewellery in the region. These tribes mostly enjoyed a subsistent lifestyle in low huts with shorn wood roofs thatched with palm fronds. They often slept in hammocks and survived by learning to exploit the bountiful fruits of the rainforest. However, far from being an unintelligent people, they also built huge stepped pyramids that jutted above the sprawling canopy. Today the ruins of their civilisations are preserved, patterned with beautiful geometric designs and decorated with stone sculptures and vivid narrative panels.

Of course the South and Central American tribes often worked with bone, especially for their weaponry, as well as trading and collecting colourful beads. However they were also masters of manipulating precious metals and, in fact, the Mochica were recognised for their masterful Gold-work. This wasn’t just rudimentary metalwork mind you; they were able to craft complex pieces of fine jewellery, sophisticated in its design and often with bright inlays of Turquoise, Mother of Pearl, Spondylus Shell and Amethyst. It was a refined practice that was very popular amongst the other tribes. Nose and ear ornaments became very popular and so did chest plates and whistles, which later became symbolic of native Peruvian culture.

Of all the scattered tribes that populated the tropical Americas the Aztecs were perhaps the most advanced. Their nobility wore decorative Gold jewellery and headdresses as a symbol of their rank, power and wealth. In the Aztec Empire jewellery was often worn in excess; the more jewellery the wearer had the more noble they were presumed to be. Jewellery was soon synonymous with prestige and essentially it became part of a costume, which, in some cases, would be decorated with feathers plucked from hapless Quetzal birds. Emperors and High Priests would make grand appearances draped in jewellery in order to affirm their position above their subjects. Gold was undoubtedly the favoured material in Aztec jewellery, as well as the Chinese favourite Jade and also Turquoise. In addition to the role it played in the affirmation of status the Aztecs used jewellery during the sacrifices they made to appease the Gods. High Priests would stand on a ceremonial platform accented by carved sculptures, overlooking the central plaza. They would then draw a gem-encrusted dagger and provide the thirsty Gods with frequent helpings of animal slaughter. Another of these ancient American civilisations was the aforementioned Mayans. At the zenith of their culture the Maya people were capable of creating the finest jewellery using a range of precious materials including Jade, Gold, Silver, Bronze and Copper. In earlier times, before they learnt to work with precious metals, their jewellery was simply carved from bone or stone. The Maya designs then evolved in a way not dissimilar to those of the Aztecs. They too favoured lavish headdresses and excessive collections of jewellery. They also collected and traded precious gems across the Maya region.



The Tribes of the Pacific

Jewellery making occurred much later in the Pacific due to the vast swathes of ocean that separated the many archipelagos. Another, less obvious factor, was probably the time it took for the first pre-Columbian seafarers to cross the Pacific to Polynesia, where they settled. Consequently collections of early pacific jewellery consist mostly of bone, wood, and other natural pieces. It is widely believed that most of these pieces had masculine connotations and were used as symbols of either fertility or power. Interestingly most Pacific jewellery was worn above the shoulders in the form of headdresses, necklaces or hair pins. Some of the isolated Pacific cultures, such as the inhabitants of the far-flung islands of Papua New Guinea, took to wearing certain pieces to signify the murder of an enemy. It was the tribal equivalent of the inky tear tattoos that mark the cheeks of some American prisoners. Boar bones were also popular and commonly worn slid through the septum like a bull.


Examples of body modification were found throughout the Pacific and, indeed, the rest of the world. Padaung women in Myanmar, Burma, are amongst the many women who wear golden rings around their necks. From as young as five years old girls will be forced to put on their first neck ring. Over time more of these heavy rings would be added until the neck became stretched. Sometimes their necks would be elongated to as much as 10-15 inches. It wasn’t uncommon for tribal earrings to stretch the wearer’s earlobes and enlarge their ears. Huge round lip plates were also worn by the African Mursi and Sara, leaving their lips drooping and maimed.

There is a direct correlation between the arrival of foreign cultures and the development of island jewellery. Even today there are secluded parts of Borneo and Papua New Guinea that are hitherto untraveled by Western nations. This means that a lot of the pieces found in these regions seem simplistic, traditional and unchanged. However other islands were crowded with flocks of Western missionaries and in those cases the common tribal jewellery, which the new arrivals associated with paganism, was often discarded for the more opulent designs of Christianity.

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