Jewellery as a statement of power

A cultural artefact common to almost all known civilisations in the world, the provenance and purpose behind jewellery design is as varied and colourful as the craft itself.

The industry has evolved through the epochs of history and culture to cater to a traditionally female-dominated clientele. For this reason, it is often regarded as a gendered topic of interest, unlike the popular perspective on various male-dominated fields of interest.

The concept of modern jewellery vibrates with a brand of feminine energy that is unabashed in its fluid freedom. The kind of freedom that beckons to every gender to explore its hyper-feminine depths.

From infamously wealthy courtesans to influential sex workers, jewellery has had the historical function of accessorising and even serving to distinguish powerful women.

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Jewellery on Famous Courtesans in History

Long before Margaret Thatcher’s signature adornments and budget-slashing policies came to dominate the British political landscape, the actress, singer and courtesan in eighteenth-century Britain, Sophia Baddeley, had been notorious for showcasing her wondrous collection of diamond necklaces in her private box at the theatre.

Such a “flagrant” display of wealth by Sophia occurred at a time when ordinary women were not allowed to manage or even have access to employment or their own money, within the ambit of marriage and family.

A society in which flamboyance on women was frowned upon or, at best, considered distracting, her hard-earned wealth was what safeguarded her from losing her rights as an individual. And much like some other emancipated women of the time, the jewellery she flaunted became emblematic of her bodily autonomy.

Born in Plymouth in 1836, Cora Pearl was yet another famous courtesan of the time. In fact, she turned out to be one of the most sought-after courtesans in Paris, after having bewitched the likes of Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte, Napoleon’s cousin.

He gifted her a palace of her own, minutes away from the Louvre. With a budget supplemented by millions of francs’ worth of diamonds and pearls, she would saunter down the Champs-Élysées, while still being considered an outcast by polite society.

The overt femininity of these dangerously seductive femme fatales, coupled with their financial independence, made them glorious subversive forces amidst a stringent, immutable European status quo.

Courtesans

Courtesans with their servants by Lancelot Volders

Perhaps barring the nobility, women from the rest of the social classes were made to swear off jewellery because of the undue male attention jewellery could bring to a woman’s throat, wrists and décolletage. It was considered ‘salacious’ for the common, pious woman to attract such attention.

Chastity was treasured as the foremost characteristic quality in a woman if she endeavoured to assume a “respectable” role in society. That trait alone has been (and still is) enough to help govern the lives and aspirations of women with an iron fist.

The courtesans were quite the anti-“respectable” woman in that sense.

Across the Atlantic, in the 1880s, Madame Lou Graham, a savvy businesswoman and entrepreneur set up a thriving brothel in Seattle, at a time when the men in the city had freshly revoked women’s suffrage. She financed the city’s infrastructure and was the silent benefactor of Seattle and its evolution as a port city. In other words, she had single-handedly saved Seattle from the brink of bankruptcy.

Her immense wealth and that of the “seamstresses” working in her establishment inspired awe among the people of the city. City officials and administrators granted them access to special legal indemnities and privileges.

After her death, there was a long-drawn legal battle among her lawyer, the city administrators and her relatives back in Germany over the ownership of her estate and luxurious possessions. Her relatives eventually won but many of her extravagant jewels were auctioned off owing to the star power those gems had assumed after having been associated with her.

Jewellery is considered by many as a talisman of our life’s journey and as a result, comes to carry an intimate representation of our essence and spirit as an individual.

Jewellery in the high-stakes environment of politics and entertainment

Fast forward to a century later in Britain, Margaret Thatcher had been elected to the highest office in the country in 1979. By this time, not only had men progressed enough to consider granting women the right to vote, but they had also been kind enough to allow an incredibly determined political leader to take the leadership of the nation in her competent hands.

Sex work was no longer the sole occupation that, in some instances, helped women escape the binding obligations of a patriarchal society.

At a time when women could have their own disposable income after competing with men in various workspaces and fields of practice traditionally built for them, Margaret Thatcher let her self-made “grit” (as has been discussed in the new Netflix season of “The Crown”) and rough-hewn political expertise shine through her unfussy choices of jewellery.

The uncompromising vibe of her amethyst ring and her brightly-coloured “pebble” bracelet, built out of cabochon pebbles of unyielding stones including agate, chalcedony and tiger’s eye, reflected her no-nonsense approach to her fellow ministers and to her tax-hikes.

British Vogue has reported on the apparent dissatisfaction among her colleagues over her preference for relevant empirical training and experience in terms governance of State, rather than the influence wielded by someone from an affluent background.

Thatcher later wrote about her encounter with a staggeringly wealthy Lord Soames, a former government leader in the House of Lords, with the following comment: “I got the distinct impression that he felt the natural order of things was being violated and that he was, in fact, being dismissed by his housemaid.”

Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth

Margaret Thatcher (pictured left) with Queen Elizabeth (pictured right)
Credit: Town and Country Magazine

Thatcher reserved the more opulent pieces, like the magnificent Art Deco emerald and diamond necklace by Chaumet, for state conventions or otherwise off-duty occasions.

Her love for power pearls and brooches has inspired other politicians and public figures in their choice of style. The classic poise and impersonal refinement reflective of pearls is something Kamala Harris reaches out for, to this day, while accenting her personal style.

Pearls, apart from affording the glaze of femininity, also provides the wearer with an air of authority gleaned from centuries of the legacy of powerful women turning to pearls for accessories.

Historically, pearls have been among the choicest accessories for the First Lady. Pearls have always been the appropriate choice for stately affairs.

However, Harris’ conspicuously modern double chain of dotted Irene Neuwirth pearls around her neck, brazenly depicts the spirit of the first female elected Vice President of the United States.

The unconventional make and design of the piece seem to announce the advent of a fresh perspective and the strength befitting the inaugural woman of colour to be awarded the position for the first time in History on a presidential ticket.

The powerful aura surrounding the bijou is not exactly congruous with the idea of accessorising the spouse of the patriarch of the nation, but rather symbolises the ironclad reserve of a woman ploughing through mounting challenges at a difficult time, in order to unite and address the social grievances of a bruised nation.

While pearls unambiguously exude assertiveness and authority, making it a staple among political figures, diamonds are more for emanating a generous sheen of glamour and sex appeal.  

Beyoncé’s delicate floral diamond necklace paired with her revealing glittered booty shorts is an iconic combination instantly redolent of the silhouette of the Queen of R&B music.

Meghan Markle’s choice of neutral colours like Birk diamonds, white gold and pearls reflects some general aspects of the personality of a delicately beautiful partner to a prominent member of the British royal bloodline, while also being relatively mysterious and enigmatic, akin to the particular sensibilities of the former Duchess.

Netflix’s Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown has gushed about her obsession with jewellery in interviews. In one such interview, she even went so far as to say that she could decode people’s personalities from just their choice of accessories.

Soon after, the jewellery house of Pandora launched the Pandora Me collection which has been designed by Millie Bobby Brown in collaboration with the artistic directors of Pandora.

Following the sunny, bubbly and colourful personality of the actress, the designs featured brightly-saturated summer motifs like starfish, pineapple, flamingo, wave symbol and sea turtle. Her style is heavily imbued with her cravings for summer.

Out of its many variegated functions, jewellery can be incorporated as a tasteful way to accentuate the wearer’s style or as a testament to the journey trod so far in life. Even if your reasons behind your interest in it are far more elusive, jewellery can have the potential to become a part of you, at its best, or even an extension of your personality, in other instances, if it is only allowed to be so.

When bestowed with even a smattering of the personal qualities of the wearer, it can become a powerful tool of symbolistic expression. This potential of jewellery has been deftly utilised by women down the eras of History, while their voices were being silenced or were being looted of the depth of their experiences and made unidimensional.

 

About the author

Yishi Chakrabarty

As a journalist in Ireland, Yishi primarily writes about women's issues and mental health. Her work includes political analyses and social commentary. Originally from India, she has an academic background in History and Journalism.

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