Liber Amicorum for Diana Scarisbrick

A Life in Jewels

What do you get a world-renowned jewellery historian for her birthday? The gift of knowledge: a gorgeous book with essays on a wide variety of jewellery topics by her friends! That is what A Life in Jewels is: a book to honour Diana Scarisbrick on her 94th birthday.

And it is a treasure! Nineteen chapters deal with European jewellery studies in all timeframes and from a variety of angles. As these are all essays from a jewellery historian point of view, instead of an art historian perspective, each contribution is an inspiring example of the stories that can be told when jewellery is placed in context. The oldest period included is the Roman period, where we read about the power of the gaze on Roman imperial gems. Staring is impolite pretty much all over the world, and in this essay you’ll read more about what the Romans thought of those staring eyes of tiny carved portraits. Added bonus for me is that several of the gems shown are now in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, The Netherlands, so I can walk over and see them in person! The next essay zooms in on classical (and neoclassical) gems as well, but from a collectors’ point of view: what can we learn about a collector by studying both their collections and the way they assembled them?

A late Medieval type of jewel is addressed in the essay on heart-shaped brooches from the 15th century, a category of jewellery that has received little coherent attention. I really appreciated how this chapter outlines possibilities for further research on these beautiful pieces: if anyone is looking for a research topic, this is your cue! One of my favourite chapters is the essay on jewellery theft in early modern London: this reads like nothing short of a crime novel – and also presents several examples of how difficult it is to identify jewels based on a description from a different timeframe: what on earth is ‘a gem like a pigeon’? (p. 63)

Closer to home for me was the essay on jewellery in two portraits of Sophia de Vervou: these are located in The Netherlands, and I wished I had read this essay back when I first saw them! Every bejeweled detail is unpicked, explained and placed in the context of other information surviving about Sophia’s life, down to the collar of her dog – this essay brings the woman on the portraits to life. Claims to power are expressed in jewellery in the chapter on the Stuart court in Rome, where medallions with portraits of throne pretenders James and Charles (yes, that’s the Bonnie Prince) were created by Italian craftsmen and sold to supporters.

Jewellery also serves as memory of notable events, as the essay on commemorative rings illustrates: rings commemorating the storming of the Bastille, which launched the French Revolution, or patriotic rings from Poland and Hungary, are just a few examples that carry world history and tell us more about the allegiances of its wearers. And there is so much more in this book: a portrait of Lord Petersham wearing a bat pendant, the gorgeous rings in the Musee Carnavalet, the sapphires of Queen Victoria, the close relation between illuminated manuscripts and the enameled jewellery by Falize, down to modern design and gardens in jewellery, via the French crown jewels and a splendid Chaumet tiara…in every essay, you’ll find a new angle to place jewellery in context. The only chapters that were difficult to read for me are the two contributions in Italian – but for a glimpse on unpublished gems and cameos, I’ll happily whisk out my dictionary!

Obviously, there is much to be learned from the individual chapters, but its real power to me is the joy of researching jewellery and sharing findings that is almost palpable on every single page. All contributions breathe enthusiasm for both the topic at hand and the person this book is dedicated to. And indeed, we owe Diana Scarisbrick a great debt for her never-ending passion for jewellery research – she still has yet another book in the works, and I can only hope to be blessed with that same energy should I ever be reaching her age. The book contains her impressive bibliography as well, which I’m sure will get you looking for several titles to add to your library! The volume is beautifully illustrated throughout with large, full-colour photographs.

If you are involved with European jewellery in any way, as a curator, collector, scholar or dealer, you will want to own this fabulous birthday present: this gift of knowledge to the woman who inspired so many scholars of jewellery is a beautiful gift to yourself.

A Life In Jewels. Liber Amicorum in honour of Diana Scarisbrick. Edited by Beatriz Chadour-Sampson, Sandra Hindman and Carla van de Puttelaar, 2022.

Full colour, 279 pages, in English, with contributions in French and Italian. Published by Ad Ilissum/Paul Holberton, with the gracious assistance of Les Enluminures.

Available with the publisher.

The book was received as review copy from the publisher.

More book recommendations on personal adornment and history…? Click here to see my other picks for you!

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Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. Her main field of expertise is jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, as well as archaeological and archaeological revival jewellery. She has authored several books on jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Turquoise Mountain Jordan, and many others. She provides consultancy and research on jewellery collections for both museums and private collections, teaches courses and curates exhibitions. She is not involved in the business of buying and selling jewellery, and focuses on research, knowledge production, and education only.