collecting traditional jewellery
Collecting ethnic jewellery: 4 filters you may not be aware of
Collecting jewellery and dress: we do it because we believe these items to be important, and we want to ensure their passing on into the future. But there is one aspect of collecting that can turn it into a double-edged sword. On the one hand, yes, these items sometimes only survive because of collecting. But an overlooked aspect of collecting is its other side: collecting inevitably is destructive as well. How does that work, and should we be worried?
Selection filter 1: the course of history
First off, no material culture survives in its entirety. That is already visible within your own lifetime: who still has everything (and I mean everything) like clothing, toys, books etc. from their youth? At some point, you have decided to keep some things and give others away. A process that repeats itself again and again: selecting is a natural process. That goes for adornment and dress, too. Whether it is family heirlooms passed down generations or pieces offered for sale to cultural outsiders, whatever survives to this day is based on selections. Even what you inherit from your grandmother is her personal selection: at least I’m assuming she did not own all jewellery in existence. So, when you collect jewellery, this is already a selection as a result of the choices made during the wearer’s life. These choices do not have to be voluntarily: people displaced as a result of war and violence may not have been able to hang on to anything at all.
Jewellery selection filter 2: demand and supply
Whatever ends up being offered to buyers, is filtered a second time. This is where it gets interesting. Because buyers get offered what sells: as with any market, here as well demand is tied to offer. And that second filter is incredibly important. Pieces that do not ‘sell well’ slowly disappear from the material record. An example is jewellery that has been partly dismantled when its wearer needed to sell some of it. These ‘damaged goods’ are not always recognized for what they are: a historic source. After all, buyers, especially if these are cultural outsiders, rarely appreciate dented and broken pieces. As a result, these are the first to go. They are melted down, reused, and any material traces of the use of jewellery as financial asset and savings account vanish with them.
Jewellery selection filter 3: focusing on published, well-known pieces
The next stage is that the selected pieces, the ones that sell well, then become the norm. These are the pieces that get shown in exhibitions, that are published in books and shared online. That fame creates a third filter, because it increases demand into these better-known pieces. The flip side of this is that relatively unknown pieces never make the cut: they do not sell well, as they are not all that familiar to the prospective buyer. I often get asked whether a certain piece is ‘real’ as it has no parallels in books, and I know of several books that are used as a collectors’ manual. That is not to say books are useless! Quite the contrary, I love books and all sorts of publications on jewellery: the more the better to help spread awareness that this is heritage. The point is to be aware that there is more out there than books can accommodate.
Another symptom is the rejection of pieces that are not exactly similar to well-known parallels: a whole new set of parameters for ‘authentic’ pieces emerges based on publications, while the original wearers did not consider such distinctions relevant and worked with what they had at hand. It’s an endless loop that results in the gradual loss of both things and information.
Jewellery selection filter 4: collecting only things, not their context
That last element, information, is the fourth filter. The focus on collecting objects and not necessarily on all the information that comes with it, in turn deletes that information over time. Things without context are just that: random things. They lose their capacity to speak and their function as a historic source. If collectors don’t write down what they know about their pieces, how will the next generation know what they’re looking at…? I have addressed a few examples of how that lack of knowledge results in misinformation being spread here. It is incredibly important to preserve not only things, but also what they stand for – while being aware that this is only a fraction of a much wider world.
Building a meaningful jewellery collection: actionable things you can do today
Collecting is by definition selecting. We only see part of the material culture, and that does not even have to be a representative part. No matter how beautiful or extensive a collection is: you’re always working with a result of a chain of selections, never with the original dataset. That is simply the way it is, and thank goodness that not every single thing is kept – what would we do with it? My point is that it is important to be aware of this process when collecting, buying or selling.
Your actions in each of these steps actively contribute to the safeguarding of heritage jewellery. Here are a few things you can start with today:
Write down those stories of your jewellery travels.
Digitize those receipts (if you have any).
Jot down a few lines in your notebook when a seller shared a piece of information with you.
Download my free guide to organize your collection step by step here and start building not just a collection, but your legacy.
Every little bit helps. It’s in these seemingly small acts that you can contribute a great deal to the preserving of jewellery and the world it comes from!
Do you own a collection? Please do try and document it as much as possible. Every little note helps! A free guide on how to get started with that is here.
Are you wondering how your collection might benefit the communities whose heritage this is? Please consider the work of the Qilada Foundation, my non-profit initiative aimed at reconnecting jewellery collections with their communities of origin.
An introductory article on the history of collecting as a phenomenon is W.G.Burgess 2020, State of the Field: The History of Collecting, in: History
The Society for the History of Collecting covers the concept collecting from many angles: see more here
Sigrid van Roode
Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.