Value and authenticity

What is ‘real’ jewellery?

A recurring question I get is whether a piece of jewellery is ‘real’. Usually, that does not refer to its use, but to the components used: shouldn’t this be coral instead of glass? Why does this necklace include plastic? And the reasoning behind that, in turn, is that glass and plastic are cheaper, economically speaking, and thus of lesser importance. But economic value is not always the main factor in determining whether a piece of jewellery is ‘real’.

Value of jewellery: supply and demand

Economically speaking, the age-old law of supply and demand dictates value. The discovery of new sources or changes in demand can significantly impact the value of a given material. When demand exceeds supply, prices rise, and materials become more highly regarded. Those are the basics. Anything that people want and is in short supply, is valuable, whether it is Hermès bags or diamonds. Both of these are kept in short supply artificially: there’s a limited number of bags made and the diamond supply is actually vast, but carefully guarded. [1] So, from that point of view, components in jewellery that are readily available (and thus cheaper) are less valuable.

Value of jewellery: peer pressure

There is also the matter of what we want that has a serious impact on how certain materials are regarded. We may not only want something because it is rare, but we may also really want something because we see other people, who we’d like to associate ourselves with, wear or own that something. (basically, that is what influencer marketing is all about)

Take the decline in silver jewellery in North Africa and Southwest Asia after the 1960s for example. When oil was discovered in the Gulf, this new field of work created a huge amount of jobs for migrant workers from across the region. Those workers returned home with new values and new ideas on how to express wealth, as they had seen during their stay abroad: gold. Silver jewellery was regarded as old-fashioned and was massively sold off to buy new, gold jewellery.

Value of jewellery: new technologies

Technological developments also have a significant impact on the choice of material, and this is where notions of value begin to get blurry.

A great example from Europe is strass jewellery. Strass, also known as rhinestone or paste, is nowadays often looked down upon. It’s not a ‘real’ gem, it is literally glass that is treated to look like a real gem. Many people associate strass with glitzy gaudiness, maybe with cheap jewellery, and perhaps even with bad taste.

But the fascinating thing is that when strass was just invented (by a Mr. Stras, in the 18th century), it was actually held in high esteem. It was not thought of as a mere substitute, it was the real deal in and of itself and up until the 1820s was considered as actual high-end jewellery art. [2]

The same holds true for the use of bakelite in traditional jewellery of North Africa and Southwest Asia, as I have written about here. It may look like a cheap substitute for coral to us today, but back in its own day this was the height of innovation.

Value of jewellery: more than economics

So you see how the blurring of the line between natural and synthetic materials challenges traditional notions of value, and more precisely, how it illustrates that we should consider materials not just from an economic point of view. Equally important are their own cultural context and their own timeframe.

Because when we observe jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia in its own cultural context, and sometimes even in its local geographical context, we see a different notion of value.

Value of jewellery: cultural and spiritual value

Materials and components that we would consider insignificant based on their economic value are strung alongside gold, pearls, coral and other precious materials. Apparently, these components carry the same level of meaning.

Red plastic beads can happily sit next to coral beads because they are both reddish in colour. Aluminium is the material of choice for anklets worn by ritual specialists in Sudan, and iron is the only material that will keep jinn away (why? find out here!). Teeth, thorns, pebbles, pieces of bone and other such materials need to be sourced in a very particular place that is believed to be imbued with magical capacities (see more about that here): they are set in silver or gold with the same care extended to actual gemstones.

Economically worthless materials may hold great value – they are real

‘Real’ elements in jewellery do not have to be the most expensive ones, but somehow, that is how we have come to look upon them. If a piece of jewellery holds components of a ‘lesser’ economic value, we question the entire piece.

And of course, we should always be aware of reproductions or imitations designed to dupe: I wrote down 5 tips to help you recognize reproductions here. But when we look at jewellery in its cultural context, the choice of materials may reveal a lot about personal, local and societal preferences. And that in itself is more valuable than an arrangement of ‘perfect’ elements could ever offer!

Where to find more on the cultural values of jewellery…?

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[1] You will enjoy Aja Raden’s book Stoned, which dives into the value of precious materials. Be advised though that it contains a number of historical, factual inaccuracies – but the line of reasoning is fascinating.

[2] P. von Trott zu Stolz 1982, Stras. Simili-Diamantschmuck des 18. Jh., p. 113. Antique paste jewellery is getting expensive these days, too.

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.