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The more things change, the more they stay the same

The connection between storytelling and jewellery is thousands of years old. FRAN DOREY suggests that in studying history, there are valuable lessons to learn.

I was recently told that jewellery retailers are frequently advised to emphasise the importance of storytelling and personalisation in their business because it’s a quality that consumers increasingly desire.

It’s said that more now than ever, younger consumers, in particular, desire jewellery that reinforces their sense of individuality.

Let me assure you that while it’s true that jewellery is a powerful storytelling technique – it’s far from a new phenomenon!

Later this month, the Australian Museum will open the Ramses & the Gold of the Pharaohs exhibition – showcasing jewellery that is 3,500 years old.

From the four-kilogram necklace of rolled gold to delicate cartouche rings, every piece of jewellery tells a fascinating story. There are necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, amulets, diadems and more.

On display are royal funerary treasures made of precious material: gold, silver, electrum, lapis lazuli, obsidian, turquoise stone, carnelian and chalcedony.

" In ancient Egypt, mirrors weren’t used only in everyday life, but they were also of great importance in the afterlife."

Some of the finest examples of Egyptian jewellery from any period are within the exhibition. I am particularly interested in the stories attached to these female artefacts from 12th Dynasty princesses.

Jewellery imbued a royal woman with superhuman powers and thus enabled her to support the king in his role as a ‘guarantor of divine order’ on earth.

The king benefited from the magical powers inherent in the jewellery worn by the female members of his family, which explains why his name, rather than that of the princess, appears in the designs.

For example, consider the Diadem of Sithathoryunet, a masterpiece with a circular gold band decorated with a cobra at the front and fifteen rosettes.

Artefacts like this also tell interesting stories on the role of jewellery for women.

Jewellery worn by royal women during the Middle Kingdom was not simply for adornment or an indication of status but was also symbolic of concepts and myths surrounding Egyptian royalty.

Then there’s the Collar of Psusennes I. This solid gold collar, crafted more than 3,000 years ago, is made of seven rows of thin, disk-shaped gold beads.

It is heavy, weighing 4.3 kilograms. Collars of this type were known as the shebyu or ‘gold of honour,’ traditionally given by a pharaoh to officials who had served with particular distinction.

Pharaohs could also wear the gold of honour as a mark of divine favour.

Psusennes was buried with three shebyu collars, each slightly different in design. This collar closes at the back with a golden clasp decorated with the king’s cartouches, flanked on one side by a seated figure of Amun and on the other by a seated figure of the goddess Mut.

"Jewellery worn by royal women during the Middle Kingdom was not simply for adornment or an indication of status but was also symbolic of concepts and myths surrounding Egyptian royalty."

The inscription is carved into the gold and inlaid with semi-precious gemstones.

Finally, there’s the Mirror of Princess Sithathoriunet. The mirror is made from silver, while the handle is obsidian. The handle takes the form of a papyrus stem inlaid with gold ending with a double-sided face of the goddess Hathor.

Through the depiction of the goddess Hathor, the mirror imparted beauty and joy to its owner.

It was found among the jewellery of Princess Sithathoriunet in a special niche of her underground tomb beside the pyramid of Senusret II at Lahun.

In ancient Egypt, mirrors weren’t used only in everyday life, but they were also of great importance in the afterlife.

Seeing a face reflected in the disc must have brought to mind the ka (spirit), a sort of cosmic twin that came into existence when a person was born and continued to exist after death.

The mirror handle could be connected to a specific symbology besides being aesthetically beautiful and functional. The papyrus-like shape, for example, balanced the metal disc, but it was also associated with Hathor, a goddess capable of promoting the rebirth of a spirit in the afterlife.

Timeless appeal

I’m sure many reading this find these beliefs bewildering and baffling; however, consider your customers’ emotional attachment to their jewellery.

At weddings, couples still exchange jewellery to symbolise love and eternal commitment. Bridal jewellery is selected based on symbolic importance – something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

We often use jewellery to memorialise significant achievements – a new wristwatch to celebrate a promotion or new job or a necklace to acknowledge the significance of graduation, just as the Collar of Psusennes I was worn as the symbol of a divine ruler.

We add engravings on many of these pieces to reinforce this individuality – just as the Ancient Egyptians engraved their jewellery with names and symbols.

Today, many people choose to be buried in their most cherished jewellery – especially wedding bands – just as the Pharaohs were buried in tombs adorned with treasures!

There’s no doubt that personalisation and storytelling are important to your customers; however, this is not a new phenomenon.

This is an exhibition for everyone - especially jewellery lovers. If history teaches us anything, it’s that jewellery has always had a story to tell.

Name: Fran Dorey
Business: The Australian Museum
Position: Head of Exhibitions
Location: Sydney, NSW
Years in the industry: 25

 

More reading:
Are you working to live or living to work?
Visions of a jewellery industry that bears no human or environmental toll
Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it
Resetting the jewellery industry from top to bottom
Regulation is stifling Australia’s artisanal gemstone miners

 

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