A Fine Possession: Jewellery and Identity | Exhibition Review

Fine possession

Jewellery and it’s influence on individuals, societies and cultures throughout history, is what the ambitious exhibition A Fine Possession: Jewellery and Identity at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (or MAAS, formerly known as the Powerhouse Museum) in Sydney Australia has set out to explore. Drawing from items in their own collection, as well as other collections throughout Australia, A Fine Possession “celebrates the central place of jewellery in our lives, from antiquity to the present-day, through a sumptuous selection of jewellery made, worn and collected in Australia.” The collection on display is vast in many ways. Its timeline is vast, as is it’s geographical scope as it contains objects from all over the world, from the traditional costumes of the Pacific to the Art Nouveau of turn of the twentieth century Europe.

The exhibition is arranged brilliantly around nine different themes, and combines items from various time periods and geographic locations to explain how jewellery has served similar functions in different cultures and time periods throughout history. The space itself is also well planned and laid out. The room has black walls and the space is dimly lit, with the lighting theatrically positioned in such a way that your attention is drawn to the objects on display. This style of presentation is particularly effective as it not only allows the curators of the exhibit to draw your attention to what they want and often in a specific order, but it also feels like you’re walking into a different world, and you can leave everything at the door and really enjoy the exhibit.


The first theme of the exhibition is ‘Belief and Magic’, which like all the subjects, is then further divided into the sub themes: Ancient Symbols, Christian Symbols, Asian cultures, African charms and Pacific traditions. On display in this section are a variety of items, from ancient Egyptian amulets such as the Eye of Horus to medieval Christian adornments, which tell the story of the ways in which humans have used symbols, religious images or materials believed to have magical properties in jewellery throughout the ages for protection or good luck.

The next section, and one of my favorites, is ‘Love and Death’. This section explores the ways that jewellery has been used to proclaim or embody ideas of love and marriage, as well as the ways that it was used to mourn the loss of a loved one. This section is also divided into sub themes such as marriage rings, miniatures and memento mori, to name a few. Alongside mourning jewellery a late nineteenth century fashionable mourning outfit from Australia is also on display, allowing the public to see how these items of jewellery were worn on the body and incorporated into mourning dress. Particularly fascinating in this section are the little known convict love tokens that were brought to Australia by convicts who were sent to British penal colonies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Inscribed on one of the tokens in the exhibition, dated to 1825-1835, is: “Keep this dear Mary for my sake till the departure of thy life / The gift of a friend whose love for you will never end H Heald.” These love tokens are particularly striking as they bring to life the way in which jewellery was used to express the heartbreak of convicts who had to leave their loved ones bound for an unknown future in an alien land half way around the world.


Conviction Love Token, 1825-1835. Australia. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Nature and culture’ is also explored in another section, particularly the way in which natural materials such as shells and feathers were used in indigenous cultures to craft jewellery and bodily adornments. The impact of colonialism on indigenous artisans, as well as the incorporation of exotic materials and motifs into European jewellery, and the use of natural forms, is also explored in this section. ‘Style and Revival’ explores the European fascination with Greek and Roman antiquity and the use of Greek and Roman forms and motifs in neoclassical style jewellery during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The archaeological-style, jewellery or souvenirs copied from archaeological finds or from objects seen on the Grand Tour, are also explored here.


Gold and Identity’ is a particularly unique section of this exhibition, as a large selection of Australiana style jewellery that was created during the Gold Rushes of the nineteenth century is on display. As the section states, some of the gold discovered during the gold rushes was fashioned into “unique goldfields brooches and rings with figures of miners and their tools, and splendid jewellery modelled with tiny kangaroos, emus and native flowers… [they were] potent symbol[s] of emerging national pride that helped to forge a national identity…” Many of these more nationalistic styles were obviously worn with pride, whilst others depicting everyday scenes of the goldfields such as the brooch below from 1855 could possibly have been worn by the female family members of successful miners, a reminder of their male loved ones working in the goldfields.


Goldfields Brooch, 1855-1865. Australian. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

The section ‘Status and Wealth’ shows the way in which jewellery was used to express wealth and status, and the ways in which society shaped the meanings of these items, in various cultures throughout history. Particularly fascinating is the ways in which different cultures valued different materials – from gold and diamonds in the West, to jade in China and types of beads in Africa. In an exhibition on jewellery, you might think that men will be left out, but the section ‘Men and Adornment’ shines the spotlight on the ways in which men have used jewellery and accessories throughout history. The objects on display here range from fashionable items such as cuff links, to practical items like seals on rings, to the ceremonial and symbolic such as tribal neck pieces, armbands and regalia.


The last two sections ‘Modernity & Change’ and ‘Evolution and Revolution’ focus on jewellery from the twentieth century to present. The styles of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, as well as rising fashion houses such as Georg Jensen and Liberty of London, are explored here. The way that jewellery was shaped around the changing roles and lifestyles of women throughout the century is also examined. Technological and social changes of the 1960s and 1970s are reflected in the jewellery from these periods on display. Contemporary jewellery, often figurative or abstract, or inspired from both urban and natural environments is on show here too. A particular emphasis on modern Australian and New Zealand designers is felt in this section.

Bracelet by Peter Chang, 2004. Scotland. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Bracelet by Peter Chang, 2004. Scotland. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition. I loved the themes through which the concept of jewellery was explored, the vast selection of pieces, as well as the modern Australian designs. As an historian of dress, I also appreciated the use of clothing in the exhibition to contextualize the jewellery on display.


A Fine Possession runs until the 22 May 2016 at the MAAS museum in Sydney Australia. If you’re unable to get to the museum, the exhibition has an excellent website that showcases some of the items on display, as well as interviews with collectors.

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