Bored to death recently on a Saturday afternoon, I took myself off to survey the latest exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum: Bejewelled Treasures: The Al-Thani Collection. The exhibition delights with pure aesthetic splendour – a whopping turban jewel crafted in diamonds; a gold bird dripping with spinels; a ceremonial sword (that could never be swung in battle); a jade smoking pipe; diamonds enough to make you sick with surfeit; and even a gold back-scratcher, complete with a tiny, fingernailed hand.
But, whilst I was bathed in glitter and light, I also felt the exhibition reflected back little but its own shine. It was hard to extract the bloody history of colonialism, cross-cultural appropriation and conquest that had resulted in the crafting, gifting, buying, and looting by which this magnificent collection was made. Indeed, it remains the private collection of one member of the Qatari royal family, Al Thani; a modern day reassertion of the wealth and power in the jewellery of the Maharajas.
It sometimes seems, in our culture, as though jewellery stands for less than it once did. Just a peculiar ‘look-at-me’ siren call; from magazines frothing over the necklaces worn to the Oscars, to the functionally indicative ‘I’m-taken’ sign of the wedding ring. And, nowadays, a man wearing even one jewel from the Maharaja’s collection would look absurdly flamboyant, such has the fashion for men wearing jewellery in Britain declined. (A contrast to the opulence of signet rings and miniatures of the courtiers in the seventeenth century, for instance.) It felt as though, in the jewels at the V&A, there were tales and meanings we might be missing. I will try to render one.
Nestled amongst the ostentatious golden peacocks, leopards’ heads, emerald-studded turbans and rubies the size of thumbs was a small golden locket, embossed with a floral design. Lockets speak to us of love; a photograph of a loved one secretly pressed against your heart. Patriotic men used to wear pictures of their King; matriotic women, of their mothers. What was this locket for? There was no key, no portrait slipped inside, no initials inscribed on it. And unlike all the other jewellery here, turned outwards for our pleasure, lockets turn inwards. They conceal more than they reveal. In fact, they reveal that one has something concealed. As with much of the curation of this exhibition, the history of this particular locket had been elided, its story forgotten, and its purpose glossed over in the shimmering delight of its surface. But a locket is always more than just surface: a locket deserves to be studied. So, fear not, dear reader – we will not have a thin exhibition maketh a thin article. For I shall leave this glistering but shallow show behind, and use it as a (quite transparent) excuse to write about what I’m interested in: lockets, love and loss.
We think of a locket as holding a sweet photograph of a loved one within, but it wasn’t so long ago we hung onto actual parts of people within our lockets and not merely their likenesses. A snippet of hair could be enclosed within (indeed, the tress is called “a lock”). This fashion spread, in particular, with the execution of Charles I in 1649, when Royalists came to hide their devotion to the late King with secret lockets dedicated to his person, some even holding prized clippings of his hair or the blood-stained shirt he wore at his execution. (Though one wonders whether such had the same ontological dubiety as ‘fragments of the true cross.’) In the eighteenth century, locks fell to lovers, and began to be curled visibly into transparent heart-shaped pendants. Hairwork jewellery was particularly in fashion in Britain from the 1850s to 1925, as wigs disappeared and the wig-workers, so adept at curling hair, were left with skilled and idle fingers.
And, whilst we tend to think of them as lockets of love, historically lockets have been used as much in loss. As the Industrial Age continued, mass-made lockets meant everyone could afford a piece of jewellery for mourning, and the locket became the most popular form. Victorian-era mourning lockets were charged with specific meanings: black enamel was most common but virginal white enamel meant a dead child or an unmarried person. An acorn was a symbol of strength given at military funerals; lilies of the valley in blue enamel were a common symbol for the tears of the Virgin Mary. The fashion for mourning jewellery was really kicked into gear by the decades-long mourning of Queen Victoria for Prince Albert, though she went far beyond lockets. The real jewel in the crown of that particularly productive campaign of sadness was, of course, the entire V&A museum, as well as a vast statue and a concert hall.
Why did the mourning locket die out? I feel we would find (in Britain, anyway) the idea of clipping hair from our just-deceased loved ones too morbid nowadays. Perhaps it was the gradual social acceptance of germ theory from the 1850s to the 1900s that did for hairwork; an unconscious fear of contagion spreading from the dead to the living. Neuroscientist Bruce Hood operated experiments in which he proffered a sweater in his lectures, and asked who would like to wear it…before ‘revealing’ that it belonged to the serial killer Fred West (a lie). Those who volunteered lower their hands, and those who didn’t lean away from those who did. The belief that evil can be ‘caught’ from such objects – that contamination can be moral – is hard to shake. Perhaps we now feel that death might be catching, and lean away from embracing it as openly as our ancestors did.
Thus death, these days, is neatly shuffled out of sight; we are at a unique point for human history, when many of us can go to our deaths without ever seeing another person die. In 1936 Walter Benjamin was already noting that society had made “it possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying. Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual […] There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not once died.” But since at least the mid-20th century they have been shuffled into hospitals. Some people think this is a problem – that it’s concomitant with a reluctance to face or think about death that is damaging, that is itself a kind of loss. Some have attempted to tackle it: www.deathcafe.com sets up meetings across the world (33 countries so far) in which you are encouraged to drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death.” Their Twitter feed rolls out cheery squibs like “Just staring into the abyss!” and “Don’t die until you’re dead”. One wonders whether they’ve really thought that last one through.
But, as belief in organised religion fades away in Britain, questions arise as to the aftermath of a life. The sombre Christian coffins of old can now be shaped like racing cars or Costa coffee cups – the funeral with personality, and even a belly laugh at the end. One eco-company offers a biodegrable pod for your body to decompose inside and grow to nurture the roots of a tree. Old burial grounds within English cities have filled up, with councils under no legal obligation to provide any and prioritising space for the living, while the churches save spaces for their congregations. So perhaps now is the very time for mourning jewellery to come back into fashion, supplanting a headstone as a way to remember and cherish a life lived, even when the ashes are scattered. LifeGem TM already offers to convert the carbon remains of the deceased into a diamond. Unfortunately, the sad fact is this: human remains don’t make very high quality diamonds.