Liesbeth den Besten is an art historian, based in the Amsterdam region, who works as an independent writer, teacher, lecturer, and curator. Presently, she teaches jewelry history at Sint Lucas Antwerpen. She is the chairwoman of the Françoise van den Bosch Foundation for contemporary jewelry, a member of the advisory board of the Chi ha paura…? Foundation, and a founding member of Think Tank, a European Initiative for the Applied Arts. Her book, On Jewellery: A Compendium of International Contemporary Art Jewellery, was published by Arnoldsche in November 2011.
The world of civil power display is divided in two—one part adorns with the sash, and the other part wears the chain of office. The chain definitely surpasses the sash on a symbolic level because it is a true jewel, and one that comes alive in the public eye. Since time immemorial, jewelry has been used as an official sign of dignity and power, with the head and breast as its preferred place. The chain of office may look like an anachronism but it is still worn by mayors in some European countries and former colonies.
In the Netherlands, the mayor’s chain was introduced in 1852 as part of the new constitution and municipal legislation. The archetypes of the 19th-century chain of office are historical livery collars that function as medieval insignia, like the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece. In line with the neo-gothic revival in architecture and the crafts, the mayor’s chain developed as a modern equivalent to historical examples.
The Dutch chain of office comes with a set of regulations on how to wear the chain and on which occasions. These regulations are indicative of the symbolic value of these insignia; they are meant to distinguish the wearer from other people, and to underline the duties of the office. Today a mayor will not lead a crisis team on the spot, during riots, fire, or lootings, while wearing the chain of office (s/he would be the immediate subject of derision)—and yet a royal decree says they should. Other prescriptions are still being followed, for instance the wearing of the chain during council gatherings and official receptions and visits—whether welcoming a foreign delegation or meeting Prince Carnival.
The mayor’s chain moves between dignity and play, and mayors know how to use this. Amsterdam mayor Eberhard van der Laan combined his chain of office with a rainbow necklace while attending a pro-gay-rights demonstration, thus attesting that he is a true burger vader (literally: father of the citizens), one who feels responsible for all citizens, including the queer community. The city of Amsterdam is one of those rich communities that have different chains. In the roaring 1960s and 70s, the general distrust of the established order resulted in the stowing away of the lavishly crafted chain of office designed by craftsman Harm Ellens in 1923. As a result, the then-mayor opted for a very simple 19th-century chain—one that provided him the needed credibility in times of change (the incumbent mayor prefers the more elaborate chain).
Dutch mayors always wear the chain when leading the council; this distinguishes her/him as the (wo)man in the lead. Interestingly, chain removal has also gained a symbolic meaning: The inglorious resignation of a mayor is often illustrated in newspapers with photographs showing the mayor while s/he takes off the chain of office—it is a symbolic gesture, full of sadness and defeat.
The chain of office combines rituals and customs, entertainment and dignity, tradition and symbolic values, and is the ultimate piece of jewelry worn by men and women equally. It can cause mixed feelings with female mayors because the sculpted ones are mostly too heavy while the more simple chains can easily be mistaken for ordinary necklaces, but first and foremost it is popular entertainment. When the mayor enters the room of a centenarian’s celebration, he wears a conversation piece par excellence on his body. This use gives his visit extra cachet, it illuminates photographs of the event, and makes an unforgettable impression: The mayor was here, we shook hands, and he wore his chain.
Biographical note: In 2001, Liesbeth den Besten published a book, De nieuwe keten van de burgemeester, about mayoral chains of office. The book (released only in Dutch) was one of the outcomes of a design project, initiated by a committee of female mayors, aimed at obtaining contemporary and androgynous chains of office. The project was commissioned by the Dutch Society of Mayors, and managed by den Besten.