As part of the Curator's Choice series, I asked Elizabeth Goring – who was recommended to me, but whom I didn't know – to talk about her favorite piece. Since then I have spoken to her several times and have found that she brings an slightly different perspective to her love of jewelry. Usually a curator will respond with a piece from their museum's collection but Elizabeth had recently retired from her position at the National Museums of Scotland and so she reponds with a story about a piece she owns. Her connection to the study of archelogy is crucial to the story – and might just demonstrate a crucial link between that practice and comtemporary jewelry itself.
All objects can tell stories to those prepared to listen; jewels, by their very nature, are perhaps able to relate the most personal. The story of the piece I have chosen from my own collection of jewelry is one of a gift, given in friendship and returned in friendship – with an extraordinary level of interest.
My professional life has combined two parallel but interwoven strands. Many people know me as a contemporary jewelry specialist. I was Curator of Modern Jewelry at the National Museums of Scotland for more than twenty years, where I built a major international public collection. But I am also an archaeologist and I simultaneously held the post of Curator of Mediterranean Archaeology at the same museum. The two strands are interlinked by a passionate interest in the making and purpose of jewelry.
From the late 1970s, my archaeological research has focused on the prehistory of Cyprus. I have worked for many years with a team from the University of Edinburgh who are currently investigating the millennium BC site of Souskiou near Paphos. I specialize in investigating the extraordinary enigmatic figurines and pendant figurines of that period and my role is to explore how they were made and used. The most characteristic and beautiful of the figurines and pendants are made from a type of soft pale blue or green stone known as picrolite, specific to the island. The team has recently excavated partially-worked examples of this stone: products of a unique prehistoric workshop. Images of some of these, as well as a number of the figurines the team has discovered, can be found in the photo gallery section of the Souskiou website.
The masterly and profound work of British artist goldsmith Kevin Coates is probably known to many of you. He shows regularly with Mobilia Gallery. We first met in 1998, when I invited him to show in Jewellery Moves at the National Museums of Edinburgh. Since then I have worked with Kevin on many exhibitions and publications and through this association I am privileged to say that he has become a friend. It is impossible to categorise Kevin’s work. If you haven’t seen it, I am pleased to refer you to the beautiful book Kevin Coates: A Hidden Alchemy (published by Arnoldsche in 2008). Kevin has the apparent capacity to work in any material. This remarkable skill intrigued me so much that I wrote an appendix to Hidden Alchemy listing the 111 materials he had used in his jewelry to date.
In 2000, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to show Kevin’s stunning exhibition Fragments: Pages Stolen from a Book of Time at the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. This exhibition had opened at the Museo Correr in Venice in late 1999 and from Edinburgh it travelled on to the Kennedy Galleries in New York. I wanted to give Kevin a special gift to mark the occasion. During my visits to Cyprus in the 1980s, I had sometimes combed dried up river beds in the south of the island seeking natural, unworked picrolite pebbles. Most of the ancient picrolite figurines were carved from similar water-worn pebbles. More recently, Cyprus’s rivers have been extensively dammed to address severe water shortages. Picrolite is therefore no longer carried down from its remote and still mysterious sources up in the mountains and natural river pebbles like these are now difficult to find. I thought Kevin would be interested in such an unusual and beautiful natural material, redolent of a remote past. I was also intrigued to learn from him how it felt to carve it. I gave him three from my prized cache and then I forgot all about them.
One day, Kevin and his wife, Nel, gave me a small black box. Inside was a pin that took my breath away. One of the picrolite pebbles I had given Kevin had a shape that suggested an ear to him. This led him to create a jewel that could scarcely have been more appropriate for its new/previous owner. This little pebble had been transformed into a beautifully carved ear bearing the inscription ‘Labyrinthus Hic Habitat Minotaur’ around its outer edge. A tiny golden Minotaur, that half-man, half-bull of Minoan legend, is clambering out of its depths. (Within a real ear, there is a chamber called the labyrinth: this is a typical piece of Coatesian wordplay.) The pin is mounted on an ebony stand ornamented by yet another pebble bearing a maze, or labyrinth, based on a wall painting from Knossos in Crete.
When he made this jewel Kevin did not know how many personal resonances it would have for me. The inscription around the ear is taken from a graffito on a pillar in the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto at Pompeii. A childhood visit to this site had been one of the inspirations for my deep interest in archaeology. A passion for Crete and all things Minoan was inspired by the favourite book of my youth, Mary Renault’s The King Must Die and was only strengthened by a life-changing visit to Knossos as a teenager. When I went to university to study archaeology, it was Aegean archaeology I chose to specialise in and my master’s thesis was on Minoan and Mycenaean goldwork. And this special jewel was created from a special material with which I now have the closest affinity: picrolite.
In A Hidden Alchemy, Kevin wrote of my pin: ‘Thus the pebble-gift, carved and now tenanted, was in turn presented to the giver, a long-term supporter of the Minotaur…’ In the same book, I contributed a chapter about Kevin’s astonishing corpus of jewelry and in writing of this particular pin I hid myself in the ‘third person.’ I now unmask myself, for I cannot disguise the fact that, after my wedding and engagement rings, this jewel means more to me than any other. As I wrote then (albeit in the third person) this brooch speaks for and of me – and therefore, of all pieces in my collection, this one is surely the most personal.
Never was a gift, freely given, received back with more joy.