Barbara Schmidt, 25 Reasons Why to Wear Jewellery. Munich, Germany: Druckerei Vogl GmbH&Co, 2016.
How often do we have the opportunity to explore contemporary art jewelry through short stories written by one of our own? I enjoy reading, but I find academic writing tedious, so Barbara Schmidt’s book 25 Reasons Why to Wear Jewellery grabbed my attention.
This collection of short, fictional stories illustrates the 25 (or thereabout) reasons people wear jewelry. The list of reasons that provide the structure of the book originated from the discovery of 75,000 decorative elements in Blombos Cave, South Africa, by archaeologists in the 1990s. Marian Vanhaeren, who studied these ancient objects, identified 14 reasons the items were worn, including jewelry as amulet and talisman, as barter object, as social marker, and as object for counting. The author adds 13 more reasons for good measure: jewelry as humor and as a tool, giving us 27 stories illustrating why people wear jewelry.
In the preface, the author explains how the anthropologist’s reasons are relevant today but, interestingly, she doesn’t include images of the ancient objects. Instead, Schmidt shares images of contemporary art jewelry. Some might miss seeing the archaeological objects, but their displacement by contemporary objects is refreshing, especially given the decidedly unhistoric and experimental tenor of this book.
Some of the contemporary art jewelry simply graces the table of contents or acknowledgment pages, like the piece shown above. Another 27 pieces appear in creative ways throughout the book, driving its design and framing the development of the short stories.
As shown above in the design of the spreads for the section Jewellery as a Gift of Love, the bright green color from the necklace by Dorothea Förster appears again on the next page as the overleaf to the story Green Shivering. This design concept repeats throughout the book: one of the 25 reasons serves as a title for each section, a stunning, full-page image opens the text, and a color from the jewelry echoes at each ending. The variety of colors in the jewelry results in a joyful explosion of saturated pages of color that make reading the book enjoyable and clearly demarcate each story. Each one ends with its image’s caption, enticing the reader to flip back and reexamine the jewelry with new identifying information. The artist’s website is also included in the caption, allowing for further exploration—a nice touch.
The second way contemporary art jewelry features in this book is as inspiration for the content of the short stories. In the seventh one, Amber for Beginners, Gisbert Stach’s brooch DE-Schnitzel (2015), a well-known example of nontraditional use of amber, acts as the visual anchor for Jewellery as a Healing Object. The story itself isn’t about the piece directly—what a story about an amber schnitzel brooch would be about, I couldn’t say. Instead, the story is about a person’s interaction with a small amber elephant he carries in his pocket, the palliative effect of the stone, and the resulting improvement to his love life.
I’ll pause here to say that an unabashed body awareness manifests heavily in this book, in both subtle and heavy-breathing kinds of ways. Jewelry is nothing without the living body that carries it, so it makes sense. I found it a welcome (and sometimes humorous) shift from the academic terms I often see attempting to associate jewelry with bodies and bodily acts. In this book, bodies shiver, hips circle, and throats are naked but for their pearls.
While some of the stories take inspiration from the material or the color of the associated jewelry, others make a connection with the subject matter of the jewelry object itself. That’s the case for the 25th story, Princess of the Sea, which pulls from the water-focused theme of Helen Noakes’s ring, Come In, The Water Is Lovely (2016). The story follows a schoolgirl who receives a special ring that marks her as an elevated water-being, appropriate for the section focused on Jewelry as a Sign of Social Status and Demarcation. Full of references to water, with Poseidon and mermaids making appearances, along with ideas of classism and royalty—but wait, don’t forget about climate change, we’re talking about the ocean here!—the story takes on a lot. The connections between the jewelry object, the reason to wear jewelry, and the storyline aren’t subtle. It often seems the story’s flow chart is right at the surface.
This neat combining of all the elements within these stories is the least successful part of this otherwise delightful book. The stories are heavy with metaphors and descriptive phrases that work hard to bring all the elements into a cohesive story. It’s a lot to ask of any short story to carry so much and remain engaging. As an avid reader of short stories, I recognize the incredible skill it takes to use few words to develop a full story experience. Some say it’s the most difficult fiction genre to master.
In one of the last stories, Small World, in the section Jewellery as a Sign of Humour, there’s a definite shift in the flow of the language in the story. This story, written by the author’s son, is the only one in the collection written by someone else. The rhythm of its language is a marked contrast to the others, even as it follows the parameters of the book.
There’s an additional change in format with three stories dedicated to the maker of the jewelry object featured in the piece: Friedrich Becker, Carl Dau, and Giovanni Corvaja. These stories meditate on the objects intimately, focusing on process, color usage, and material in turn. Lastly, the hardworking Indian jewelry assembly-line worker also has a story dedicated to his labor and skill.
The idea to create a book of short stories using contemporary art jewelry as the framework is noteworthy and results in a visual feast, regardless of the literary quality of the stories. 25 Reasons Why to Wear Jewellery is a playful look at the variety of reasons people have worn and continue to wear jewelry, written by someone knowledgeable about the field. For the beautiful layout, the thoughtful selection of current pieces of art jewelry, and the insightful idea to use fiction to deepen the jewelry conversation, I’m grateful to Barbara Schmidt for stepping outside the academic essay format and creating this unique book for our enjoyment.
Storytelling has the ability to capture the inexplicable, sentimental, and deeply human aspects of our longing for adornment. We in art jewelry strive for a larger audience and often seek external legitimacy through academia. Perhaps another way of broadening the appeal of contemporary art jewelry is to allow the magic and creativity of jewelry to free the imagination and give voice to the story each piece contains.
US-based readers interested in purchasing this book may contact Charon Kransen Arts for pricing and shipping via charon [at] charonkransenarts [dot] com. All other readers, contact Barbara Schmidt directly at bs [at] barbara-schmidt-schmuck [dot] de.
 25 Reasons Why to Wear Jewellery was translated from German using the British spelling “jewellery,” but AJF style uses the American “jewelry” when referring to ornament, while keeping original spellings in titles—hence the multiple spellings in this essay.