Thursday, March 11, 2010

Jewelry as a Symbol of Status

The on-going discussion about renaming polymer clay, as well as some comments I received even on my humble post about this issue, returned me to my old thoughts about the implied value of jewelry.

Obviously, there is something we, as jewelry makers, cannot ignore. Yes, the downgrading of polymer clay, based on it's classification as “just plastic” in people's minds, IS real. Not all, but some customers do think about gold, silver, and precious stones when they think about “real jewelry”. I think the reason lies in the history and is implanted in the buyer's sub-consciousness.

Now, these are just my thoughts, I am not a historian, and I do not pretend to have answers to these kind of questions. However, at least for myself, this is how I explain this phenomenon.

A long time ago (think Medieval times), only reach and noble people could afford jewelry. Right? It was expensive, and it was one of the attributes of power and money. The original purpose of jewelry, therefore, was to manifest it's owners wealth to the rest of the world. It was the mark of the status. Those, who had jewelry, belonged to the higher class than those, who did not. The price of the finished jewelry was directly proportional to the size and rarity of the gems used to make it. The work that went into creating the finished piece of jewelry was if not insignificant, then definitely secondary to the other parameters, when it came to the price of jewelry. Also important, that at that time, there were no ways to mimic the gemstones convincingly enough. The glass was of low quality. There were no lab-grown gems, no cubic zirconium... So, once again, the original and most important purpose of jewelry was the status symbol, and it was an accurate connection, because every piece of jewelry was equivalent to that much extra money.

Later, in late 19-th, and even more so in 20-th century, we see the development of all these alternative processes and materials I just mentioned. What they create are surrogate status symbols – cheaper jewelry, that looks pretty much as “the real thing”. With this more affordable jewelry more people are able to pose as if they, too, belong to the rich and noble group.

I think, that for some people, jewelry is still “the status thing”. And these are the people who look first of all at the material, not the craftsmanship. These are the people who think that “gold” equals “value”, and “plastic” equals “cheap”. I am not talking about poorly-made polymer clay items (which is an issue in itself). I am talking about pieces with high craftsmanship, original, and well-executed, but still "not made of gold".

If people thought logically, and remembered that the manufacturing processes are getting more and more economical, while the manual labor gets more and more expensive, they would have to realize that a high-quality hand-made piece is a better manifest of its price than a piece of “real jewelry”.

I just hope this realization comes while we are still in business.


Vixenjewels said...

I like your thoughts here, Eugena. In order to attain our status in the art world, it does really call for a re-evaluation of what makes something valuable - not just in the art community but among the general public. I fear something that simply requires time and persistence. If you really look at it objectively, we, the Polymer Clay World, have come a long way from the 70s and the 80s. We have. It can't be argued. Question is, will it take 30 or 40 years more years to see that same "quantity" of improvement in our status as artists. I hope not.

luthien said...

i think you are right on eugena! i also think that basically it's not only jewelry, but most handmade stuff. i got this email from a fren and she made a really comical (but painfully true) passing statement, something to the effect of ... *our item's prices never take into consideration our time put in to make them anyway ... afterall we sell at etsy don't we...* ... on the surface it's kinda funny, but when you think about it ... it's painfully true!

surfingcat said...

What a thought provoking post!

I personally think that lots of the polymer clay work out there is much more eye catching than traditional gold jewellery. I guess if we can get more stuff on the catwalk etc. it will become more fashionable at least!

Let's hope there are enough people out there like us, who value colour and form and design over material value and status.

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