Jewelry: The Body Transformed at The Met

Text by Mary Gregory,  Photos by Adel Gorgy

A necklace by Dreicer & Co., American, New York, ca. 1905, diamonds, natural pearls, and platinum

The shine of the season just got a bit brighter in New York, thanks to the Metropolitan Museum’s new show, “Jewelry: The Body Transformed,” an exhibition as brilliant in its conception and execution as it is in its diamonds and gold. Over 200 precious and even priceless works in silver, gold, wood, glass, clay and shells, ornamented with gems, enamel, beads, paint and carving offer not just a look at the ways people have  adorned themselves through history, but the reasons and results, as well.

An Egyptian necklace on view in “Jewelry: The Body Transformed” at the Met Fifth Avenue

Starting with strings of beads collected from burial sites from three millennia BC and traveling around the world, across cultures, and to the present, the show is filled with history, politics, spirituality, and beauty. The pieces are from the Met’s encyclopedic collection and include dazzling works from ancient Egypt, classical Greece, medieval Europe, Imperial China, India, The Americas and more. Together they present a picture not just of wealth and elegance, but of the things that drive and inspire us as humans.

“Jewelry: The Body Transformed” presents jewelry from 2500 BC through today. A beaded bracelet.

Religious objects used for prayer, adorning places of worship, or elevating the wearer to an altered status reflect everything from shamanic practices to devotion for statues of the Virgin Mary. Broad collars from pharaonic Egypt proclaimed with delicate beauty the high social and political level of the wearer in the same way that chains and rings might on the kings and queens of Europe. Crowns have topped the heads of monarchs for thousands of years in almost every culture. What varies is how they’re made and what the materials signify. Finding out is the delight of this exhibition.

With work so fine it can still be read today, this medieval piece of jewelry still communicates. Elements from a Necklace, 15th–16th century, Granada, Spain

A hammered gold pectoral (or chest ornament) from Colombia, 1st–7th century

Galleries present jewelry to express different ideas, like The Divine Body, The Regal Body, The Transcendent Body, The Alluring Body, and The Resplendent Body. Each offers extraordinary objects and complex considerations. In The Divine Body, for example, we learn that Calima people of Colombia believed that gold was a supernatural substance, linked to the sun. Their revered dead were decorated with as much gold as possible, transforming “the golden men of Calima” into divine beings. 

A gold armband from ca. 200 B.C.

The Regal Body presents how only those with tremendous power could afford the most desired materials, whether, depending on the culture, those were seashells or gems. Alexander the Great inspired followers to emulate him by wearing elaborate gold pieces like coiled armbands with snake-like lower bodies and human torsos and heads. The Transcendent Body looks at societies that use jewelry to connect to ancestors or the gods. Pearls are a big draw in The Alluring Body, and they came to represent both seduction and emancipation, and The Resplendent Body delves into the lustrous color, the iridescent glow, the intense hues and the dazzling shine of the materials we choose to hold most precious.

A comb and brooch from a set made in Paris in 1830 dazzle with gold, silver, and amethysts

Organized by Melanie Holcomb, curator at The Met’s department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, “Jewelry: The Body Transformed” at the Met Fifth Avenue through February 24th is like a holiday gift to visitors, bright and sparkling. But it’s no mere bauble. There’s bite behind every bit of bling in this fulfilling, delightful show.

Top Photo: An Egyptian Broad Collar, from 332–246 B.C., made of gold, carnelian, turquoise, and lapis lazuli in the shapes of flowers, papyrus, and other natural forms.