Jewelry and Value

            Sometimes it can be tough working in the arena of jewelry when you don't have a lot of cash.  Sure, there are plenty examples of non-precious adornment out there, ranging from costume jewelry to campaign buttons, but for many people, jewelry correlates so directly with "something expensive" that "valuables" is actually a synonym (so much so that we've codified the amount men should spend on engagement rings in terms of months of wages).   Part of that comes from the cost of raw materials like silver, gold, and gemstones, but the amount of time and really painstaking effort it can take to put a piece together is a big chunk of it, too.  And when the material value supercedes the labor value as a way of evaluating a class of objects in general, it makes it very difficult to convince people that they should pay a lot for something made with more skill than gold. 

            This is a problem craft objects overall run into.  I'm guessing that if you ask quilters and knitters and so forth, they've got the same issue, and that if they want to make rent with their craft it has to be through things like teaching, patternmaking, or scaling up production dramatically.  People just aren't willing to pay the actual cost of the labor that goes into these things, so they often end up being made as objects of devotion given to loved ones, which makes people think of them as less economically valuable (because they are effectively free), which then makes it even more difficult to get a fair price for the labor invested.  That's not a dig, by the way, just an observation about crafts (particularly those linked to the domestic and "women's work," whose very real value was/is not frequently acknowledged in economic terms).  When jewelry decouples itself from expensive materials, it begins to run into the exact same problems other labor-intensive products do.

            Even so, I don't often run into people melting down a quilt for the material value.  (Yes, remaking happens, but not on the same "Cash 4 Gold" scale.)  In many ways, the unappreciated labor of many crafts is protected by the low economic value of the material (and/or the inability to effectively recycle that material). I'm not going to get into the psycho-economical complex which dictates the price of metal as commodity, or the diamond's value as determined by skillful marketing, but it is nearly comical to see people hoarding gold bullion without knowing how it can be physically used.  (It doesn't oxidize! It is super ductile!  It's practically nonreactive!  Dammit, it is USEFUL, don't stick it in a vault!)  Not to knock recycling, but seeing work melted down for the commodity value is sometimes tough.  The reuse of precious materials is as old as gold, but makers familiar with metalsmithing processes are acutely aware of the skill of past smiths (or lack thereof).  When taking an Islamic art history class, it was interesting to see how much better brass objects survived than those wrought from silver or gold, despite how much finer the craftsmanship of the latter presumably was.  I think we are willing to accept that the material value can justify destroying skill value some of the time (though I’m probably less forgiving than some, particularly when someone melts down grandma’s ring because it is old fashioned and then gets something hideous).  However, when the material value represents a smaller portion of the total value it is much harder to swallow the destruction of something, even it the result is effectively the same (metal reclaimed, object destroyed).  For example, thieves recently made off with a $36,000.00 bronze statue/grave marker only to scrap it for $25.00. 

            But this is value in economic terms, which is only an indicator.  Look at the price of water purification tablets (cheap) and what they mean to people in a region stricken by dysentery.  I consider value to be roughly equivalent to importance, and this is dictated by personal investment.  Of course, this take on value doesn't always transfer very well between people; I'm not going to sell the teddy bear I've had since I was an infant because it is irreplaceable, but I'm also not going to be able to sell it because no one in their right mind would pay for the filthy thing.  It's funny that the American political establishment carries on about the concept of shared values given that it's actually a really difficult thing to do once you start getting specific; one has to be able to see their values as extending into a category rather than standing alone.  Example: I love my significant other and value our relationship.  I don't have any interest in a stranger's relationship because I have no stake in it.  However, I recognize that the concept of relationships includes both mine and that stranger's, and therefore I treat it with the respect I afford my own because I relate the concept to my own interests.  Plenty of people don't give a parson's fart about anything that isn't personally important to them, but hopefully we can all agree that these people suck.  (Hey look, the golden rule.)  Written out like that, it sounds sort of dumb, but if I'm going to make noise about the transferability of value I should probably be explicit.  Again, I find the notion of value itself to be intriguing.

            And really, this is a big part of what has brought me to jewelry in general.  It can be seen as value embodied, both economically and conceptually.  Because it is pretty much by definition superfluous, it's function is almost wholly that of the signifier.  For the wearer, it can indicate wealth, identity, affinity, personal taste, and so forth, while for a giver, it is a token of affection, appreciation, even a marking of territory.  Though the use of less precious materials makes it difficult to sell something for the cost of the labor, a broader palette allows the maker to express a wider variety of meaning.  It's about as close to pure information about value as objects get.