Erika Billeter: ‘Why Does Man Adorn Himself?”

From Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents:

The enjoyment of beauty produces a particular, mildly intoxicating kind of sensation. There is no evident use in beauty: the necessity of it for cultural purposes is not apparent, and yet civilization could not do without it. The science of aesthetics investigates the conditions in which things are regarded as beautiful; it can give no explanation of the nature or origin of beauty; … Its derivation from the realms of sexual sensation is all that seems certain; love of beauty is a perfect example of a feeling with inhibited aim. Beauty and attraction are first of all the attributes of a sexual object.

In the essay Why Does Man Adorn Himself?, Erika Billeter takes Sigmund Freud’s words as the introduction to the question as to why we wear jewels: beauty and sexual attraction are two of the attributes man seeks to attain through self-adornment. She pushes the fact that jewelry must be as closely related to the wearer. Like clothing, it is only that relationship that brings it to life. “Jewelry is the artistic sublimation of a natural human urge.” This concept is corroborated through examples Billeter provides by the history of civilization, literature, and tradition .

(left) Yemen woman adorned for her wedding day in peasant jewelry. (right) King Bope Mabiinc of the Kuba tribe in Zaire is seen here in his sumptous state dress.

In every culture, jewels are used as a means of making a bride seductive. Even brides today are decked out with special care on their wedding day, whether rich or poor. But commoners were not allowed to wear jewelry up until the 18th century. In Scandinavia, poor bourgeois girls could borrow jewels from the State so that, at least on their wedding day, they could be more attractive than their peers.

Jewelry gives people an inkling of its emotional value. They show a person to their best advantage. Billeter states that the urge to appear more beautiful is linked with the idea of wealth and honour since jewels enhance a woman’s social status and therefore become status symbols.

Priests and shamans wore jewels as emblems of their authority, most commonly with an ornamental headdress. Egyptians and Indians are just a few of the cultures that equated jewels with power, pocession, and authority. Kings had magnificent crowns made for coronations.

Pearls were not only valued for their aesthetic qualities, but also for their social prestige. For Christians, it became an emblem of the Mother of God. Ancient Chinese and Indians thought it to be the tears of a goddess.

Precious stones were considered apt for the need for protection and innumerable tales of their magical and miraculous affects.Amulets were worn to drive away sickness. The wearer of such jewelry would form a relationship with not a jewel, but a talisman.

…And so many other forms of symbolic jewels.

Billeter concludes that we are no longer aware of the “sacred character” of jewels and their closeness to magical spells and imaginary powers. However, the urge to wear jewels is still relevent, so they must have not lost all their symbolic significance. She iterates that man’s need for adornment is a natural drive that was sublimated in art. It is linked with “magic concepts” connected with both their material and their form. Jewels have always been a symbolic symbol.

Erika Billeter was the former Curator of the Museum Bellerive, Zürich.

Billeter, Erika. ‘Why Does Man Adorn Himself’. The Great Book of Jewels. ed. Ernst A. and Jean Heiniger. Switzerland: Edita Lausanne, 1974. Print.


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