Flipping through her new book one recent afternoon at the Getty Villa, Susanne Gänsicke stopped on a photograph of the Cheapside Hoard, a mysterious cache of jewelry and precious gems uncovered in London in 1912. “Jewelry hoards are like windows into antiquity,” she said. “There are jewelry hoards that were hidden in times of danger, maybe to be recovered or maybe not. There are stolen hoards, and shipwrecks.”
Gänsicke, who is head of Antiquities Conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum and a trained goldsmith, has been mesmerized by jewelry since she was young. “I bought traditional jewelry wherever I was,” she said about traveling through Yemen, Sudan, and Egypt in the ‘80s and seeing firsthand how jewelry signaled social identity. “Today people are international,” she said. “They buy what they see on Facebook.”
When I sat down with Gänsicke to talk about her new book Looking at Jewelry: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques, she was wearing a vintage turquoise and silver bracelet. She hadn’t found the piece on Facebook, but bought it for herself from a gallery in Santa Fe after turning in the manuscript.
“Jewelry is an artistic expression of its time,” Gänsicke and her co-author Yvonne Markowitz write in their guide to all things sparkly. From ancient bracelets to the Bajoran earrings worn on Star Trek, the book offers something for anyone curious about the pretty things we wear.
CS: There’s something special about jewelry in particular because you do know it was worn. It’s so relatable.
SG: Everybody is a connoisseur to some degree, because we all have jewelry and look at it. What was really fun about this book was picking the images and having them speak to each other. There are so many similarities over vast areas of time and regions where people achieved similar results.
For example: inlays. You create a mosaic of images with colorful little stones or pieces of shells. Egyptians did that by carving stones, minute pieces of stone. So you may have a pictorial of divinities, or Pharaoh on a barge smiting an enemy, or images of plants and animals, a whole universe created by minute little bits of stone. What is mind-boggling is that very similar techniques were used by the ancient Persians or in South America.
CS: You write that few jewelry workshops have been excavated. Why is that?
SG: In general, workmen’s quarters for any production are rare. There are very few bronze-casting workshops from antiquity, a couple from Egypt. Maybe it’s because they’re in the habitation zones, which often get demolished. People move on, towns get burned down, invaded. Whatever is of use gets reused and melted down, plundered, moved on.
It’s typical also for other professions that we don’t have a lot of tools. I mean, they were humble items. There are quite a few loom weights from early weaving, or we have chipped stone blades, but we don’t really have a cache of great tools from ancient Egypt, which is surprising if you think about how much they created with their hands, right? There are some chisels and some mallets from sculpture workshops. I think that’s what’s really so interesting for anybody with a hands-on interest is kind of piecing the old workshops together.
CS: But we have a sense of how ancient jewelry functioned from how it is depicted in art?
SG: In Egypt, we have these wonderful tomb decorations from the New Kingdom, mid 2nd millennium B.C., where scenes of daily life and also of workshops were depicted in the tombs of important administrators and even craftsmen. They’re wonderful to look at and open rare windows into that world.
CS: What’s your favorite thing about the work you do and about writing a book like this?
SG: Well, you know, it’s the discovery. Almost every project, every object opens up a whole range of questions and rabbit-holes that you can go into. What are the things you have to find out: How is an object made? What’s the composition, and – is it real or not?
But then there are many, many other questions and cross-connections. I think it’s the same with writing, you start out with a general concept, but then all the unanticipated ideas and discoveries come to it.
CS: If you sped forward 1,000 years, do you have thoughts on what our current jewelry would say about our values?
SG: A lot of it may not survive, because it’s not a durable material. They may say there was a certain obsession with diamonds—there are plenty of them around.