Minimalism and adornment: A reconcilation

I recently read "Everything that Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists" and occasionally drop by  the author, Joshua Fields Millburn, and Ryan Nicodemus' site. Now, a film, "Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things" spreads the pared-down proposition.

The day after the film's screening, I sat at work surrounded by sapphires and tourmalines, and  wondered, Is jewelry necessary?

The attraction to adornment isn't shared by everyone, but by enough people to support a complex global industry. The baubles also serve other needs: for status, for the marking of ritual occasions, and if you're a believer, to impart the healing essences of various minerals. (Not my thing.)

When Minimalists advise getting rid of "trash and trinkets", I understand their perspective, but doubt I would divest my jewellery and feel better for it. Many minimalist exemplars are men, and I wonder if, because of gender bias, they might be less familiar with the pleasure of jewellery; sure, they have their watches, but relatively few wear earrings. Women cluster four deep around a jeweler's booth at a good art or craft show, while 90% of men sail by.

The Minimalist movement asks an essential question; as Vicki Robin and the late Joe Dominguez wrote a generation earlier in "Your Money or Your Life": Is striving mainly to get more stuff a fair exchange for the precious, limited time you have here? And once you fill the trophy case, then what? Millman quotes Chuck Palahniuk in "The Fight Club": "The things you own end up owning you".

I've felt that way about many possessions, from napkin rings to exercise bikes, but regarding jewellery, I feel like a steward of art.

I also feel connected to loved ones; when I wear a piece my mother wore too, in a way she is with me. The other night I dreamed of her. She was reading in a wing-backed chair I'd forgotten we had, and wearing this clip; I awoke savouring the recovered memory.

Am I going to continue collecting jewelry? Yes, in a judicious, limited way, or at least that's my intention. 

Would I suggest that others do so? Only if the intrinsic beauty of a piece adds to your enjoyment of life, provides an aesthetic or sentimental burnish, and is within your or the giver's means.

As Sara Teasdale wrote in "Barter",
"Life has loveliness to sell
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
Children's faces looking up,
Holding wonder like a cup."

Though in succeeding stanzas Teasdale says we pay for these things by bartering "many an hour of strife"— hence the title—the best things in life are free, but they also require that we stop doing, and pause to appreciate them. 

Jewelry is art which inhabits our everyday lives, becoming almost a part of our bodies.   

That bracelet!
I don't need to own jewelry to be moved by its beauty. When I see friends in their signature pieces— Christine in her vintage jeweled charm bracelet, Marla in her vibrant boulder opal ring—it brings me the same frisson I feel in front of a magical painting.

Brooch, Cai Xuan

My friend Beth and I recently spent an hour at Galerie Noel Guyomarc'h admiring their Taiwanese jewellery exhibit: ethereal acrylic pieces by Cai Xuan, formed like sea anenomes, were among our favourites. The prices for many brooches and necklaces were not prohibitive—similar to a good pair of shoes—but we did not feel acquisitive.

I did, however, feel that art/beauty frisson and its attendant rush of want when we paused to look at a selection of sterling and gem-set cuffs by Matthieu Cheminée.
Photo: Matthieu Cheminée

What does jewellery do for you? And if we couldn't give you, for example, a cuff bracelet, what is your enjoyable addition to life, minimalist or not?



Kristien62 said…
I have never owned expensive pieces, but choose my items with care. Jewelry has always been a statement for me. My aesthetic is more bold, than delicate. I am drawn to unusual designs. My guilty pleasure is modern silver designs, and I have quite a few pieces from a small, local jewelry shop that features wonderful pieces by various artists, affordable and unique.
Duchesse said…
Kristien62: If willing, please share the name of the shop. I am always trying to promote small, independent artisans. Many readers would appreciate a recommendation. Handmade, "affordable and unique" hits all the criteria many of us seek,
Susan B said…
While I'm in agreement that at some point "your stuff owns you," I also believe that beauty (manmade or otherwise) is an important source of pleasure. And pleasure is essential to our mental and physical health. ;-)

I've gone through "collector" phases in my life (scarves and bags mostly), and have lost that urge. I love looking at all kinds of jewelry, but to make me want to buy it has to be something I'd be able to wear every day. After having worn mostly gold for the last few decades, I'm finding myself more drawn to silver pieces now.
Leslie M said…
Necklaces were not much of a draw for me in my youth. A business trip to Milan about 10 years ago, and encouragement from co-workers, introduced me to large artistic pieces, which I love, but something I no longer wish to spend pre-retirement funds to acquire. Your blog taught me to appreciate pearls and last year I splurged on a necklace of large sunset color beauties from Kojima. That itch was soothed. I don't have a longing for anything else, but I would like to work on a re-creation of pieces I inherited from my grandmother. I am not in any rush, but will continue to look for a necklace design that incorporates many of the small and medium sized stones from some of her rings. The thought of having her close to me has strong appeal. Thanks for the excellent post.
Duchesse said…
unefemme: I too love silver, though for durability and safety turn to gold, usually white gold, which looks lower-key. And completely agree- if not able to wear everyday, or most days, I don't buy it. I recently sold and gifted several dressy rings, and reset others.

Leslie Milligan: Ohh I would love to see those pearls! And also your re-design of the family pieces. I hope you move forward with the project so you can enjoy the sentiment and beauty.
LauraH said…
Like you and unefemme, I buy jewellery that I can wear every day. After editing, giving away and buying new, I'm happier with my adornments than ever before. They make me feel dressed and complete and give a lift to a fairly simple wardrobe. I greatly enjoy the way they look and feel. Most of the pieces invoke memories of people or places, an added dimension that increases their value to me.

As for minimalism in general, I love colour and texture and pattern too much to be a true believer. That said, I work at not adding to what I have in the house, no need at this point. Passing what I don't want or need on to a new home is an ongoing process one that I enjoy. Maybe one day I'll arrive at the core and there won't be anything to give away.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: Your last sentence reminds me of the time my mother said to me, "I couldn't wait to get all this, now I can't wait to give it away." It doesn't take too many visits to auctions and secondhand dealers to realize how many persons either did not have anyone who wanted their things, or simply too much.
Gretchen said…
Minimalism never was something that appealed to me, but I do find the desire to purge becoming stronger. While I love my "serious" jewelry, I find myself drawn to much different, handmade pieces these days - a slip of a gold wire bracelet, lost-wax cast sterling coral earrings or a bronze intaglio necklace, and I wear these just as much, if not more, than the pieces I love, but seem so imposing for most days. Never just one, though - I still pile them on. While not ready to give up the good pieces to my girls (still too young, at barely out of their teens), I'm ready for them to take kitchen stuff, my office-appropriate suits, skirts, and sheaths, and two sets of china (why buy new at Ikea when you have service for 8 you can use with abandon?). And I'm even ready to start giving away books. Well, some of them. One day, I hope to retire to a small apartment or tiny cottage, and what will I need all this stuff for then? More time for walking, hiking, and kayaking, until my body tells me these, too, should pass on to the next souls.
Francie Newcomb said…
Duchesse, I love this post! And feel so tied to the pearls my father gave me for my high school graduation; the ring made from a Civil War era earring, a payment for her grandfather's legal work my mother gave me-- received from her parents on her 21st birthday; and everything my aunt earmarked for me. The meaning of these pieces needs no apology. I think of the famous Sumerian lady in her blue earrings. Bah minimalists! Thank you!
I always look at minimalist and small spaces sites to fight my tendency to be a bit of a packrat, but looking at their blog and videoclips, it is a very "male" approach. The guy is driving what looks to be a new model car and talking about minimalism. I understand that due to criminally bad planning, driving is necessary in much of North America (even in urban areas) but that is a hell of a lot more harmful than jewellery, despite the considerable social and environmental harm that the jewellery trade and the fashion industry can give rise to.

Their minimalist travel advice is along the same lines.

Living in smaller spaces, as long as that does not mean crowding, is far more important. It also means one has less room for things never worn or used. That does not necessarily mean living in a chambre de bonne.

As for local jewellery, I like articho on Villeray. Obviously the artisans vary, but it is an interesting space.
Duchesse said…
Gretchen: Thank you for writing, with such sensitivity, about how parting with things comes. Also I have found, receiving things offered comes too, if one has young adult children or friends. But also, I gave a set of fine china to the 84 year old mother of a good friend. To my amazement, she wanted it very much. She is now nearly 90, going strong, still using it.

Francie: Many minimalist standard-bearers are only in their mid to late thirties, and raising voices against the mindless consumerism of the preceding generations. It may be a time when they do not yet believe that the ties to ancestors are important.

lagatta: Oh, I like articho so much. one of the small local shops I cherish! Especially the ceramics of Loic Therrien.
To me, jewelry makes minimalism possible. Especially jewelry that is limited to pieces that delight or give joy, or carry a strong emotional connection. I feel best dressed simply, but only if I'm also wearing jewelry that makes me feel good.

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