or the joy of precious metals

By Xin Zeng

D is for Beautiful!

People wear jewelry for many different reasons, but the first one is always beauty. We want jewelry to reflect back and highlight our own beauty, or even better, make ourselves as ravishing as a diamond. Our use of jewelry forces us to ask some complicated questions. How do we create beauty? Where does the beauty come from? Is beauty natural? Of course, when we think about jewelry, we think of design: the arrangement of materials and the overall effect of the design. We think of this as creating something of value, a quality that we often designate as beautiful. But I think looking at beauty and value in that way is a mistake. It is not the design that creates beauty but the material itself that creates it.
In contemporary jewelry, there is a tendency to use non-precious materials, such as glass, ceramics, stone, paper, and everyday found materials. Non-precious materials might look interesting and might allow for some good design, but they always seem to be missing something essential. Precious materials create their own beauty. A diamond doesn’t need design; it exists, it’s perfect, and it’s beautiful. This isn’t a subjective point of view. From a scientific perspective, a diamond’s chemical and physical structure allows it to reflect light in a dynamic and stunning way; non-precious materials such as glass or plastic can never do that and they will never be able to do that. The chemical construction of precious materials is simply more stable and strong. Take a diamond and throw it against a wall: it won’t break. Do the same to a glass diamond and watch it shatter. That means precious materials can do things that manmade materials can only barely replicate.

Same Design, Different Effects
Here are two necklaces. They are remarkably similar in design: a large main stone in the center, six smaller stones around it, and a large number of smaller beads. What makes the emerald necklace more attractive and elegant than the plastic one is, of course, the emerald and diamonds. The emeralds themselves are beautiful; the way they reflect light makes them look like a floating lake surrounded by incredibly shiny rocks, which of course, are diamonds, the shiniest of rocks. The precious stones bring the piece alive and make the design pop out. The plastic necklace, although remarkably similar in design, doesn’t impress. The stones do nothing, or even worse, they destroy the balance and composition of the necklace. Their colors don’t really match and what’s worse, their inability to reflect light muddies the effect of the spacing of the stones—an effect that worked extremely well with the emeralds. We can see that even in a similar design, precious materials add value and non-precious materials do almost nothing.

One seems "real" and the other doesn't
These two pieces are also similar in design: both of them depict flowers blossoming. The left one is clearly more beautiful than the right one. But why? The left piece is covered in different colored diamonds. Their ability to reflect light allows this delicate design to gain in strength. Not only does the light not slip away, but it also reflects back in multiple directions. This is not something that non-precious materials can do. The one on the right looks chunkier and less dimensional. The flowers look like they are heaped on top of the branch but not growing from it, which is less realistic. The reasons for that, of course, are the materials. The right one uses glass stone and cheap alloys. They can’t support such a delicate design: they simply do not have the capability to reflect light with the necessary intensity and you lose the illusion of three-dimensionality.

One is about to pounce and that is precious
The importance of precious materials is clear in these two panther bracelets. Again they both have similar designs. On these two panther bracelets, the first one is more detailed; black diamonds sit on each black dot of the panther’s body. It creates the effect of smooth and shiny fur: again, diamonds have a much greater degree of realism. When you look at the one on the left, it is as if a real panther were ready to jump on its prey. The second bracelet lacks that type of dynamism. Instead of setting stone to show the panther’s patterns, there are holes all over the body in order to represent the black dots. The alloy reflects light but not from dot to dot; it feels stiff and you don’t get the sinewy energy of the diamond one. It looks more like a “dead thing” rather than a living panther. Thus we can say that precious materials create more possibilities for beauty: they can replicate a sense of life, which is the best way to judge design and beauty.

©Xin Zeng and the CCA Arts Review

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