In India, jewelry is worn both for its ornamental and symbolic qualities. Historically, men and women have worn jewelry, literally, from head to toe, for the sake of its beauty and for its auspicious nature. It offers protection and promises prosperity. Beauty is believed to be inherently powerful, but jewelry's influence on a wearer's fortunes is also understood to lie in the power of its materials. In early Vedic texts, gold and jewels are deemed sacred. In Indian tradition, gold purifies while gems channel the energies of the planets. Almost all Hindu deities appear extensively bejeweled, and India's religious practices have for millennia included the gift of gold and jewels to the gods.
"Even the jingle of your ankle bells makes him long to meet you" reads a line of Indian poetry. To the lover, jewelry enhances the beloved's forms and movements with its contours and sounds. In society, however, the semantics of jewelry are paramount. Sectarian symbols and regionally specific designs often identify a wearer's origins and beliefs. Gold anklets, double-strand pearls, and turban ornaments were once the prerogative of rulers. Forehead pendants, bracelets, marriage necklaces, anklets, and toe rings are still the signs of a married woman. To be without jewelry is to be outcast in India: no jewelry is worn by the either the ascetic who renounces society or the widow whom society rejects.
The Susan L. Beningson Collection specializes in jewelry for women and deities. Pieces date from the first to the twentieth century with a majority from the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. When Gold Blossoms, curated by Molly Emma Aitken, is divided into three realms of experience: Jewelers, Women (The Sixteen Adornments), and Deities.
View the online exhibition here.
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