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Selling Jewels: Modernist Commodification and Disappearance as Style

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 14, Number 2, April 2007
pp. 189-207 | 10.1353/mod.2007.0031

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Selling Jewels:
Modernist Commodification and Disappearance as Style

. . . You cant get on in this world without style. . . .

—Molly Bloom, "Penelope," in James Joyce's Ulysses

First, a story of extravagance, set in pre revolutionary France. When the nobleman Prince Conti sent a diamond valued at 4 5000 francs to a woman and it was returned to him, he ordered it to be crushed so that he might use it as writing sand to dry the ink of the letter he wrote to her in reply. Taine, who reports this story, comments that "The less one cares about money, the more a man of the world one is." This is a very characteristic story about jewels: it has an aristocrat, gift giving as heterosexual drama, and a double dash of extravagance. It is also unique, for two reasons. First, when Prince Conti used the sand, in order, above all things, to dry the ink on the letter to the woman, he intuited a similarity—even as he emphasized the difference—between the jewel and the text. He hints at an awareness of something shared in the nature of the jewel's, and the letter's, communicativeness. This implication, that the jewel and writing share some kinds of preciousness, renders texts about jewels doubly duplicitous and knowing. Second, the prince's order—to crush the jewel to sand—enacts in one triumphant gesture the trajectory of a paradoxical desire that seems to pervade much modern writing on jewels: the desire to have them disappear.

Another way to put this is to say that the lost or stolen jewel, or, in the Prince's case, the jewel which is not, is by far more interesting than one whose existence is certain. In standard books on jewelry, the liveliest entries are often on those pieces that [End Page 189] have been lost or stolen; the most alluring of all are on those that remain so. Famous examples, chosen at random, include the blue Brunswick diamond, believed to be in Florida, the yellow Florentine diamond owned by Pope Julius II and the Medici, now lost, and the remaining two bejewelled reliquaries from the medieval Quedlinburg treasure, taken by a U.S. soldier from Europe and offered years later to a hardware store in Wheelwright, Texas, and so mostly recovered in 1992.1 This aesthetics of disappearance is not based only on simple avarice (the suggestion that "It's lost, so I might find it") but further, on a phantom awareness of the sheer anomalous quality of jewels' complete ostentation in a consumer and commodity culture whose masquerades are based on specific economies of display. Jewels, in modernity, are bedeviled by their historical associations, their old-fashioned role as blatant signifiers, displayed upon the royal body, of despotic power. In order to be rendered safe for modernity, jewels, as we shall see, had to be, in turn, exoticized, their circulation policed, and their role reworked from one of public-sphere ostentation to the private sphere task of the mediation of affections. We shall be discerning these successive moves in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a Sherlock Holmes story, and a letter of James Joyce to Nora. As the jewel was demoted in status to merely another, if highly valuable, bourgeois bibelot, jewels literally disappeared: they were more seldom worn, more coyly displayed. With their bourgeois-ification, moreover, their status as ultra-valuable useless baubles made them a test case of, and, as we shall see, an affront to the delicate balance of utility and ostentation maintained in the newly valorized version of the object in modernity, the commodity. Jewels, in their extravagance, might have seemed to embody, avant la lettre, all of the qualities to which the commodity might aspire, but their very ostentation was their undoing: the commodity, as it turned out, is related only ambivalently and in complex ways to the celebration of excess.

The jewel might at first glance seem the perfect example of the commodity. Its grossly alluring sparkle serves to make it the ideal example of this near-magical repository of the secret of modern power relations. Indeed, it is one of the very...