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Reviewed by:
  • Luxury in Global Perspective: Objects and Practices, 1600–2000 ed. by Bernd-Stefan Grewe and Karin Hofmeester
  • Stefan Hanß
Luxury in Global Perspective: Objects and Practices, 1600–2000. Edited by bernd-stefan grewe and karin hofmeester. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 338 pp. $120.00 (hardcover).

Bridging the periods of early modern and modern history, the volume reconsiders the global dimensions of the history of luxury artefacts. In particular, it charts such objects' contributions to the shaping of global connections, to be more precise, of global commodity chains. This approach criticises that traditional research usually relies on notions of commodity flows that are "only accurate from the standpoint of European and North American culture" (p. 7f). Therefore, the editors aim at writing "a decentered, global history of luxury" by taking the agency of non-European protagonists seriously (p. 23). In that regard, the volume has to be considered a path-breaking contribution to a variety of current historiographical debates that revolve around the production, appreciation, circulation, and consumption of high-end commodities. Luxury, here, is understood as both a specific historical phenomenon as well as a global analytical tool that shall help to readdress the world-spanning dynamics of history itself. It is the authors' explicit goal to unite various branches of approaches established in cultural, economic, and social history. [End Page 290]

Given this ambitious and stimulating approach, which is in itself indeed a ground-breaking contribution to current debates, one might assume that a reviewer's job narrows down to praising the volume. However, writing this review is challenging as the volume is both thought-provoking and self-contradictory at the same time. Stimulating is, above all, the collection of impressively well-researched case studies that cover a wide range of contexts. Siebenhüner and Hofmeester discuss the circulation of jewels in Mughal India and beyond. Grewe charts the significance of gold in twentieth-century India by focusing on long-established traditions, marriage customs, and everyday economic exchange. Gerritsen discusses Chinese porcelain from Jizhou and Jingdezhen in relation to both Chinese court culture and European demands. Riello presents a fascinating chapter on cotton cloth in Mughal India and its embeddedness in Southeast Asian and European economics. Ruschak explores the gender values of wax prints in the society of south Ghana, whilst Pallaver charts the role of glass beads in Renaissance Venice and East Africa. Chaiklin's chapter on the usage of tortoiseshell in early modern Japan offers fascinating insights into how this material's properties engendered its significance for the staging of gender and social identities. Kranzer examines the nineteenth-century fascination for ivory, and Gissibl addresses the continuities and discontinuities of East African safari from the colonial period to wildlife tourism today. Thus, the volume assembles a wide range of intriguing and well-researched case studies that shed light on the volume's topic from diverse angles.

As fascinating as these case studies are, as problematic is the overarching conceptual frame of the volume. Drawing on approaches from economic history (mainly the commodity chain approach) and social and cultural history (mainly Appadurai and Kopytoff), the editors present a well-nuanced definition of luxury that centers on people's practices in relation to artefacts of certain characteristics. Such luxury artefacts "are not mass goods; are exclusive, which often but not always means that they are expensive or exotic; move beyond the realm of everyday practicality; and should have special material qualities such as durability or extreme fragility – and are often made with extraordinary craftsmanship. They should be aesthetically pleasing, and last but certainly not least, they should be symbols of social status" (pp. 303, 8–18). Several case studies, however, openly contradict this definition. Siebenhüner alerts the reader of "our conceptual Eurocentrism" of a commodity chain approach whose "universal validity is (…) highly questionable" (pp. 31, 38). Exploring the circulation of such precious things, the author also reveals the "limits of Kopytoff's approach" as [End Page 291] many jewels "circulated precisely not as commodities but as tribute, gifts, booty, or inherited objects" (pp. 34–35, 53). Such a harsh critique of central conceptual definitions presented in both the introduction and conclusions of the volume seem...


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