Once the home of a prince, the Teien Art Museum is now playing host to a king’s ransom in jewelry comprising a truly sparkling survey of the bijoutier’s art in the four centuries spanning 1540-1940.

However, this exhibition in the Art Deco-style former Tokyo palace of Prince Asaka is not only a stunning look at our ongoing love affair with all things bright and beautiful. Just as significantly, this is an event conceived and curated in Japan that actually asks questions — rather than simply gathering works by big-name artists and charging the public a hefty fee to gawp at them.

The central question posed is a simple one: What is jewelry for?

The answers are as diverse as the necklaces, tiaras, brooches and buckles that are superbly displayed and lit in the Teien’s dark, curtained rooms.

People have always worn ornaments to flaunt wealth or status, or to look beautiful, and we continue to this day the ancient practice of exchanging jewels as tokens of love and commitment. As far back as the first century, in fact, Pliny the Elder noted that iron rings were presented upon betrothal. Then in 1477, we know that Archduke Maximillian of Hamburg gave a diamond engagement ring to Mary of Burgundy. However, the “tradition” of indestructible diamonds being the stones of choice for engagement rings was only born in 1939 — as part of a marketing drive by the South African diamond-mining conglomerate De Beers.

By contrast, the once-common custom of using jewelry to express political affiliation, devotion to a monarch or ruler, or as a sentimental memorial for a loved one, has now largely fallen out of favor. The habit of wearing a cross or crucifix is for many merely a statement of fashion, not, as it once was, of faith.

The same impulse, however, united all these motives for creating and wearing jewelry — the desire to show what we inwardly value by attaching visible material value to it.

In the 16th- and 17th-century religious turmoil that swept across much of Europe, spirituality and mortality seemed the only certainties of life. The piety of the time is embodied here in a heavy gold-and-diamond cross, all splendor outwardly, but bearing on the obverse enameled motifs of Christ’s Passion — the cross and nails, the crown of thorns, the whip and the lance. These were favored objects of affective contemplation, and it is touching to imagine the monied owner of this magnificent pendant weeping in private over his suffering savior.

People wept for themselves, as well — the memento mori, the remembrance that life ends in death, was a common theme in art and literature, and is represented here by several grinning death’s heads of pearl and diamond.

In that era, when life expectancy was in the mid-30s, death shadowed even life’s happiest moments. One of the most striking exhibits is a gimmel ring. Made of conjoined hoops (the name is derived from the Latin gemellus, meaning twin), such rings were often given at marriage, but the 16th-century example here divides to show two cavities under the stone setting, each containing a miniature memento mori — one a baby, the other a skeleton. We come into the world naked, the message seems to be, and we leave it with nothing. All else is vanity.

Vanity, though, gained the upper hand as Europe prospered. Memento mori lingered, but often in extravagantly sentimental form, such as two keepsakes from the late 17th century displayed here — a heart-shape diamond-and-ruby pendant enclosing braided hair, and a 16-part necklace, each part an individual crystal locket initialed in gold and holding strands of hair.

With Europe’s increasing political and social stability and accumulating wealth, elegance came to be prized for its own sake. Brooches, earrings and pins took on purely decorative forms, mimicking other forms of ornament, such as bows, flowers and feathers.

More intriguingly, neoclassical motifs replaced religious imagery.

One reason jewelry is prized by historians of the premodern era is the wealth of information it imparts about the society that produced it. The very stones and metals used, for example, can indicate the extent of a culture’s trading sphere, while manufacturing techniques serve as one index of technological proficiency.

For the early modern era surveyed by this exhibition, however, good documentary sources are available, replacing artifacts as the primary medium of the historical record. Nonetheless, jewelry of the time bears witness to one epochal moment in the late 18th century. This was the uncovering, around 1770, of the ruins of the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried 1,700 years before by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Suddenly, 18th-century scholars discovered the value of jewelry as archaeological evidence — and 18th-century jewelers set about copying those finds. Showing here are three handsome intaglios — gems which are engraved on the reverse, the opposite of the better-known cameo — representing classical subjects. (By this time, men had ceased almost entirely to wear jewelry, but the elegant intaglio, with its connotations of learning and refinement, was an exception.)

The frippery and courtly excess of the late 18th century were brought to an abrupt end by the French Revolution of 1789. Shock waves ran from it through France’s near neighbors, too, and for a short while the production of costly jewelry almost ceased.

The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, however, and the creation of a French empire, ushered in a new era of magnificence. The powerful — or the merely wealthy — flaunted their political allegiance, wearing cameos depicting their emperor, just as a decade later miniatures of the young Queen Victoria became all the rage in England.

Reflecting this spread of imperialism, even jewelry fashions began to annex the cultural heritage of other lands, some conquered, others plundered by “archaeologists” and scholars: Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Etruscan culture all inspired pieces made during the 19th century.

Europe prospered on the back of its colonies, and the great exhibitions held in Paris, London, Vienna, Chicago and Philadelphia showcased “exotic” cultures — including that of Japan — to the Western world. Widespread affluence created an unprecedented demand for jewelry just as exposure to the artistry of other traditions was at its creative peak. The results were often extravagant, as in an Egyptian-inspired coiled bangle in the shape of a snake, designed by Alphonse Mucha for actress Sara Bernhardt, and made by master goldsmith Georges Fouquet. The bangle itself was shown at the Paris International Exhibition of 1900.

Egypt also inspired perhaps the loveliest of the necklaces on show, made of platinum, diamonds and sapphires and crafted in Paris in 1929. It is representative of the elegance of the interwar pieces.

After the war, everything changed. Europe’s colonies were granted or otherwise gained independence, its aristocracies faltered, and a way of life that had taken for granted the wearing of jewels and dinner dress passed away.

Perhaps the very notion of jewelry has become more democratic — certainly the advent of cultured pearls and cut-price store chains has made it more affordable. (Though the illusion of luxury remains essential, as the leading British jewelry retailer Gerald Ratner found to his cost in 1991, when he described his products as “cheaper than a prawn sandwich” — and watched his lucrative business disappear overnight.)

But as this thoughtful, beautiful show reminds us, a fine piece of jewelry is no less a work of art than a fine canvas, and no less historically intriguing than archaeological plunder in a museum.

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