[Aesthetics] Conversation with a Japanese antique jewelry dealer

The other day I was in Mayfair meeting an antique jewelry dealer from Japan. We discussed the contents of an interview he gave some years ago in which he said:

“It used to be a tough job being a king. If you lose a war, you would be killed. Even if there is no war, you never know when you might be poisoned by those around you. So the king takes to wearing jewelry in order to invoke higher spiritual powers to fortify his own frail self and to manifest the divinity within him. Jewelry used to be shingu [神具], or an ritualistic article transforming the wearer to someone greater than himself.”

He then continued: “Ōkurashō [大蔵省], the old Japanese word for “the Ministry of Finance” actually came from the English word “the Treasury”. The main purpose of the Ministry of Finance was to manage “treasure” or zaihō [財宝], and it used to be that much of that treasure consisted of jewelry. Losing that treasure of jewelry would be the same as losing national identity. It follows that in East Asia, the word for “country” [国] is a square enclosing the word for “jade” [玉]. However, I have noticed that there seems to be a subversion of values in which paintings now command exorbitant prices, whereas jewelry is treated as separate from all other genres of art and perhaps a lesser one at that – like mere decorative accessories for rich ladies.”

He then described his experience of being able to see a painting of Leonardo da Vinci in St. Petersburg up close, and compared it to his visit to the Tower of London to see the Crown Jewels, where it seemed to him that all visitors were treated like potential thieves.

“To Europeans, painting is art and jewelry is treasure,” he went on to say. “The most important point for painting is visual appreciation. However, the most important point for jewelry is not so much visual appreciation but safekeeping them under lock and key.”

“That’s because painting is treated as information,” said I. “I think there is a deeper reason that accounts for this subversion of values you mentioned. Think of Takaeshi Yōrō’s [養老孟司] opinion of information in modern society. According to Yōrō, the absurdity of the modern world boils down to information and human beings swapping places with each other. He thinks it strange that modern man should get the idea that information changes everyday, whereas human beings remain always the same; in other words, information changes daily, but man’s own dear self never changes because he has ‘individuality’. However, the truth should be the other way around. Modern man has made the mistake of conceiving himself as information. He imposes consistency on an organic creature that is himself, which undergoes the vicissitudes of life and eventually dies. At the same time, he regards information as fluid and daily changing. But that is a mistake. Your report card from the fifth grade at elementary school stays the same no matter how much time has passed, because it is information. The contents of a weekly magazine stays the same till the Trumpet of Doom, because it is information. A new issue may come out each week, that is all. Yōrō thinks this is a root cause for madness in modern civilization.”

“Anyway, so we end up with the idea that paintings should have artistic styles that come and go,” I continued. “Because painting is information and ought to be endlessly changing. At the same time, you end up with the idea that jewelry is superficial accessories because ‘man does not change’. If man were capable of change, then jewelry would be, as you say, shingu [神具]. If man were not capable of change, then of course jewelry would have no higher purpose than decoration.”

“Beauty itself,” he said, “is unfortunately seen as a kind of accessory, a nice bonus far subordinate to more important things like Necessity or Convenience. But consider this. Why are flowers beautiful? The beauty of flowers attract insects which in turn disseminate seeds for the propagation of flowers. The tail of a male peacock is beautiful in order to attract females so that they may procreate. Nature ceases to be beautiful when air, water and the land are polluted. To cease being beautiful is to deny life. Beauty is a concept that is a matter of life and death for all organic life.”

“You speak of beauty that actually exists in the real world,” said I. “However, recently I have been turning my thoughts to beauty that that does not actually exist except in the imagination. The cherry blossoms in reality are of course beautiful, but the cherry blossoms in the animated films of Makoto Shinkai [新海誠] are even more so. If Beauty is, as you say, a matter of life and death for all organic life – then what is point of us being attracted to beautiful things that are not real? Or, for that matter, what is the point of imagination in the greater scheme of evolution? What is point of our ancestors lazing about daydreaming a hearty meal or naughty things? I do not have the answer, but I have a feeling that the sense of beauty for unreal things is ushering humanity onto a different evolutionary path, but no one can tell where it leads to until we have reached the destination. In the language of computing, maybe we are still in the boot-up process and the system has not even started up yet.”

“Interesting thought,” he said. “I once spoke to a scientist and asked what is diamond from a scientific point of view. This is what he told me: all matter in the universe is unstable and has the tendency to seek out more stable forms of existence. The most stable form is that of a crystal, and the pinnacle of crystallization is diamond. Then I asked him, does it mean that all matter in the universe has the tendency to become diamonds if conditions allow? He agreed and I asked him further: do we humans too have the innate potential to become diamonds? His answer was yes.”

“I wonder if diamonds are really eternal. I rather think that nothing endures but change. Panta rei. ” I replied. “If what you say is true, then perhaps diamonds may yearn for organic life again. Do you know the Chinese classics The Dream of the Red Chamber, also known as The Story of the Stone? The protagonist used to be a mythical stone in the realm of gods, and took it upon itself to reincarnate as a human being in the mortal world. In another Chinese classics The Journey to the West, the protagonist is a monkey born from a stone.”

We chatted about this and that, and finally it was time for him to leave. He left me with his parting advice –

“Let me tell you,” he said. “The point about learning about antique jewelry is to find every opportunity to look at the very best articles. You may look at hundreds and hundreds of average items but it would do nothing to refine your eye for beauty. But one exceptional article will set the aesthetic standard for you for life.”


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