Why gems?

I have studied and enjoyed material culture all of my professional life, both as a curator and historian. One of my biggest pleasures is to research materials from their earthly origins to their use and appreciation in society today. During my doctoral research I was fortunate to have studied and written about the significance of material culture, including jewellery and adornment in early medieval southern Italy and the Mediterranean. This has been through the direct study of objects now in museum collections as well as reported in archaeological excavations and documented in written archives. I have also taught material culture to university students.

Gems, minerals and jewellery have always fascinated and beguiled me. I love to find out about different cultural expressions that use gem materials. While the biggest, shiniest and most expensive are bound to catch the attention of many, I am just as interested in the modest, the man-made, the unfashionable and the unusual. I am interested in design choices and the technology that makes the use of materials in extraordinary ways possible, and the creativity and expression that underpins the manifestation of incredible jewellery. Just as captivating are how Mother Earth’s minerals have come to be, and how they are and have been extracted and used to create gems, as well as just admired and studied for what they can teach us about geology––the long history of our rocky planet. Humans have also grown their own gems, both as jewels and for industrial applications.

Those who know my curatorial and museum work will also know me for my advocacy for ethics. This is a topic gaining serious importance in the world of gems, from environmental impacts to those on the people involved in the trade throughout its pipeline. I look forward to learning more about the ethics of gems. Another hobby I am bringing to my blog is that of beach fossicking. I have long been a ‘magpie’ and I always love a pebbly beach to see what treasures I can find.

In September 2021 I commenced the Foundation in Gemmology with Gem-A, the Gemmological Association of Great Britain. Gemmology is the study of gem materials and their use in ornamentation, decoration and adornment. As I develop this blog I will be posting about different topics I cover in my course, as well as those that grab my attention from other areas of work and life.

Cornish sunshine quartz found on the beach (I named it sunshine quartz, it’s not a technical term, yet).
Gemmology Old Curatorial Archive

Curator’s Advent. Day 2. The label

Luray Vallery Museum, Virginia, USA. This curator liked this exhibit and label very much.
Luray Vallery Museum, Virginia, USA. This curator liked this exhibit and label very much.

The art of a well-tempered label is a museum’s greatest gift to humanity. As selector and interpreter, the label is an opportunity for the curator to display her prowess. Curators believe in facts not opinions. The label contains up to 50 learned words. One idea per sentence (we prefer facts). Reading age: 12. Sans serif all the way.


Cornish heritage is a man’s game

Geevor, near Pendeen, one of Cornwall's last mineral mines, now a heritage site and museum.
Geevor, near Pendeen, one of Cornwall’s last mineral mines, now a heritage site and museum.

Cornwall Councillor Bert Biscoe today published a really thought-provoking article on the recommencement of mining in Cornwall:

To manicure or mine, Cornwall’s modern dilemma.

Amongst other points he raises the issues of the tensions between preservation, environmental sustainability and economic gain; he also makes the point many of us have been thinking about not really articulating, that will this perceived economic boon really benefit the Cornish economy in terms of jobs, incomes and keeping a fair share of the profits? Considering the international consortium that is spear-heading the prospecting who is asking the right questions and seeking these assurances of local communities and Cornwall as a whole?

Surely our politicians can’t be so naïve to assume that any mining back in Cornwall is somehow a manna from heaven?

But that is not the point of this post. I have no quarrel with these excellent points.

Cllr Biscoe’s article begins with this sentence:

“Good news that Cornish tin has quickly become economic to mine. It is no shock to those who, like many Cornishmen all over the World, closely study the metals markets and geology. It offers an opportunity to rekindle skills and wealth generation and also to place Cornwall once again in the forefront of economic life – innovating, supplying, managing risk and prospecting.”

That such a statement could come so naturally, and be made without need for qualification in this day and age seems to me astonishing.

The Hypatia Trust recently commenced a project called History 51: Unveiling Women in Cornwall and Scilly. History 51 aims to rebalance Cornish narratives about the past by flooding public consciousness with information on the lives and achievements of women both in traditionally male industries and walks of life, as well as those dominated by women. The project is based on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection whose books, archives and reference material bring together just some of the work of and about women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

Yesterday I attended an excellent field trip organised by the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall to Wheal Jane, Baldhu, near Truro. I later posted to the Elizabeth Treffry Collection’s Facebook group  how heartening it was so see so many women working at Wheal Jane in internationally-important laboratories processing and analysing minerals and ore, and much more besides.

Cllr Biscoe’s starting sentence of course did not intend to be sexist but in the context of the above, what does it say about Cornish identity and heritage more generally? That such a statement could come so naturally, and be made without need for qualification in this day and age seems to me astonishing.

To me this highlights the great gulf between our public narrative, dominated by (small c) conservative politicians and the fear-mongering media, and reality. The irony here is that much of the management of Cornish heritage is under the care of women.

We clearly have a lot of work to do. The parlance of Cornish history, identity and heritage is entirely dominated by stories of men and a masculine take on the past.

You seldom read the words of women who have something to say about Cornwall and Cornishness.

You will note that women make up more than half of our population, always have done and always will–we are the 51%.

One commentator on Facebook said:

“A lecturer on Cornish mining told me (this century) that women didn’t use to work underground in Cornish mines because a Cornishman was too much of a genetleman [sic].”

Cornwall used to a hotbed for radicalism and thinking differently. Think about what Methodism and Non-Conformism used to be about?

This conscious and unconscious privileging of some occupations over others has just reinforced the partial narratives of our past. Why do we romanticise and get nostalgic about those at the rock face but not about our midwives? Why do we privilege ‘bread winning’ occupations over ‘bread making’ occupations?

Women are just as much to blame for maintaining the silence of their female ancestors because they loyally adhere to what they have been made to believe are the most ‘important’ aspects of their heritage.

The emphasis on Cousin Jacks in the parlance of the World Heritage Site is regrettable. This stems both from folklore and school education. It then enters our history books, then onto our heritage interpretation and then into the vocabulary of the marketeers and PR officers.

Cornwall used to a hotbed for radicalism and thinking differently. Think about what Methodism and Non-Conformism used to be about? I find it very frustrating that this has been displaced by a general feeling of apathy, lack of aspiration and fear. Its impact on girls and women, boys and men, is plain to see in almost every Cornish town.

If only both boys and girls in Cornwall were given the opportunity to learn more about the diversity in their heritage, things may start to change. But while we privilege the vocabulary and narratives of men  we are a long way off.