Seulgi Kwon Deep in the Night I

Does jewelry serve a practical purpose? Maybe not. Yet adornments, such as Seulgi Kwon’s Deep in the Night I (2014), have beguiled people for most of human history. Kwon won Art Jewelry Forum’s Artist Award in 2014. Photo: Huh Myoung Wook

If aliens landed in my backyard, and it were my job to explain jewelry to them, I’m not sure I could.

Jewelry, I might say, is small sculpture worn on the body. But I can hear my aliens now (speaking in perfect English): “Sculpture? On the body? What’s the purpose of that?”

And they’d have a point: Objectively, jewelry makes no sense. People hang it from their necks, their chests, and their wrists. They festoon their fingers. Many have their ears – and in some cases their eyebrows, noses, and navels – punctured so they can wear more of it. This is painful, and sometimes results in infections, but nobody thinks twice about it. Jewelry is utterly commonplace – countless books and careers, whole galleries and museums are devoted to it. But it is also undeniably strange.

A subset of jewelry, given by one lover to another, is considered the most precious of gifts, though it has no practical benefit and solves no tangible problem. Again, logic is not germane. A wedding without a ring to seal the deal is unheard of.

We imbue our favorite jewelry with our deepest hopes and yearnings. Sometimes those hopes are dashed, and our jewelry becomes fraught. If your Wall Street fiancé skips out, you can’t wear your 5-carat diamond ring anymore, no matter how much you like it. The symbolism would be wrong.

That’s the thing about jewelry: It’s symbolic to a degree that few other objects are. The 5-carat ring is not simply a ring; it’s the embodiment of a relationship. The object takes its meaning from a union of two souls, two lives intertwined. What other art form has the transubstantiated mystique of jewelry? What else can express the turning points of our lives so powerfully?

Jewelry reminds us that, rational though we might think we are, we are creatures of story, ritual, and connection. We might live in a culture that prizes, above all, convenience, efficiency, and the bottom line. But, as Pascal said, the heart has its reasons, which reason doesn’t know. The enigmatic pull of jewelry continues unabated, as it has for most of human history.

Many of the artists and collectors included in this issue, which is devoted to jewelry, view its mysterious potency as an article of faith. Art Jewelry Forum founder and board chair Susan Cummins, who has collected some 350 pieces, doesn’t even wear jewelry. She values it not as ornamentation as much as “a talisman, imbued with a kind of power.” Maker Yong Joo Kim sees jewelry as wearable art that can empower people to “uncover the beauty hidden in everyday life."

Perhaps Nancy Worden, one of 15 jewelry artists recommended by a panel of professors, gallerists, and curators, says it best. Jewelry, she says, “is an intimate art form steeped in ritual and relevant to the lives of everyday people.”

Ritual, I would tell my aliens, is relevant. It matters to people. It’s at the heart of being human. And jewelry is proof.