Jewelry is political. Because of its highly visible nature, jewelry offers a way to wear your “heart on your sleeve,” around your wrist, on your backpack, your lapel, or anywhere else that you please as a powerful signifier of your aesthetic tastes and personal beliefs.
In the 18th century, as groups organized in Britain and the United States to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, Josiah Wedgwood borrowed from classical iconography in his design for a ceramic “cameo” for the British Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The black and white medallion—with a manacled slave on bended knee below the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?”—was mass-produced and distributed to members who set them in women’s jewelry and men’s accessories (like watch fobs or snuff boxes). The medallion reached an American audience in February 1788 when Wedgwood sent 500 cameos, along with a letter, to Benjamin Franklin—then President of the Philadelphia Society for the Abolition of Slavery—with his “hope for the final completion of our wishes” to end the transatlantic slave trade. The medallion became an abolitionist statement, but its eight words did not capture the nuances of the abolitionist movement: while both the British and American organizations sought to end the slave trade, they were not advocating an end to the practice of slavery.
Framing political issues in short sound bites continues in the 21st century. Is wearing of a piece of jewelry enough to create change? Yes. Two hundred and twenty-nine years later, Wedgwood’s medallion is an icon of the anti-slavery movement, even though that was not its original intention. Today, buttons and fashion with phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” “Make America Great Again,” and more similarly function as a public declaration of one’s politics. How will their messages be read by future generations?
Above: Wedgwood Manufactory, “Slave-in-Chains” medallion, 1786–87. Stoneware (Jasperware), basalt, gold. Bequest of Mrs. Richard Baker. 96.779
Emily Stoehrer is Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry.