How big is the irrational part of precious material’s worth? 


1. Precious materials are social want 

2. The value of the symbolic use 

3. The appeal of modernity: progress and innovation 



1. Myth and symbolism of shininess 

2. Myth of precious materials (gold and diamonds) 

3. The impact of literature and popular culture 

“In fact, there are manners to make feels to the audience the beauty of a piece, and the things are worth what we make them worth” wrote Jean- Baptiste Molière in Les Precieuses ridicules translated as The pretentious young ladies, or The Affected Ladies. 


In 1659, Molière wrote a satirical theatre piece made to fool the manners of some ladies of the 17th, trying to mimic those of the aristocratic social sphere. However, their manners are depicted by the author as full of vanity.  Preciousness became then a literary movement, mostly represented by women who were writing and conversing poetry and romantic novels. Those ladies aimed to embellish the French language, especially the grammar. They were using metaphors and periphrases to say things in better ways to differentiate themselves from the “people”. In that way, we understand the meaning the term precious, from its Latin etymology, meaning “over-refined”. Nowadays, what do we understand by this same term, “precious”? We perceive many facets in the definition. First of all, it means something of high price or very costly. But it also means something delicate. It represents as well something that is highly esteemed for some: some spiritual, non-material, or moral quality for oneself. By definition, it depends on one individual from another, from a period to another. Therefore, there is naturally a tension within the definition. Indeed, there two very different concepts, one is rational and objective and depends on an economical agreement with rates and fixed prices, while the other meaning is more subjective, therefore irrational. Indeed I could say “It was very precious to me, even if it had no value”. 

What about materials? Raw materials are the things more or less every product is made of. It is the substances used in the production of goods. It is also the main factor of production within capital and labour. I will specifically write about materials that are minimally processed, that are used almost as found on earth. Most of the time we speak about precious metals, but I will include diamonds and some other materials, and therefore will write on precious materials. The concept that links those two terms, precious and materials is indeed the notion of “value”. Being valuable is having some relative worth, utility or importance. The definition could be as well something that is intrinsically desirable. In this dissertation I will try to discuss how the value of those materials has been established over time. I will see that the value is an agreement which a certain community or a group of people decide of and it depends on two factors that have been playing together at different times period. I will focus on what elements interfere with the material for it to gain that much value? How does the rational and the irrational work together to create the value? A larger question would be what creates the value, which part is the rational part and what would be the irrational one? 

We are in an era that can associate with a capitalist system. Society is organised economically to consider that everything is rational: offer and demand meet to attribute a value. Nevertheless, precious materials like gold, diamonds and stones have existed since the first civilisations, such as the Egyptians or the Incas. Therefore, are those materials under the influence of their historical civilisation? To what extend does the past had influence the present? Therefore, I understand value as a construction that has been built over time by several factors. I will try to analyse if the irrational overstep the rational value. 

What kinds of socials mechanism have been created over the time to overrate anything that looks shiny? Could I be able to determinate an objective value of diamonds or gold? I will try to question the subjective reality of value and will try to consider if precious materials are part of a system of relationship codified by culture. I will try to study the philosophical meaning of value, its axiology, depending on the notion of worth, and therefore will argue the foundation for these fields.


I will support this dissertation with mainly the thesis of Roland Barthes, Claude Levi Strauss and Marcia Pointon. I will draw attention to the literature pieces of Charles Baudelaire and Guy de Maupassant. 


On the first hand, I will demonstrate that value is an agreement within civilisation and obeys to a defined system. I will enhance the fact that materials -and transformed materials, yet considered as raw- can be linked to social needs ruled by the role of the reputation within social spheres. I will discuss the role of innovation, and how it can reshape a material's’ reputation. On the second hand, I will try to argue that precious materials’ value might also have an irrational side. I will have to consider the symbolism of shininess which I believe is key. Then I will analyse the different myth around some specific materials like diamond or gold. I will finish by enhancing the impact of popular and artistic culture on our perception of value.







The material’s value in a capitalist system appears to be the result of a rational evaluation. It means that value is meant to be based on a clear thought process. Rationally speaking we could assume that precious materials’ prices are based on their rarity and utility on the planet. But we will see that it doesn’t only depend on that factor. 

First of all, I will try to define what is a valuable object thanks to Georg Simmel's theory. We are supposed to be in a rational economy. Therefore, our economy is based on trust and is an agreement within the functioning of our society. In a sociological theory of value, basing his theory on paper money, Simmel argues that the distinction between I quote: 

really valuable object and object which symbolize values but are not valuable themselves rapidly vanishes into thin air if one acknowledges that value is never an intrinsic quality of a valuable object, but rather the result of a psychological process that is projected upon it. (2005, p40)

He concludes by analysing that objects « only become valuable on the basis of the functions they fulfill and the desire that they awaken in individuals. » (2005, p41). The economist Adam Smith emphasise the symbolism of value: 

The word value has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys.  (1776, p46).

 I will try to show that precious materials cannot react to the same economical laws of utility and rarity. Therefore, what kind of need will do they respond to? I will then try to explain that precious materials are used as symbols of cultural habits inside social spheres, therefore become considered as social needs. In a third part, I will show that the discovery and the role of innovation can reshape materials’ reputation. The novelty has a major impact on value. I will argue those ideas with case examples. 


Consumers engage in symbolic consumptions from the moment they use goods as signs. The meaning of goods for those consumers are tied to their material value. Symbolic consumptions have social and psychological dimensions according to Simmel above. Here I will speak especially about social wants, opposite to basic needs. Indeed, we have to differentiate primary and secondary needs and desires. Water is a for instance a primary need. But what about diamonds and gold, are they considered as a need? The capitalist economy functions by supply and demand. Valuable metals, diamonds and stones are esteemed as luxury goods. Even though they can be considered as having utility in some industrial sectors, more than fifty percent of the gold and diamonds extracted is used to become ornamental object according to George Blakey (1977, p21). I will write about precious materials used for adornment. Therefore, diamonds and gold are not needs but optional wants, considered as wills. However, there is still the influence of rarity as the quantity of resources available diminishes. Precious materials come from Earth and are qualify as limited resources. Here comes the concept of rarity. But rarity can also be fantasized or lived as constraints as we understand in the abstract definition of rarity.  I will study later on how it can be sublimed and made up as a marketing strategy. In our society our desires need to be constantly renewed and updated. Satisfying needs and wants (subjectively physiological and sociologic) is becoming a goal. This economic system made us have insatiable desires. Therefore, we understand that gold and diamonds have most of all a social use. Diamonds and gold are non-perishable goods; we assume all the gold that has been extracted since the beginning of humanity still exists according to The Lure of Gold (2006, p16). Those are stable materials and are subject to their timelessness. The paradox of value, also known as the diamond-water paradox represents the irrational contradiction that even water is way more useful that diamonds, diamonds command a higher price in the market. To quote the economist Adam Smith: 

Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarcely anything; scarcely anything can be had in exchange for it. Diamond, on the contrary, has scarcely any use-value; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it (1776, p46). 

We can deny a systematic link between utility and price. We are facing a phenomenon where the demand for certain goods by an individual of a higher income level is inversely related to the demand for the good by individuals with a lower income level. The less of an item available, the higher is its « snob value », as the economist Veblen calls it. According to Veblen that states that a price increase may enhance its status and perception of exclusivity, thereby making the good even more preferable as he explains in the Theory of Leisure class (2005, p63), and referenced in the Dictionary of Sociology (1994, p446). Moreover Marcia Pointon, enhance the ambiguous position of precious materials like diamond in a rational capitalist economic point of view (2009, p47), she herself quotes George Bataille who economically sees “jewels as a form of sacrifice or loss”  which “ points up the irrationality of consumption in opposition to the classic model of economic founded on the balance between production and expenditure”, wrote Bataille in Vision of excess (1970, p 120). 


In our economic system defined as capitalist, social needs are also based on the reputation. It is a general opinion or a belief held by a community like an agreement. In a normally regulated market, it would have had to be rated on the principles of rarity and utility, as developed above.

I will study how and why it is not the case, and where reputation has a big role. What is the role of the reputation within a social sphere? Here we will have to refer more to the artefact, meaning materials, composed of valuable elements and transformed into ornaments. Ornaments have certain function and often very specific use.  

George Bataille shares his opinion of the symbolic value of jewellery in The Notion of Expenditure: 

Jewels must not only be beautiful and dazzling (which would make the substitution of imitations possible): one sacrifices a fortune, preferring a diamond necklace; such a sacrifice is necessary for the constitution of this necklace is fascinating character. This fact must be seen in relation to the symbolic value of jewel, universal in psychoanalysis. When in a dream a diamond signifies excrement, it is not only a question of association by contrast; in the unconscious, jewels, like excrement, are cursed matter that flows from a wound: they are part of oneself destined for open sacrifice (they serve, in fact, as sumptuous gifts charged with sexual love). The functional character of jewels requires their immense material value (1970 p 119).

Precious materials and therefore jewels can be symbols through the symbolic use as an object. The Dictionary of Sociology defines symbols as “any artfact, sign or concept which stands for, signifies or expresses something else”. (1994, p421).  Symbols function for social cohesion and commitment in a social sphere. But, what is the role of materials in the symbolic use of jewellery? 

Jewellery are mostly symbols in our society and have a functional use. “Jewellery is often conceived as a sign, as an object that gives a meaning” to quote On Jewellery (2011, p24). What kind of symbols conveys precious materials through jewellery? I will try to study here the cultural semiotic precious materials translates in the modern and postmodern society. I will dig later on where comes from those symbols. I will specifically speak about diamond and gold. The diamond ring “appeal to a be a basic need (1971, p40) says George Blakey. This idea that jewelry has a function of demonstrating a social status is explains by Roland Barthes as he writes: “ The gemstones become the concept of price by itself, it is worn like an idea, that of a terrific power, for it is enough to be seen for this power to be demonstrated” (2004).  As I will explain later on, “Diamonds are girl's best friends” (see fig.1) expresses the insatiable love of women for diamonds. To quote Language of Fashion once again, about this ambiguous relationship that modern society has established with diamonds: “women give everything to own a gemstone, and man would give everything to own that very woman who wears the gemstones she has sold herself for” (2004). As he says, the role of the Fatal Women has a bit declined but still exist in the myth of the “Women Diamond-Eater” according to On Jewellery (2011, p 18).

Nonetheless, if   material’s value depends on the culture rules and symbols, it is an subjective value. While some materials can appear completely valueless in some cultures, they can have a symbolic value in some others. Hence, appearing subjective from one culture to another. Referring to Levi Strauss’ structuralist anthropology definition’s of culture, where things are made up of relationships rather than things, it implicates different points of view and therefore subjective ones, what he theories in Structural Anthropology in 1958. 

For instance, in Uzbekistan nowadays, a bridal tiara is worth 200 dollars minimum. Though it is in plastic and has no intrinsic value. The use is completely symbolic, there are made for brides, for the most important day of their life. The value of materials is completely dismissed in that case but replaced by the symbolism of the use of the crown. Here society gave a price due to some cultural use. The rational part is to consider that the use is more important than the material itself, justifying the high price of their ornament. There is a rational explanation. The price is high not to demystify the jewellery. Without such a high price the ornament would lose its symbol. 


  We can now say with more strength that precious materials are mainly based on their image value and is the result of the effect of a social want within a specific social sphere. I will now speak about innovations and scientific discoveries that have been made throughout history. The discovery of a material and its innovation can lead to an increase of its reputation, therefore its value. An invention is most of the time a revolutionary innovation creating a new market. Indeed the process of translating a discovery into a new material that will be used as a good for which customers will pay. Why the new can appear to be better? The appeal for novelty and the myth of progress participate to the creation of a reputation. I will choose some specific examples to illustrate this point.

  The existence of aluminum has been discovered around 1800, and since then never stopped being processed and adapted to the industry. While aluminum is the third most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, according to the Aluminum Association, it initially was considered as precious. Only in 1855, after the universal world exhibition, where bars of aluminum were displayed,  the French emperor Napoleon III discovered this “magical metal skyrocketed” as telling Smallwood (2014). He made acquisition of some sets of aluminum home ware and cutlery, and the legend says he would be using those instead of silverware. This “almost ghostly lightness compared to other metals” (Smallwood, 2014) made it an ideal metal for jewelry, designers began to use it to make bracelet, brooches or buttons.  French elite was wearing broaches and buttons made of aluminum. Indeed, the jewels collection from the Victoria & Albert Museum shows the use of aluminum for some jewellery made in 1970 like this bracelet from France (see fig.2). The museum curators explain: « Aluminium enjoyed great celebrity when a process for refining it was discovered. The first kilogram refined in 1854 was priced at 3000 French francs. By 1899 the price had dropped to 3.5 francs per kilo because of improvements in technology. » (n.d). Indeed, by that time, aluminum was as expensive as silver. It began to be a breakthrough material for the industry. When processed to build machinery and mass industry object it lost its novelty and its exoticism. The invention of new processes in the late XIX° century caused the price of aluminum to drop but permitted the production and the commercialization of the metal. 


  “More than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation” says Roland Barthes in his chapter Plastics in Mythologies (1957, p97) , when discovered this new material had appear as a magical solution for the industry. It is the illustration of the idea of fluidity and relativism accredited to late modernity. Indeed “The hierarchy of substance is abolished: a single one replaces them all” adds the theorist (1957, p97). How did plastics, its reputation and its value evolved over time? How its reputation went from a incredible invention in the beginning of XXe century to the “ growing awareness of the effect of everyday chemicals on the environment” says Fisher  in The Jou rnal of Design History (2013) to finally lead to a reject of this material nowadays ? Plastic has represented modernity after the Second World War, to quote Constance Classen, it was a “Specific time of new sensations” (2005, p21). The author develops the theory that plastic appeared to represent the emergence of a new society. The invention of plastic did coincide with new industrial advances. The esthetic and the feeling of plastic surfaces involve the idea of new perspectives, ‘the sensed and the imagined fuse together’ quotes Tom Fisher (2013) from another author Juhani Pallasmaa. The author sees “Sparke and Shine” are the “connection between a life of gaiety and colorful plastic surfaces” (2013). The industries’ advertisement campaign (see fig. 3) for that new material is a way to analyze how people felt about this new material. Plastic is characteristic of the aestheticized consumption by females in the 1950s. We can find the idea of new sensations of desire and of brightness and cleanness in the shininess obsession of the XX° century.   The curiosity and enthusiasm can be shown by this Dior advertisement encouraging to « dare to wear Diorific plastic shine », using the world « luscious » to enhance the brilliance that the cosmetic will provide (see Fig.4). Moreover, plastic allowed the democratisation of jewellery.  New technical innovations combined with the imagination of a new generation of designers created new ranges of technical possibilities. Plastic is a substitute for the rarest materials and is viewed as the possibility of a democratisation of precious materials vie    wed as overrated by many thinkers. ‘Imitation materials have always indicated pretension, they belong to the world of appearances, not to that of actual us, they aimed at reproducing cheaply the rarest substances, diamonds, silk, feathers, silver, all the luxurious brilliance of the world” states Roland Barthes (1957, p98).  Gabrielle Chanel known to be a pioneer of plastic jewellery , has invented “costume jewellery”. She claims in 1932: “I am covered in necklaces, chains, brooches, earrings and stones of every color. People don’t understand when I pretend not to like jewellery. What I don’t like is the stone for the stone, the very large diamond, the carafe cork making an allusion, a sign of wealth for the husband or the lover of the women wearing it. I do not like either the jewel for the jewel, clip made of diamond, the string of pearls that we take out of the vault to show it one evening, and that we put back in the vault after dinner, and that belongs to an anonymous company. All of those are jewellery that we can only sell if there is a crisis. Jewellery for the rich. I do not like them”. She adds on : “ The one I make are very fake and very beautiful . There are even more beautiful than the real ones. “ (2014), (see fig. 5) . Barthes also critics the established value and agrees with Coco Chanel when he declares in his Chapter on Jewellery in Language of Fashion (2004) that “ no matter how little it costs, the piece of jewellery must be subjected to that essential value, which is that of style. “. Therefore precious materials’ value is questioned: “The difference between a Real Jewel and a False Jewel is that it is always the False jewel that looks the more real- that is the most sparkling” says Salvador Dali in Vogue (1941). What remains in the XX° century is the esthetic symbolic of the jewel which leaves aside the economic symbol. At the rise of the XXI° century, plastic’s reputation is reconsidered. 






“Gold and gemstones lost their godly, magical aura and became economic commodities” (2011, p31): Liesbeth den Besten explains the transition from the mythical magical gaze that gold and precious materials had before the Renaissance with the closeness relationship societies had with religion and their god. With the arrival of The Lumieres, The Humanist and the emergence of science discoveries “Magic faded while trade and commerce rose” (2011, p31). Gold became an exchange rate, then a safe asset. Nonetheless, I will see that myths are deep rooted in our society and are being hijacked by marketing and consumerism. How does symbols remains landmarks in our civilisation ? 

We have seen different aspects of the establishment of materia11ls rational value. I have demonstrated previously that cultural habits can decide for our economic behaviors. To what extent are we influenced by our culture and its construction over time?  Claude Levi Strauss defines culture as a whole containing “the knowledge, the believes, art, moral, laws, custom, and all the other ability and habits acquired by Man as a member of a society” (1958, p21). The anthropologist researched the symbolism of social facts like language, rituals, techniques and art inside communities.

While according to Marcia Pointon (2009, p46) “Material history, like myth, is mediated through imagery and is thereby interpreted, as well communicated factually”, Barthes writes in Mythologies “ Myth is value, truth is no guaranty for it; nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi” (1957, p 123). 

Therefore, to what extend value can be established by irrational factors? To what extend precious materials’ value obeys not only to an economic system but to another phenomenon? Irrational means that we are not aware of all of the mental processes to establish such value. How did a system of myths, signs and symbols build a reputation on materials over time, having a crucial impact on the value? On the first hand, I will discuss the semiotic of shininess, meaning our fascination with spark, reflection and brightness. It will lead to demonstrate that materials’ reputation is subjective and can even be linked to a collective unconscious which is a result of our civilization’s History. I will study myths, sayings and reputations around gold; then we will do the same for diamonds and reflective metals. Then I will argue that confronted to different types of cultural impact value has evolved.


“Whether in contemporary West Africa, Edwardian or eighteenth-century England, or post war America, shininess can be associated with bodily health, pride in labour, rarity, wealth and high status, or the common, cheap and temporary” (2013)  to quote Maffei and Fisher explaining in the Journal of Design History the multiple context and variety of meaning gleam could have. According to Fisher “Shininess can invite a sensual engagement” which lead me to understand and explain what kind of gaze or aura the characteristic of brilliance can project. What kind of influence shininess exercises? When Barthes says “The diamond has a symbolic quality: it glistens” (2004), what does that symbolism mean ?

Whether during the Incas, in Hinduism, or in Christianity, most of the religions and civilizations have used brilliance to personalize their gods as told by George Blakemore in The Book of Gold (1971, p9). They used gold’s reflection with light to represent their divinities and the sacred. But shininess has evolved within modernity. How do the attributes of jewellery, precious metals, or processed materials like plastic still convey the symbolism of shininess and by that the desire to shine? I will study the impact of the reflection of light on goods, and why we have such a fascination for brilliant surfaces.

‘“Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent ”  describes Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863, p27). The poet is aware of the unstable future of modernity. He knows of the multitude of facets things can have from one culture to another. “Their shine is fleeting, fugitive, fragile—characteristically modern” he adds (1863, p27).  This formulation of modernity enhance that those attributes are attractive qualities, that could explain the gaze shininess have. I will divide shininess according to two synonyms: bright and clean, which are attributes and researched qualities of the modern life. Light plays in particular ways on more or less shiny surfaces and enriches our material environment. Shine is somehow sanctified by the consumption of care products which is un-separable to the attribute of cleanness, that we can link to Dior advertisement (see Fig. 4).  Cleanness is not only researched anymore but is necessary to belonging to the society. Grant McCracken identifies “Maintenance rituals” as  ”the weekly car-wash that preserves a ‘showroom’ shine” or “ the house carefully prepared for sale presenting its shining tiled and plastic surfaces”. (2013). I have chosen not write about the postmodern connotation shininess can have, due to the effect of the industry's mass produced goods, which became more a symbolism the throwaway consumerism, covered as well by Tom Fisher (2013). 


Since brilliancy in gems refers to the appearance of the surface of a stone as affected or dependent upon reflected light, as explains George Blakey (1971, p34) the brilliance of a stone only appear when it is refined by human hands, and it is indeed of its quality reference. It means moreover that it has been refined by intense labor. The shine and magic of jewellery is foremost in its costly materials; even one single diamond set in a piece of jewellery makes it radiates, and the simple golden ring is still a ring of gold. There is an obvious connection between shine, magic, fame and money

explains Liesbeth des Besten (2011, p30) . Shine has been used to enhance the idea of superiority and success in our postmodern world. The main reason is that brilliance remains ancient characteristic of the representation of the superior divinities and the sacred myth for the same reasons as gold. According to Levi Strauss in The Structural Study of Myth which is a chapter of Structural Anthropology:

Some claim that human societies merely express, through their mythology, fundamental feelings common to the whole of mankind, such as love, hate, revenge; or that they try to provide some kind of explanations for phenomena which they cannot understand otherwise: astronomical, meteorological, and the like (1958, p25). 




We see that myths are key elements of our culture and the irrational factors appear under the role of the subconscious in the society. Indeed, Jung defines “ The collective unconscious” in The Structure of the Psyche, and appears to “consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents.” (1969, p 78). In fact, the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious. That is why myths will help us understand how the worth of materials has been established. 


On the first hand, gold is very present in our language to depict anything that we want to put value into. It is put as an adjective to express everything considered to be precious or rare. In the Anthropology of Myth, Levi Strauss writes: "Myth is language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at 'taking off' from the linguistic ground on which it keeps rolling.” (1958, p57) It enhances the metaphorical and symbolical role, the possible association of ideas and visual reference it could impact.  But where does that fascination for Gold come from?

Besides its unique metal properties, it does not tarnish, corrode and oxidize, and it is very malleable. Why gold has remained a myth?  It has maintained a reputation and has captured imagination over the centuries.  Indeed, it is associated with the royal, the divine, the power. From the Latin word “Aurum”, the metal is mythically associated with the Sun. Gold has been symbols of power for ancient civilisations like the Maya, the Egyptians then during the reign of Louis XIV in Versailles. For the Incas, it was the “sweat of the sun”, according to The Lure of Gold (2006, p32). The gold used to be the property of Kingdoms state. In ancient Egypt, all the gold would be the immediate property of the Royal family. As a personification of God, it would facilitate the ritual passage through the “hereafter” or the afterlife for others. The XVIIIe century is a turning point that made gold possible to be own and accessible to everyone not only Royals family, thanks to explorations, especially in South America. The Book of gold depicts the myth of the Gold Rush to understand the birth of the American nation and the foundation of modern society. The American dream and its lifestyle have been mythically imagined during the “Gold rush” holding on the hope to find fortune. “Gold is what gave them breath, for gold they lived, and for gold they died” wrote Juan de Casllelanos on the miners of Buritica in Colombia in his Journal in 1589 as related in The Book of gold (1971, p49). The mythical utopian golden city called “El Dorado” is still a symbol of the « Gold Rush »: «  it became a utopian dream, a place of unknown affluence where the street were paved with gold » (2011, p 30). 

Moreover, metals have been rated within their symbolic function at war. Indeed, some metal have more propriety and are more efficient to use as weapons. Gold were not used to fight but to maintain a symbolic hierarchy in social order of ancient civilisations.


There is as well more or less hermetic myths like symbolism astrology or even alchemy. For instance, In the alchemist legends, the aim is to create gold out of vain metals and substance like mercury. As Barthes describes From Gemstones to Jewellery,, the myth is easily explainable, the place where gold is extracted would be mainly responsible for its reputation over the civilization, indeed the centre of the world is where the hell is pictured. “Whether it was diamond or metal, precious stone or gold, it always came from the earth dept” It is known that God is mainly against any form of idolization of an object or any other material. “Infernal object that had come through arduous(...) journeys, (...) where humanity’s mythic imagination stored  its dead, its damned and its treasures at the same place” (2004). Indeed, Gold represents the gods, and anyone who is too avid of replace them is being condemned. In the XIXe century during the Gold Rush, the ones being against that quest where was calling Gold “the condiment of their diseased mind” about the ones looking for it (1971,  p13). In the Bible, for instance, the episode of the adoration of the golden calf have shaped the reputation of gold. Indeed in Exodus (32:1-20), we have an illustration of a “blasphemy” as we read: “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.”, then “made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf” and  “These are your gods” speaking about the golden calf.  It has been seen as a metaphorical critic of the pursuit of wealth: “Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold.”


As we see in the painting of Nicolas Poussin made in 1633, (see fig. 6.). We see how they worship the idol, how they dance, how the calf shines among the society. 



To quote Roland Barthes: “This cold fire, this sharp, shining object which is nevertheless silent, what a symbol for the whole world of vanities, of seductions devoid of content, if pleasure devoid of sincerity!” (2004). Diamonds, unlike others stones, are formed at great depths under the earth crust at high temperature and driven nearer the surface through volcanic activities. “There is a  provocative contrast between the filth of the mine and the beauty of the stone”  notes Marcia Pointon (2009, p 43). Called clarity as a reference quality, the brilliance of a stone only appears when it is refined by human hands. (Blakey, 1977, p13). Before the XVIIIe, only kings could afford to buy diamonds and it therefore became an emblem of the royal power. They have worth for a long time the   price royalties agreed to pay. Few stones had been found and were used to set the crowns of Royals family jewels. The Great Britain Royal family, The Romanov from Russia or Louis XIV in France were known to have the most prestigious collection of diamonds in the world. Diamonds were an exchange money between great kingdoms to assure peace, and was a perspective of wealth and a guarantee of fortune; there were instruments of political and financial power. After the war and the industrial revolution new techniques of extractions have been found making the possibility of finding diamonds more likeable and therefore its profitability increased a lot. “This democratisation does not escape from new ways of conferring value. As long as wealth regulated the rarity of gemstones, the latter could judge by nothing but its price (that of its substance and the workout into it); but once just about anyone could procure whatever they wanted” says Barthes (2004). The South African Conglomerate De Beers own a large majority of the diamonds market and have mainly contributed to constructing a myth around those brilliant stones.  Edward Epstein, author from The rise and Fall of Diamonds says:

This is the story of how that grand illusion was created, and the story of how one family gained control of the world's diamond trade and for nearly a century has maintained its hold on an empire that defines the very idea of what diamonds really are. (1982). 


Although the myth of diamonds can be explained through the material quality, but nonetheless, it’s also about its image. When some new diamonds mines were found in South Africa, massive marketing campaign where undertook by De Beers. The company aimed every  social class to make sure no potential customer was overlooked. The “Eternity ring’ was a bestseller all over the world, especially in the USA, where it was seen as an ideal lifestyle. Cecil Rhodes, the architect of De Beers, insisted that the foundation of diamonds worth was based on the romantic relationship between Man and Women “ As long  as Man fell for women , diamond would be in demand”  (see Fig. 7) to quote Blakey (1997, p 40). He adds “ A ring on its own meant a great deal, but a ring with a diamond was an unbeatable combination” (1971, p40) seated on the myth of the ring, as a circle meaning of eternity and straighten a tradition. They commissioned artists like Dali, Picasso and Derain for an  advertisement campaign appealing to the emotion more than the product in itself as we read « in the light of her engagement diamond, a girl’s eye keeps a constant vigil being recorded not only the loveliness of love but the hope of a future tender » (see Fig. 8). It resulted in the rise of United States diamond sales from $23 million in 1939 to over $2.1 billion in 1979 according to De Beers. Diamond, represents love and additionally a safe asset, symbolically and economically. 



“ A voluntary acceptance of myth can in fact define the whole of our traditional Literature. According to our norms, this Literature is an undoubted mythical system. “according to Barthes in Mythologies (1993, p 134).  In that part, I will speak more specifically about transformed precious materials and valuable objects. In many cases myth and legends can be provided by literature. I will write about the modern and contemporary culture that shape our postmodern world and our actual society. Literature and art can sublimate jewellery. While Barthes in The Language of Fashion leads a radical analysis judging women for perversity in their desire, Baudelaire depicts the woman's condition is a poetic way. In the Painter of Modern Life, he writes :   

No doubt women is sometimes a light, a glance, an invitation to happiness, sometimes just a word, but above all she is a general harmony, not only in her bearing and the way she moves and walks, but also in the muslin, the gauzes, the vast, iridescent clouds of stuff in which she envelops herself, and which are as it were the attribute, the pedestal of her divinity; in the metal and the mineral which twist and turn around her arms and her neck, adding to the fire of the glance. (1863, p 67). 

    Baudelaire boasts the women’s ability to seduce with her “Mundos muliebris” meaning the women’s ornaments. For Baudelaire, a woman needs diamonds and jewellery and the only ways to get the precious jewels is to get it from a man. He writes indeed in another chapter, Praise for cosmetic: “Women is quite within her right, indeed she is even accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical and supernatural. She has to astonish and charm us; as an idol, she is obliged to adorn herself to be adored” (1863, p77)  Moreover, Baudelaire wrote Les Bijoux (translated as The Jewels)  in  Les Fleurs du Mal (1857, p185 ) In this censured erotic poem, jewellery enhances feminine beauty, and becomes a source of seduction. Indeed, Jewellery can be a valued element of perversion. Marcia Pointon points out in Brilliant Effect (2009, p 47)“ Jewels implies a complex intertwining of nature and artifice”, and with the help of Lacan’s theories insisting on the quality that the jewel succeeds in “ their capacity and social usefulness in attracting the eye”, in order to insist on the notion an attractive gaze of stones (2009, p46).

In Guy de Maupassant’s short story La Parure translated as The Necklace, published in a newspaper Le Gaulois in 1884, it depicts a woman starving for social recognition.  

Suddenly she discovered (...) a superb diamond necklace, and her heart began to beat with uncontrolled desire. Her hands trembled as she took it. She fastened it around her neck, over her high-necked dress, and stood lost in ecstasy as she looked at herself.” (1884, p5). 

In an almost sadistic way, Maupassant spends thirty sentences portraying the hard working life the couple had to live to pay back the necklace she lost. Ironically, we end up finding out in a few seconds that it was fake one. We realise at the same time, that the couple wasted their life for the desire of a social status. Pointon enhances the fact that this short story depicts the “ economic and moral danger of luxury” (2009, p167). Indeed Maupassant wants to point out  the shallowness and pitiless of social conventions in the very close minded society that was Paris in the XIX° century. 


However, diamond and gold stay a connotation of wealth nowadays. Hollywood had mainly made that point clear, by what we could call nowadays a marketed product placement. I will mainly refer on Gentleman’s prefers blondes by Howard Hawks in 1953. Marylin Monroe plays the role of Lorelei, a young lady obsessed by diamonds and engaged to a wealthy man, on her way to Paris with a girl friend. The cult song Diamonds are a girl's best friend participates to the image that jewellery is money and girl are corruptible” as we read in On Jewellery (2011, p 20):

“A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, / But diamonds are a girl's best friend. / A kiss may be grand, but it won't pay the rental on your humble flat. / Or help you at the automat. / Men grow cold as girls grow old, and we all lose our charm in the end. / But square-cut or pear-shaped, these rocks won't lost their shape. / Diamonds are a girl's best friend.” (see fig 9 & fig. 10) 


The last example I will reference is Jame’s Bond Goldfingers in 1964 and Diamonds are Forever in 1971 written by Ian Flemming. There are both on the theme of the overrated value of materials. In both films, Bond fights against an enemy who embraces the myth of gold or diamonds to its paroxysm and is willing to destroy the humanity to seize the world’s wealth. “ This is gold, Mr Bond. All my life, I have been in love with its color, its brilliance, its divine heaviness”, says Auric Goldfinger, in the eponymous Goldfinger. “Tell me, Commander, how far does your expertise extend into the field of diamonds?/ James Bond: Well, hardest  substance found in nature, they cut glass, suggests marriage, I suppose it replaced the dog as the girl's best friend.” is cynically spoken in Diamonds are forever. Nonetheless, Marcia Pointon points out ” the relationship with morbidity and seemingly indestructible  stones” ( 2009, p45). As Bond says “Curious... how everyone who touches those diamonds seems to die.” (see Fig 11)




After having developed the rational explanation of material’s value which is constructed upon the social structures of our civilisation, I emphasised the appeal of progress and modernity as a representation of our attraction for shininess.  I understand that capitalism has updated the myths and symbols to create social needs. Materials’ symbolism is deeply rooted in our imagination; this is our heritage as a human being part of a society and owing a culture.  Nonetheless, jewellery found the power to get rid of its intrinsic value, thanks to new materials, social progress and democratisation of luxury goods. The myth can exist without the actual value behind it. The role of craft and techniques is highlighted compared to the materials in  themselves: 

My Jewels are a protest against emphasis upon the cost of the material of jewellery. My object is to show the jewellers’ art in true perspective- where the design and the craftsmanship are to be valued above the material worth of gems 

says Salvador Dali in A Study of His Art-in-Jewels (1959, p12).  

However, jewellers from the contemporary jewellery scene are still playing around that idea of overrated value. They are dependent on it due to the ornamental status jewellery has. Lisbeth den Besten says « Gold, so it seems, evokes contractidory feeling of rapture and awe » (2011, p197). It is forever linked to the goldsmith craft. Gold is being re-questioned, still used but hidden like in this piece made by Otto Kunzli called « Gold makes you blind », but in order re-appraise it in a new way (see Fig. 12) 

To quote Barthes one last time: “ The transformation gives man the measure of his power” (1957, p97). Material’s value is being questioned again to a point where people can determine the value of an object, by calling it Art, like some Artist such as Duchamp. Can art impose its own value? The artist Piero Manzoni, in 1961, made a critical and metaphorical statement. He tin canned his excrement and decided to value the piece on a par with the price of gold. That way, he is playing around the tradition of the artist alchemist creating value by its own self.  Indeed, another way to question value is to deny it. Just as it is done in Thomas Moore’s Utopia where private property is banished, and good are distributed as people need them: 

Man's folly hath enhanced the value of gold and silver because of their scarcity; whereas nature, like kind parent, hath freely given us the best things, such as air, earth, and water, but hath hidden from us those which are vain and useless. (1516, bk2).

To emphasize the worthless of gold, pearls and what he sees as cheap rubbish, he would give them to children to play with and to get rid of them when they would grow up. Thomas Moore enhanced the idea that preciousness has been made up by the people owning the wealth: “Nor can they understand why a totally useless substance like gold should now, all over the world, be considered far more important than human beings, who gave it such value as it has, purely for their own convenience.” Thomas Moore’s Utopia has shaped some economics theories such as communism and Marxism. Indeed, myths are older than any culture and have shaped our collective identities and personality, which makes our preconceived ideas stronger. After having studied different civilisations’ customs, Claude Levi-Strauss wrote with bitterness in Triste Tropique, a journal where he confided his thoughts more than his theories :« What prevent man to access happiness does not lie from his nature, but from the artifice of civilisation ». (1955, p43)



























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Fig 1 : Gentleman's prefer Blondes, (1953). Caption from Gentlemen’s Prefer Blondes by Howard Hawks. [video].


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Fig.6:  The National Gallery, (1633). Painting of Nicolas Poussin : "The Adoration of the Golden Calf". [image] Available at: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/nicolas-poussin-the-adoration-of-the-golden-calf [Accessed 8 Jan. 2017].


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Fig.9:  Marilyn monroe in Gentleman's prefer Blondes, (1953). Caption from Gentlemen’s Prefer Blondes by Howard Hawks. [video].


Fig.10:  Marilyn monroe in Gentleman's prefer Blondes, (1953). Caption from Gentlemen’s Prefer Blondes by Howard Hawks. [video].


Fig 11:  Eon Production, (1964). Caption from James Bond, Goldfinguer, 1964 directed by Guy Hamilton. [image].


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