Professional Jeweler Archive: When Serfs Rule

August 2000

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When Serfs Rule

In a culture that values popularity over time-honored classics, what’s the future of jewelry?


For the jewelry industry, the most disquieting moment in Nobrow (Knopf, New York City, 2000), John Seabrook’s first-person description of the collapse of elitist culture, might be when he describes his father’s closet.

The elder Seabrook’s home had a motorized apparatus – the sort you see at the dry cleaner – that extended up through the second floor and into the attic on which rode his lifetime collection of suits, all available at the touch of a button. Seabrook’s father wore suits everywhere because, until they stopped doing it, that’s what civilized men wore – along with wingtips, silk ties, diamond cuff links, gold tie clasps and an elegant watch. It was a sort of uniform, and women had their own version of it.

The Old Order

Like patronizing the opera and reading The New Yorker, upscale dress was part of what distinguished the cultured from the uncultured – those people who, say, watched soap operas and wore blue jeans.

So when Seabrook’s journalist son – ironically a writer for The New Yorker – said he was flying to California to interview entertainment mogul David Geffen, it’s no surprise he was urged to wear “a nice suit.”

Instead, he wore a nice T-shirt (made by a Haitian band) that his subject immediately admired: “Where’d you get that T-shirt?” asked Geffen, who was wearing jeans.

Once, Seabrook (and Geffen) would have graduated from their T-shirt-and-jeans tastes as they matured. That they haven’t is part of Seabrook’s message. What was once considered lowbrow now sets cultural standards, whereas what was highbrow is merely another option.

In “nobrow” culture, the very idea of standards is obsolete.

Blame Capitalism

What this means for the jewelry industry – based, as it is, on outfitting Everyman and Everywoman with the gold and emeralds that were once the trappings of royalty – can only be a matter of speculation. Right now, for example, fashion is going through a glitzy period in which jewelry is suddenly as chic as a cool T-shirt. But fashionistas could turn against jewelry again, as they did through the minimalist 1990s.

Other writers have described this trend – the dumbing-down of culture, the cheapening of tastes – with dismay. What Seabrook brings is a sympathetic insider’s view of what has happened and why. He recognizes these momentous cultural changes because his own tastes are typical of the trends he describes. He is nobrow too.

Blame capitalism. While it’s tempting to blame trends that began in the 1960s and earlier, Seabrook notes that supporting older social arbiters was simply less profitable.

Rather than present an ideal to which all might aspire, culture now values what is popular and profitable. With arbitrary standards of quality no longer universally respected, what matters most now is the “authenticity” of a painting or a piece of music.

Ascendancy of Youth

One result is the enhanced status of the young and those on the social margins. Culture is no longer handed down by older, more affluent, more educated elite. Instead, he says, it’s handed up by those – minorities and the young – who have the time to immerse themselves in, say, popular music and form a consensus on what is cool.

Overwhelmingly, says Seabrook, we live in a culture of marketing whose most dynamic and creative efforts are directed at 15-year-olds. That’s who, in the absence of the old cultural hierarchy, now control what Seabrook calls a “hierarchy of hotness.”

– by Mark E. Dixon

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications