Taking Us by the Neck

Rebato, by Jesse Mathes

Rebato, by Jesse Mathes

The neck is the most fragile and important parts of the body. The spine runs through it, connecting the brain—our center of thought–from the rest of the body that it operates. The trachea allows air to move from nose and sinuses to the lungs, allowing us to breathe and live. Air from the lungs passing through the larynx enables us to speak, which some say sets us apart from other species. The esophagus allows food to pass through to the stomach keeping the body nourished. The carotid artery and the jugular vein run through the neck carrying blood and oxygen to keep the brain operating and cooled, and carrying that de-oxygenated blood back to the heart. The surest way to kill a body—and a brain—is through the neck.

As a result, baring the throat is an act of trust that can be, and unfortunately is at time, violated. Offering the throat is an act of submission among many animals. For humans, to expose the throat to a touch or kiss is to offer up our ultimate vulnerability.

At the same time the neck is probably one of the most sensuous parts of the body. Arching gracefully between the collar bone and the skull, it can tip the head backward in laughter, forward in prayer, or attentively to the side. Its beauty begs to be adorned with gold, diamonds, pearls—and it has been for ages.

Yet even that adornment can take advantage of the throat’s vulnerability. The tightly fitted neckpiece poorly named a “dog collar,” although beautiful on a slender neck, has always seemed to me to step too close to a show of power and ownership by the giver–which is still, often, a male. Leashing a dog to a collar provides control; a choke collar gives even more control. Slaves, too, were often marked, controlled or punished by locking them into a collar.

This interplay of vulnerability and control appears to make a number of jewelry artists uneasy as well, judging from the number of neckpieces in Lark’s 500 Necklaces that incorporate sharp or threatening shapes, or forms that severely restrict movement.

Benjamin O’Neill Cowden’s Barbed Collar (page 394) is studded with outwardly curving spikes that would appear capable of inflicting injury on the wearer with every movement; it also locks with a key. This kind of slave collar is mirrored on the facing page by Susie Ganch’s Static Orbital Model #3 (Menorah).

A different commentary on power, control and domination appears in Anika Smulovitz’s White Collar (4) and White Collar (9). Repurposed from the collars of men’s dress shirts, the neckpieces are formed into high, tight, almost strangling collars that restrict movement. They are a reminder that men, especially in the business world, still dominate women.

Other jewelry artists have created pieces that look like they are meant to defend the throat and neck against attack or unwonted encroachment, a kind of “Don’t Tread On Me” warning. Cristina Dias’ Carnivora #4, for example, is a collar that appears alive, ready and willing to attack or devour anyone or thing that gets too close. Jesse Mathes’ works, such as Rebato, create a defensive breastwork of sharp wires defining personal space and warning off anyone who approaches.

Jewelry has always symbolized status and power, but pieces like these make us rethink those meanings. Whose status? Whose power? Who is power-less?

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