Adherence to Classical Aesthetics

Aesthetics, simply put, is the "science and math" of beauty. There are certain inarguable rules of proportion, which if stretched or compressed too greatly, will produce objects that few people will appreciate on a gut level. And the gut is exactly where one responds to art.

It's very easy to design a piece of jewelry that is odd--simply completely ignore every aesthetic guideline. Unfortunately, "odd" might be all that would be said about such a piece by most people. It takes far more thought and effort to design jewelry that is mindful of the thousands of years of design that came before, without plagiarizing those previous efforts, or just defaulting to "dumbed-down" or derivative design, than it does to just make something that is not only weird for weird’s sake, but that fails to evoke positive response.

There is a reason why people with no artistic experience or training whatsoever respond strongly to the designs found in our gallery. They are looking at the pieces that are a refreshing take on aesthetics. Not downright weird, not predictably boring, not a regurgitation of something that was interesting in the 80s, and worse than anything, not a trend-of-the-moment that will only become passé and dated-looking in the not-so-distant future.

When studying for her Master’s in Design, Babs chose Aesthetics as her academic concentration. She was surprised to find out that was not a popular choice. But she actually enjoyed the mathematical approach to the very human, visceral responses to objects possessing physical beauty. And those gut-level responses can be traced back down through the ages.

At the bottom of this page you will find a [translated] excerpt from one of Babs' papers during her study of aesthetics (1992), in the event that you want to explore the basis of some of her jewelry design approach. But otherwise, we thought this more current rambling would be a little less, well...academic. Sort of.

From Babs, on how she evaluates new work being considered for adding to our curated collection:

The great bulk of what the ancients’ evaluated for proportion was large in scale: buildings, gardens, compounds, etc. And because of their great size and the materials used to construct them, proportion options were automatically somewhat limited by what would actually render a sturdy building, for example. And in addition to being sturdy, the building would need to properly interact with the human form: door sizes need to make sense, steps need to be the right height, ceiling heights needed to work with the “mood” of the building’s purpose, etc. Despite the limitations imposed by material and the human body, the ancients from many cultures produced a tremendous body of theory and practice of “mathematical harmony” (which is the original definition of the Greek word, symmetria). Things you’ve probably heard of at some point, like the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci Ratio.

Well, when the art form you are wanting to balance is far, far smaller than a building, are these theories, ratios, and formulas even applicable?

Yes. But not super directly.

While it is completely possible to design a pendant, let’s say, with the Golden Ratio or a Fibonacci Ratio (or maybe one of their later relatives, the Silver Ratio or Plastic Number) governing it’s facing-forward shape, and have people be drawn to it because the shape is a naturally-pleasing one...that seems about as boring an approach to jewelry design as one could possibly have.

So, here’s where my brain heads: when the ancients came up with the ratios that governed all the details of column shape to the spacing of those columns, to the proportions of what was below and above the columns...they were basing that on the proportions of the human form. Literally.

I feel quite certain this is not unknown to you:

It’s Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of man, based on the human proportions defined in the treatise by Vitruvius on ancient Roman architecture. Because of that, it is called “Vitruvian Man.”  The ratios seen on Vitruvian Man were what ancient architects applied to building shapes, whether the perimeter or individual elevations. 

Well, fine jewelry is a “building” that you can see all in one go. You don’t have to walk to see all of it. The materials are vastly different from the ones used to construct buildings. And instead of dwarfing the human form, it resides on it, and decorates it.

So, while there is not a vast span of ancient architectural proportional theory that can be directly applied to jewelry design and have the resulting work exhibit a satisfying amount of “mathematical harmony,” I surmised, even back in design school, that there was something about all the classical proportion studies that was applicable, and could serve as a “beauty guide” for jewelry design. I just didn’t know specifically what.

Here’s how I went about it then, and it has served me well since. It has guided me through thousands of decisions regarding the purchase and design of many collections and individual pieces of jewelry over the span of 35+ years: since jewelry, in my mind, does not fulfill its aesthetic purpose if it is viewed separately from the neck, ear, wrist, finger, or other body part it is intended to embellish, I choose to evaluate, consider, and design jewelry when considered against the backdrop of the human form--not separate from it.

And, much like the materials used in the buildings designed in antiquity constrained the proportions that could even be considered for their “utility of beauty,” the materials used in fine jewelry provide different constraints that are imposed on jewelry design.

So, here’s the result of my studies those many years ago. This continues to be how I evaluate and informally “score” the classical aesthetic value of the jewelry collections we bring in to Alara:

  • Do the relative proportions of the various materials (metal/s, gem/s), seen from all pertinent angles, fall within one of the many classical ratios? 
  • If there is a gem or other motif that is a vital part of the piece’s “message,” does its visual “volume,” compared to the totality of the piece’s visual “volume,” fall within one of the many classical ratios?
  • Does the piece overall (both individually and on the human form) embody all six of the Vitruvian “Principles of Design"? This type of analysis sounds wonky, but it’s actually not, when put into practice. Proportion (eurythmia) is of primary importance, and the other five support and interrelate with it. The remaining five principles are:
    • order (ordinatio), which does not necessarily mean “orderly,” since fractal arrangements as seen in nature are still ordered, despite a sense of randomness;
    • arrangement (dispositio), which tends to elevate certain elements to more importance simply through their specific arrangement;
    • symmetry (symmetria), which is not according to our modern definition, but rather defined as “mathematical harmony;” 
    • propriety (decor), which involves the piece serving the purpose its design intends: a formal ring will have formal features, and to be a bit ridiculous about it: it will have a hole into which a finger will naturally fit;
    • economy (distributio), which is, surprisingly, probably what you’re guessing: that the design addresses economic sensibility (this is sometimes argued as really having nothing to do with design, but I disagree…if a beautiful ring is never worn on a finger, is it actually beautiful? After all, without a finger to be worn on, the ring is not fulfilling its artistic purpose, right?)
  • Is there enough negative space around a gem or motif? Or, conversely, does a design based on continuity truly continue...leaving as little negative space as possible?
  • While considering the part of the body on which the piece will be worn, evaluate the proportions and placement of the entire piece in relation to the body part, and also to the body as a whole. Does the piece, compared to the body part, result in a classically-pleasing proportion?
  • Finally, will this piece still offer aesthetically-pleasing dimensions when worn on bodies or body parts of differing sizes? (Specifically, can this pendant still strike a balance against a larger torso, provided a longer chain is used? Can this ring find a good home on a number of different hands? 

By considering that final point when we decide on new collections, we can serve many customers with the same piece of jewelry, as opposed to . 

Obviously, this is a lot to consider when Team Alara is considering bringing on a new designer’s work, or just filling-in our existing collections. Thankfully, while this approach is not readily enumerated in written word, it is actually a holistic process when put into practice. 

But it is the most important aspect of our buying process in terms of keeping McJewelry out of Alara.

All in all, it’s very easy to buy McJewelry--it accounts for the great majority of fine jewelry available. Finding compelling, aesthetically-sound fine jewelry is a labor of love for us...because we love for you to get the benefit of our labor.

We say it loud and proud: No McJewelry Here.

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Excerpt from: "Visual Viscerality: Embracing Our Natural Response to Objects Designed with the Human Body in Mind" (1990, B. Noelle)

"While the concept of 'feng shui' is not familiar to many in the West, it crosses over into the realm of aesthetic philosophy, specifically because both concepts can be viscerally sensed. For example: we have all encountered walking into a room, that regardless of any details (and perhaps even despite them), has a shape that just 'feels right,' even if we cannot explain the 'why' of that feeling. Almost undoubtedly, this room embodies classical rules of proportion. One need not know about the proportions themselves in order to experience the feeling. This feeling brings about immediate comfort.

"And so, much like a room's basic shape can 'hug' humans passing through it, an artwork to be worn on the human form can only truly serve that purpose if its form brings comfort, working synergistically with the body, rather than separately from it. Fine jewelry is not fine art--it is craft--and therefore it is not fulfilling its artistic destiny unless it finds a comfortable spot on the human form."

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