Many first encounters with the humble bean occur hovering over the kitchen sink, watching as a parent’s hands stir cloudy water. Or during bedtime, watching in minds’ eyes as Jack’s mother throws a magic few out of the open window. Diminutive, unassuming, and most of all, commonplace, it might’ve been surprising that the Italian designer Elsa Peretti should choose the bean’s organic form as her inspiration for fine jewellery. Her tiny Bean design, however, has endured since it was first introduced by Tiffany & Co. in 1974 — passed down from mother to daughter — with new iterations released last year. It may just be that humans have always found comfort in the ordinary.
“Many cultures and religions advocate for the mundane,” says the psychotherapist Mitchell Smolkin. There, on our bodies, before we even contemplate accessories, we can see it in our clothes. “Think of the business suit, historically meant to ensure that everyone is equal, and that no one stands out; or the many religions that advocate for modesty in appearance, such as Mormons, Amish, Orthodox Jews and Christians,” Smolkin continues. He observes that despite humility being espoused as a virtue throughout history, that same history reflects that we are not always so eager to embrace it.
“There is a thread in history, philosophy and religion that underscores our deep appetite for more — and the restraint necessary to come to terms with the never-ending anxiety that awaits us if we take this pursuit literally,” Smolkin says. He references the book of Exodus, when Moses descends with the Ten Commandments and upon witnessing followers worshipping a golden calf, he smashes the tablets in a rage; or Siddhartha, giving up his incredible wealth to search for inner fulfilment and peace. “As Jaques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst said, when it comes to objects, the formula is one plus one equals three. There is our desire; the object; and the third is the anxiety that is always left over, as our desire is never met.”
How to manage this anxiety? In psychology, the mere-exposure effect suggests that objects that are familiar to us evoke a sense of warmth and comfort, as we are not presented with something new and foreign that might carry the potential for anxiety. Like the gift you were given by a grandparent, Smolkin offers, or driving by the house of your childhood. “While we prioritise progress and movement, especially in capitalism, where the cycle of what is old is getting shorter and shorter, we know that this does not lead to fulfilment.” It is therefore understandable that jewellery design will often come from that most encountered in nature; or when it extends beyond, to the manmade, it is the utilitarian made over in precious materials — that which we all recognise and possess.
Fundamental to many morning rituals are the coffee beans we grind, brew and extract for scent and energy. The Grain de Café collection — first appearing at Cartier in 1938, before gaining widespread popularity in the ‘50s and ‘60s— has just been reintroduced to younger generations with a new campaign. Clustered together on dainty chains, the tiny charms draw attention to the simple beauty of the bean before it’s turned to powder to taste. Otherwise, the inspiration comes from something encountered in childhood, where all sources of comfort (and conversely, trauma) stem. “As a child, I kept on visiting the cemetery of a 17th-century Capuchin church with my nanny,” Peretti explained in the catalogue for a 1990 exhibition of her Tiffany & Co.’s Bone collection. “All the rooms were decorated with human bones. My mother had to send me back, time and again, with a stolen bone in my little purse.”
Juste un Clou (French for ‘just a nail’), is among Aldo Cipullo’s most beloved contributions to Cartier. Of the nail-inspired design that has decorated wrists since its introduction in New York during the late ‘60s, his brother, Renato Cipullo, and jewellery historian, Vivienne Becker, said in “Cipullo: Making Jewellery Modern” that it motivated “the transition from formal, courtly, extravagant precious jewels to everyday talismans that encapsulated and reflected the world around them.” Lastly, Bulgari’s Monete collection, built around antique coins in the tradition of the Ancient Romans, with jewellery mounts adhering to, and emphasising, the coins’ imperfect edges. “We offer an ancient coin, a relic of the past, the prospect of a second life,” Nicola Bulgari is reported to have once said. “Instead of leaving it closed in a drawer, we transform it into a living thing.”
And so, back to the bean, which has been elevated to such a status by Peretti, all those decades ago. For such an unassuming seed, a closer look will reveal it as that symbol most synonymous with death and life. The ancient Romans believed that the plant of fava beans was directly linked with the underworld due to its long roots and hollow stems; and so considered able to bring the dead back to the world of the living. It is beans that enrich soil for future planting, while providing life-nourishing nutrients; it is no coincidence that it was beans that brought Jack and his mother a better life. “Perhaps a return to basic objects and forms is soothing,” Smolkin concludes. “It cuts through a manic pursuit of escaping our situation and instead, puts us in touch with what is fundamental.”