If you can’t see it, you can’t study it—anyone who is a serious researcher of jewelry needs to be able to look closely at the piece being studied. Ideally, a binocular microscope of 20 to 40x magnification would suffice for examining most jewelry, although such scopes usually do not come equipped with an adaptor to take photos of what is being seen in the scope, and not all researchers have access to binocular scopes. Besides ancient jewelry, I have a deep interest in ethnographic jewelry, especially those made of metal. Detailed and closeup photographs of such jewelry are rarely seen, but these types of images can tell much about techniques and skills of the makers. Good macro photographs can substitute for stereo microscopes, but closeup images sometimes require additional magnification. Here I describe a relatively easy way of making such closeups, with two different ways of providing that all crucial lighting.
I needed to take closeup photographs for recent articles on ancient glass Nubian face beads (Ornament, Vol. 40, No. 2, 2017) and on Tuareg/Mauritanian jewelry (Ornament, Vol. 40, No. 3, 2018), so I have gone back to using the very simple setup of a macro lens, and extension tubes, lit either by an external flash or with studio strobes. Camera is handheld or on a tripod. Either of these modes of lighting work because the speed of a camera flash or a studio strobe is so short that it can more or less eliminate camera shake.
The first situation, in a museum, required a portable setup that needed little time for setup, as well as limited space. The camera was handheld, which demands steadiness and a lot of concentration, as the slightest movement at high magnification will alter the framing of the photograph and possibly the sharpness. The images for the North and West African jewelry were shot in the Ornament studio on a sweeptable, with the camera on a sturdy tripod. This helped in making images that were more precisely framed, but it is perfectly feasible to handhold cameras when using strobes and it is my usual mode.
When we took closeup images of ancient Nubian face beads excavated over one hundred years ago, we determined that a halo of whitish glass that surrounded all the face canes was actually badly crazed glass, indicating severe incompatibility with the mosaic glass canes (Liu et al., 2017). With my continuing interest in faience, composite and glass beads of the Warring States Period, I decided to revisit some such beads in our study collection, applying closeup photography to them, with two modes of lighting.
One of the continuing puzzling aspects was how intricate, polychrome designs were made on the composite beads that were often contemporaneous to Warring States glass beads. With a faience or clay core, which were atypical in not using quartz, such beads had built-up or high-relief stratified eyes, apparently achieved by layering low-fired glazes, possibly like overglaze firing with ceramics. Firing glazes over a porous faience core may differ from firing other ceramics or silicates and is unique to the Chinese (Wood 2001). However, no one has really determined if the layered designs were fired at the same time, or if there were multiple firings, but most likely the latter was not practiced. That being said, Yang et al. (2013) believed application of glazes and structures like horned eyes was a stepwise procedure, may have involved pre-made components and molds. I believe only horned glass eyebeads required pre-made components. The closeup images reveal no seepage of the glaze colors or layers into each other, although it is not known if a layer of glaze is allowed to dry before another is applied. According to Wood et al. (1999), the glazes of their composite bead were colored by lead, barium and hematite or iron, with the blue glaze related to Han Blue.
Besides studying the composition of ancient beads, closeup photography can be easily applied to many other materials and objects. Tuareg smiths, as well as those from Mauritania, do extremely fine chasing/engraving, with a minimum of crude tools and equipment, often made by the jewelers themselves, while having no access to magnifying aids like Optivisors. According to Cheminée (2014: 75), jewelers from other African countries bring their pieces to be engraved by Tuareg smiths, since they are so good at this technique. Desiring to look closely at their work and skills compelled me to take closeup photos for this article. When I observe their jewelry, I usually cannot see with my eye what the closeup images reveal; only with Optivisors can I begin to see details of the engraving. One wonders how these remarkable metalsmiths can accomplish all this with only their eyes, simple tools and ambient light, often in poorly lit rooms.
In the past, when film was used, I employed more elaborate equipment and lighting had to be much more carefully controlled, as film images cannot be manipulated as much or as easily as digital images post exposure. The film photograph of the Tuareg necklaces shot twenty years ago did not have sufficient depth-of-field to show the entire necklaces sharply. Closeup photography, its lighting, exposure for film and digital cameras and equipment were discussed in depth in my recent book, Photography of Personal Adornment (Liu 2014). I hope more jewelry and bead researchers will apply these relatively simple photographic techniques to extract more information from their study material.
Cheminée, M. 2014. Legacy. Jewelry Techniques of West Africa. Brunswick, VT: Brynmorgen Press: 232 p.
Liu, R. K. 1977. “T’alhakimt (Talhatana), a Tuareg Ornament: Its Origins, Derivatives, Copies and Distribution.” The Bead Journal 3 (2): 18-22.
—2014. Photography of Personal Adornment: Photographic Techniques for Jewelry/Artwear Craftspeople, Researchers, Scholars and Museum/Gallery Staff. San Marcos, CA: Ornament Inc.: 160 p.
—2018. “Tuareg Amulets and Crosses: Saharan and Sahelian Innovation and Aesthetics.” Ornament 40 (3): 58-63.
—, Sage and T. Holland. 2017. “Ancient Nubian Face Beads: The Problem With Suppositions.” Ornament 40 (2): 34-39.
Withers, S. 1998. “The Arkell Collection.” Ornament 21 (3): 78-79.
Wood, N. 2001. The influence of glass technology on Chinese ceramics. In: A. and B. Haughton (eds), The International Ceramics Fair and Seminar June 11. London, International Ceramics Fair: 36-40.
—, I.C. Freestone and C.P. Stapleton. 1999. Early polychrome glazes on a Chinese ceramic bead of the Warring States period: 1-15. In: International Symposium on Ancient Ceramics: Scientific and Technological Insights (ISAC 1999): J. Guo (ed). Shanghai: International Symposium on Ancient Ceramics: 594 p. (In Chinese with English abstract.)
Yang, Y. et al. 2013. Nondestructive Analysis of Dragonfly Eye Beads from the Warring States Period, Excavated from a Chu Tomb at the Shenmingpu Site, Henan Province, China. Microscopy and Microanalysis 19 (2): 1-9.
Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament, for many years its in-house photographer, as well as a jeweler using alternative materials like heatbent bamboo and polyester. His recent book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty-plus years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to wearable art, both in and out of the Ornament studio. Chinese faience, composites and glass, both ancient and ethnographic, are among his primary research interests. A frequent lecturer, some of his topics include precolumbian jewelry, prehistoric Southwest jewelry, ancient Egyptian jewelry, and the worldwide trade in beads. In this issue, Liu discusses how to take closeup photographs of jewelry and beads for study or research, as well as beginning an occasional series on beads of historic and/or technical significance.