Mirror image

There is quite possibly no object we use so frequently and carelessly -other than our partners- than mirrors. Whether it be in shaving, combing our hair, checking ourselves before we venture out, or seeing that chocolate has not remained on our lips, mirrors are our daily companions. On one level, it’s quite odd that the first thing we do on getting up, apart from feeling miserable, is to check out our appearance in the mirror, as if to verify that some usurper has not stolen our body. I mean,what do we expect to see other than ourselves in the looking-glass? Mirror is a compact little term and I much prefer looking-glass which neatly combines two concepts (sight and reflection) than the very humdrum sounding mirror. This older use survives in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) and in the familiar yet enigmatic remark by St Paul, “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12). Through a Glass Darkly is the title of a 1961 movie by Ingmar Bergman, part of his faith trilogy and which, despite the promise of the title, is quite possibly his most claustrophobic and impenetrable film. Some sounds don’t do justice to what they represent. To me, mirror has always been in this category. While we might mirrors for granted in our homes, toilets, restaurants, and cars, it was not always a banal item. The manufacturing process was very expensive and the process was secretive, being closely guarded by Italian craftsmen working on the Venetian island of Murano, who held a monopoly on producing mirrors which were worthy of the name. As part of the systematic and purposeful manipulation of his image, a propaganda strategy which has been adeptly analyzed by Peter Burke and Joan DeJean, Louis envisioned the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (below), which would involve mirrors of dimensions and number hitherto unknown, all for the purposes of reflecting his grandeur, literally and figuratively.

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Louis did what everyone who wants to break a monopoly must do: he resorted to bribery. He lured several of the craftsmen to France to share the mercury mirror formula and this knowledge spread over the years. Venice was so incensed at this that it sent agents to attempt to poison the renegade artisans. The Hall of Mirrors still remains very impressive and I’m glad that it’s now back on show after a decade of restoration, though it’s incredibly difficult to appreciate this grandiose testament to one man’s self-belief when surrounded by hordes of tourists whose idle chatter and clumsy gait slowly erode one’s spirit and concentration. If I could use a time machine, I would go back to an iconic moment which took place within the mirrored walls of this room. This would be when Louis XV first encountered Madame de Pompadour at a ball held here on 25 February 1745. It began a relationship which would endure until her death nineteen years later, a genuine love affair which outlived the charms of physical passion. Pompadour used her influence well; the Place de la Concorde was designed by her, though jealous courtiers openly libelled her, a gossip strategy which would come back to bite them, as the impetus of this anti-royal slander would drive the Revolution.

ImageI love this painting of her, above, by François Boucher (c. 1750). She is so self-assured that she does not need to look at the spectator for reassurance and affirmation. The book held in her hand – apparently carelessly at first glance but clasped firmly on closer inspection- is no mere prop. Despite the flowers and ribbons which testify to her love of enjoyment and worldly things, the grey background and pensive expression, together with the quill in the foreground -standing on end to denote that she is an active letter writer, all point to an intelligent and deep individual. It is as if we are invited to see the superficial mistress who is much talked about but then are visually guided to go beyond the stuff of legend to consider the real figure. The detail of the first meeting of Louis XV and his love at this costume ball which appeals to me the most is the costume that the monarch was wearing: he was dressed as a yew tree.

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One unintended consequence of Louis XIV’s poaching of the Venetian mirror manufacturers was that mirrors became more available and therefore less expensive, meaning that, within a few years, they became common household objects rather than a sign of opulent wealth. Given the mirror’s ubiquity, it has long served as an obvious and laden symbol in literature and film, and I’m particularly interested in its use in fairy tales, a genre which one of my research interests. It occurs in many tales, from the talking mirror in Snow White to the shards of the magic mirror in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. In Jean Cocteau’s delightful 1946 movie, La Belle et la Bête, a mirror image is first used in the reflection of Belle on the floor she is scrubbing, highlighting her simplicity and obedience, whereas an actual mirror occurs later in the film as a means of Belle to see what is happening at her home (when she is at the castle) and at the castle (when she is at home). In this way, the motif becomes not a vehicle to show introspection in the heroine but rather her concern for others, a purposeful distortion of the Narcissistic trope of mirror images. Ovid’s tale of Narcissus illustrates the dangers of egocentricity and self-fixation, just as the fate of Echo in the same tale, whose obsession for the epicene youth leads her body to fade away to just her voice lamenting her personal tragedy and repeating what she hears – Echo’s echo and whence the origin of the word, demonstrates the risk of unbridled desire.

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John William Waterhouse’s stunning depiction of Echo and Narcissus, above, painted in 1903 during the relatively racy Edwardian period, encapsulates all of the layers of this mythology, including the homoerotic suggestion of Narcissus’s choice of male beauty, albeit his own, over the acutely sensual Echo. Despite the negative connotations of this association, the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror, to know that it is ourselves peering back from the glass, is an observable stage of intelligent development known as the Mirror Test, which occurs in humans at around 18 months of age. It is not only humans which pass the mirror test but also great apes, dolphins, and elephants. Rather than denoting wanton curiosity or unhealthy self-examination, the mirror then also functions as a sign of awareness, of our very consciousness. In exactly a week’s time, the Norwegian village of Rjukan will have direct sunlight for the first time in its history. Nestled in a valley, the population does not enjoy solar daylight for up to six months a year, but this is about to change thanks to a system of mirrors which will reflect and beam sunlight into the town. The mirror should clearly never be taken for granted.

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Today’s cufflinks rather remind me of car side-mirrors. They are fashioned out of sterling silver and are hand signed “aFD ’58” on the backs, meaning they were made in 1958. It’s a quirky and timeless shape on the cufflink fronts which, for me, reflects the timeless topicality of the looking-glass in our lives.

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Spidery suggestivity

Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) was a writer who put his eggs into the wrong basket. His first patron, to whom he remained devoted even after the disgrace of the former, was the brilliant Nicolas Foucquet. This administrator and benefactor to the arts committed the ultimate sin: he outshone the Sun King. In the lavish ceremonies to celebrate to opening of Fouquet’s newly built palace at Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1661, the finance minister realized, all too late, that his guest of honour, the 22-year-old Louis XIV, had a very displeased dismeanour. He immediately offered to donate the estate to the monarch, but Louis acerbically replied that kings did not receive grandeur from their subjects. A few weeks later Fouquet was arrested by D’Artagnan and a small band of trusted musketeers. Although Louis was able to stage manage a show trial -on the basis of financial corruption- he was ultimately unsuccessful in his efforts to pressure the judges to enforce the death penalty; the justices opted for life imprisonment. Every judge who voted against a capital sentence was removed from office within a matter of months. In one of the great injustices of the seventeenth century, a man who had helped himself to perks in a much more modest way than his predecessors found himself imprisoned for the rest of his life. La Fontaine remained vocal in his support of the beleagured politician. For this act of disloyalty to the regime, he was to receive his own disgrace. When he was finally elected to the Académie Française aged in his 60s, Louis XIV refused to grant his assent for several months, an unprecedented course of action. La Fontaine’s fables are crammed full of examples of injustice and abusive power. In one of the fabulist’s most curious poems, “Le lion et le moucheron” (The lion and the gnat), he takes up a tale first spun by Aesop, about a gnat which buzzed around a lion and had this beast hopping mad at its inability to destroy the source of its annoyance. The gnat flies away, very pleased at its victory, only to fly straight into a spider’s web thus meeting an untimely demise. La Fontaine spells out two morals which amount more or less to the same thing: firstly, we should not underestimate apparently small enemies; secondly, we are often distracted by major affairs when it is sometimes little things that bring us down. There is, undoubtedly, a hidden message to Louis XIV here (La Fontaine dedicated the first collection of fables to the dauphin in 1668 with the implicit imperative of following literary wisdom rather than imitating his illustrious father). While the lion and the gnat come out rather badly, the spider alone seems triumphant and full of foresight.

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Spiders are the object of the most universal phobia, arachnophobia, yet this intense and widespread fear is also coupled with millennia of positive associations, symbolism, and mythology. Spiders can be very beautiful and have evolved into some ingenious forms. My personal favourite is the bird dropping spider, above, which, as its name so prosaically states, resembles avian dung. Not only that but the spider also weaves a white silken base that looks like a spatter mark beneath its body and emits an unpleasant odour that approximates fecal matter. This disguise is far from crappy as it succeeds in attracting prey and repels predators, a perfect combination. Many spiders, such as the tarantula, look fearsome but contain relatively harmless venom, though it’s been a struggle to adapt to living in the Midwest where there are brown recluses -I regularly find them in spider traps below my bed- given that I come from a country which boasts of no harmful arachnids. My mother would always urge me to check my suitcases closely, as she strongly suspected that I would one day unwittingly bring a brown recluse back with me on my visits home. I used to tease her about it, joking that I had seen something run out of my suitcase, but Mother became inured to this!

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Perhaps it is not so much the appearance of spiders but rather their devious means of trapping prey that so unsettles us, as it does seem to point to an intelligence that spiders do not actually possess. Arachnid brains are very simple and operate a few reactions such as run, eat, and, quite rarely, attack. The appearance of cunning is a tenacious one. Some versions of the Japanese Jorōgumo legend depict a spider taking the form of a seductive woman who lulls a gullible man with her lascivious appearance and soothing music only to weave a web around him and then devour him. A nineteenth-century woodcut, above, represents a man being rescued from this fate. While such sinister manifestations are to be found in folklore and even populate horror movies, the spider’s industriousness generally enjoys a more positive spin – pun intended.

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My favourite version is one familiar to Scottish schoolchildren, that of Robert the Bruce. While Robert spent several months hiding in caves on the Irish coast during the wars that threatened his position as King of the Scots (he ruled as Robert I from 1306 to 1329), he one day watched a spider spin a web to connect two points of the cave’s roof. It kept falling down but commenced again and again until, on the eighth attempt it successfully had weaved the skeleton of its web. He was heartened by the resourceful stubbornness of such an insignificant creature and felt emboldened in his own quest, which would culminate in the Battle of Bannockburn (1314), a decisive victory over English colonialism in Scotland. The same story of arachnid voyeurism is also to be found in a Jewish legend about King David, while closer to our time, Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless, Patient Spider” makes a metaphysical trope along the same lines:

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

On the subject of religion, the patron saint of spider bites is St Conrad of Constance, seen in the stained glass below with a rather cute spider peering over the top of his golden chalice. The hagiographical detail is that this tenth-century prelate was celebrating Mass when a large, vicious-looking spider dropped in the chalice. St Conrad was singularly unimpressed and downed the contents, spider and all. It was popularly believed that all spiders were poisonous, whether venomous or not, so the saint was taking his life into his hands, somewhat literally. Nowadays, liturgists only recommend swallowing a spider if it is small, digestible, and non-toxic. Otherwise it should be scooped out with a purifier -a white linen- and both the spider’s corpse and the linen burnt when dried out. If there are any ashes, these should be disposed down the sacrarium, a sink within the church’s precinct that goes straight into the earth. The Catholic Church may be accused of many things, but being unmethodical is not one of them.

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While there are countless horrid urban legends concerning spiders, it is gratifying to know that Spiderman and St Conrad exist to counter the negative connotations. Hagiography and comic books share many affinities.

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I think that the most appealing arachnine appearance in art has to be the Maman series of sculptures by Louise Bourgeois. The image above shows one outside of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, which stands at over 30 feet in height. The title of the work is the French word for Mum or Mom, and Bourgeois manages to create a sense of maternal comfort in these sculptures that somehow eclipses the menace of the form. It is interesting that spiders are most often represented and understood as being feminine. In dream interpretation, the presence of spiders is usually deemed to relate to the dreamer’s mother or a strong female in their life, particularly if the spider bites. I can’t help but feel that this symbolism seems to reflect society’s long-standing misogyny more than anything else.

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Today’s cufflinks strongly suggest a spider to me, and a female one carrying eggs on her back. There are no maker’s marks to be found on this pair other than an 835 silver stamp, denoting 83.5% grade silver, which often oxidizes in a more appealing way than sterling silver. I acquired them from Germany and would guess them to be studio made in the early 1970s. The swirly lines of the framed spider is most definitely positive and hints at gateways such as the worldwide web rather than fear of the unknown.

Vale of tears

There is a very old legend that relates that the crocodile would cry in order to disarm its victims, human or otherwise, which would be moved out of curiosity to watch the sight, then suddenly devoured by the cunning reptile when they were least expecting it. This has given rise to the idiomatic expression for insincere displays of sincerity: crocodile tears.

Tears hold a special place in spirituality, particularly for the Eastern branches of Christianity. While there has been, and still is,  much discussion on whether Christ laughed -for laughter is considered by some authorities to be a sign of human imperfection as we laugh, in Aquinas’s opinion, at the unexpected- He is recorded as having wept following the death of Lazarus. One of the most haunting biblical scenes involving lachrymosity occurs in Psalm 137 when the Israelites, being held in captivity in Babylon, are depicted as going to the river and crying at the memories of their homeland, a literal and metaphoric image to which many can relate:

By the rivers of Babylon,

there we sat down, yea, we wept

when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps in the willows thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;

and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,

Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

(Psalm 137:1-4; King James Version)

There are two very different yet beautiful versions of this psalm that I love very much. Palestrina’s sixteenth-century polyphonic setting, Super Flumina Babylonis, is moist with melancholy; hear it here. The other version is by Boney M entitled By the Rivers of Babylon, and was a chart success in 1978, and may be listened to here.

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The psalm, a painting of which by Harold Copping is above, and the concept of exile hold a special place in Rastafarianism. I don’t think that it is only religious-minded folk who are moved by the poem’s sentiments, for we are all under the domination of our passions, addictions, and frail natures. The only difference is one of degree.

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If boys are not supposed to cry (and this makes me think of a song from my youth by The Cure), then how much more must kings never do so.  Louis XIV was a young man of twenty years old when he was passionately in love with Marie Mancini (pictured above), the sultry niece of his prime minister and father-figure Cardinal Mazarin.  Tears would figure prominently in their relationship as Louis first noticed her passion for him when she cried during a serious illness that threatened the young sovereign’s life. Despite his love for Marie, a marriage was not possible. The young woman brought no political advantage and was not of the blood royal. Moreover, her familial ties with the detested minister meant that such a union would always remain suspect and worse still, sullied. Initially, Louis determinedly fought to change his mother and Mazarin’s refusal as well as attempting the even more impossible task of convincing public opinion, but sensing the inevitable, he resolved to send her away from the court and had one final interview with her on 22 June 1659 before she left to her exile. She was in many respects not only his first love but also his true great love and, standing before her while saying farewell, tears streamed down his cheeks. Even though this was a day of deep sadness for Marie that would radically change her life, she was shocked at the ruler’s signs of weakness, and the last words she said to him were: “Vous êtes roi, vous pleurez et je pars” – “You are the king, yet you are crying and I am going to leave”. The lines would be immortalized eleven years later in Racine’s play Bérénice, albeit as a paraphrase, a tragedy about Emperor Titus renouncing his lover, whom as a Queen the Roman people will never accept, in a drama that also functions as a crafty homage to Louis’s youthful sacrifice in the interests of state. This is the only time that Louis would cry in public yet literature was able to transform the apparently emasculating experience into a political triumph. This episode and the notion of the king crying interested me so much that I wrote an article related to these issues: “‘Le roi pleurera’: Liturgy and Performance in Bossuet’s Oraison funèbre d’Henriette d’Angleterre,” in Formes et formations au XVIIe siècle: Actes de Columbia, ed. Buford Norman, Biblio 17 Series, 168 (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 2006), 225-36 (available here).

I find it interesting that tears themselves are not only associated with sadness or grief but that we can also shed tears of joy or laugh so much that we cry. They remain one of the greatest challenges to actors and they have the power to move spectators when we see them in artists or even politicians, as evidenced in the iconic video to Sinéad O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U (1990), at the end of which two tears slowly make their way down both cheeks. We might be hardened, we might be inured to the bittersweet vicissitudes of life, and yet there seems to be part of us that cannot resist the sight of genuine tears. In this, they are a necessary reminder of the goodness that lurks beneath the veneer of our egocentricity.

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Today’s cufflinks suggest teardrops. They are made out of sterling silver and opaque champleve black enamel and bear the maker’s mark of MEKA. They were crafted by the Danish designer Meka Reklamegaver who was active from 1951 to 1989 and it is likely that they date to the early to mid-1960s, though I would think more towards the beginning of that decade. I find them very beautiful, reflecting the beauty of the tears that humanize us in this, our exile, in the vale of tears.

Solar potency

Of all of the historical figures that I would rather like to dine with, Louis XIV invariably heads the list, dependent on my mood. He was a fascinating character, someone whom, while not intellectually brilliant, intuitively understood the mechanisms of power. Not unlike Margaret Thatcher, in this respect. He was also a deeply paradoxical man. He was adept at making the social codes of etiquette and dress into instruments of his own power, and yet he steadfastly refused to become involved in any disputes of precedence among courtiers at Versailles and always preferred to eat with his hands rather than use implements. Complex, and sometimes bizarre, rules governed the royal court. The embittered Duc de Saint-Simon details in his memoirs the “war of the stools” concerning the right of certain ladies to be seated on a small, backless stool in the presence of the Queen, with other women having to indecorously stand throughout the proceedings. Fights over the occupancy of a stool sometimes became physical. This modest item of furniture is emblematic of the sheer futility of human ambition, being invested with such passion over what is, when all said and done, a rather uncomfortable seat. Not only that, because of the dwarfish size of the tabourets, it was really impossible to sit down on and stand up from one with any degree of dignity or decorum.

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Louis XIV might have inherited much of the court ceremonial, but one thing which he very much made his own was the presentation of his image. Few leaders in history have ever been so able at self-promotion and propaganda than this king, with the exceptions, perhaps, of the Emperor Augustus and Adolf Hitler. Famously, one of the earliest and most cultivated metaphors that he chose for himself was as the Sun-King, presenting himself as Apollo, the god of light and the sun. The monicker of Le Roi-Soleil was first formulated in 1653 when Louis, a handsome and athletic young monarch who was not yet 20 years old, choreographed the “Ballet de la nuit” [Ballet of the night], dancing the lead role and with the music written by the brilliant and ambitious Jean-Baptiste Lully. A very watchable and largely accurate reconstruction of this dance may be viewed here, an extract from the highly recommended movie Le Roi danse (2000).

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As well as displaying his dancing skills and showcasing the talent of his court artists, Louis XIV also used the occasion as a moment of spectacular visual power. A few months earlier had seen the end of the French civil war called the Fronde (1648-53), which had nearly brought down the monarchy itself. The stakes were real, considering that the English Parliament had murdered its king during the same period. The momentum of war had petered out, and people started to crave stability again, for better and for worse. In other words, the monarchy had triumphed. Louis used the dance to have a young member from each of the prominent families who had rebelled during the civil war kneel in homage to “Apollo”, but in reality to the French Crown, as part of the performance. It was an incredible act of propaganda and confirmed that the young man was of a different mould from his father, Louis XIII, who had a series of unedifying crushes on attractive male favourites, mostly utterly unworthy of any preferment and some of whom who would delight in humiliating the sovereign in public, something the king evidently encouraged. It was also a more successful occasion than the later Carrousel du Louvre in 1662, a public festival to mark the birth of the dauphin. Louis dressed as a rooster, symbolizing the French nation, and this was met with some ridicule. Still, the official depictions of the occasion were able to airbrush this unique lapse in taste and portrayed Louis dressed as a more fetching Roman emperor rather than the humble cockerel.

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Solar symbolism is universal and may be found in virtually every religion, with some placing a particular emphasis on the sun. In Christianity, there are very deep uses of the sun with the word halo used in religious iconography being derived from Helios, the Greek personification of the sun. In Orthodoxy, the halo, which is obviously a form of the sun, is often christianized from its pagan origins through the use of a cross, as above. Traditionally, the main altar and therefore the elevation of a church faces the east, towards the rising sun which represents Christ coming in glory, with the priest celebrating Mass and all of the congregation facing this direction. It is a pity that the sloppy post-Vatican II practice of the priest facing the people is such a thoughtless, unhistorical, and symbolically barren phenomenon.

The sun is, for me, a two-edged icon. On one hand, it brings light, warmth, and life itself. Yet, as the solar appropriation by Louis XIV demonstrates, the sun can also symbolize oppressive heat, creating deserts and inhospitable conditions, and the sun demands that we always know that we are its mere and temporary subjects. I do not care for summer. I find that it is the vulgar season; winter brings snow, ice, and ice-storms that can transform the most banal of landscapes into a mysterious fairy-tale kingdom. Spring gifts us the blossoming metamorphoses that represent hope. Autumn dazzles us with its colours and changes. But summer brings us only heat, and enslaves us by this very thing. It suffices to speak to sun-worshippers and summer lovers -most people in point of fact- to appreciate how widespread solar fanaticism is among the populace.

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There is a very poignant moment in the Japanese movie The Sun (2005). The Emperor Showa, known as Hirohito during his lifetime, has to meet with General Douglas MacArthur following Japan’s defeat by allied forces in 1945 (pictured above, their respective poses and dress being highly revealing). When Hirohito arrived at allied headquarters and is led to the MacArthur’s room, he stands and waits for a while. The American soldier stationed outside of MacArthur’s office finally understands: the Emperor has never opened a door by himself in his entire life since servants have always done this for he, and he doesn’t know how to. As part of  the American conditions imposed on post-war Japan, Hirohito, who was an expert marine biologist, was obliged to renounce his divinity (it has recently been revealed that MacArthur was a secret lifelong monarchist, a fact that may have saved the Japanese monarchy from abolition, as seemed completely inevitable until MacArthur’s mission). Hirohito fulfilled this requirement in a very ambivalent, oblique manner that passed largely unnoticed in Japan but which made headlines in the West. The current Emperor, Akihito, chose to make the traditional communion ceremony with the sun goddess, Amaterasu, when he was installed as sovereign in 1989. This was a very surprising decision and one to which he held fast, revealing that, like his father, he believes that he is a descendant of the sun deity. Clearly, solar iconography still burns brightly.

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Today’s cufflinks were made by the Danish jewellery firm Anton Michelsen and bear its maker’s mark on the stems. Their material is sterling silver -the cufflinks are heavy- with a central solar indentation having a gold-washed surface that has aged in an interesting way. Michelsen concentrated largely on ceramic-based jewel creations after 1968, when it was taken over by Royal Copenhagen, a ceramic firm, indicating that this item dates to the early to late 1960s. I like the craftsmanship of these cufflinks but, most of all, love the dominance of the silver and the fragility of the golden core, a singular refusal of solar tyranny.