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Milky Way Necklace 1969

Milky Way Necklace, 1969

Bill Reid, Milky Way Necklace, 1969
22k and 18k gold, diamonds, 17 cm (inside diameter)
SFU Bill Reid Collection, Vancouver

Bill Reid created Milky Way Necklace, a fine work of modernist jewellery made of gold and inlaid with diamonds, while studying in London, England. Although it appears to bear no visible resemblance to Haida art, the concept behind the work—Reid’s “understanding of Haida logic”—connects this stylistically different piece to the rest of his work.  In its composition, duality—the ability of two entities to coexist in the same space, a powerful concept in Haida art—is expressed through wire and pyramid themes, each forming a necklace of its own while being in dialogue with the other.  The internal pyramidal layer appears as a string of clustered geometric crystals. Nestled within this layer is a removable brooch. The external layer is an open-wire triangulated frame that envelops the structure below. Its nodal joints are studded with miniature diamonds, recalling constellations of stars. Similarly to the ovoid forms in Haida art, the diamonds draw our attention to the joints where life forces are known to dwell. Characteristic of Haida design, all the component parts in this necklace “fit together perfectly to function.”


Bill Reid, Horse Barnacle Necklace, 1979, white gold and sterling silver, 13 cm (diameter), SFU Bill Reid Collection, Vancouver.

Reid’s interest in the possibility of “two complementary forms occupying the same space” prompted him to make Milky Way Necklace.  What intrigued Reid was how skilled his Haida ancestors were at allowing dual presences to coexist simultaneously in a singular physical space. This idea is transformation, the ability to shift or change appearance from one entity into another—human to animal or supernatural being—or to be both simultaneously. Masks were often the medium of such expression. They were a way of seeing, communicating, and defining relationships between the human and the more-than-human worlds. Like the transformation masks that incorporated multiple characterizations into a single, compound mask, Reid’s Milky Way Necklace embodies this original, fundamental idea.


Haida narratives also provide a reading of Milky Way Necklace. As Reid wrote in The Raven Steals the Light, “The Raven dropped a good half of the light he was carrying. It fell to the rocky ground below and there broke into pieces. . . . They bounced back into the sky and remain there even today as the moon and the stars that glorify the night.”  Animated by story, this work and other aesthetically modern works of Reid’s, such as Horse Barnacle Necklace, 1979, can be seen as a foray into a contemporary jewellery practice that nonetheless retained Haida inspiration.


Shortly before making Milky Way Necklace, Reid exhibited at Expo 67 in Montreal, where he would have been exposed to two groundbreaking developments in the design world—Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome and Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67, a highly inventive housing development that stacked prefabricated cubic living units in crystalline clusters. Compression, tension, and structural inventiveness dominated much of the dialogue among these designers. The future-focused spirit of these times no doubt had an impact on Reid. As humans were endeavouring to land on the moon, earth-bound makers were contemplating the mysteries of the universe.


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