After the historic 1986 People Power Revolution that saw the ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his family from the Malacañang, the Marcoses fled to Hawaii (with a little help from the Reagans).
Marcos’s wife, Imelda, who amassed a collection of shoes, fine art and jewelry throughout their autocratic reign, took with her some of her valued jewels, reportedly packing them away in diapers. But before they could safely stash them in Hawaii, these precious gems were sequestered by the U.S. Customs. The set of over 300 pieces of jewelry were called the Hawaii Collection, one of Imelda’s three collections that are collectively priced at at least P1 billion after appraisals in 2015 for a Christie’s auction the following year that never materialized.[READ: Imelda Marcos docu ‘The Kingmaker’ now available online after local streaming premiere’s original schedule postponement]
Physical and virtual recreations
Thirty-three years after the Marcoses escaped to Hawaii, at the 2019 Honolulu Biennale, 24 pieces of jewelry from the said collection resurfaced, albeit as 3D replicas in plastic—without the luster and the precious gems.
This is the work of artist Pio Abad and British jewelry maker Frances Wadsworth Jones called “The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders,” based on the aliases the Marcoses used to create offshore accounts in Switzerland. Abad, who has spent a decade interrogating the fraught legacy of the Marcoses, created 3D-printed necklaces, tiaras, earrings and bracelets using a software called Rhino for two years. He did this with the support of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG).
It is also the subject of a new website named after their 24-piece facsimile, that will let people reclaim these jewels, if only through augmented reality.
On April 28, the couple launched janeryanandwilliamsaunders.com which enables users to project the tiaras, necklaces, earrings and bracelets onto surfaces at their own spaces using their smartphones; they dub it a “digital restitution.”
Of the project’s origin, Abad said in an interview in 2020: “[I]n June 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was elected president and efforts to liquidate the Marcos assets stopped. The PCGG assumed, rightly, that a lot of the material it had gathered would be under threat once Duterte assumed power, and so it shared the images with me. This is how I got hold of the photographs taken of the jewellery for auction.
“Legally, I knew I could not use these images because they were government property, so Frances and I decided to use the images to create something else—facsimiles. Frances, who is a jewellery designer, recreated models of the jewels, facet by facet. I always say that she is in charge of production and I am in charge of political trauma.”
(Duterte in 2019, eventually greenlighted the sale of the jewels that have long been under the custody of PCGG and kept in the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas vaults. They were last seen in public at the Christie’s appraisal. Abad said that the president agreed on one condition: Imelda Marcos would be allowed to bid.)[READ: Palace considers selling Imelda’s sequestered jewelry to fund COVID-19 efforts]
The real value
Among the facsimiles, which can be viewed on the website, are a Belle Epoque platinum and diamond tiara made by the French jeweler Cartier in the 1890s; a set of heart-shaped Cabochon ruby with diamonds and white gold surround necklace with matching earrings and bracelet, which Abad and Wadsworth Jones recreated in large scale format for a 2019 exhibit in San Francisco; and an antique tiara with Cabochon ruby, diamonds and Mabe pearls from the 1860s.
But other than resurfacing this allegedly ill-gotten collection, the couple added something that encapsulated the magnitude of the Marcoses’ opulence. The description for each piece comes with a price tag: the estimated value in public services that Filipinos could have benefited from. All the figures used in the project is based on a 2016 initiative by the PCGG, which estimates, for example, that the Cartier tiara can finance 12,052 tuberculosis patients’ treatment until full recovery.
In the same interview, Abad expressed their plans to show the 3D-printed plastic pieces at the Ateneo de Manila University—his parents’ alma mater—in 2022, right in time for the next presidential election. It is a time, when he and many suspect, that the Marcos’ scion will try to capture the presidency again. This is to push through amid the pandemic, Abad said in a recent interview.
In the website, there’s a conversation between the artists and the project curators John Kenneth Paranda and artist Tamar Clarke-Brown. In it, Abad describes the portal as “an ongoing process of making the Marcoses’ collection visible to the public, as a way of resisting erasure and confronting all the painful narratives of their conjugal dictatorship.”
As for Wadsworth Jones, the use of digital media also makes the collection and the information more accessible, while also giving the user a sense of intangible ownership. “I hate the use of digital for digital’s sake, but there is a beautiful simplicity about this gesture that, for us anyway, has real meaning beyond any digital gimmick. People can not only see the jewelry, they can take it back. AR seemed like a really simple, immediate way to think about redistribution,” she said.
The digital arm of the project started from a mere desire of the couple to make their work “more generous,” democratized even. Eventually, art critic and curator Marian Pastor Roces and Paranda came into the picture. They pitched the idea of housing these digital renderings at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP)’s contemporary art/virtual museum called 21AM. HATO, a London- and Hong Kong-based multidisciplinary practice with a focus on digital and co-design, on the other hand, was in charge of the design and development of the website.
The exercise is also purely participatory in nature. On its Instagram page, it encourages people to use the AR filter and upload their screenshots with the hashtag #isauli (to return) and #digitalrestitution. So far, there are a handful of entries, from the jewelries being set inside a microwave, strewn over a picturesque view of Batanes and Hawaii, and overlaid on the facade of a brutalist structure that Imelda commissioned herself: the CCP.
You can access the AR filter on its website through a mobile browser.