Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ornaments and Amulets

article by Jan Atherton

For thousands of years Ornaments, Amulets and jewellery have been worn, or used to serve different purposes.

Ornament as currency, or as a display of social status, or personal/family wealth:

Materials including shells and silver have often been used as a form of portable currency. Modern currencies such as the Cedi of Ghana, and Sterling in the UK, reflect this.

Shells and metal pieces were often made into jewellery, or stitched to clothing. A striking example of this can be seen in the traditional clothing of the Wenxiang Miao women from Guizou Province in China.

Silver is fashioned into elaborate headdresses, broad neck rings, handmade chains and small embossed metal panels, that are stitched to their outer layers of clothing. When extra money is available, they buy more silver to make more ornaments, then sell the pieces when money is needed in leaner times.

Photo of Miao women and children.

In many cultures ornaments and jewellery are also often part of a woman's dowry, on the occasion of their marriage.

Spiritual and Religious Purposes

In many Native American cultures, particularly the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne cultures, a newborn baby is given a beaded amulet made from buckskin, or antelope skin, containing the remains of their umblilical cord. The cord is dried, wrapped with sacred herbs - sweet grass, sage,cedar and tobacco, a small amount of earth from the area where the baby was born, and small snippets of hair from close family members.The amulet is then stitched closed.

The amulet is worn by either the baby's Mother, Grandmother, or attached to the baby's cradleboard, until the child is responsible enough to wear it. The amulet stays with the child throughout life, and is buried with them when they die.The amulet is made to connect the child to both their Mother and to the Earth.

Girls are given an amulet in the shape of a turtle. The turtle with her protective shell represents motherhood, connection to the Earth, fertility and protection during childbirth.

Boys are given an amulet in the shape of a lizard, the lizard represents quick movement, self reliance and renewal/regrowth.

Twins are given amulets in the shape of intertwined snakes, representing the interconnectedness of the twins, both in the womb and throughout life.

Credit: by Patti from Northern Lodge

Passage Through Life Stages:
- Birth and childhood
-Puberty and passage into adulthood
-Childbirth and Motherhood
-Becoming an Elder - reaching age related milestones
-Death and preparation for death
-Preparation for funeral, afterlife, or reincarnation, depending on religious beliefs.

Healing and Medicinal Purposes

Traditionally worn for healing, or medicinal purposes, Native American medicine bags were made from buckskin, or antelope hide.The bags contained medicinal herbs and plants, healing gemstones such as quartz, soil, sand, or stones from a location special to the wearer, feathers, or animal hair to evoke the spirit of the bird, or animal. The objects are all either gifts from others, or from the Earth.

Credit: photo courtesy of Flickr user mharrsch


Jewellery and Amulets are often made for the purpose of holding prayers and inspirational passages from religious texts, or as an aid to memory when reciting complex prayers.

An example of the former are the Hirz from the Yemen. The Hirz is a pod shaped case, usually made from silver, or coin silver, and often decorated with intricate metalsmithing techniques such as granulation. Small pieces of paper containing prayers and passages from the Koran are placed inside. Some examples are soldered shut, and others open at one end.

Photo of a Hirz

Examples of the latter are Catholic and Anglican rosaries, and Hindu and Buddhist Japa Mala prayer beads. Indeed the word bead is derived from the middle English word bede, meaning rosary bead, or prayer.

Photo of Japa Mala

Personal Expression of the Wearer and Artist

Traditionally artists were supported by the patronage of royalty, a wealthy aristocracy, the rich merchant classes and ecclesiastical patrons.These patrons commissioned artwork and jewellery as a form of PR and a calling card. To be seen to be a patron of the arts, was to be seen to be an educated, knowledgeable person. Interested in philosophy, art and politics.

An artist or craftsman's skills were highly prized. Patronage meant increased status for the artist and relative financial stability for an artist's family. However an alliance to an unpopular patron, or the withdrawal of patronage due to an indiscretion, or change of political regime, could endanger an artist's livelihood.

The old system of patronage and Craftsmen's guilds meant that most professional artists and Craftsmen were male. Since around 1900 women artists and designers now have enjoyed greater access to formal and informal art education, and a larger number of outlets to sell their work. There is also greater freedom to express personal ideas and themes, rather than being a cypher to another persons whims and aspirations.

A beautiful example of a more intensely personal project is Amethyst Ravenstar's recent collaboration with her son. The project is a series of ornamental beadwoven panels. The designs inspired by both Native American and Celtic forms are beaded by Rose, from designs on paper created by her son.

Amethyst Ravenstar's Mother and Son series, number 11.
Credit: photo by Rose from Amethyst Ravenstar.
This series resonated with me, partly because I live far from my family. I live in Chicago and my parents live in Scotland, and partly because my own artistic journey was sparked and encouraged by my parents. My Mum instilled a love for textiles (especially knitting) and music, and my Dad was a High School Art Teacher and is now working full time as an artist after his retirement a few years ago. The closeness of Rose and her son is palpable when you look at their work together.
Jewellery and Ornaments are also worn to enhance, or exaggerate the proportions of the body, this is often for cultural reasons, or an identification with a social group, or subculture.
Hierarchy of Materials

The rarity of materials has always played a part in Ornament and jewellery making. Precious metals such as Gold and Silver are rarer and more difficult to obtain than copper, or tin. Precious gemstones such as emeralds and rubies are rarer and more difficult to cut, than more common semi-precious stones, such as quartz, or garnets, for example. Jewellery made from these materials was out of the financial reach of the majority of people, and the effects of sumptuary laws further delineated social class and rank.

The development of synthetic materials and substitutes such as resins, plastics and synthetic gemstones, have given artists and jewellery makers a greater variety of materials to work with. It has also meant that many artists choose to subvert the traditional hierarchy of materials - often using everyday and recycled materials to make jewellery of beauty and ingenuity.

Where an artist may once have used gemstones, or precious metals they have been replaced by used computer parts and electronics, or packaging and advertising materials.

Credit: Leslie Perrino; photo by Larry Sanders.

These pieces question both consumerism, and our use of Earth's precious resources.

Functional Ornament and Jewellery

In their simplest form buttons are flat discs, or beads, and pins are bent lengths of wire, or a fibula form. By increasing their size, adding detailed texture, engraving, gemstones, or enamel, a simple fastening becomes both a functional fastening and decorative ornament. The Hunterston brooch from Scotland is an example of this.

Photo of Celtic Hunterston Brooch.
Credit:photo courtesy of flickr user WordRidden

This is only the briefest overview of a fascinating subject, I have barely skimmed the surface here. I hope you will enjoy exploring further.

I would like to thank Sarah Kelley for inviting me to write this and a huge thank you to artists Patti from Northernlodge, Leslie Perrino, and Rose/ Amethyst Ravenstar and her son, for granting me kind permission to include images of their work and for answering every question I had. Thank you also to Russ Nobbs, Joyce and Abdyl from the Bead forum for their help. The other images used in the article are from Wikipedia and Flickr and
Jan started beading to add some sparkle to her embroidery work and fell hard for those little sparkly objects. She knits, sews, draws and takes photographs, but none of her other artistic pursuits have ever come close to becoming a career. This year she has been able to finally teach others to bead and she hopes soon to have a website for this.
She has a BA (Hons) from Edinburgh College of art in Visual communications (Animation). See Jan's work at her Etsy shop Ten Story Love Song

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