So how has your year been?
For most of us, dare I say all of us, it’s been a year unlike any other, full of disruptions, disasters, fears, anxiety, tension, sadness, loss, loneliness, and change. We’ve had to deal with situations we’ve simply never faced before.
Every morning, I find myself reaching for a talisman to hang around my neck. I have several. All from different points in my life, all having different meanings. Some days I wear them all.
I started wondering if I was alone—is buying and wearing talismans one of the signs of our times?
I reached out to several jewelers and retailers all reported customers are seeking out talismanic pieces in record numbers.
Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos, the owner of Mahnaz Collection said: “We have seen people looking for talismanic pendants that speak personally to them, to match to a chain that they inherited from their mother, or people honoring their lost loved one by buying and wearing a piece of jewelry that the deceased loved. Small, gem encrusted butterflies, so free, so full of possibility, so skyward looking, are talismans for several of our clients, especially in these times of lockdown.”
Curious about the phenomena, I wrote to Inezita Gay Eckel, historian and professor at L’École des Arts Joailliers avec le soutien de Van Cleef & Arpels, whose Talismans class I attended in 2018.
“Whenever there are times of trouble, people seek positive strength, they look for answers on how to endure, they think about what matters to them most, family, friends, health of loved ones, and they want to visualize, powerfully and visually,” said Gay Eckel. “And no matter whether the most Cartesian French person or a person from the vast diversity of cultures from which our students come—they have come to us from more than 40 different countries—they want to know about stones and symbols. It’s an essentially human thing.”
So, if so many of us are longing to find a talisman, the next logical question is, how do you go about finding the right one for you?
Everyone I asked started with the same thought—finding a talisman is an intensely personal thing. But how do can we chose– what questions should we ask ourselves.
Since her first collection over 35 years ago, Temple St. Clair has been creating talismans and amulets. “Jewelry when worn as talisman is intrinsically so personal,” she said. “These jewels take on a function and become part of us; they warm to the skin. We sleep in them; we bathe in them. They focus us and even comfort us. They become representative of our own personal style and journey.”
One of my own talismans is a chain my mother bought me in Capri when I was fifteen years old. She purchased it at her and my grandmother’s favorite shop, Alberto e Lina, which is still there. My mom is long gone, and so are the gold fish originally on the chain but this year, I added a 1970s Capricorn pendant by Cartier from the Mahnaz Collection and now I almost never take the piece off.
It’s the first time I turned to the zodiac, but it turns out I’m not alone.
Levi Higgs, historian and archivist and social media manager at David Webb, told me the firm’s new zodiac pendants are selling briskly. Webb’s original zodiac collections were birthed during the late 1960s.
“I believe he saw a through-line from the ancient symbolism he adored from history to the New Age world that was emerging in front of his eyes. Zodiacs are super personal, and allow the wearer to project those certain attributes associated with each sign to the world, gathering strength inward.”
The design of Webb’s new zodiac collection is powerful and speaks to one’s individuality. “The jewelry someone wears becomes emblematic of their actual self. You are projecting when you wear jewelry, so the imagery and symbolism should be something that resonates with who you are or who you want to be. Look inside yourself for those bolstering emblems and lean into them,” Higgs said.
One of the most interesting aspects of researching talismans was asking this esteemed group of jewelers and historians about their own pieces.
“I wear a David Webb Virgo Zodiac pendant necklace in all gold, to project my inner fastidiousness,” said Higgs. “I also have been drawn to owls lately. I have a few jewels that have them depicted, like an ancient coin ring I had made at David Webb, featuring an owl on the silver coin. They are ancient symbols of the forest, and wise, and have a certain mystery about them I just love.”
Inezita Gay Eckel’s most cherished talisman is a cherry amber Mandarin’s bead necklace that her Grandmother always wore in the 1920s. “It has 88 beads like a Chinese Mandarin’s necklace. I never knew my grandmother, she died tragically at age 40. My precious little mom gave it to me, telling me that I am like my grandmother in every way. I did not know all that much about it except that I loved it intensely because it had touched my grandmother.
“It is highly prized in China because of its red color. I fell in love with Chinese art at Princeton and thanks to my Chinese Art professor, Julia Meech-Pekarik, I got the chance of a lifetime to work with Edie and Joel Frankel. They taught me a world of knowledge, including the story behind my cherry amber. Every time I touch it, I think of the first Inez.”
I asked Temple St. Clair if she has a personal talisman.
“My very own 18K Rock Crystal Amulet: I am seldom without it on a leather cord. Since childhood, I have been drawn to the meaning of objects, whether a shell, a stone or a bead. This “meaning” can come from the experience of finding and collecting these items to a moment in time: what book I was reading, where I was traveling, what I was feeling. Mystical symbolism associated with the power of nature fueled my imagination.
“As a young woman and student in Italy, I was drawn to the sentimental jewels of the Medici family, and to the storytelling in the gold granulation of the Etruscans. I was fascinated by the history and mythology behind gems, ancient coins, intaglios and amulets that traveled across the Silk Road from East to West to land in the personal collections of patrons of the arts such as Lorenzo de’ Medici.
“I created my own rock crystal amulets with all of these concepts floating in my head. Not only do I love the materials – natural rock crystal and gold – but I love how I can translate universal stories into the details of the amulets. Between the storytelling and the luminous quality of the rock crystal, each amulet enhances and melds with the aura of the individual.”
Jacquie Aiche remembers her Egyptian Grandmother always adorned in amulets…Evil Eyes, Hamsas, Lapis, and Turquoise. Given the state of our world, it certainly can’t hurt to pile on all our most cherished or setting out to find the one that will speak to you and bring you joy and strength.
As Inezita Gay Eckel summed up: “The very nature of Talismans is that they are personal, private and often secret, and almost never written about. But we certainly do find evidence of what must have been amulets of various sorts right back to the beginning of people becoming people. One of the ways anthropologists make the demarcation to human is by finding evidence of clothing and adornment. It’s at the very essence of our shared humanity!”
M.J. Rose is a New York Times bestselling author; her most recent novel, Cartier’s Hope, (Jan 28th, 2020) has been called “A bold, satisfying tapestry. Smart, fierce, lovely, and intricate,” Kirkus (Starred Review). Her next novel, The Last Tiara will be released February 2, 2021.