Category Archives: History

Berlin Iron Jewelery


The intricate filigree of black iron, frequently including Gothic ornamentals, that is instantly recognizeable as German cast iron jewelry, is an interesting statement of both fashion and the earliest days of industrial-consumer development.  For its start around 1804, we have a Prussian state that is occupied by Napoleon’s  soldiers.  Germany then is as it has been for much of its history until recently, a cluster of small kings, countries and dialects, a loose confederacy of tribes.  There are riots against French marshal law.  The government fundraises to arm troops in what it calls a War of Liberation – one of the methods is requesting people’s silver and gold jewelry, and giving them a piece of cast iron jewelry in return.  Most accounts regard the rush to be seen wearing cast iron jewels as a patriotic fervor.  These pieces were sometimes marked, “I gave gold for iron.”


At the same time, human nature being what it is, we have as its foremost character Johann Conrad Gauss (1771-1846).  Besides the fact that Gauss means goat, the owner of an iron foundry made of himself an expert in ornamental iron jewelry, becoming its first private entrepreneur.  The streets of Berlin were suddenly offering the metal, with no intrinsic value besides the detail and labor of its ornament, in every fine shop.  What could be better than wearing an award for a patriotic act, than purchasing several imitations of that campaign.  As a fashion it gave the appearance of generosity, as a practical tool it gave people a comforting alternative to actually trading too many of their valuable jewels in.


Iron is not the most ideal metal to wear, foremost of its disadvantages being its habit of rusting.   It must be oiled to preserve it from the very air.  It falls apart like an onion when it’s buried.


Iron was the metal of work and war, at home it was put to use and re-use as a fairly recyclable material, requiring a forge to make nails or door hinges and shoe horses. It’s workable in the lower ends of heat, allowing for shaping with the most primitive setup.  To reach iron’s high melting point is a different story though, at 2800 degrees it requires a foundry, which few things besides war could finance.  But by the 1700s we have private goldsmiths with Main Street shops, who are accustomed to working in those temperatures on a refined scale.



The exceptional thing about the intricate tracery of Berlin Iron is the amount of labor involved, mostly cleaning.  Methods would have focused on plaster casting, molds made, often from clay masters and other patterns, of sightly larger pattern forms to duplicate in future plaster castings.  Casting was done directly by pour into the plasters, a method almost universally abandoned today (even a simple centrifuge is a vast improvement to accuracy).  To a limited extent stamping may have been used, but not to the degree that the ready availability of steel dies would bring into jewelry a century later.


The history of costume jewelry is older than this, but what sets the Berlin Iron apart is the way its fashionability raised the value of the pieces.  It did this to a point that production then in turn devalued them, with enough low grade work being introduced, it either no longer suggested the glamour of charitable contributions towards war, or simply out-priced its finer producers.  This might be compared to the jewelry industry of today, with so many excellent metals, permanent plating techniques, and synthetics of every color.  You could say the concept of costume jewelry is at this point deprecated, and we see the name of the designer or the fashion, though with less frequency, commanding a higher price than is relative to its production.  With the particular exception of the gemstone market, particularly diamonds, the place of precious materials is closely tied to skilled manual labor, and just being gold or silver means less now that its semblance, or appearance, is easily had.  The shiny, the colorful, all can be had for a bargain, but the manual skills behind fine jewelry could not be supported without the existence of value – of paying a premium for design.  On a small collector scale, such work becomes an artist’s market.  But when a culture turns its aesthetic around its movements in time, there are openings where economy and ornament meet.  As a result, in the modern economy, while traditional skills are micro-preserved by specialists, we still have the mediating capacity of style, to which people have adapted by accelerating – each generation now offers its own patterns for production.



Johann Conrad Guass




Austrian Kalender Medailles

Calendar medals have their origins in the 17th century, when numismatic technology reached a level that could reproduce this level of detail.  In 1933 Austria began to release an annual kalender medaille, which continues.  Most of them are silver, but some years were released in bronze.

Calendar medals provided people with a quick pocket reference to any date in the year.  The earliest of these incorporate two tables, a Sunday table that shows the dates of each Sunday for all twelve months, and a Moon table that shows the dates of full and sometimes new moons.  The Moon table was said to be of particular use for planning journeys on nights with the potential for better lighting.  The last full Moon table was included in 1938.

The coins are grouped into the seven traditional, visible planets of the ancients, which include the Sun and Moon.  They cycle through these in a curious order, the reason for the particular order is unclear: Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars.  Nearly all of them feature related images of Roman deities and the Zodiac, which reflects the country’s history.  Essentially the German lands that fell under the Holy Roman Empire’s rule, the place is traditionally Catholic, while typical of royal lineages who consider themselves part of ancient, unbroken blood rights to rulership, references to the preceding empire served to establish their antiquity.  At the same time, most of them feature the dates of the four Moveable Feasts.

In some cases Janus takes the place of Jupiter; the Four Seasons or the Solar Chariot take the place of the Sun.  The Nazi Anschluss annexed the country in 1938, and did not end until 1945, with a return to autonomy for the country in 1955.  Notably, one divergence from Roman symbolism was 1947, when the year ruled by the Sun depicts a bearded figure and the phrase, “Es Werde Licht” (Let There be Light) a unique reference to the Christian creator, and in this initial period of Allied administration, “Cum Deo” (With God) was added beside the year.  Other exceptions include Athena in place of Saturn in the year 1965, and the next time around, a Sphinx aboard a sailing ship in place of Saturn as well.  In 1975 a rooster and an owl are featured for the Sun.  Throughout the calendar coins have exhibited modernity through austere Art Deco type, with the exception of the first three years of Anschluss where the Germans saw fit to impose a gothic font.  Increasingly the influence of modern art in overall design appeared through the seventies, but in 1980 and onward, we see the return of traditional mythological gods in an emphatic, neo-classical style, with several grouped years designed by single artists.

I share these as an interesting way to quickly scroll through the years.  They provide a way to absorb the passage of time, and the proximity of the past.  And through their design elements, they give us a kind of control against which to experiment with assumptions about culture and the graphics that they maintain as part of their myths.

 1933  1933
1934 1934Kal
1935 1935
 1936 1936
 1937 1937kal
 1938 1938kal
1939 1939Calendar
1940 1940kal
 1941 1941k
1942 1942Calendar
 1943 1943k
1944 1944kal
1945 1945kal
1946 1946
 1947 1947
 1948 1948kal
1949 1949
 1950 1950Kal
 1951 hp photosmart 720
1952 1952kal
1953 1953kal
1954 1954kal
1955 1955Kal
1956 1956cal
1957 1957kal
1958 1958kal
1959 1959Kal
1960 1960kal
1961 1961kal
 1962 1962kal
1963 1963kal
1964 H. K?ttenstorfer
 1965 1965SV
 1966 1966kal 
1967 1967
1968 1968kal
1969 1969kal
 1970 1970Kal
 1971 1971Kal
1972 1972Kal
1973 1973Kal
 1974 H. Köttenstorfer
 1975 1975kal
1976 1976kalab
 1977 1977kal
1978 1978Moon
 1979  1979kal
1980 1980kal
 1981 1981kal
 1982  1982akal
1983  1983akal
1984 1984kal
1985 1985kal
 1986 1986kal
1987  1987kal
1988 1988kal
1989 1989kal
 1990 1990kal
 1991 1991kal
1992 1992kalab
1993  1993kal
 1994 1994kal
1995 1995kal
1996  1996kal
 1998 1998kal
1999 1999Kal
2000 2000kal
2001  2001Kal
 2002 2002Kal
 2003 2003Kal
 2004  2004kal
2005 2005kal

Slave Collars


This is a blog about ornament.  And while a slave collar is by no means an ornament in its most sinister sense, it is a form of accessory in a society that does not see a collar on its slaves.  Of the many kinds of ornament the collar worn in modern metropolis has a primarily sexual facet to it, its function can be subverted by wearing it out on the street, which may or may not be activated.  In a society that sees a slave collar as an edgy fashion or a penchant for bedroom role playing, collars for the bondage of humans are museum antiquities.  Many would have been wrought of iron, a highly recyclable metal. Many of the slave collars of the past have become nails, pulleys, or bolts, but the fact of the collar, presented here in a string of images, remains in active use.

American, 19th Century

American, 19th Century

Having my own life encounters with people held against their will, I can only begin to imagine the misery of being enslaved in a total sense.  I never thought much of restraints in the bedroom, I’m a bit of a tree hugger that way.  But I’ve never quite shaken my belief in the possibility of a kind of slavery to convenience or wage slavery, that should be rebelled against, preferably irrationally.

Slavery is lousy.  It stretches to before history, it continues today, all the civilizations have engaged in it, empire is arguably impossible without it, and if you consider women’s justice, in a world where most of them face the absence of life choices, and we have not moved far from the collars at all.  The word serf is just another kind of slave, the distinction being they and all their children belong to the property’s balance sheet, not the landlord’s personal budget.  That deal, where they are bound by shelter, food and family security needs, has been compared to a concept of debt slavery, where standards of living come with the requirement of long-term repayment.  Though not touched on often in the school books of the North, most of the wars fought in the Americas during the 19th century were revolutions that centered on slave rebellions. Serfs and debt slaves may not wear collars, but the patriotic pageants of North Korea certainly have a slave feel to them – they wear far more than collars, decorated in complete costumes.

Made in Pakistan, Modern

Made in Pakistan, Modern

Given that we are randy primates with pronounced… habits, activated by words, images, and other gifts of intelligence, and deeply invested in social thinking mechanisms, it isn’t a surprise that dominance and submission is played out in the buff with cuffs and collars as props.  While I can only imagine the psychological scars of anyone that survives being exposed to the whims of an icy hearted captor of human beings, statistics show that people who engage in any playful, consensual kink tend to be well adjusted and generally happier with their relationships.  The use of a bondage collar by people who have the good fortune of not living in the dark ages (historic or its modern enclaves) remains a bedroom toy and became fashionably acceptable thanks to a generation of punks who took elements of ugliness and subverted them as self decoration and the attracting of partners, and who is to say if there isn’t a thing of beauty in turning the ugliest symbols, like the slave collar, upside down.  It is admittedly strange, but then I can’t even bear to wear a wristwatch when I’m sunning the nether regions.





Roman, Pompeii, Sex Slave

Roman, Pompeii, Sex Slave

Ancient Greek




African Congo

African Congo

Europe, Shrews Fiddle

Europe, Shrews Fiddle

Shrews Fiddle

Inquisition, Shrews Fiddle

Spanish Inquisition

Papal States







Peru, 19th C.

Peru, 19th C.





Wales, Convict Ship Slave

Wales, Convict Ship Slave

Information on the continued existence of slaves today:



Modern, Sterling Silver

Modern, Sterling Silver
















The Living Cross


The main thrust of this article is to discuss the origins of the symbols found in a range of metalworking patterns that have been continuously employed in Ethiopian crosses, so you can enjoy the complexity they display.  Ethiopian crosses are possibly the most interesting crosses on earth, because each one looks completely different, of the finest examples no two are made the same, by tradition.  This is a rare rule in ornament, and there is an interesting story in African art history behind it.


As head pieces for processional staves, pendant necklaces, and hand-carried objects, the Ethiopian cross is distinguished for its stylistic variety and complexity, and also for its unique ability to escape being locked into an isomorphic form.  Through tradition the precedent of variation has been preserved, allowing artisans to take liberty with the shapes and patterns of their choosing.  Creative license with the cross is more rare in modern formulations of Christianity, where the symbol, particularly the Roman cross, has a standardized form.


Historians are unable to agree when the the cross was adopted as the primary emblem of Christianity.  It is generally thought to be no earlier than 200 AD, becoming widespread in the 3rd century.  The use of a cruciform for religious, talismanic, and decorative uses dates to neolithic times.  The stellar cross – a simple plus sign, the solar cross – a circle sectioned by an equilateral cross, which is also used as a symbol of the earth, and the swastika – the rotating cross or spiral, are early forms found in nearly all ancient cultures.  This includes cultures likely to not have communicated, and draws attention to the features of balance, symmetry, and the effect of diffraction creating rays around any light source, when you squint your eyes, as inspiring mysteries and sources of graphic inspiration common to human perception.  One of the marked interests in Ethiopian designs is the combined use of all these ancient forms.

Note: all images without captions are Ethiopian.

The Ankh

In Coptic Egypt, the ankh or crux ansata (Latin, “cross with a handle”) was still in active use, found etched into any of the mounds of stone temples old and new, perhaps for of its usefulness as the graphic symbol of life itself.   The ankh symbol is linked with a range of earth and fertility goddesses from a variety of cultures, and its use as our modern symbol for the female survives to this day, along with its use in science for identifying the planet Venus in astronomy.


Ankh amulet

Egypt, Ankh amulet, faience, 1700 BCE


The symbol can be found in neighboring cultures that shared economic ties.  One example being Herod the Great, like many local lords of the time a self-styled philosopher king after Alexander (and unfairly confused with his more evil son Herod Antipas), was known as the builder of a temple for every religion, though we don’t have a complete list of which ones.  He used the ankh as part of his personal seal in coinage, dying four years before “A.D.” begins, and shared interest in the bitumen trade (raw oil seepage useful for waterproofing and embalming) with the Cleopatras of Ptolemaic Egypt.


Herod the Great Coin 1st Cent. BCE, Obv: Celtic Helmet, Rev: Tripod of the Delphi Oracle and Ankh

Coin of Herod with Cross

Herod the Great Coin – Obv: Solar Cross, Rev: Delphic Tripod

The ankh is sometimes described as a cosmic tree of life, like a pillar which supports the sun.  This bears out well in the earliest imagery found in Christian manuscripts, where ankh style crosses are shown flowering, sprouting, drawn as a living thing.


Coptic Egypt, Codex Glazier, Acts of the Apostles, 4th Century

In former times, a glyph related to the ankh was a kind of knot, which has specific fertility associations, and happens to resemble the configuration of a woman’s reproductive organs – the womb, ovaries and vagina.   It also happens to look a bit like a rope person, and more practically, is likely depicting a kind of tampon.  Its name, Tyet or Tet, called the Blood of Isis, is frequently found in red materials, a reference to menstruation, and like the ankh, standing for well being and life.  The ankh is also described as the pillar that holds up the sun, drawn as seen when it sets.  The sun rests on a T form, the horizontal line for the horizon, the vertical line its reflection in the sea, and always points towards the viewer no matter how you move.  The related Phoenician symbol of the earth goddess drew this phenomenon as a circle resting on an inverted triangle.  Many of the Ethiopian crosses also have as a central motif a shape resembling a woman’s sex.

Red Knot of Isis

Nubia, 6th Cent. BCE, Tet, Isis Knot

A little language-object background helps to explore the relationship between the simple and complex versions of this symbol.  Writing is a kind of drawing, used to link to meaning, verbalized sound, and image.  Ancient people like moderns had great fun with visual puns, and symbols that had multiple meanings.   Both Greeks and Egyptians were champions at it, and often found mystical significance in the patterns formed by usage.  In the Greek alphabet the letter chi, written X, has a matching phonetic sound to ankh, –kh.   This meant the sound of the two symbols matched their visual compatibility.  With ankh (kh) and tet (t), you have two glyphs that both look like each other, and sound like the respective Greek letters Chi (x) and Tau (+).  So the word cross takes the same sound as this old word for life, which is -kh, and also describes the way it is drawn, though it is no longer first symbol most would used when asked to draw life.  The cross has for a large part of the world, become a signifier of a specific religion, and its branches, while in symbolism represents a specific crucifixion story.   But in the Ethiopian cross, we can argue it is also still drawn in a way that also asserts life itself as one possible meaning.

The Knotwork

Knotwork is a key element appearing in the earliest Christian uses of the cross.  Crosses used in key patterns for architectural decor were already staples in ancient culture.  The intertwining of the caduceus snakes are prehistoric and point to life, creative power and health, knotting together being the way snakes are found coupling.  These old creative associations can be traced far beyond the cultural regions in discussion.  But the development of knot-work fields as a motif appears as an innovation of this syncretic time period, one that quickly spread to a number of cultures.  Some argue for an origination in the knotwork animal motifs of the northern horse tribes of the Steppes, it is a regular Byzantine feature, and Armenian crosses, some of our earliest formal examples in the new context, are heavily invested in the use of it.



Knotwork also remains the central motif in the religious artwork of Islam, rooted in a close proximity of time and place, and in some cases was the only permitted form of representation besides writing.  Throughout Europe, the Celtic and Germanic cultures adopted it intensively, and its proliferation reveals how quickly communication was made.  One reason for the fast adoption in Europe may be that Herod the Great’s personal army consisted of Anatolian Celts, with broad trade connections; in the centuries that follow, the use of knotwork, spread to the reaches of the far northern cultures through Viking networks, visually merging neolithic spiral art that still survived there with the new universal literary religion.



Crosses as elaborated trees of life, foliated or filled with knot-work are not only the first such illustrations in Christian books, but found in the earliest sculpted versions as well:


Armenia, Kachkar



India, the Cross of Thomas



England, Lindisfarne Gospels


A Compound Talisman

Ethiopic crosses are emblematic trees whose branches touch on many meanings.  The incorporation of solar discs radiate in broad variety, interspersed with stars of David, tree birds, all varieties of this type of cross point to an intentional talismanic concentration of multiple symbols.

Ethiopian cross

EC images

Incorporated into many of these crosses are essential graphic elements that, like the cross itself, point backwards in time to pre-history, and underline the role as a broad symbol of life itself.  The cross is sometimes growing from a significant point, the peak of a holy mountain.  This is usually symbolized with a three-stepped pyramid, a base motif also found in many cultures.  Other times, a simple trident serves as the base, a symbol of creation found in very different cultures far to the north, and the east.  This abstracts the frequent presence of ‘twinning’ elements, symmetrical serpentine forms representing life force, that belong together in a class that includes caduceus, cherubs holding a wreath or curtain, the torc, and horns and antlers.  In simplified form, like the trident, this twinning is found within the Om symbol, and the triratna (three jewels), equally ancient symbols of creative power and life force, and all cognates of the tree of life, the ankh, and breasts.  We also find the early cross combined with images of the arch and pillars, doorway symbols of fertility culture and creative force, while the pillars are yet another symmetrical presentation of the ever-present twinning, branching, division and symmetry.

India, Saanchi, a triratna

India, Saanchi, a Buddhist triratna from the 3rd Century BCE

Processional_cross_Old_Lalibela_closeup Two Nagas

So we find in the Ethiopian record of the cross, the survival of a wide range of symbols for creative power, from earth goddesses, to the sun, to sprouting plants, regularly compounded into concentrated, syncretized forms.  The use of the knot-work can be easily understood in this context, as representing the entangled similarities of primary, multicultural symbols for life, woven into union.


Survival as a Symbol of Life

A very interesting distinction about the Ethiopian cross can be made, that sets it apart from the rest of the modern Christian world: the cross is an object of worship in itself, and has texts devoted to it that did not survive elsewhere, considering it a symbol in its own way alive, and able to bestow the power of life and healing.  In the world beyond Ethiopia, the cross lost all of its feminine, life-giving associations long ago, becoming something we are more likely to find familiar today, a memorial symbol of an execution, and a grave marker, referring to new life for a single historic personage in the distant past, rather that a broad conceptual emblem.  For most of the Christian world today, the cross symbolizes the crucifixion story, but is no longer seen as a force of life in itself as frequently.

Armenian Kachkar

Armenian Kachkar, a fascinating fusion of emblems of creation from all directions.  Each is also traditionally quite unique.


China, Beijing - Nestorian Tombstone, 7th Century

China, Beijing – Nestorian Christian Tombstone, 7th Century resting on a lotus, another creative emblem also found in late Egyptian art.


You can see in this Ethiopian processional design several things – the tradition that the direction of the spiral cross has a fixed meaning in time is false, it is like all graphic symbols simply a drawing first – and the fact that the Nazi claims on these symbols was nothing more than appropriation resulting from poor attempts at science. Had they known it pointed towards a total interconnection of life, and unity, rather than their notion of some mythic ancient superiority, they would have used something else I imagine.



Mongolia, Nestorian Pin, 7th Century

African currency Ethiopian Coptic cross 4

As an ancient literary empire closely linked to trade, and a historic part of the Egyptian sphere, Ethiopia’s connection to the Mediterranean dates to Solomonic times during its height, preparing a home for the arrival of converts to Christianity during much later Coptic times.  This would form a bloc that was deep enough into the African continent to avoid the coming torches of the Roman Empire.  Rapid changes in climate had a strong role in this, and reduced their ancient trade position by surrounding the country with desertification.  This helped the Ethiopians rebuff the Arabic conquest, which had spread east along the Silk Road and west by the North African coast, gradually causing the disappearance of many other cultures and languages.  As its ancient power quietly started to nod off, Ethiopia was effectively cut off from the later debates, mergers and conflicts that developed in the Christian world, sweeping changes would bury much evidence of this symbol’s highly syncretic character.


Preserved then in the many Ethiopian languages (there are more than 7 with both Semitic and Nile rooted flavors) are rituals, emblems and books that still provide glimpses into what the first distillations of Christianity from Coptic Egypt would have looked, survivors in remote cliff-top monasteries, some only approachable by climbing rope.




Despite the removal and this symbol’s character, Ethiopia did not escape any better the demotion of the goddess and the feminine in general that clearly defines the more recent religions – especially in the essential removal of women as people of leadership, which was never particularly universal, but suffered greater losses before what gains have been made in modern times.  But in some way, the cross there has retained a mothering, feminine presence, as a living symbol, in terms of the interwoven, multicultural history it displays.


As surviving symbols of a reverence for life, you could imagine there is just a hint of what was once more widely felt to be an essentially feminine concept of power.  And it makes sense that their individual patterns vary and change, each unique like a living thing, formed as though from a tangle of roots and branches.  Perhaps by preserving the lore as a living symbol, they have yet to collapse into uniformity, limited to a specific story, being overcome by text.

But the change in symbols, of female to male, from a sense of the renewal of creation, to a symbol of suffering  and death, should also serve as a warning of the dangers that a monopoly on belief poses to human cultures.  The loss of power for half of the people, to serve the power of another, and the past reshaped to delay, disable and divide people, is the mark of empire.  It is an immense privilege, using modern eyes, to be able to choose our beliefs, and pass up any that do not promote the belonging and creative potential of all individuals.  The returning of women into the fold of secular and spiritual leadership, in all aspects of society, is the restoration of some of what has been lost; the achievement of true balance and equity however would be a modern accomplishment without comparison, something new on this earth.  Restoring (or simply rediscovering) a reverence for life seems like a fitting step forward.   While there are losses we can lament in the past, beyond the necessity of a spiritual reverence for all living things, whatever chances we have for survival as a whole now depends on a major departure from days before science, when mystery and fear could be easily used to control the understanding people had of their world, and of their options.

The Ethiopian memory of the cross as a vital, living thing has something for anyone that can read the symbol, and while tied to place and time the tradition of depicting each one as distinct gives them individuality as well – as each person forms their own matrix of experiences and roots, each their own manifestation of life, both the fruit of the tree and the seed of what grows next.  We can all benefit from our woven nature, and find some direction by avoiding the erasure of becoming just another isomorphic expression of symbol and myth.

Click for a 1974 documentary that shows manufacturing methods and further history of Ethiopian Crosses.

Egypt, Temple of Isis at Philae, Coptic Cross, 3rd Century

Egypt, Temple of Isis at Philae, Coptic Cross, 3rd Century.  Note the star above, and the trident underneath.  Sky and sea, above and below?  Added to the four directions, is this a 3D compass rose?

German Hunting Amulets (Charivari)


It’s a bit difficult to grasp in a country whose idea of hunting starts with guns blazing, what might take shape in terms of custom and memory if the act of seeking sustenance in the wild woods, involved in memory more of a tangle of endurance, skill, patience, luck, risk, hunger and blood.  For descendants of a pioneer family such as my own, we have the image of the Mountain Man, rugged separatist who preferred the wilderness to the city, who preferred to learn the tongues of the native inhabitants to the slick tongues of the European immigrant flood.  They were described as possessing scarce knowledge, speaking the language of the land, and in what wild wisdom they had earned by sacrificing all comfort made them into symbols of a more pure form of justice, one that was more essential, more in line with the laws of man and beast, of life, than the spearpoint of economics that most think of when squinting eyes and peering backwards at the idea of frontier justice.  So goes the story anyway.


True Grit



So it was told around the fireside in my family, these men who lived off their (s)kills experienced something like the tradeoff of senses, the heightened hearing in the blind, or existential insight of the hunchback who lives in the cathedral attic.  They reverted in some way, retrogressed and so became civilized, solidified in another.   Their clothing might be entirely composed of the skins and furs of the animals they had killed, laces, shoes and bedding.  But these men were also told to be rogue scholars of a sort, not a few in possession of at the least the Works of Shakespeare which served as the everyman’s library of the day, or the Compleat Angler which was truly the English speaking world’s first Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I can remember making a beaded necklace complete with plastic bear-claws in a youth group, and being mystified by the legend of the meeting place where civilization receded into the woods, and the wild animal came to live alongside re-wild man.  I could feel, by slipping the costume claws over my neck, something of the effort and mystery involved in them.  You had to earn them.  You had to face death to wear them.

Shown worn traditionally over lederhosen.

Shown worn traditionally over lederhosen.


All of this introduction serves to relate as best I can to a form of talisman that is at once so ordinary it needs no introduction, and so vitally spiritual, in the most minimal sense of that word, that it could be called timeless.  Charivari is a word with uncertain etymology, it appears in several languages, in France it means roughly ‘a large group shouting’ or occasionally a wedding, but with completely unknown origins.  In Germans speaking countries, it refers specifically to the hunting amulet, or a chain of them that is  draped in front of one’s crotch when wearing their leather hunting gear, or the folklore costume version of them.  I’ve encountered references to these talismans having the expected magical uses, but also as displays of wealth in that purely tribal fashion, thick silver chains and strung coins, along with mythological references such as tribal symbols, saint medallions and vanitas skulls.  Tales are painted of young hunters being initiated and receiving them as graduation gifts, pointing to a form of ornament that blended personal taste, belief and trophy.  More than a few charivari chains terminate in a nice long bit of antler or a penis bone strung right over where the manhood dangles, suggesting no shortage of humor in these low-hung man jewels.



Women have their own charivaris as well, usually worn as an apron tie or bodice closure.  Tribal finds  throughout the ages show a widespread habit of stringing amulets along the belt in clusters or tucked into little pouches, for both men and women, surviving into the late middle ages and beyond as chatelains, buckles, watch fobs, and keychains, even today lingering in the rainbow colors of a lucky rabbit’s foot.  In modern terms, so cleaned of their practicality, it is difficult to picture the raw objective feeling beneath these traditional ornaments.


What I find most interesting is that for the most part charivaris seem to have a kind of humility to them, they are usually small tokens just the tips of horns, a single tooth, or a seed, or the jaws of a small hunter like a weasel.  At home or in the lodge one might mount heads or racks of horns, but when one goes out to the woods to engage in death and life, wearing their leather clothes, the talismans are subtle.   Bits of fang and horn, the pincers of stag beetles, the beaks of birds, little reminders of sharp and contentious things.  In a private, liminal way they can be held in the hand to become one of the animals, a small button to press and enter on even footing into the chaotic court of the wilderness. Small tokens, humble in their recognition, unsparing in their reminders at the modesty of the greatest hunter in the face of being snowblind, or scented by ravenous wolves, or breaking an ankle on a particularly long trek in search of food, or failing to find food too frequently.  Beak and talon, tooth and fang, small reminders of the hunter’s true scale in the face of survival, the woods, and the world beyond.

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Alphons Mucha’s 2nd Prize Jewelry



What is success?  For artists, the public is really only aware of a very few.  The ones that have withstood the test of modern, media time, artists that an average, educated adult could identify.  By identifying an artist, I mean not the name that is linked with a single iconic work, but one whose style is unforgettable, really registers.  The ones  that still sell posters, lunchboxes, and magnets, in every Midwest city bookshop, who are accepted as clearly being artists by people who would never on their own visit an art gallery in their life.  Among these few are Vincent Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dali, M.C. Escher, and of course Alphons Mucha.

The humble artist who was tapped by stage and screen star Sarah Burnhardt to work his designing full time, turned out to be more than a smart promotions move.  This Bohemian slumming it in Paris happened to have the most fluid, expressive line around, a quality that was just at that moment in time deeply desired by the elite – and it happened Mucha became one of just a few artists that really transformed all of visual design and the printed layout at the time.  It may be better to say that central to this was a totally new exposure to Asian art, and it was Mucha that codified the new design rules into the European style book.

Cascade, 1900

Cascade, 1900

The turn of the century, when 1899 became 1900, was for some a hopeful time, thanks to science people were beginning to think humans really could be wizards.  Inventive, not necessarily noble people were getting rich, sometimes with inventions or improved machinery, sometimes through the savage colonization of people with less sophisticated weapons.   The bizarre magic of electric lights and the motion pictures were appearing everywhere. For the European elite, the turn of the century was extra charged.  Each new country occupied by a European nation meant a boost to the market, so to speak, regardless of the long-term costs to all parties.  People were getting very close to making the first successful powered flight in an airplane, 1903, and gliders, balloons, and other contraptions occupied dilettante minds and hovered overhead.  In 1905 Einstein wrote a paper on photoelectric effect, one birth of quantum mechanics.  Thanks to potatoes and a reprieve from plague, population had exploded, making labor in Europe unbelievably cheap, while dissolving the traditions of apprenticeship.   This meant young designers with a fancy hand on the pencils could afford to employ seasoned craftsmen.

For the great majority of the people however, all of these wonders were carnival instances between lives of drudgery, but in this day, as though remembering through time and space, Mucha is best known as a poster artist, the artist who filled Paris with the most beautiful, free art posters you could imagine, and is still a household name.

The Zodiac, still in print

The Zodiac, still in print

Coming into his own at just this time was Mucha, who with little access to the world of owning fine things, had set about creating them for himself and been granted the situation to run with it.   He must have known that the  1900 Universal Exhibition was going to be a tremendous competition.  It was an intense concentration of high skill and inspiration on display in the new style, and it remains legendary for this reason.  Presenters had been working as long as ten years to prepare for it.  It showed what people are capable of, a side that is rarely seen.

It has been argued that it was so exceptional because the optimism brought by science and technology introduced a relief from the pessimism and lack of choice that followed a long reign of apocalyptic beliefs.  Or that it was a relief for the collective mind to see as new the art of other cultures, which helped break the aesthetic and symbolistic controls of their environment, that had been hardening in place for nearly two thousand years.   Though technology’s romantic side quickly gave way to an orgy of weaponization and destruction, Art Nouveau could be argued to be the aesthetic of humanism.

Reading the materials of the time, however, he was painted as quite the opposite.  In the New Century in 1904 he was described as a new version of the same old mysticism, the stuff of that his art rejects science and analysis in favor of natural beauty.  He is described along with a roster of artists as among those trying to resist modernity, and vestiges of this view remain.  One gets the sense in the article that this distaste for Nouveau was a casualty of the fever for hunting and eliminating old viewpoints, a foretaste of the passionate desire and then shame of fascism that would from these beginning claim all its acts to be in the name of science, modernity and progress.

Bracelet worn by Sarah Burnhardt in her role of Cleopatra

Bracelet worn by Sarah Burnhardt in her role of Cleopatra

Sarah BUrnhardt CLeopatra 1899

As the fair approached, the style in his posters was already being imitated across the city and beyond.  Even as wallpaper and textiles, these flames from a spark that appears to have come from Mucha’s flyer doodles.  Things had fully come to a boil, all in the new style that Mucha had been promoting.  And the greatest artisans there weren’t just introducing their own  product lines, they could also be found competing to win the prize for the best booth design.  At the same time he was designing a dozen lines, from posters to objects, Mucha managed to create an exquisite gilded metal bust for a perfumery booth, for the same fair he revealed his elaborate jewelry designs.

Display for Houbigant Perfumerie

Display for Houbigant Perfumerie

We all know that a certain Rene Lalique came out of that fair with his name synonymous to the 1900 style.  And this must have been a difficult outcome for Mucha, after he invested considerable time into a joint venture with another master jeweller of Paris, Georges Fouquet, he might even have been sure of himself.   Perhaps it was not a problem at all, they sold much jewelry besides.  I think the key difference is visible in the work, that Lalique is slightly better suited to the jewelry medium.  Familiar with the materials, a family background in glass, he could design with the specific capacities of the materials directly in mind.  Young Mucha’s designs instead show a kind of monotony of scale, and when he set down to invent jewels, they were like his posters, only miniaturized.  The complex drawings are just a little too fine for the way light plays on a small object, just a little too delicate to be held firmly in the human hand, and greatly increased the time in production of each piece.  He was too much of an illustrator to be a perfect craftsman.


Mucha Fouquet Brooch

What both Lalique and Mucha had in common, that Fouquet and other contemporaries seem to have had less of, was a childlike permission to draw from their imaginations.  Both Lalique and Mucha continued uninterrupted throughout their careers to draw the snakes, skulls, goblins, naked girls and magical themes that motivated them since boyhood.  Their adolescent imaginings were perfectly time with the young art movement, leaving them no need to change their repertoire, unconditioned to deliver the epics and myths required for institutional careering.

This made them odd birds for making jewelry,  one of the more engineering oriented and metallurgical arts, but this only compounded the refreshing character of them.  It was a moment when design became more valuable than production or materials, and people in the right position for it could pick almost any field to work over and gain quick notice with little competition. Many of Fouquet’s designs still held an adherence to the sharp corners of Victorian design, almost half way into the new style; he was either an apologist or moved with the times begrudgingly.  Fortunately, in executing Mucha’s designs, he was also rigidly dutiful, or was not allowed to stray by the artist.  The artist would in turn make his shop into perhaps the most elaborate, fantastical jewelry shop of all time.

Foquet's Shop, designed by Mucha



Lalique would eventually turn to revising the glassworks of his own background, almost every rare car’s radiator would be eventually capped by one of his fabulous cast glass plugs, flowers draped from his affordable line of vases.  Mucha left jeweling behind, but nevertheless became so respected he would redesign the money of his native Czechoslovakia, making arguably the most beautiful paper money ever produced.  There, decades later, he demonstrated with engraving a way that his finer lines could be put to their best use.


In a way, like all great changes in art movements, Nouveau was a premonition of today’s consumer culture, driven by the tastes and pocketbooks of elite identities.   But it was more than that, it had a rebellious, minor key tone to it that retains an almost populist respect, as though it were an artform that could not be criticized as merely excessive.  And it is uniquely identifiable, the curious arrival of a very new aesthetic, just at the dawn of mass production, that would help to unravel aesthetic as a cultural norm.  It suggests what modernity is capable of, and is at the same time a reminder of how easily beauty can be set aside and overpowered, perhaps this is why it remains protected by the public at large.


Products of all kinds continue to be released, using his designs as the measure.

Anyone with sense would be happy to say they took second place to Lalique for the gran prix.  But the astounding display of skill that year didn’t last for very long, war and its draining of the cultural market would see the taste for an optimistic and energized aesthetic vanish just as quickly as it arrived, and like so many people at the time, Mucha retired to the contained virtual reality of nostalgia for a mythic past.

Mucha even seems to have predicted the use of his artwork beneath glass domes, ultimately resin, the magic behind fridge magnets.

Mucha even seems to have predicted the suitability of putting his artwork beneath glass domes, like today’s resin, the magic behind our fridge magnets, over which he is still arguably the king.

 Moon Pendant


For his wife, Maruška Chytilová, 1906

Made for his wife, Maruška Chytilová, 1906

Gold before the Conquest

Tairona, X-XVI C. Columbia A masterful use of molds, casting, wire and fusing.

Tairona, X-XVI C.
Columbia – A masterful use of molds, casting, wire and fusing.

Pure gold is an element that has incredible working properties.  Even a small quantity can be put to use creatively, it can be hammered thinner than tissue paper, into a foil, and draped over wood forms.  Unlike copper and bronze, it is a dream for casting,  naturally free from oxidation means successful pours without the discovery of flux or other special technology.  It can be melted again and again without degrading, giving it a reputation of purity.  It never tarnishes, retaining its polish, and because it is highly ductile, one part of an artwork can be fused with focused heat without damaging other areas of the work, allowing complex forms to be built up with ease.

Zapotec, XVI C. Oaxaca, Mexico Lost wax method, a rare finger ring.

Zapotec, XVI C.
Oaxaca, Mexico
Lost wax method, a rare finger ring.

At the same time, the unalloyed metal is too soft to be used a tool or weapon.  Between its workability, beauty, and lack of usefulness, gold’s chiefly sensible employment through much of history has been as a creative medium, producing delicate objects that require gentle handling – really only useful for pleasant gifts, offerings, ceremonial cups, religious objects, and jewelry.   As a result, the earliest appearances of civilization are accompanied by gold working to some degree, where trade made it available, and its earliest disposable, symbolic character meant it went into graves and other places where at times it survives, often as virtually the only artistic record of a culture.

Spain, XVI C. Goldwork at the beginning of the conquest

Spain, XVI C.
Ring – Gold, enamel, Columbian emerald.  Produced with materials from the conquest.

From a raw material that circulates widely in tribal cultures, weighted for the value of its beauty alone, gold’s value changes when more organized, more imperial culture develops, and it becomes a unit of money.  As a culture grows more sophisticated, we see more gold concentrated in palaces and temples, and ultimately we see wars fought over it, and with it.

International Style Panama, V-VII C.

International Style
Panama, V-VII C.

In addition to distinct regional styles that reflect expansive cultures with visual vocabularies all their own, there is an International Style, works that have a simplified, trade oriented appearance to them.  There are also gold objects made as tribute, such as Mixtec and Zapotec works produced as payment to the Aztecs in their own themes.  Much like the ball-courts indicate the international popularity of the games and identify centers of tournaments, gold-work was clearly traded and had centers of production.  One of the greatest was in modern day Central America, especially Panama and Costa Rica, where various styles were produced for trade with neighboring cultures.   Centers with the longest known continuous production were in modern day Columbia and Peru, where the Incas obtained the discovery that gold could be burnished to a razor fine edge, and was being employed in surgery.

What follows is a visual sampling of major gold working cultures in the Americas. The work is sorted by centuries, to give a scope for develop over time.

Peru Chavin V-II BC

Chavin, V-II BC

Nazca II BCE - V CE Peru


Zenu, II BCE-X CE Columbia


Peru Moche Headhunters I-III C

Moche, I-III C.
Headhunters and Severed Heads

Moche, I-III C. Peru

Moche, I-III C.

Tolima II C. Columbia. The region is still producing gold today.

Columbia. The region is still producing gold today.


Panama, IV-V C.

Panama, IV-V C.

International Style, V-VII C. Panama

International Style, V-VII C.

Darien or Venado Beach V-VII C. Panama

Darien or Venado Beach
Deer God, II-VII C.

Yotoco or Calima VII C. Columbia

Yotoco or Calima

Wari VII-X C. Peru

Refined silver embossing

Coclé  VIII-XV C. Panama


Nariño  VIII-XV C. Columbia

Hummingbirds, VIII-XV C.

Coclé Alligator Necklace Panama

Alligator Necklace

Coclé Jade Nose Ring Panama

Jade Nose Ring

Popoyan IX-XVI C. Columbia



Tairona Butterfly X-XVI C. Columbia

Butterfly X-XVI C.

Veraguas X-XVI C. Panama


Chiriquí XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Costa Rica

Diquis Lobster XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Lobster XI-XVI C.
Clay casting, Costa Rica

Diquis XI-XVI C. Costa Rica

Employment of varied sand grit to create texture. Costa Rica

Tumbaga Pink Gold Alloy, X-XVI Columbia

Pink Gold Alloy, X-XVI


Inca, XII C. Peru

Inca, XII C.

Inca, XII-XV C. Peru

Inca, XII-XV C.
Masterwork of Repousse and Fusing


Bat Nose w Whale Tooth XII-XVI Panama

Bat Nose w Whale Tooth

Mixtec Lip Plugs 3 Mixtec Lip Plugs 2

Mixtec Lip Plugs, XVI C. Mexico

Lip Plugs, XVI C.

Aztec Heart Pendant, Tomb of Ahuizotl, XVI C. Mexico

Heart Pendant, Tomb of Ahuizotl, XVI C.


Lover’s Eyes

c5ea454127934d7827ffcb4a6e167c0eThe whims and tragedies of celebrity have always moved human societies.  In more cohesive, pre-modern times when people looked to highborn aristocrats as both the highest cultural and symbolic members of their society (regardless of whether this was with a positive feeling), anything from a decree to a rumor might influence the habits of the people.

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Could it have been the way she powdered her wig?

Could it have been the way she powdered her wig?

During the Georgian era, of English King George III, also known to American revolutionaries as Satan, it seems even his son was the recipient of popular sympathy against the rule of monarchy.  A young prince, one day to be George IV, fell for an older woman Maria Fitzherbert, who had survived several tragedies but was without the right shade of blue blood to be approved for the future king.  Unable to bring her into the family, he went through an elaborate common marriage anyway, in direct disregard of the law.  Innovating a way to be romantic in a ruling culture that held little regard for sentiment or affection, he hired a miniature painter to create a portrait as his love token.  Even this was considered too much of a risk of looking like a real marriage, and he was convinced to find something more discreet, and less legally binding.  He chose to send her a portrait of just his eye, and in turn he carried a matching portrait of her eye in his pocket.


The forbidden love was a lasting one, while towards the woman he was officially required to marry, and his own father, he maintained his distance from them for life.  The tragic story of  these ‘first family problems’ found sympathetic understanding in star-crossed lovers, partners of merchants making six month business trips crossing the Atlantic under sail, and any number of lovers who had no say in who their parents formed alliances and transactions with.  In a rare show of affinity, the French were so fond of the fad it quickly became assumed that the Lover’s Eye was their invention.  In other courts across Europe, where there were no shortage of high borns with illegitimate affections, solidarity with Lover’s Eye led the way.

As a result, many of them are masterful both in painting and jeweler’s settings, meaning you’re not likely to find one in an antique shop all that often, but we will continue to see them revisited as annual Valentine’s social media content for some time, as a reminder of how refreshing the weird can be.


One also has to wonder if there wasn’t another layer of sympathy, or even unconscious symbolism taking place – the tremendous coup of the American Revolution was accompanied by an unusual sign, the stuff of Puritans once believed to be shipped off and done with – the Masonic “All Seeing Eye” that would one day settle into its new home on the Dollar Bill.

The newly independent colonies had a well known reputation of saying 'God made me do it' every time they broke the law.

Puritan pulpit.  The newly independent Americans had a reputation of saying ‘God made me do it’ every time they broke the law.

Could it be that the Rebellion of the Prince and his choice of symbol were no coincidence, but a very clever jab at his father and unsympathetic members of royal courts everywhere?  Or that a part of the visual sensibility of the New World Order was easily appropriated in a tongue in cheek way for the noble right to romance?  A lover’s eye could as easily be a way of saying, “this is my Revolution I say, and she’s a ginger named Marianne who lives in the garden house.”


Scottish Petrospheres

In stark contrast to the previous article in which claims are made to know crescents more intimately than we might first imagine, it is worth mentioning the discovery of rare objects of ornament that have no clear explanation at all.

Exclusively in Scotland, with uncertain dating but believed to be over 2,000 years old,  exquisite little hand held works of art have been found in the form of unusual, ornamented stone spheres.  The very best of them, the Towie Ball, is meticulously engraved with some of the earliest known examples of an undeveloped predecessor to the Celtic spiral style that would ultimately develop in the region.

Towie Ball 10th C. BCE

Towie Ball, Aberdeenshire, 10th C. BCE, may be 3,000 years old.

Beyond the skill and care placed in these small, hand-held objects from a people who left little but piles of stones, the occasional rock carving, and circles of standing stones, what is striking about the petrospheres is their curious variety.  They have been compared to cells, atoms, and other things, but the real coup is how peculiarly unique they are in the scheme of world art.  Nothing quite matches these, making them an apparently completely regional innovation.



No two it would seem are alike, and so this must be one of the defining features of these unique objects.  It is said that for every one petrosphere in a museum, there are a hundred hidden away in private family collections, suggesting a tradition of secretly passing on these relics of the Scot’s pre-historic peoples.  The Scots are well known for preserving aspects of the language and customs of a once expansive culture.


Many speculations have been made as to their use, from cooking stones to weapons, but scientists have found these speculations to be without evidence.  Due to the unique character of them, it is fair to say that they were made by inventive, creative people with manual skill.  And in their variation, we can guess that the makers sought to individualize them.  What can be said, from a maker’s perspective, is that with the exception of the engraving done on the most exceptional, the balls all have in common the fact that they are made by filing.

Ashmolean Museum, discovered 1927

Ashmolean Museum, discovered in 1927

We have observed in surviving shamanic cultures around the world today that one of the major roles of a witch, magician or healer, and a central part of material trade for them, is the production of amulets.

Amulet objects are visually crafted to possess unique, curious appeal, and this is the physical aspect that will be blended with reverence for the individual’s perceived power, with just as much invested presence as the physical and implied symbolic references the object might include. It follows that forms of amulet could possibly gain in popularity for similar reasons – because of the unique beauty of interest of the object, or because the place, or person is particularly admired, and another possibility is inherent, that the object is believed to be associated with some great or miraculous event.  Much the way fans today seek to dress like their pop star idols, amulets are arguably more a matter of fashion than tradition or origination.  In this way they are more like art objects than artifacts of cultural concreteness.


It is enjoyable to find something that has no clear explanation at all.  The balls have no direct relation to anything left in stone carvings, the only record of the people who made these.  The scientists can only go so far as to call them “status objects”.  They have never been found in burials, which anthropologists suggest made them objects that did not belong to individuals.  Much later than the dates of any of these spheres, we have examples among the Anglo-Saxon and Frankish peoples the practice of wearing smooth rock crystal spheres as amulets.  These have been found in graves, and are known to have been worn by women, suspended from the belt on a chatelaine.  Though the time and distance does not draw any direct correlation, these are examples of how a spherical amulet might be worn.

Anglo Saxon VII C. Crystal Sphere, Warminster

Frankish, VI C., Crystal Sphere, Cologne

For now, the mystery of the petrospheres remains intact, the subject of household whispers and amusement, something to enjoy for not having a clear reason to exist, and connecting our own modern ideas of creativity to the impulses of people in the distant past.

Pages with more detail from Joseph Anderson’s Scotland In Pagan TImes:

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The Signet

Seal of Roman Emperor Augustus (the Imperial “Whelping Sphinx”)

One of my favorite subjects of jewelry, the signet or intaglio ring can act like a time-capsule of personal identity.  They were once so common they are like the signatures of ghosts left to sprinkle ancient dwelling houses.  Like a stone fingerprint, or the 3-digit security code on the back of your cards, they were used to seal documents or sign them by pressing their mark into a patch of wax.  Their designs were usually carved intaglio into a gemstone, so their impressions left a raised relief design.  Later, as they fell into disuse, their metal would be melted down or reused, the carved stones tossed aside having little practical value, to be discovered in abundance by archaeologists or traded endlessly as pocket curios of the Classical world.  Throughout the later middle ages they became prized treasures of nobility, reset and collected, maintaining a reputation with their lost languages and mysterious figures to be magical.

These seals were often worn as rings, in order to conduct routine business, and are remembered today as the signet ring.  The contemporary signet frequently bears an inscription or a seal of some significance – though rarely in modern times are they a reverse imprint designed for wax, and if so purely nostalgic.  Signet rings still retain the suggestion of a claim to some kind of authority (if only the spectre of masculine authority), whether a masonic ring, a class ring or a family crest,  or at its most minimal, a heavy ring with a large flat and undecorated stone.

Minoan Signet Ring

The origins of signature seals are very ancient, dating back thousand of years.
In Mohenjo Daro, the neatly planned city on the Indus River sophisticated clay seals with writing have been found dating back nearly 5,000 years.  Ancient Mesopotamians sometimes preferred a cylinder seal that pressed or unrolled a small vignette onto wax and clay plates.  Ancient historians describe a Babylon where not a person was without a seal hanging around their neck.

Assortment of early seals.

In ancient Egypt, a glittering example of their characteristic design sense, scarabs served the same purpose.  The scarab, a symbol of the heart and the sun, served as one face, while the other served for carved intaglio writing and was typically flat.  Perhaps this served some religious significance – there was a strong belief that one’s name, ren, was a sacred thing to be protected – the rotating scarab-heart might have served to ‘cover’ the name.  The hole drilled for the purpose of making these rotatable led to a popularity, and continued production today, of using them as beads.  These are so abundant, typically in the sky blue faience color with crude approximations of hieroglyphs stamped on the back, that each of us has likely seen at least one in gift shops around the world.  The ancient form are so common that a person can find the real thing in virtually any art history museum’s collections.  

Egyptian Scarab Rings

The scaraboid gem form of a ring seal was spread throughout the Mediterranean world by the long trade rule of the Phoenicians, and became the business standard.  For non-Egyptians the rotating stone had no significance, and we find the seals mounted in fixed settings that did not move.  Signet rings became widespread among many cultures surrounding the Mediterranean, and deep into Central Asia, while seals in general are found in use throughout the world.  

Their function in business affairs created specialty shops in every trading port and city, the gem carver being a discussed occupation in the literary Classics.  A skilled carver’s quality and style enhanced security by being easier to authenticate visually, much the way engravers were physically responsible for the level of security in printed banknotes in more recent times.  The best seals were elaborate works of art usually cut in fine grained, quartz based gemstones, such as agates and jaspers, more inexpensive ones cut into softer scratch-able stones like hematite or calcite.   Many were also cut into glass.  Roman glassmaking was at one time traded throughout the known world, including seals, introducing waves of generic signs and intaglio stones that were purely decorative for trade.  Some gems served as signatory objects in a different way, as devotional objects, inscribed with a donor’s name, with the purpose of leaving one’s name at temples and shrines, others were bought pre-made with the temple’s image, to take away as a commemorative souvenir and a source of income.

Assorted Roman gold signet rings.


Silver Roman signet ring

Signet rings can give a more personal glimpse of economic activity than coins can provide.  They show that during periods of heightened trade where they will appear in greater number, the variety of similar amulet stones also increases, and this is where the story grows interesting.  During the particularly syncretic time period (300 BC-300 CE) of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, centered around Alexandria, many cultures lived side by side, where familiar cultural motifs of writing and themes of religion and myth began to merge and also form new colloquial, magical and cult themes.  We see fine examples of inventive figures alongside numerous rough replicas of them, peak examples of the gem carver’s craft alongside soft stones that are crudely cut with incantations, psuedo-writing, magic diagrams, incantations and palindromes.  There were symbols of newly forming religions, hybrids of converging cultures, including Christianity.  It is as though the intaglio signet had for many become a kind of personalized charm or amulet, an emblem of relocated  authority, or a statement of membership in a group, perhaps a kind of continuation of the Egyptian culture’s reverence over the wearing and display of one’s identity.

Typical Greek-Egyptian fusion, here of Anubis and Hermes with incantations.

Early Christian Intaglio

One of the greatest mysteries of antiquity is the multitude of Alexandrian signet stones that bear the unusual word ‘Abrasax’.  The meaning of the name remains unclear, though the letters add up to 365 (they did not have numbers yet) and it may simply mean ‘everything’.  These gems frequently depict an array of unusual characters that do not directly tie to any established religious context.  These appear with a variety of different figures that have in common only an appearance of being invented, or combined, as though the results of an effort to form a sort of catch-all multicultural figure of devotion.  The frequent inscription may be the reason the word ‘Abracadabra’ still lingers today, carrying with it the magical connotation of these gems. The Abraxas stones are uncanny and unique, and mixed in with their contemporaries comprise such a magical pile of jewels they have attracted ages of mystique and curiosity for the time they were created.

An anguipede, unique  to its specific region and time.

Signet stones continued to be in use for a few centuries after the decline of Rome.  At the end of the Sassanid empire, the rule of Islam produced its own abundance of carved rings using Arabic script, which is well suited to ornamental gemstone carving.  Among these stones carnelian was especially favored from North Africa to Mughal India.  The Mughals took gemstone carving like all arts quite seriously, most famously with the enormous 5×4 cm ‘Moghul Emerald’.  


The Moghul Emerald

The Moghul Emerald


Solomon Iran XV Glory to He who does not die

Through the middle ages elaborate seals continued to be used in by nobles and clergy but the use of gemstones in regular trade use, and signet rings in general declined.  Beginning in the Renaissance ancient intaglios, widely collected as curiosities, resurged as an enduring fad in jewelry, strung together in necklaces, remounted in rings, and put together as ‘charm’ bracelets.  Collectors also traded plaster imprints of the stones from their elaborate cabinets to expand their collections.

Intaglio collection remounted

Even as professional habits and modes of expression have changed, the signet ring’s mystique, suggestion of antiquity, or pedigree, and air of importance has retained a certain validity in use.  It lives on as the well known style of ring with its broad flat face, often still serving as a stock engraving blank or bearing a suggestive yet anonymous seal design, or a trophy of membership.

Contemporary Onyx Signet by Stephen Einhorn

The popular black onyx blank slate has its own curious place in the story, apparently inspired in some way by Victorian mourning jewelry, today the black stone is the most typical for a modern signet ring, though in history not much evidence of its use appears before this time.

All in all, the signet is a multi-cultural survivor carrying on a 4,000 year sense of meaning as its place among ornament endures.  When an actual insignia is used today, etching directly into the metal is the preferred signet, leaving the lost ancient trade of cutting intaglio gemstones to be practiced strictly as a preservationist art.

Adone T Pozzobon hand engraved masonic caduceus ring


I have yet to uncover any biographical details of this Swiss family name, other than to discern that during the turn of the 20th century medal sculpting must have been a family affair. Henri-Édouard seems to be the most productive. I primarily wished to share this work for their purpose is today rather novel – these are awards for accomplishments of basic living, decorated with humanistic deities and nymphs – the progress and mere existence of modern living standards would appear to have reached near spiritual proportions of celebration. It was a peculiar combination of social-realism and erotic tokens that somehow describes the marketing zeitgeist of the burgeoning industrial age.

In artwork, the rise of science and technology was frequently paired with fanciful illustations of ancient metaphor; this neo-classical rendering was perhaps an emphasis of Newtonian triumph.  The early scientists worked under significant repression from the church, something that was freshly in mind during these times, leading to a popular sense that science had uncovered a more authentic ‘divinity of nature’.  This created a cultural connection between the wisdom of ancient, previously suppressed philosophers, their myth-making imagery, and modern progress.  A curious juxtaposition that captures the sense of excitement during a brief window in history.  The wonder of human invention would lose much of its glamour as the world wars approached.

It just makes one contemplate how things have changed. This was spurred by my mother discovering in a box of things a little gold medal I had won once for extemporaneous speaking. I admired the coarse ‘realness’ that it had compared to computer drafted engraving goods these days, and the little blank ribbon waiting for my engraved initials. As with this family of medalists, in addition to commissions for governments and institutions the artists regularly produced blank trophy items – agricultural scenes for market shows, family scenes to celebrate weddings and childbirth. These items would be hand engraved with names, inscriptions and dates. Hand engraving was an art, and a few decades before this period comprised a major part of independent jeweling.


Students graduating from the Marseille School of Decorative Arts were awarded with a medal of a woman removing her blouse ribbon.


Electricity, a common medallic theme in this time period, here celebrated with a floating nymph whose diaphanous shroud is pulled away, entangled in the new power lines.

A flowing toga on a victorious goddess is used to illustrate prudence.

I am guessing this is a brewery.

Here a goddess of progress, indicated by her Amazonian height, is showing the scientists around the labratory.

The hydroelectric dam.

Hospitals, symbolized by a goddess of health in scanty nightwear with a dish of fresh fruit.

Neptune himself attended the ceremony for stormdrain installation in Bern.

Into The Brooch

Everyone knows what a brooch pin is.  But what is it?  For the jeweler, it’s the closest one can come to making a free-standing sculptural piece.  It can be shallow relief or three dimensions, and is often the fate of any object that is created without a clear idea of its use beforehand.  All it requires is a pin of some kind to affix it to the front of a wearer’s garment.

Truth be told, the brooch has come pretty far, from its purely ornamental role today the namesake describes a typically hefty style of pin used to fasten one’s cloak or robe.  A few thousand years ago, these were more common than a pair of shoes. Not to be mistaken with a fibula, which is the exact same thing, but describes a slightly different mechanism that was favored by the Romans.  The brooch was popular among the other tribes, the Celts and such, and curiously we have opposing names for cloak pins between old enemies – empire and tribe.  We don’t use either word today for ‘fastener’, but the brooch pin does survive in a symbolic sense.  Jewelers will also be familiar with the word broach, which is a sharpened needle-like tool used to bore out the inside of rings and tubing.  It comes from the Old (Celt) French word for pin.

Here are a few images of the original brooch pins; to the sympathetic eye they provide rarified glimpses at a long and continent wide vocabulary of ornament that was largely chopped up (hacksilver is an archaeological term) and melted down by empires, invaders and inheritors.  From the looks of it, the brooches are distinct, personal items, perhaps once known for different tribal touches, or clan marks that are long gone.  At the same time, for design enthusiasts there is something peculiarly uniform,  a cultural aesthetic, that distinguishes the Celtic remnants – something like a philosophy that keeps the common thread of ornament informed, from Anatolia to Ireland. Fans of history are familiar with the mystery of this culture, who gave us many of the place-names of Europe, stories of King Arthur and Merlin, and legends of the bards travelling from tribe to tribe spreading the news in song, and the incredible survival of some of the language within the reaches of the British Isles. The old culture that used no writing left almost no record except their obsessive aesthetic of spirals and knots, an intent to abstraction that makes them all the more compelling.

Art Nouveau and Samurai Swords

It is well understood that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the rise of industrialization in Japan and the explosion of an international philosophy of ‘New Art’.  By looking at the mechanisms of this influence, I hope to demonstrate the New Art was much more like a prophetic vision than an ephemeral moment to enrich antique collectors.

In the accounts of Art Nouveau and its related movements (Arts & Crafts, Craftsman, il Liberte, Jugendstil, Secession, Arte Joven, Art Nova and Stile Liberty) one is apt to run across claims that it is a spontaneous development that marked a transition period between classical academicism and modernism. But this stand-alone islander perspective hardly accounts for its genesis or its end. The genesis came with the arrival of photography and access of the West’s artists to the finer crafts of Asia, especially Japan. Previously, Chinese porcelain had long been traded, but the style was vernacular and limited to like items. The arrival of documentation relating to supremely technical metalworking methods, sophisticated print and painting techniques, and essentially an entirely different cultural take on both universal design principles and representation of the natural world set off an inevitable alchemical reaction.

Artists I’ve spoken to about the subject explain that there is a root distinction in the composition of academic European and traditional Asian art. After the rediscovery of proportion during the Renaissance, the West had until the New Art period essentially pursued rules of symmetry – especially with regards to a horizon line, with the primary divisions of fore, middle and background. The history of western art has very specific reasons for this development, and essentially it revealed the collective psyche of a broad pan-culture. The approach to composition was both taught and essentially instinctual. When it came to decorative items, we find the same absolute principles: symmetry, relief and depth.

The shockwave of cultural confluence stems from a truly novel introduction within Eastern art: the concept of “infinite space”, which essentially allows elements of fore or background to interact with void. This had also developed to an instinctual level in that pan-culture, and is found mirrored in their philosophy and calligraphy. In fact, one reason speculated for this key element of composition is the use of pictographs for writing, developing an ancient practice of ‘floating’ pictures over the top of other pictures, creating a conceptual intuition for layering that was independent of relativistic proportion.

Once Western artists became exposed to the successful break in symmetry a new dialect of visual language spread like wildfire, transforming every aspect of art. Curiously, though so distinct and widely embraced it is easily identified today, this paradigm shift was short lived, and like the swing of a pendulum modernism rose with a hard return to symmetry, replacing decoration with line and simple geometry. It was as though nature was erased completely from vernacular language.

There are many discussions on this, which make for good reading. In a nutshell, the fine craft epidemic was made possible by the last generation of traditional apprenticed craftsmen, who were widely being displaced by the rise of industry. Essentially, young inspired artists and designers found at their disposal droves of highly skilled master craftsmen, who happened to be unemployed. Little did they know they were living in a fantastic, singular moment in time. Beautiful dreams sprang up in the form of cooperative workshops, intentional artisan communities, and free schools staffed by true experts in design and the arts. This was the last generation of its kind in the West, and is the reason why the housing, furniture and countless other items are unsurpassed even today in their quality and appeal. They are haunting, specific to a time, a place, and a lineage of authorship – they are downright talismanic.

One can hardly blame the hopes many had that it seemed possible for revolutionizing and improving the quality of life in every home for the founders of the various New Art movements. Unfortunately the economy of scale would make its presence known just as quickly, particularly at its apogee of unrestrained, nearly viral transformation of life in an opposite direction – the prolific outpouring of weapons of war that came to occupy the awareness and industry of that same, once hopeful world.

Following the global wars manufacturing had completely disconnected from skilled hand-crafting, its mechanisms actually unable to incorporate it even if it wanted to. Modernism took an even more severe turn, moving from streamlined to simple, and was embraced, as Corbusier put, as a way to ‘clean’ cities and lives of the madness and ruin of revolutions. Modernism represented a desire to turn away from the past’s hopes and nightmares, and erase if possible all grandiose discussion of the big picture. It was successful, to a degree, though ask anyone about the terms ‘marketing’ or ‘branding’ and you will hear a crystalline linguistic litany that is truly global, and discover what you already knew – that the predilection for living by a totalistic view has never departed.

The New Art appeared to our most creative thinkers to be the obvious direction for a new, international visual language and they threw themselves towards it with magnificent energy. That their prediction was shut down so abruptly should not be regarded as failure. They were absolutely right about the most critical of concerns:

1. The viewpoint of New Art was genuinely better. It was altruistic and holistic – a model that provided meaningful, enriching work for laborers, a clear and signature identity for artists, and affordable works of art for the everyday home.

2. The connection between tradition and technology was possible, and even likely. The only thing the model requires is an abundance of free time that was once standard in agrarian life, and the related family-community basis of living that integrates work, leisure, social belonging, house living, cultural distinctiveness, and allows for lifetime learning.

3. The motivation of holistic artistry is infectious and inspiring.  Life is better when the things we do, make and own have something we can relate to and enjoy. Inspiration from holistic sources generates tremendous energy. The evidence is in the record of New Art – for just a few decades time, their artifacts are everywhere, and are still repeated throughout the diaspora of information.

For your enjoyment, and as an aid to reflect on the impact and prophetic properties of visual language, I give you a few of the innumerable sword hilts of the Japanese samurai, called tsuba. Each instrument of death is the record of the love and life of a village metalsmith.  Japan is an archipelago whose transformation from feudal life by the sword to nuclear accident in less than a century can help us create a clearer model of modernity. It can help to reconsider the Western spaghetti soup story of industrial transformation that leads to all manner of complicated and unfortunate conclusions. For all the talk, well, just look at these sword hilts and decide if we’re doing our best today.

The Treasure of Sutton Hoo

The Sutton Hoo Burial Ground

This is a story about humility.   And the glory of a long-dead clan of Old English ancestors – so old they still wrote in runes.  I have always had a particular leaning towards self-education – entirely due to the pace and way that I ingest information.  This hasn’t been the best approach with regards to craft, a hard lesson – there are simply ways to do things right the first time that are so effective at shaving off unnecessary experimentation time… well, you get the picture.  Fortunately I had a mentor for the larger areas of metalwork, but for technical aspects of jewelry I could not bring myself to find one in person.

Picture me pouring through catalogs and big comprehensive books, searching for a solution to a problem.  Unbelievably, I was beginning to realize that what I was missing must have been so unthinking it was just overlooked in the writing of one book after another.  It was unbelievable.   Finally I reached for a trade-paperback sized book, a Dover to top all, something I had picked up for a few dollars and had basicly ignored in favor of costlier hard-bound books with photographs.  I had glanced through it initially, and mentally registered it as a reprint of antique methods I might one day enjoy for leisure.

Herbert Maryon Metalwork & Enamelling


In frustration I gave it a crack and behold, the very instructions I was seeking were there… written so lucidly and thoughtfully you could almost hear the teacher’s voice.  Herbert Maryon, Metalwork & Enamelling.  I learned quite a lesson from the little book on many levels.  I realized much of the jewelry equipment I was gradually accumulating were items I merely believed were essential.  Maryon didn’t fuss around with too many gadgets – his instruction was essential – rather, it was behavioral –  as though one could make anything with fire, metal, and sticks.

Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

Ship Burial - Not Much Stuff, All of it Excellent

This wasn’t far from the truth.  Maryon was the lead conservator of the Sutton Hoo treasure, the most sophisticated collection of Celtic metalwork ever discovered.  The key pieces amount to a few items from a chieftan’s ship burial, of such workmanship that the techniques would be a real challenge for a craftsman of today – no matter how much of the tool catalog they owned.  One gets the picture from Roman legend that the Celts were barbarians, foaming at the mouth.  Taking a close look at this treasure makes them appear just as sophisticated as the empire that fell upon them.  Like the earliest poems, the sword reveals masterful fold-lines, and is signed by its smith.  The gold work is expertly enameled  in a champleve manner.  In all, precision, control and long tradition are evident here.


Sword, signed "Scott"

This is now the book I recommend to anyone interested in metalsmithing.  As a place to start, it begins with common sense… the why precedes the how.  Maryon reverse engineered every method with which the ancient smiths were able to accomplish their work.  In this way he returns to write a teaching guide that requires the crafter, not the tools, to be sophisticated and sufficiently sharp.  It’s a refreshing realization in a time when so much is ready-made that grown adults may experience the childlike frustration of not having fully developed skills for making necessities on our own.  Maryon demonstrates that much of what constitutes an equipped and trained professional today is quite extraneous – as though the finest work may be produced outdoors, beside a fire, with a tree-stump, a bowl of tar and a hammer.  Indeed, Maryon helped realign my priorities, and place my start-up investment into my hands rather than the tools.  And I look forward this spring to following a few of his ‘recipes’ outside in the fresh air.

Thanks to archaeology, we now know for certain they wore mustaches.  Barbarians?  Hardly.

The Great Buckle

Shoulder Clasp

 How about the fineness of that enameled knotwork?


How about that checkerboard enamel inlay effect?

The Talisman

As long as I’ve known it, the term has felt closer to me than any other description for my craft’s purpose.  Jeweler, goldsmith, silversmith, designer, craftsman… all of these cross over somewhere in my work, but to be sure what I make, and why I make them, has little to do with the full sense of any of these trades.

I create and track talismans, phenomena that appear in fiction or historical reproduction, but are incredibly rare as an active product in this culture.  The talisman truly blurs the line between craft and art as it is viewed in those distinct ‘markets’.  It’s also an uncommon word.  If anything, it suggests an object of belief, like an amulet, or an object of power, like a fetish.  But that’s not quite right – a talisman is at once something special, completely unique, and functionally essential: somehow reflecting the spirit or person of maker and even the wearer.  The easiest way to explain why I prefer the term talisman is to say that you will find a lot of intelligence woven into my work:  backstory, magic, a distinct life in and of itself.  And my motivation, the thing that makes me a talismonger (now there’s a word that is nearly extinct)  has everything to do with seeding the world with droplets of this peculiar brand of intelligence, and ultimately achieving a degree in my work where this cultural function is the first thing that is apparent in any given piece.

My question in making the talisman is one of substance – what is the difference between intrinsic value and perceived value?  Where do they overlap, as with craftsmanship, and where are distinctions made?  Why does perceived value appear more frequently than the intrinsic in our culture?

The heritage of the word talisman is interesting.  It’s been all over the place, borrowed and repurposed, which is proof of a long life serving up a special meaning that never quite had another match.  Here’s the entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1630s, from Fr. talisman, in part via Arabic tilsam (pl. tilsaman), a Gk. loan-word; in part directly from Byzantine Gk. telesma “talisman, religious rite, payment,” earlier “consecration, ceremony,” originally “completion,” from telein “perform (religious rites), pay (tax), fulfill,” from telos “completion, end, tax”.

So the sense of this definition seems to be a ceremonious or customary payment.  A bit inadequate, this doesn’t seem to match our modern usage that well…  The Arabic participation makes sense – you still find antiquarian tribal wealth jewelry featuring thalers riveted into their fabric, especially among the Arab tribes.  Still, this doesn’t get close enough to our use of the word.  Let’s pull in the cognates – other words in use at the time that sound similar and resemble the meaning.

Talers on Qu'aiti Woman

Talers on Qu'aiti Woman

First off, we have thaler or taler, which is the origin of the word dollar, and describes large silver coins (equally well-known as crowns) used for trade throughout Europe and in other lands for hundred of years.   At some point, thaler was a word nearly anyone would know.  It also stood for the rise of stability through the great merchant leagues, the legendary free cities, and the decline of the dark ages.  Another cognate from this time, teller, means one who keeps count of money and ‘tells’ the count.  No doubt there were little jokes about the tellers that count the talers.

Maria Theresa Thaler with Arab Counter-Stamp

The Famous Maria Theresa Thaler with Arab Counterstrike

Thaler means ‘from the valley’ and it is said this meaning was first attached in the silver-mining regions of Bohemia, where the early silver coins were stamped with a design representing the valley it originated from.  Even today, independent bullion mines stamp their locations on their produce.  So here we can glean a little extra information – enhancing its role as a ceremonious payment, it is accountable, straight from the source.   The otherwise anonymous bit of metal gains implied value through the imprinted decorations, that indicate its origin and a guaranty of quality standards.  By the thaler’s other common name, crown, we know that the implied value is doubly connected to the eminence of its ‘maker’, with source and a noble’s ‘seal of approval’.

Wildermann Thaler

The Woodwose (Wilder Mann) Thaler

A great example of this double guarantee of source and approval is the ‘Woodwose’ thaler, an archaic word for a ‘wild man of the forest’ that came from folklore, and is unique to the region of Brunswick.  We might be able to taste a bit of the trustworthy character of this creature in his descendant, the ‘Jolly Green Giant’.  There are many designs.  On the flip ‘crown’ side one would find the issuer’s coat of arms.  Around our Wild Man we find various telling inscriptions in Latin, the language of church and king, imploring people to honor their value – “Recto Decius” – The Right Choice;   “Honestum pro Patriae” – Honor for my Country; “Deo et Patriae” – God and Country, and even “Alles mit Bedacht” – Think Everything Through.  So we have a coin that is not merely silver, but assured by crown, religion and commonwealth, and a hint at why talisman today means so much more than just a worn decorative object.

The thaler-crown was not only a trade unit, but such a fact of life that it was fractioned to make smaller coinage for daily use.  Well known in folklore today as the pirate’s currency, the ‘pieces of eight’ were a crown that was cut four times to produce eight wedges or chunks which were then hammered into crude coin shapes.

Pieces of Eight Dr M Lee Spence

Pieces of Eight

Finally we have one more cognate, surviving in the form of atelier, which is French for workshop, specifically describing a trade guild system of education and production that lasted for centuries.  It is connected to the occurrence across Europe of using taller to describe a workshop, especially a metalsmith, which seems a perfect hybrid word for ‘fancy’ as it could lend a suggestion of French sophistication to the shop’s name, and just happens to sound close to thaler, and so synonymous with a crown standard of quality, as with the implied meaning of a ‘sterling’ reputation.  I would imagine a successful taller would take the talers they earned straight to the teller.

So the talisman was once a substantial piece of silver whose markings assured reliability, and was the medium of customary tribute and borderless trade far beyond the known world.  A shining fruit that grew on the trees of the guilds, harvested from the workshops and scattered in the ships of the merchants.  A rising moon (the brightness of polished silver was since ancient times compared to the moon) that shed a light of prosperity on the dark ages.

And the talismonger was a maker and seller of talismans, precious metal workshop objects that were sophisticated, fancy, beautiful and of quality.  Something so good, as good as a thaler, and worthy for paying tribute.  The talisman was not simply a magical amulet, it was an exceptional and hand-crafted thing that captures something of the good and common law, of justice in pan-society.

Maria Theresa Thaler as Tribal Jewelry

Thaler transformed directly into wearable tribal wealth.

And this my friends is the origin of talisman; we had to abandon the cliff notes, blow the dust from a few older memories, and arrive at the personal motives behind this term.  It has come to be used almost purely for a fantastical end –  describing a mystical symbol-object one wore around their neck for protection, erroneously connected to early Europe but really stemming from more recent Colonial times.  This is precisely how memory becomes myth, and lives its life in the common use (the reflection of how it is breathed among everyday people).  What else would one indigenous to the Spice Islands, a Bedouin trader, or a Native American do with the exotic concept of this universal trade unit of Europe, but string the thaler or tilsaman around their neck like an amulet?

Taler as Tribal Ornament in Sudan

If the history of the Silver Thaler as a global trade unit interests you, check out this comprehensive history page about the Maria Theresa Taler, minted 300 million times:

The Maria Theresa Taler / Walter Hafner

(A golden hue is the effect of tarnish on 'frosty' proof minted silver. A proof originally was a specimen, struck twice on new dies to test them, but later became a kind of product with special dies for a mirror background. This is a very modern version of a very common, but enduringly beautiful Austrian thaler.)