Tag Archives: silver

Tibetan Silver – Artifacts to Counterfeits

This is a phenomenon that I have witnessed in my own lifetime – the complete transformation of “Tibetan Silver” from authentic and rare crafts to a generic term that can be applied to virtually anything silvery in color, a synonym for “Hilltribe Silver”, and a similar story of the rapid wholesale export of a culture’s handwork to collectors leading directly to a mass market term for unrelated merchandise.

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Traditional Tribal Silver is Elaborate SIlver

Leaving it to the reader to contemplate its causes, here are some examples of the real things, treasured, prayed over, placed around children’s necks.  And then some of the modern fakes that carry a reputation few will ever be the wiser to.  Hopefully this will help clear some things up and spare buyers from deception.

First sign of a probable authentic piece - Huh? What the heck is this?

First sign of a probably authentic Tibet piece is the “Huh? What the heck is this?” Test

I would not have predicted it.  Having the benefit of friends with exotic, tribal interests when I was young, I was first introduced to the wonderful crafts of Tibet at a Renaissance Faire.  It wasn’t long before I watched stores stocked with these goods appear in nearly every college town in the country.  It made perfect sense for students – the ornaments were elaborate, bizarre, and incredibly affordable.  Everyone with a willingness to take risks, plus an open mind towards the world’s cultures, could find satisfyingly ornate ambiguity in the work.  Buddhas, when depicted, were charmingly rustic and understated, and writing, where it appeared, was in mysterious unintelligible Sanskrit, and there were lady Buddhas, fiery toothy demons, skulls, flowers, something for everyone.

Always rustic, the real stuff was obviously time consuming to make.

Always rustic, the real stuff was obviously time consuming to make. This piece was made primarily with chisels, carving into the metal.

Rings were chunky but never too gaudy.  Jewels, when present, were modest hand ground cabochons in earthy tones – pale turquoise, faded red coral, and lemony amber. The workmanship was routinely rough, and often had natural grime, scratches, dings.  Instruments had been played, drumskins dried out, Woodwork smelled of yak butter (quite seriously, it was used to seal and preserve) and the necklaces strung on cord perhaps even had some trace of the previous owner’s smell.  This all meant a young person with an eye on world exploration could own quality exotica, free of any evidence of modern manufacturing. The reward for having a taste for tribal aesthetics at that moment was to be able to decorate the dorm room with merchandise that looked like it belonged in a museum.

This is a ritual drinking bowl made out of a human skull.  Yes that's right, and though illegal untold numbers of these made in with the mountains of other stuff.

This is a ritual bowl made out of the top of a human skull. Yes, that’s right. While illegal, untold numbers of these made it through Customs among the mountains of other strangeness.

I wouldn’t have guessed that in a few decades, the plentiful stuff would actually run out.  Supply and demand, we usually assume, is in effect when low cost means there is an abundance of the material.  But there is a major difference between a steady supply, like sea water, and a sudden supply produced under pressure, like a broken fire hydrant.

Every colored stone had a trade value, often even beads are carefully framed.

Every colored stone had a real trade value; beads are carefully framed with the greatest care possible.  Even when skills are wonky, effort was considerable and the results are charming.

What happened, in the simplest of terms, is that everyone in Tibet, for one reason or another, began to sell their family jewels and handmade objects in the mid-20th century. As more people bought them, more was paid, and the faster their export began to cascade until cheap export knockoffs took their place. I write this with a mind towards showing how “Tibetan Silver” underwent a dramatic change in quality, from the authentic cultural production of a once massive, ancient Silk Road kingdom to a generic synonym for New Age fashion jewelry, so I’ll spare you economic theory.  This country was so isolated that not very long ago it was still using turquoise as a currency in certain parts. But faced with modernity meant being strapped for cash, not blue rocks.  This meant exporters with the guile were able to quickly fill up shipping containers with quality goods.  How could nimble hippies dancing on the campus green with their unusually fine jewels know that their favorite incense-burning import store was the compliment to something like a Las Vegas pawn shop halfway around the world?

Early export work uses the indian technique of combining stampings with wire applique to good rustic effect.  You could hear the buyers telling the TIbetans, "More amulets huh?  Look we need rings, bring us lots of rings."

Early, made for export work, uses the Indian technique of clustering stampings with wire ornament, and more lavish use of stones.  Rustic skill and imagination are still evident.  You could hear buyers telling Tibetan smiths, “More amulets, huh? Look we need rings, bring us lots of rings.”

The real stuff shows attention to detail doesn't rely on wire applique.

The real non-export stuff shows attention to detail, and doesn’t rely on wire.  Note the chisel work, even on the bail.  Attention to the bail is a sign the jeweler wasn’t being rushed in a production shop.

The influx of Tibetan imagery, artwork and handcrafts really began its stride in the late 1980s and hit full steam ten years later.  It begs the question, which came first, the popular sympathy here for Tibet that created interest in its culture, or the appearance of its affordable goods as ambassadors for growing interest in Tibet?  To be sure, there was a disconnect – Americans were faced with the uninterpreted presence of altar pieces, temple statuary, sacred paintings, and other accoutrements of a country that almost seemed to have just decided one day to give up its religion. One was usually able to learn the object’s name from the shop owner, and could tell it was soaked in symbolism… but that was about it.  Its every context was a mystery, and that appealed to many, granted a kind of permission to project into these objects new ideas that might age and tarnish immediately into something like legacy, history or tradition.  To be sure, these shops gave many American kids a taste of tribal tradition the likes of which they had no other access to.

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Two more examples of unhurried, skillful rustic chisel work and stamping.

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Without precision tools, a different kind of quality comes from the ample free time of pastoral living, which made intricate traditional crafts possible.

Fast forward just fifteen years, and most of these shops were gone. It’s striking to realize there was such a brief window, a fraction of a generation, that would have even noticed.  Along with the pre-owned goods, during that import bubble workshops of local craftspeople appeared to produce export goods, reasonable reproductions of the more popular elements they had already been making.  These came pouring in alongside the finer and more rustic crafts, and helped keep the prices low.

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A common export ring, with the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”. Skillful hand-pierced lettering, with stamped appliques and wire decoration.

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A modern wax casting of a similar Sanskrit ring, no craftsman (and no Tibet) involved.

A portable altar shrine, a centerpiece of craftsmanship.  Painstakingly hand repoussed, once a cherished possession.

A portable altar shrine, a centerpiece of craftsmanship. Painstakingly hand repoussed, with protective cloth covering, this was once a cherished possession.

A recent, though elaborate, imitation of a traditional altar.  Note the extensive use of wire filigree for fill.  The lavish use of stones on a sacred object is a giveaway.

A recent imitation of a shrine. Note the extensive use of wire filigree for fill. The lavish use of stones is off for a sacred object, they are too-bright (dyed), and the faceted low-grade gems a bizarre new novelty.  Not at all a traditional object.

While following the pattern of a traditional amulet box, the wire filigree marks it as recent, and designed for consumers.

While following the pattern of a traditional amulet box, the wire filigree and production shop uniformity marks it as recent, designed for export.

Another export item based on a traditional shape, made more tempting in gold, but relying on filigree and of poor skill.

Another export item based on a traditional shape, made more tempting in gold, but relying on filigree and of poor workmanship.  The Buddha (Chenrezig) is most certainly cast (resin and turquoise powder), and not a carving.  Probably made in India.

What has claimed the term “Tibetan Silver” today is truly bizarre, considering that nothing more than strung beads of the color scheme blue and red, or anything silver and mass produced at all, is apt to be called this today.  As if the metal itself is suggested to carry some mountainous property in it.  Whole websites in dubious English are dense with marginal New Age descriptions of Tibetan symbols, illustrated with counterfeit examples. The shift in meaning is so diluted, I can’t help but wonder if there is as much a demand in Asia as America for the lost mystique of Shangri-La, that has helped create the artificial response to demand.  It wouldn’t be right to call the dilution an amnesia, since the exotica poured in and vanished before consumer awareness had a chance to even register it. All that most people know about the curious time when another culture’s handcrafts came raining down on the streets of College-town America is the name of that country, and maybe who the Dalai Lama is.

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A very Tibetan symbol, the Double Dorje (crossed lightning), shown in a clean authentic style.

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A nicely carved casting of modern manufacture, possibly even designed on a computer. Probably from China, one giveaway that it’s not real is the tidy jumpring bail.

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A very poor workshop version, again with the modern bail.

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An extra tricky one, this looks believable, but all the bright colors scream Chinese dyed stones, while the filigree just says sweatshop.

It’s similar to the way Egyptian and Mesoamerican symbols had their own American luxury goods fads in the 20s and 50s respectively, riding carrier waves of authentic items that led to stylistic imitations. The difference is that the real work came from a pool of archaeological goods discovering a market, while in Tibet it happened in real time, their culture was leaving, sold off, and as it was floating across the sea it was already mid-transformation into becoming pop culture kitsch here.  It has become “retro” even though the originating culture is still breathing, and in some places producing the authentic work!

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These are from Harper’s Bazaar

From Harper's Bazaar

Welcome to the Global Village, Tibet

To close, allow me to horrify you with some search results that turn up for “Tibetan Silver”.  None of these are authentic, all of them rely on the skills and techniques of traditional Tibetan crafts being forgotten, and reduced to a magical consumer legend within a word:

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This one sold as “Vintage Tibetan Retro”. Yikes.

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Glue and gravel for the tourists, Mexico style.

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This “Tibetan Antique Necklace” is so horribly false, it shouldn’t claim to come from any country, anywhere.

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Leftover dyed bone beads from a girl scout craft bag = “Tibetan Jewelry”

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Red and blue palette plus imagination makes for a great Tibetan costume… for someone in Istanbul.

Nora Rochel

I discovered the artist as one might discover an unusual flower taking a walk through the woods.  Towering and obscuring the sunlight, the pillars of our man-made world tap deep into the soil and drink up surface resources until all that remains are smooth clearings, lightly carpeted with the needles begrudgingly sprinkled by the monarchy above.  In this setting, with eyes wide open, it is hard to miss the sparkling white flower of the smaller parts that are defiant in their scarcity, but homogenous in their rest upon the substrate that supports all structures great and small.  This is how I encountered her work, for its working, its inventive handling of the metal (such as the whitening of the silver, and the depthening of the brass), the organic order/disorder and delicacy that is described by her manipulation of the metals… these were both obvious and rewarding, true treasures to find.

Not surprising, then, to read Rochel’s statement and discover that she is motivated by the medicinal and the philosophical in the natural world.  She gives a nod to the medicinal for both its storied traditions and its implied references to time, “with its roots at the very beginning of human history or even before.”  The artist works with organic form the way one might work with abstract painting – to disturb the smoothness, to disturb the square – not for the sake of obliteration but to unveil further distrbutions of ordering concealed in the vitality of things a stage before their manufacture into tools.  Her pieces are not instruments or possessions, but distillations of essentials alive in the saps and flowers of her subjects.

The artist adventures across mediums in her pursuit.  When her metalsmithing strikes the chord she is after, the tone reaches ears and is picked up.  We can only hope these successes drive her further into her investigation.

Artist’s Website:  nora-rochel.de

Taxco the Magic Town

Now a legend among collectors and a destination for Mexico’s wealthy and jewelry enthusiasts, the town of Taxco has made a name for itself in the world of silver, weaving past and present through the imagination of artisans.

The town is referred to as one of Mexico’s ‘magic towns’. Taxco is small city in the state of Guerrero, built near Atatzin Mountain. Its name in Nahuatl (the Aztec language) means Place of the Ballgame, referring to the spectator sport enjoyed throughout the pre-Columbian civilizations, likely played there as it was a seat for the local Aztec governor.  A silver mine, now nearly depleted, has operated continuously since that time, with the working of the metal traditionally taking place in the vicinity as well. The new town built by Cortez closer to the mine is rugged and steep, twisting roads paved with darks and light stones to form mosaics including images from the zodiac. It is a place with a continuous line into the past: despite government intervention, the locals still practice an array of local customs, including a fondness for penitent processions.  Wearing hoods they conduct various activities involving chains, rosaries with sharp spikes, thorns, whipping, or the carrying of heavy objects.  It’s said they are carried on for their affinity to the regular blood rituals of the Aztecs.

In the late 1920’s, on a recommendation from a friend at the embassy, an American named William Spratling arrived in Taxco with the express purpose of setting up a jewelry workshop to revive the native reputation for silver in the area. A renaissance man, he had practiced architecture, participated in southern literary circles counting among his friends William Faulkner, and later became a champion of Mexican artists, Diego Rivera in particular, arranging most of the important New York shows for them. Hiring a local goldsmith and using Mesoamerican design principles, Spratling’s venture in Taxco far surpassed his wildest expectations. What originally was conceived as a modest jewelry shop in a picturesque mountain town became a massive apprenticeship system drawing and training talent from throughout the region. Essentially part of the same wave of economy and popular interest that fueled Arts and Crafts and similar movements in other parts of the world, an additional boost arrived when the European war interrupted supplies and placed Mexico in the spotlight for producing luxury goods. Trying to capitalize on this Spratling made a public offering and wound up losing control of his company. Nevertheless the system held, and many of his artisans went on to found workshops and design houses of their own that remain in operation. Their work and imitations of the unique regional style developed in Taxco can be found in antique shops throughout the Americas. It is denoted by sets of full, heavy repousse work, especially cuffs and bracelets and broad expressive necklaces, or as flat patterned enamel or mosaic inlay pieces. The work runs a spectrum between modern style and direct Mesoamerican reference, and generally features elaborate maker’s and quality marks, and the town’s name.

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

· Miel-Margarita Paredes ·

The irrepressable Miel-Margarita Paredes is a gift to us all, hailing from Wisconson.  Her repousse and fabrication ingenuity have resulted in pieces that are as suited to gallers walls as they are to craft museum displays.  Anyone familiar with repousse will instantly note the quality, skill and difficulty of the projects gives have life to – what we are observing here is a prodigy, able to produce work that takes many years of practice for others.  In particular, her functional items are displays of skillfully finding the imaginative plasticity of the metal, such as her “Ruminant Pillbox”,  her exquisite bird and octopus teapots, her toys, and her “Luna Moth Tea Infuser”.  Fortunately, this artist’s career is just beginning, and her energy (a vital component of a metal worker) promises much more to come.

Artist’s Website:  http://www.mielmargarita.com

Peer Smed

One can get a sense of how the lives of artisans have changed in a few generations time through little suggestive windows left from the turn of the century. Candid home snapshots start appearing, indexed documents are more easily found. Without too much information, the life or Peer Smed was a successful one. The son of a blacksmith, he moved to New York from Copenhagen, where the silversmith guilds would help promising artisans emigrate for fear of having a surplus in their countries. He occupied one studio and never left it, having five children several of whom grew up working with him. His work was held in museums during his lifetime, and he contributed architectural elements throughout the city. He lost a daughter when she was 18.

Dragon Triskelion

What is striking to me is the stability (standard of living) for the memorable metal artists of this time – from residency, to commission, to family and home. By contrast, a modern metal artisan may choose their trade arbitrarily out of interest, is very briefly trained at great personal expense, and is left to seek their fortune as an entrepreneur. Their skills frequently have little outlet among modern products (Peer Smed would make silverware and table services, for instance). For contemporaries the establishment of a permanent studio and a family is often delayed for a long period of time. This is not to say that every metalsmith of his day was of the calibre of Peer Smed, but one can see a distinction between a recent history of holistic cultural integration in the trade, and the literally radical and novel market based challenges today. Which is to say, an individual that understakes the approach of fine craft today, especially as an adult, is possessed of a good measure of courage.

Repousse

Repousse

Ring

Squirrel

Most of these images as you can see, are from a site that has an interesting bio page including photographs, I recommend you take a look and perhaps reflect on similar things: Peer Smed

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.

McClelland Barclay

Among jewelers Barclay lived an interesting, though somewhat short life.  His jewelry was informed by the times, with Arts and Crafts principles, introducing affordable items with the modern decorative style of natural subjects and asymmetrical composition that was known elsewhere as Art Nouveau, il Liberte, Jugenstil and other variations on the theme of a new approach.  Taking a page from Georg Jensen’s style and working approach,  his silver jewelry frequently revolved around nature, with workshops using high-relief repousse dies to produce stamped serial units for matching sets of bracelets, necklaces, brooches and earrings.  He also created rhinestone pieces that bore a striking similarity to Cartier’s famous art deco emerald works.

He was industrious – the graduate from the Art Institute of Chicago branched into jewelry and decorative home items after success with his pin-up art, especially in commercial art.  The war interrupted his jewelry when he was appointed by the Navy to develop maritime camoflauge schemes in the pacific theatre, and shortly after Pearl Harbor he began to paint recruiting posters.  At the age of 52, on assignment near the Solomon Islands, his boat was torpedoed.

Wings

 

Pinecone

Pinecone

Swan

Swan

Pear

Silver Rat

Around 2009 a friend, the artist Andrew Sexton, asked for assistance with a project. He wanted to make a gift that involved transforming a classic rubber rat toy into a substantial piece of silver bling. We began with a silicon mold of the rat to create a lost wax duplicate, which allowed for thickening up the tail and repositioning it to form a bail. It was my first direct pour using silver… as with anything it had its learning curve. It required several hours blasting the silver with an oxy-acetylene rig before we realized we needed a broader torch tip for melting. In all the thing drank up nearly five ounces, a real sternum buster. It was also my first stone setting, if I recall, involving two small pink rubies for the eyes.

Silver Rat 0272

An enduring mammal.

Left Eye

Left Eye

Rats

Solid

Oaxaca

In 2008 a little vacation in Oaxaca, Mexico turned up a few local jewelry themes.

 

Crosses of Yalalaga

The Cross of Yalalaga is usually an equilateral cross with three pendant crosses attached.  It was all over the place, on rooftops as weathervanes, in ceramic, and especially in silver.  Locals explained it was around long before Cortez showed up.  Oaxaca is a UNESCO heritage site, as it is home to quite a few totally distinct indigenous languages.  You can see some of these pieces have been Catholicized, some have not.  I was especially curious about the winged heart shape variation – some are even double-winged.

More Crosses of Yalalaga

Too bad I was still getting the hang of that camera.  In heavier versions of the pendant, the design wold reveal more distinctive transepts than a simple equilateral cross – distinctly resembling the sweeping wings of a diving bird.

Bird Earrings

Beautiful filligree works seemed to cary the unique fondness for the downward swooping bird.  Above, traditional wire forming methods show Spanish and indigenous influence.

Earrings

Variation: Double Birds and Crescent

In other pieces the bird theme continued as two birds facing each other, forming a symmetry meeting at the beak and feet.  This might explain the ‘winged heart’ on the smaller Yalalaga pendants, the heart shape being te silhouette of this symmetry.  Again, we have the downward crescent suggesting a swooping motion.

Contemporary Necklace

This magnificent piece of silver jewelry seems to have everything but the kitchen sink, but suggests indigenous metaphor in its arrangement.  The collar fan area is an array of winged cherubs, with an enclosure of a hand holding a heart.  Below it are a pair of ‘eyes’ that suggest the ancient Nahuatl god of rain and harvest, Tlaloc, that can be found concealed in the painted motifs of colonial churches.  If this is the case, we have another clue: two hands descend from his eyes, appearing to deliver the disc of the sun and the moon.  Could the hands’ gesture double as the silhouette of two birds?  The heart shape is easily made this way.  Could the descending bird represent the sun, or light?  And the pendants on the Yalalaga rays of light, raindrops, or seeds?

The trip to Oaxaca was a satisfying survey of syncretism between religion and culture.  Something in the jewelry of today retains threads of previous cultural incarnations: people who once made ornamental earplugs now make silver filligree birds and crosses.

Zapotec Earplugs

 

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.)