Harnessing the power of baubles and bling

Humans have been making jewellery since prehistoric times, and we continue to adorn ourselves with charms and trinkets. Quite a few of us will probably be giving and receiving some bling this Christmas. But why do we wear it? From hairpins that ward off evil, to anklets that alter the way you walk, there's a lot more to self-adornment than simply showing off.

Words by Elissavet Ntoulia

  • Story

A necklace to avert the evil eye

Necklace with flat glass beads, coloured bright blue, yellow and white .

It's likely that the earliest jewellery was worn as a form of protection, and that it wouldn't have been classified as jewellery per se, but as amulets, talismans or lucky charms. These objects are material manifestations of magical, folk or religious ideas. The idea of the evil eye is one of the most persistent. It's an ancient belief that a jealous and malicious gaze from someone with an evil eye can cause illness and misfortune. People believed that objects like this necklace could fend off the evil eye's powerful gaze.

A hairpin that's practical and protective

A polished silver pin with a long stem and a small clenched fist at the top.
Source: Victoria and Albert Museum. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Protective symbols can be incorporated into jewellery that serves an obvious practical function, like keeping hair or clothing in place. This hairpin has a head shaped like a fig hand, or 'mano fica'. This gesture, with the thumb in between the index and second finger, has been used to ward off evil since Phoenician times.

An amulet to relieve teething pains

Full colour painting of the Madonna holding the baby Jesus. The baby is wearing a bright red necklace against his bare chest. A man and a woman are also in attendance, the man appears to be an angel.

Protective powers can also be attributed to materials. In Italy, 'sprigs of rue' pendants incorporated pieces of red coral. Often associated with infancy, coral was believed particularly to protect pregnant women and babies from things including the evil eye, disease, and teething pains. In this painting, the baby Jesus wears a brightly coloured coral amulet around his neck.

A headpiece to connect with the elements

A photograph of a headdress made from brown material, decorated with clear, pink-red and green beads, and decorative metalwork.

Within Buddhist and Hindu traditions, coloured beads could affirm people's connection to the spiritual realm. Different colours were chosen to mirror natural substances: red (coral) for blood, fire and light, blue (turquoise) for the water, sky and air, and yellow (amber) for earth. This ceremonial headdress incorporates coral with human skull into a highly ritual piece.

A charm to bring good luck

A cat handmade from black fabric, with gold sequins for eyes, and wearing a large pink-red bow on its neck.

A wearable object's effectiveness depends on strength of belief as much as the power of precious materials. This simple cat-shaped brooch was designed as a charm to protect soldiers during World War I. The black cat has been associated with the devil since Medieval times, but eventually the idea turned around, and they came to symbolise the good luck of having encountered the devil without being struck down.

A pomander to sweeten bad air

Two decorative metal objects, one brass, one silver, both with rings at the top so they can be hung from a chain. Both are hollow, with room to hold herbs and spices inside. Opened out in this photograph to show the inside space, if they were closed the objects would be spherical.

For centuries, miasma theories explained that disease was transmitted through putrid air, so plague-stricken Europe used sweet-smelling pomanders as practical and pretty repellents to mask a lack of proper sanitation. The complexity of the design and the choice of materials reflected the social class of the owner, and the pomander became a status symbol for the elite, especially during visits to a city's poorer and smellier parts. The most elaborate incorporated a number of individual segments for adding sweet-smelling herbs and perfumes.

Foot jewels to mesmerise

A brightly coloured painting with a woman sitting in the foreground with another woman at her feet, and a white house and lake in the background.

Jewellery has come to be especially associated with women and the male gaze. Female feet have sensual connotations in several cultures and so great efforts go into making them attractive to the opposite sex. Indian women's anklets often have bells on them, mesmerising the viewer when the wearer is walking or dancing.

An anklet to alter the way you walk

A coil of metal.

Among Igbo people in Nigeria, heavy brass anklets were worn by married women before the 1920s. They were a symbol of wealth and a sort of oath of fidelity, the equivalent of a wedding ring, as they made wives incapable of running away. Unmarried girls would more often wear spiral coils of brass or copper like this one, which produced a swaying walk that was considered attractive.

A brooch to mourn and remember with

A rectangular brooch with human hair in the centre, surrounded by pearls and red gem stones.

Hair was first used in memento mori jewellery in the 17th century, alongside images of coffins and skeletons. In the Victorian era, complex hair weaving techniques were developed, and hair was incorporated into different kinds of jewellery designed to declare a love more powerful than death. Wearing jewellery with hair in it became part of upper-class women's grieving etiquette.

Self-adornment to impress and delight

Colour illustration showing the  heads and shoulders of five women wearing their hair dressed with flowers, butterflies, feathers, jewellery and a hat. The image also shows different bodice and collar designs, and hairstyles.

From the Victorian era on, much of jewellery’s significance was as a material possession. The sociologist Georg Simmel tracks the roots of all sexual differences to the original division of property: men used weapons, their first possessions, to impose power, while ornamental jewellery was the first form of women’s property used to bestow a different kind of power, one that comes with being a visual delight to others. In Simone De Beauvoir's terms, "the metamorphosis of a woman into an idol". Brands today still tend to prioritise female audiences, although recent menswear collections have included elaborate jewellery that goes some way to challenge these gender stereotypes.

About the author

Black and white, head and shoulders portrait of Elissavet Ntoulia.

Elissavet Ntoulia

Elissavet Ntoulia is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.