Jewelry as Protective Ornaments

Rarely do we think of jewelry as a matter of life and death. On the contrary, ornament is typically perceived as superfluous or even trivial. In spite of this view, jewelry and other bodily adornment can indeed facilitate our survival in various ways. Among the many roles that ornament performs, perhaps its most compelling is its ability to protect us from harm.

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By Suzanne RamljakMore from this author

Our life is not a mutual helpfulness; but rather, cloaked under due laws-of-war, named "fair competition" and so forth, it is a mutual hostility. [1] - Thomas Carlyle

Rarely do we think of jewelry as a matter of life and death. On the contrary, ornament is typically perceived as superfluous or even trivial. In spite of this view, jewelry and other bodily adornment can indeed facilitate our survival in various ways. Among the many roles that ornament performs, perhaps its most compelling is its ability to protect us from harm.

Kelly Malec-Kosak
Three Rings from "Urban Wear" series, 1999
silver, steel, cement
Photo: Jeff Sabo

This crucial capacity of jewelry and other wearables is underscored by etymology. The word ornament is rooted in the Latin ornamentum, meaning "equipment, trappings, embellishment." Ornament's original function was understood to exceed mere decoration and to serve as a way of equipping a person for ceremony or battle. Similarly, the Sanskrit term for ornament, alamkara, encompasses meanings that include invigoration and making one fit.

Miel-Margarita Paredes Thank You (helmet), 2000 copper, brass
16 x 14 x 24″

Jewelry's basic safeguarding function is evident in humankind's earliest creative efforts; in the profusion of portable objects including amulets, talismans, and charms that were designed to repel evil and attract good fortune. Contemporary metal artists are likewise creating works that reveal ornament's ability to protect and empower. While some produce pieces that can actually thwart an attack, others take a more conceptual approach to our need for bodily defense.

Biologically speaking, Homo sapiens are an endoskeleton species, unequipped with an outer shell to shield our vital organs. Humans also lack other natural protective mechanisms such as horns, pincers, or quills. Our best means of defense is our intellect and skill at devising anatomical enhancements. Such "extensions," as Marshall McLuhan called them,' expand our physical range and help us adapt to changing conditions. Metal is ideally suited to this task of armoring ourselves. The material's unique properties have made it a trusty defender in everything from body armor to chastity belts to bulletproof vests.

Diane Field
Chain Mask, 2003
steel, gold 22 1/2 x 4″

Armor has been essential to the life of mankind from the beginning of recorded time. Helmets, the earliest known type of armor, afford maximum defense for the most critical part of the body and are still required gear for battle and sport. Military helmets have inspired metalsmith Miel-Margarita Paredes, who enlists animal forms in keeping with historical armor that used beastly imagery to endow the wearer with ferocity. Her helmet, ironically titled Thank You (2000), engulfs the head in a large metal creature that appears anything but grateful. Diane Field's Chain Mask (2003) also has a military precedent, in this case the chain mail of Spanish conquistadors. Created for a Peruvian fashion designer, her metal veil would not ward off a spear, but it does pay tribute to the great tradition of weaving metal into protective fabric.

Belgian artist Jan Fabre looks to the animal world for models of defense and survival. Admiring the outer skeletons of insects, his works suggest that humans must also develop a shell to insure the species' survival. For his performance piece Sanguis/Mantis (2001) he donned full body armor with a praying mantis helmet, while drawing with blood to evoke "a meditation on life and death and the nature of man." [3] Fabre has also used real beetle shells in his work, showcasing the indelible color and immense strength of the scarab's covering.

David Page's masks and helmets hark back to medieval armor, but go beyond military fortification to examine the "psychic transformation" that such headgear provides. His Cranial Cradle (1997) shields the wearer's eyes from sight, providing a powerful means of psychological protection. Page notes that such facial disguise poses a threat to law enforcement and that many states have outlawed wearing masks in public. The artist's work is particularly prescient given the current increase in governmental scrutiny and erosion of privacy.

Confronted with the threatening conditions of contemporary civilian life - including overcrowding, rampant crime, gun proliferation, and terrorism - the need to protect both body and mind has only grown. Kelly Malec-Kosak created the "Urban Wear" series to aid her survival in New York City, where she moved from the Midwest. Her rings combine weapon-like protrusions - spikes, thorns, blades - with a graspable element that helps the wearer focus and avoid being frozen by fear. These adornments proved to be effective deterrents, and Malec-Kosak reports that people duly shunned her when she wore them on the subway. David Akins's Volatile Relationship (1999), a brooch emitting a jet of flame, does not presuppose an urban setting, but does insert an aggressive element between the wearer and any would-be assailant.

The methods of protection have evolved throughout history in line with changing threats; armor has kept pace with arms. In our technologically advanced culture, assaults are more likely to come in the guise of machines, not men. Rather than shielding ourselves from physical attack, we are increasingly forced to arm ourselves against invasions of privacy. According to engineer and cyborg Steve Mann, we have witnessed a historical shift from guns to cameras and computers. "We live in a world in which the appearance of thugs and bandits is not ubiquitous," says Mann. "Surveillance and mass media have become the new instruments of social control." [4]

To counter public surveillance and as a tool of self-empowerment, Mann has developed a series of tetherless, wearable computers. Mann's WearComp and EyeTap inventions - tiny personal computers with head-mounted camera and miniature monitor over one eye - offer users a number of features, including a visual memory bank to aid with future identification and provide an alternative to public video footage; a "way finding" function that gives directions through projected maps and instructions; a safety net of "virtual escorts;" and the ability to send instant signals if in danger.

David Akins
Volatile Relationship, 1999 steel, brass, rubber, butane 3 x 3 x1″
Jan Fabre
Sanguis/Mantis, 2001 metal, leather, cotton 79 1/2 x 29 1/2″

The personal safety feature of such smart clothing could prove especially valuable to women, who remain the most frequent victims of violence. As part of an ongoing project, "Panaceas to Persistent Problems: Devices for Social Survival," artist Ira Sherman devised a number of anti-rape mechanisms aimed at guarding a woman's genitalia. The series includes The Injector model (2002), which employs pneumatically powered syringes that simultaneously inject dye and sedative into the would-be rapist, disabling and marking him for later detection. This is a chastity belt with a vengeance; it doesn't just defend the wearer but goes on the offensive to attack the intruder.

Regardless of technological advances, women must still contend with the age-old battle of the sexes. Seeking to establish a safe zone in the presence of antagonistic men, metalsmith Jesse Mathes turned to the aggressive apparel of England's Queen Elizabeth I. The assertive ruffs and corsets in Mathes's 'Territorial Defense" series fulfill her own requirement for safety and relieve "feelings of frustration and anger generated by gender power struggles." [5] The same urge for self-protection spurred Erica Stankwytch Bailey to create her "Elegant Defense" jewelry. These works attempt to reconcile two often conflicting needs; to be protected and to be comfortable with the means of defense. To avoid having to choose between ease and security, Stankwytch Bailey designed the pieces to feel good on wearers while unnerving observers. 'Today it is becoming more and more important that we protect ourselves physically," she maintains. "It seems only natural that personal adornments play a part in our new defensive lifestyles." [6]

Not surprisingly, our new ethos of danger has also found expression within popular fashion. Runways for the fall 2003 season were filled with fashions that conveyed an armored invulnerablity, as designers from Prada to Gucci showed clothes with "super-structuring" that resembled breastplates, helmets, and gauntlets. Similarly, the diamond industry's 2003 ad campaign featured images of women warriors whose right-hand diamond rings conferred an almost bionic power. According to the campaign's creator: 'The girl is sort of like Wonder Woman…The ring is part of her armor and the light symbolic, a sign of a kind of supernatural strength." [7]

Indeed, jewelry's "symbolic" power to protect the wearer can be just as potent as any physical barrier, whether one dons a diamond ring or turns to more sophisticated forms of adornment. A number of artists are creating works with the specific purpose of bracing a wearer's psyche, providing a form of "psychic armoring" in the words of jeweler Sharon Church. Such jewelry can be viewed in the tradition of ancient amulets and charms. Like amulets, much jewelry is faith-based; it relies on the wearer's belief in the object's power to bring security and wellbeing. The potential of jewelry to serve as a psychological aid, bolstering our courage and self-confidence, cannot be overestimated.

Nancy Worden's recent work addresses this lack of faith or self-assurance, particularly a condition she calls "spiritual osteoporosis" that she has observed in middle-aged women. Her series, appropriately titled "Exosquelette" (French for exoskeleton) focuses on the wearer's back and attempts to provide strength for women lacking "emotional backbone."

It could be argued that all jewelry functions as mental battle gear, preparing us for power struggles and symbolic skirmishes over status, wealth, or sexual prowess. The fortification provided by psychological means is equally effective as any body armor. Even within a military context, projecting an impression of power can be the best means of defense, regardless of actual strength. 'The first thing to remember about all armor is that it is 50% physically defensive and 50% mentally defensive," asserts chain mail expert Dylon Whyte. "Part of any fight is throwing your opponent off guard." [8] The strategy of disarming your opponent through visual splendor applies equally to the wearing of ornament. An agreeably charming object can be coercive by distracting or placating a viewer. According to cultural historian Wendy Steiner: 'The aesthetic symbolism of ornament involves a gesture of 'pleasing.' … It is part of the ideology of charm, the use of beauty to exert power through pleasing." [9] Although seemingly contradictory, one can gain advantage in an encounter by fulfilling another's desire for pleasurable forms.

Other less physically assertive modes of defense include the use of camouflage. As in the animal world, such disguise can be a crucial tactic of survival. Within a social context, it is sometimes safer to wear generic or nondescript jewelry to avoid attention. Posters in New York subway cars advising passengers to conceal or remove valuable jewelry endorse this strategy of blending into the background to escape being targeted for crime.

Our current era has been ominously titled the "age of terror." It is a period marked by great fear and uncertainty. As one writer summarized it: "It is not socially acceptable to deny the fear of terrorism. Terror is our totem - we believe in it." [10] A new market has sprung up to cater to this creed of anxiety. Demands for security services are booming and retail outlets like Safer America, which specializes in homeland security and personal protection, offers shoppers "peace of mind" with everything from gas masks to explosive detectors. But the biggest threat today may be the fear of danger rather than any actual harm. Roosevelt's World War II adage, "there is nothing to fear but fear itself" rings even more true within our new war on terror.

Steve Mann
EyeTap, 2003
wearable computer, camera, monitor

In the same way that belief can help counter fear, so too can information; knowledge is power in an information age. We increasingly turn to science and medicine to protect us from illness, and even from our own mortality. In this regard medical jewelry may be one of the most effective means of protective adornment. The Medic Assist company produces bracelets and necklaces engraved with lifesaving data - allergies, medications, and preexisting conditions - and even sells Alert-A-Medic heart-shaped pendants with a panic button that automatically dials 911. In a real life-threatening situation, a wearable Rx or allergy warning could be the ultimate defense against death. A forerunner in this genre of medical jewelry is metalsmith Mary Ann Scherr. Her innovative prototypes of 30 years ago were not just informational, but fully functioning devices including a Heart-Pulse Sensor Bracelet and Oxygen Mask Pendant.

Nancy Worden
Exosquelette #Two, 2003
copper, silver, wood, bone, glass
28x 12 1/2 x 1″
Photo: Rex Rystedt

Accessorizing for today's aggressive climate requires more than a pair of matching earrings. Increasingly we need other protective trappings, both tangible and abstract. In our post 9/11 world we face the renewed threat of a nuclear bomb or biological weapons. These invisible attackers (radiation or germs) will require new accoutrements for defense; perhaps a colorful NukAlert key chain with built-in radiation monitor and alarm. Instead of full body armor, our best means of protection may well be chemical. A locket with a potassium iodide pill to prevent thyroid cancer in the wake of a nuclear blast could soon become the next jewelry fad.

More than 150 years have passed since British historian Thomas Carlyle wrote this essay's opening quote, in which he bemoans the hostility of civilized life. The fact remains that we must struggle to survive, or at least to maintain some semblance of security. It is no small comfort to know that jewelry and ornament can play a key role in our defense.

  1. Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (1843).
  2. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965).
  3. Interview with Jan Fabre, 2001.
  4. Steve Mann, "Wearable Computing as Means for Personal Empowerment," keynote address at the International Conference on Wearable Computing, Fairfax, Virginia, May 1998.
  5. Jesse Mathes, unpublished artist statement, 2004.
  6. Erica Stankwytch Bailey, unpublished artist statement, 2004.
  7. Ed Evangelista, quoted in Ginia Bellafante, "Suiting up with the New Woman Warrior," New York Times, August 26, 2003.
  8. Dylon Whyte, "A Brief History of Armour" (2002),
  9. Wendy Steiner, "Interview," Metalsmith, Fall 2001.
  10. Michael Wolff, "What, Us Worry? Yes, Us Worry," New York Magazine, February 24, 2003: 31.
By Suzanne Ramljak – © Metalsmith Magazine – Spring 2005
Suzanne Ramljak is an art historian and editor of Metalsmith.
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Suzanne Ramljak

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