9.8.13

Human stuff jewelry and body decorations

Bracelet, 1830. Gold, hair work. The two oval miniatures set into the buckle depict William and Mary of England.

What materials have people not used throughout history to create jewelry and body decorations : stones, shells, wood, metal, seeds, animal horns, feathers, glass. But the most odd and shocking one is the human stuff: hair, teeth, bones. The least appalling (at least for me) of the three is hair. Jewelry made with hair is dated back to at least the 1600's, when hair bracelets were given as love tokens by both men and women. During this time one was likely to find the hair placed under glass and used as a background for initials or some other personal symbol to the wearer.

Brooch, England, 1754. Silver openwork set with rose and brilliant-cut diamonds and rubies, and enamelled gold with hair. The Victoria and Albert Museum 

Queen Victoria gave pieces of jewelry made from her hair as gifts, many of these pieces were given to her children and grandchildren. Napoleon wore his watch on a chain made from the hair of his wife, Empress Marie Louise. Fashion for hair jewelry reached it's zenith in the Victorian era. Professional hairworkers wove it, as did amateurs. Godey's Lady's Book and Peterson's Magazine gave instructions and patterns for making hair brooches, cuff links, and bracelets at home.

Bracelet, Western Europe, 1830-50. Plaited human hair, with a gold clasp set with a shell cameo The Victoria and Albert Museum

Brooch, United States, 1864. Hair, gold. Photo source

Earrings, 1870. Gold, hair. Photo source 

If you feel a bit creeped out by jewelry made from human hair, what about teeth? Several early accounts of Europeans to New Zealand describe encounters with people adorned in human tooth pendants and necklaces. Few human tooth necklaces, especially those with a large accumulation of teeth, have been documented, with known examples coming from Fiji and Kiribati. Still little is understood about the history or exact meaning of these necklaces. They belonged to chiefs or to those of high status. Whether the teeth came from one’s ancestors or from the mouths of enemies, each tooth would have been viewed as a representation or an embodiment of the deceased transferring the power to the wearer.

Necklace (Vuasagale), 18th -19th century, Fiji. Human tooth, fiber.  The Bowers Museum

A braided fiber strand holds together 203 (!) human teeth that make up this extraordinary necklace on the photo above. Only two types of teeth, the incisors and canines, were used in the necklace’s construction; this is to say that the necklace carries nearly 60 (and likely closer to 100) individuals’ teeth. Each tooth has been carefully extracted so that the root of the tooth, which has been perforated to allow the passing of the cord, has stayed in tact.
If you think that human teeth ornaments were used only among faraway tribes, you are wrong. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert used human teeth in some of their jewelry, too. For no other reason but sentimentality. For example, this unusual and tiny brooch in the form of a thistle has, as its flower, the first milk tooth lost by the firstborn of their nine children, Princess Victoria. An inscription on the reverse states the tooth was pulled by Prince Albert on September 13, 1847.

Brooch, England, 1847. Gold, enamel, tooth. Photo  source

Don't think that human tooth jewelry is a thing of the past. Today Australian designer Polly van der Glas creates necklaces, rings, earrings and pins using human teeth.


Rings from Polly van der Glas. Human teeth, silver. Photo from the artist's site

And now, to the gruesomest part - human bones. Tibetans have been using this material for all kinds of devotional objects and body decorations such as aprons and necklaces. This traditional practice is supposed to remind the faithful of the transience of human life and the necessity to get rid of one’s attachment to the physical body in order to effectively pursue enlightenment.

Tibetan ritual apron, 1800s. Bones, cotton, metal discs, bells. The Indianapolis Museum of Art 

This apron of finely carved human bones is a striking example of its kind and is just one element in a costume of several parts, all made out of human bones. The apron would have been worn with a matching hat, a chest ornament, armbands, bracelets, and anklets during ritual dances and ceremonies associated with Tantric Buddhism.
In America the tribes of the Great Basin, a desert region in the western region of the United States, wore claw necklaces strung alternately with human finger bones. The use of human bones in ornaments has had a widespread distribution in Polynesia,too. Presumably such ornaments were regarded as influencial sources of power but their precise meaning has been lost.

 Chau-ga-ta necklace, the Andaman Island, 1872. Human bones, teeth, fiber. The Pitt Rivers Museum

In the Andaman Islands there is tradition to wear a necklace called chau-ga-ta. It is made of pieces of human bone rib or finger bones, which have been tied together with plant fiber and stained with red ocher. The end of the necklace has also been decorated with human teeth. Friends and relatives wore chau-ga-ta necklaces as a memorial to the deceased. They were also worn as a charm against sickness or by those suffering from an ailment, the necklace strung tightly around the part of the body that was in pain.
So, how do you find these pieces? Would you ever wear anything of these?

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10 comments:

  1. Absolutely enthralling post. I am totally grossed out by most of the custom, but drawn in by other parts of it. The hair part does not gross me out at all. Maybe it's the love of Victorian culture. Great post! I will have to share this with my readers at AMothersJournal.com

    XOXO
    Lynn

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  2. Such incredible jewellery, I adore those hair bracelets and earrings, and the rings, I'd happily wear them all! Thanks for this fascinating post.

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  3. Thanks again for a well-researched and fascinating jewelry post. I find the teeth and bone jewelry a bit macabre. I'd wear the hair under glass piece and I find the baby tooth brooch rather sweet.

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  4. Fascinating post! Really creepy. Even the hair. The Victorians also used hair not only as simple jewellery which they found beautiful, but also as mourning jewellery to always have a piece of a deceased person with them. Of course it also was one of the few jewellery types allowed to be worn during the mourning period. For example:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/sk6JlaxBRmWLv625ew14ww

    Rememberance seems to be a big factor in the human stuff jewellery business ;)

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  5. The first bracelet is fabulous! Human hair is fine, it's the teeth and bones I would have to think about.

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  6. the first bracelet is so lovely

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  7. No, I cannot imagine wearing or making anything like this at all :) But, I just recently re-read Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen in which she mentioned a ring with the lock of female hair worn by one of the male characters... I guess, it was popular at that time... Thank you for the post!

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  8. This is an amazing post! I am totally impressed with these jewels, I knew nothing about making jewelry with "human remains", does not seem the type of jewelry that I would use, hehe ... however, I keep in a drawer the first teeth that fell to my two children ... little treasures.

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  9. A great read. Such interesting customs. I don't find any of it hard to stomach. Each individual has their own reason for wearing this type of jewelry. As long as the pieces to make the end product were come by in a lawful manner, I see no issue. Our differences in thoughts and ideas are what make each one of unique. Again, great post.

    Barbara @ www.allmylivesnow.com

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