Talismanic jewellery is as old as humanity. The ancient Egyptians adorned themselves with protective amulets in the shape of deities, animals, or sacred symbols to ward off misfortune. In China, people have worn jade bangles and ornaments for millennia, and the stone is admired as much for its associations with prosperity, purity and success as for its rich, verdant hue. Confucius (551-479BC) even lists its multiple virtues in his Book of Rites, calling it an “admirable substance, born of mountain and water”.
Meanwhile, Roman infants were given pendant charms to defend them against evil spirits; baby girls traditionally wore a crescent-shaped pendant called a lunula until they were old enough to marry, while boys sported a rounded gold bulla until they came of age.
Our ancestors even ascribed colourful gemstones with different mystical powers. “You only have to look at the Middleham Jewel to imagine the protective and transcendental qualities that it held for the noblewoman who wore it,” says the fine jewellery expert and gemologist, Joanna Hardy, who has written about the 15th-century jewel in her new book, Sapphire, published this month. The golden, lozenge-shaped pendant is set with a deep blue sapphire (a stone that symbolised healing and divinity) and engraved with biblical scenes and magical incantations. Its hollow back would have originally held fragments of silk, thought to be holy cloth, so the piece could have been worn as an aid to prayer. “It’s also thought that the woman who owned it might have used it to help with childbirth and to see off bad luck,” states Hardy. “Back then, gemstones were considered a cure for illness. They were prescribed by apothecaries during a time when lives were often cut short by disease, and good health was never a given.”
In these anxious and unsettling times, it’s easy to see why many designers have found themselves drawn to exploring age-old themes of security, comfort, and protection, creating jewellery for customers who are increasingly looking for accessories with more resonance and meaning. The choice of jewel itself can be a window to the wearer’s emotional needs – whether they want to feel calmer, happier or more inspired – as well as the personal narrative they want to tell. “People aren’t buying these pieces just because they’re pretty, but because they speak to something inside of them. I think there’s a lot more acceptance now in the West of the mystical and spiritual associations of jewellery, which we haven’t had for a long time,” says Mariella Tandy, the London-based founder of Alemdara jewellery. Her best-sellers include bracelets and necklaces embellished with Turkish evil eye and hand charms, designed to be worn close to the skin and never taken off. “We saw a massive uptick in sales during the pandemic, especially for gifting. Customers were also buying multiples of the same design for several generations to wear at once, as a symbol of a loving bond or shared story.”
Traditional evil eyes and zodiac signs are not the only symbols proving popular at the moment. According to Liz Olver, director of product design at Vashi, there’s been a surge of interest in abstract forms with more personal meaning since the Covid crisis began. “Any design, as long as it brings you happiness, could be considered a kind of talisman. We’ve just created a tiny charm for someone based on the lines of an Ordnance Survey map, and it means absolutely everything to them,” she says. “I see what we do as trying to realise people’s deepest, most intimate wishes through jewellery, so that every time a customer looks at their piece, they get a hit of joy from it.”
From ancient icons reimagined for a modern-day audience, to colourful crystals that tap into the global wellbeing trend, and fresh interpretations of age-old luck tokens (blessed by actual shamans, no less), today’s jewellers are creating 21st-century talismans that resonate in a whole new way. Here, we round up 15 of the best to explore right now.