I love jewelry. When I was a little girl, and there were still tangible newspapers stuffed with glossy paper advertising sections, I would cut out the rings and necklaces from the weekend jewelry circulars to use in pretend. I've always had a very good eye for quality (an eye which is gradually deteriorating as those so-called age-related changes that afflict one's vision around age 40 begin to take hold, but one which can still spot a tiny 925 or 14k on clasps and ear posts), and love learning about what and how pieces have been crafted since people began draping garlands around their necks and poking little holes in their earlobes to hang things from.
Being unemployed, and away from the estate sale jewelry counter has curtailed my collecting somewhat. I still enjoy scrolling through eBay to see what treasures are available, and occasionally find things priced less than melt--I just flipped one this evening, as a matter of fact. Aside from the aforementioned coups, I observe that, as it has for millennia, jewelry continues to reflect faith, superstition, values and ignorance. Here are a few designs I regularly encounter:
The figa. Meaning "fist" in Italian, this is an odd elbow to thumb representation of the forearm with the hand clenched and the thumb thrust between two of the fingers. Whereas in the United States this has the entirely innocent connotation of telling gullible children "got your nose", in several countries in Europe, including the one where it originated, this gesture is equivalent to giving someone "the bird". And yet this crude symbol has not been worn traditionally by tough men looking for trouble, but by little children whose parents hoped they would avoid it. Essentially, the figa served as a 24/7 "F-you" to ill fate. Often carved out of coral (a substance thought lucky), they are also found in gold, ivory, and ebony. They are a popular addition to refined ladies' charm bracelets; not mine.
The evil eye. I've always been amused by those little eyeballs, usually blue, that stare out at the world from beads, tiles and amulets, but for many living around the Mediterranean basin, these are thought serious wards against evil. In an area where looking at someone in an odd way can be interpreted as casting ill fortune on them, these token tiny eyes stare down what bad luck could come your way. I don't know why they're usually made blue, since most people who wear them have dark eyes, but I find it tragic some think you must rely on such charms to ensure happiness. I do like eyeballs, however, so I found a brown one that reminded me of my late father's gaze and keep it for sentimental purposes.
The Mizpah. Ah, misquoted Scripture, how perversely amusing it can be! Usually made as a set of breakaway pendants (to be split so that one friend can wear one part of the quote and the other can wear the remainder), this is a short selection from the book of Genesis: "The Lord watch between thee and me when we are apart from one another." In context, this is a pact between estranged men Jacob and his father-in-law Laban, who had at least superficially reconciled after the former had fled with the latter's two daughters and grandchildren; in my opinion, it is not a double blessing to be shared between best friends. Essentially, the grandson of Abraham and his maternal uncle were stating that one should not plot against the other in secret, or abuse the other's people, that God would be watching each to ensure this. Mizpah sharing should really be between frenemies, not besties.
Angels. Everyone in North America probably recognizes that pair of particularly overdone-in-reproduction cherubs, chins on hands, gazing skyward. Again, from a biblical standpoint, cherubim are terrifying creatures, not cutesy babies with bird wings – every time angels appeared in the Old and New Testaments, they had to preface their messages with commands not to fear, because to be freaked out beyond measure was the natural response of any who saw them. Be that as it may, Americans in particular--even people who do not consider themselves religious--are addicted to the notion of the cute angel, these being two of the cutest. What most of the people who wear an image of one of these little contemplatives don't realize is that the image comes from Raphael's 1512 Sistine Madonna (fat winged babies were the Internet cats of the Renaissance period, and their appeal lingers to this day). The painting now is in the collection of Dresden's Alte Meister museum, having been one of the many "trophy art" pieces carried off to Moscow by the Soviets in the concluding days of World War II. Since my masters thesis was on the subject of such expropriated art, I have an etched charm of the one-winged fellow on the bottom lefthand side of this masterpiece.
Much jewelry nowadays is not masterfully done. Sure, gold is expensive, but using metal as thin as paper to stamp out thousands of identical charms is just tacky, and most advertised as "diamond cut" ought to be run over by a steamroller. Just because something is in the vicinity of a diamond-dusted Dremel bit doesn't enhance its value--the slices actually serve to further decrease the metal content and increase the reflection abilities of cheap pieces of junk. And what's with all the hideously deformed cats? Why does almost every cat figure rendered in gold, even though accompanied by gemstones, look considerably more canine than feline? Truly, cats are not that challenging to model--they know how to pose. In sum, there are some truly terrible jewelry makers out there, at all points of the price spectrum. But then again, if some fool is willing to pay for something that took little time, few materials, and less skill to manufacture, what's to keep the makers from producing such schlock?
Finally, if trolling eBay's jewelry section teaches you anything, it is that the markup on precious metals and stones in the retail market is astounding, particularly for bulk-manufactured items. Most sellers online know that they have to list the weight of items, as this is certainly one of several factors that influences its ultimate selling price. Whereas most buyers are willing to pay 1.5 to 2 times the value of the components for something that doesn't bear a famous namethis is a considerable reduction from the prices charged in brick-and-mortar stores. Even those pieces embossed with marks of makers like Tiffany, John Hardy, David Yurman, and so forth often fetch far less than retail buyers might have led themselves to believe they would be able to realize in the second sale market. If you know your subject, know the prices of your components, and make sure (from looking at feedback and asking questions) that you are buying from a reputable source, you can slowly improve your jewelry collection at a fraction of retail cost.