Editors

A Look at Protective Jewelry Through the Ages

EditorsMay 11, 2020

A Look at Protective Jewelry Through the Ages

From Native American turtle amulets to the Italian cornicello, Associate Editor Lenore Fedow delves into the history of pieces of jewelry believed to shield the wearer.

Native American children were given turtle amulets to protect themselves from illness and promote longevity. It is one of four examples of protective jewelry Associate Editor Lenore Fedow explores in this blog post. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images)
I am a bit superstitious, to say the least.

I’d say it’s a mix of my nervous nature and my Italian-American upbringing, a culture steeped in old-world tradition with no shortage of superstitions.

Everything from placing a hat on the bed to putting new shoes on the table was a way to bring bad luck.

But for as long as we’ve believed in bad luck and curses, we’ve also believed there were ways to protect ourselves, and those included wearing jewelry.

Across cultures, jewelry has served as both adornment and protection for centuries, its beauty doubling as a safeguard for the wearer.

Join me as I take a look through some notable protective amulets throughout jewelry history.

The Cornicello

A 14-karat gold cornicello pendant by Ariel Gordon ($95). The horn-shaped pendant is believed to ward off bad intentions. (Image courtesy of Ariel Gordon website)
A 14-karat gold cornicello pendant by Ariel Gordon ($95). The horn-shaped pendant is believed to ward off bad intentions. (Image courtesy of Ariel Gordon website)

My mother was a fervent believer in “il malocchio,” or the evil eye, the belief that someone could be so jealous of you that the envy would manifest into a curse on you.

One way to protect yourself and repel the curse was to wear the cornicello, or “little horn,” a small pendant that looks like a red chili pepper.

Once made of red coral, it’s taken various forms through the years and has been embraced by jewelry designers many times over; check out these modern cornicello charms from Ariel Gordon and Loren Stewart.

In addition to protecting oneself, the symbol is thought to promote fertility and virility. 

You can still find the charms today, hanging off necklaces, keychains, and rearview mirrors, particularly in southern Italy, where my family is from, and in Italian-American neighborhoods, where my family is now. 

Similar to the superstitions surrounding pearls and opals, it’s considered bad luck to buy a cornicello for yourself.

Tau Cross

Cast and engraved gold Tau Cross pendants circa 1485 England from the Cloisters Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/shooting_Brooklyn)
Cast and engraved gold Tau Cross pendants circa 1485 England from the Cloisters Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/shooting_Brooklyn)

We’re taking it back to the first millennium to talk about the Tau Cross.

Religious jewelry as protection stretches back thousands of years, but the Tau Cross has a particularly interesting backstory.

The story has monks, poison, and demonic visions, so buckle up.

The t-shaped cross is named after the Greek letter “T” and was known to the Romans as “crux commissa,” or “connected cross” in Latin.

Also known as Saint Anthony’s Cross, it is linked to Saint Anthony of Egypt,  251-356 AD, one of the earliest monks and a founder of organized Christian monasticism. 


Anthony gave up his worldly possessions and went into the desert to live a life of fasting and solitude.

He was depicted wearing a Tau cross on his cloak and his followers did the same, adopting a black religious habit marked with a blue version of the symbol.


Saint Anthony in his cloak depicted in a 1460s woodcut (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Saint Anthony in his cloak depicted in a 1460s woodcut (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


Anthony was said to experience visions brought on by the devil, taking the form of a fellow monk bringing him bread during his fasts or wild beasts attacking him.

It was believed that Anthony’s devotion to God is what helped him to repel the visions.

You know what else can make a person see visions? Ergotism, a type of poisoning caused by a fungus on grains, like rye or wheat, used to make bread.

It can lead to convulsions, as well as muscle spasms, delusions, hallucinations, and crawling sensations on the skin, all similar to what Anthony was described to have experienced. Ergotism can also cause a burning sensation in the limbs, giving it the nickname “Saint Anthony’s Fire.”

While it later became clear that bad bread was the cause of Saint Anthony’s Fire, it was long believed that wearing the Tau cross, as he had done, was a way to protect against his eponymous disease.

Tau cross pendants were worn around the neck and on clothing, but also formed into sculptures and incorporated into church window designs.

There are still followers of Saint Anthony in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon, who wear Tau crosses on their black habits.

Today, the symbol is more widely associated with the Franciscan Order.

St. Francis of Assisi adopted the Tau symbol after hearing Pope Innocent III speak of its symbolism and power.

Turtle Amulets

Native American children received turtle amulets as tokens of protection. This one dates to between 1880 and 1920. (Image credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images)
Native American children received turtle amulets as tokens of protection. This one dates to between 1880 and 1920. (Image credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images)

Symbolism coupled with beautiful, intricate craftsmanship is a hallmark of Native American jewelry.

In the Lakota tradition, babies were gifted turtle-shaped amulets to protect against illness and ensure a long life.
 
The spirit of the turtle, or keya, represented life, longevity and strength.

When the baby’s umbilical cord fell off, it was sewed into a buckskin bag, usually shaped like a turtle, and the bag was attached to the baby’s cradle to be used as a toy.

The keya was thought to protect newborns from “mni watu,” or bacteria and germs that cause illness.

 Related stories will be right here … 

The turtle was also used as a teaching tool related to the tribe’s 13-month calendar.

Upon observing changes in the moon and stars, the tribe counted 13 new moons, each with 28 days between them. The turtle mirrors this, with 13 scales on its back and 28 small scales around its shell.

For the turtle charm to work, the child would have to keep it for a lifetime. But kids will be kids, so the turtle amulet was taken away from them for a number of years so they wouldn’t lose it.

The child would get it back when she or he was older and it could then be worn on a costume or a ceremonial dress.

The cord the amulet was held on was symbolic of a tie between the child’s existence before birth and life afterward.

Hematite

Greek warriors used the red residue left behind by hematite as protective war paint. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/KarlaPanchuk)
Greek warriors used the red residue left behind by hematite as protective war paint. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/KarlaPanchuk)

It wouldn’t be a historical jewelry blog without input from Isabelle Corvin, staff gemologist at Panowicz Jewelers in Olympia, Washington.

Corvin has contributed to my blogs about gemstone legends and cursed gemstones, so I had to bug her again for this one.

Hematite, a gray-to-black iron ore, is one of the most interesting protective amulets, said Corvin.

Derived from the Greek word for blood, “haima,”hematite was known as the “bleeding stone” because of the reddish streak of iron oxide it leaves behind, which Greek warriors once used as war paint.

“They would use oils or heated water on the stone so that when they pressed it on the skin, the iron staining would be applied,” Corvin said.

Historical evidence about folklore can be hard to find, but “Crystal Enchantments,” by author and occult researcher D.J. Conway, had some interesting information to share about hematite.

Roman soldiers believed in its protective properties, too, as hematite was thought to be sacred to Mars, the god of war.

When scraped against something, hematite produces a red powder, and that powder was rubbed against the skin before battle.

The stone itself was also worn for protection against battle wounds.

Lawyers suiting up for a courtroom battle may also want to wear hematite, since it’s known as the “lawyer’s stone.”

Conway’s book shares the story of a Babylonian gem treaty written on behalf of Mithridates the Great (63 B.C.) that states hematite could be used “to gain favorable hearings during judgments and lawsuits, to win positive petitions before all those in authority.”

Is any of this real?

I hold onto some superstitions I grew up with, partly out of fondness and partly out of fear.

I don’t know that I wholeheartedly believe in all of them but as I write this a few months into the coronavirus pandemic, I can understand why you would want to believe that a piece of jewelry can protect you.

In times of uncertainty, when misfortune feels wide-reaching and unescapable, I understand the desire to look for a way to take control of the situation.

When the real safety measures are isolating and feel scary, it’s comforting to believe we can protect ourselves just by wearing a pendant, or rubbing some rock dirt on our skin.

Rather than searching for a magical amulet, I’ll be looking for comfort where I’ve always found it: my family, my friends, my faith, and my fuzzy companions.

All that being said, does anyone have a spare cornicello? 

Lenore Fedowis the associate editor, news at National Jeweler, covering the retail beat and the business side of jewelry.

The Latest

MajorsMay 25, 2022
Anne Hathaway Is Bulgari’s Newest Ambassador

The actress joins Zendaya and others in a new advertising campaign.

IndependentsMay 25, 2022
The Mexican Shack to Close After 47 Years

Owner Steve Delzio shares his thoughts on retirement after nearly five decades in the jewelry industry.

IndependentsMay 25, 2022
Designer Theo Fennell Has Written a Memoir

“I Fear for This Boy” takes readers through the ups and downs of his business and is available for pre-order now.

Brought to you by
Dive into GIA’s Pearl Expertise

When it comes to knowing the identity and quality of your pearls, count on GIA as your independent pearl experts.

IndependentsMay 25, 2022
MVEye, Wedding Report Partner on New Jewelry Research Platform

“Today’s Wedding Jewelry Consumer” shares data about engagement ring market size, lab-grown and natural diamonds, and more.

Weekly QuizMay 19, 2022
This Week’s Quiz
Test your knowledge of the latest jewelry news with this quick test.
Take the Quiz
ColumnistsMay 24, 2022
The PR Adviser: 10 Questions to Contemplate

Columnist Lilian Raji wants to walk you through the customer journey. But first, she’d like you to answer a few questions.

Events & AwardsMay 24, 2022
8 Gold Jewelry Designers Unveil New Platinum Designs

Several Couture brands have partnered with Platinum Guild International ahead of the jewelry trade show.

Brought to you by
A.I. Grading is Changing Conversations at the Retail Counter

Advanced technology levels the playing field, helping jewelers give customers what they want.

Lab-GrownMay 24, 2022
Kendra Scott Unveils Lab-Grown Engagement Ring Collection

The jewelry company is moving into bridal just a month after branching out into the watch world.

SourcingMay 24, 2022
State of the Diamond Industry: Where Does Supply Go From Here?

The 2008 economic crisis, COVID-19, and sanctions on Russian goods have set the stage for an interesting decade for natural diamond supply.

Events & AwardsMay 24, 2022
WJA to Host Diversity Keynote at New Las Vegas Breakfast Event

The Generating Community Impact fundraiser on June 11 will feature Karine Bah Tahé of Blue Level Training.

WatchesMay 23, 2022
Steven Kaiser, Watch Industry Veteran and Beloved Mentor, Dies at 68

Kaiser, whose illustrious career spanned decades, died suddenly on Friday.

IndependentsMay 23, 2022
Long’s Jewelers to Open New Location

The family-owned jeweler is relocating its Braintree, Massachusetts, store to a new space.

IndependentsMay 23, 2022
Luxury Goods Veteran Olivier Stip Joins Chicago Jeweler CD Peacock

He will step into the retailer’s newly created role of chief development officer.

GradingMay 23, 2022
Gem-A Launches Digital Entry-Level Gemology Course

GemIntro is meant to give a broad introduction to gems and gemology.

Recorded WebinarsMay 20, 2022
Watch: Responsible Sourcing and the Gold Supply Chain

Three industry experts discuss “recycled” gold vs. mined, their challenges and benefits, and how jewelers can navigate the area.

FinancialsMay 20, 2022
Richemont’s 2022 Jewelry Sales in the Americas Nearly Double

Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Buccellati put on stellar performances.

AuctionsMay 20, 2022
Piece of the Week: ‘Birds in Flight’ by Oscar Heyman

The New York jeweler made this incredible, colorful Art Deco bracelet featuring tropical birds in 1927.

SurveysMay 19, 2022
5 Predictions for Jewelry Retail in the Second Half of 2022

From a slowdown in sales growth to rising costs, Fruchtman Marketing outlines its expectations for the second half of the year.

MajorsMay 19, 2022
As It Nears 75, Here’s How Grandview Klein Stays Competitive

Once a part of Julius Klein Group, the diamond company combines its direct supply and cutting expertise with a keen eye to the future.

SourcingMay 19, 2022
De Beers’ Rough Sales Up 21% So Far This Year

One analyst cited rising diamond prices and the sanctions on Alrosa as contributing factors.

CollectionsMay 19, 2022
Brilliant Earth Collaborates with Jade Trau

The two have partnered on a capsule collection.

MajorsMay 19, 2022
Jewelers Mutual Adds 2 Industry Veterans to Its Board

John A. Green of retailer Lux Bond & Green and Niveet Nagpal of Omi Privé have joined the board of directors as of May 18.

FinancialsMay 18, 2022
Watches of Switzerland’s Jewelry Sales More Than Doubled in Q4

The retailer also said demand for Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet watches continues to exceed its supply.

AuctionsMay 18, 2022
Jewels from Bette Midler Are Headed to Bonhams

The auction house’s upcoming sale also includes collections from American heiresses.

IndependentsMay 18, 2022
Jeweler Lewis Baribault Celebrates 50th Work Anniversary

The Connecticut jeweler reflected on five decades in the industry and what the future holds for the family business.

Events & AwardsMay 18, 2022
Visit A Mine in New Jersey With WJA New York Metro

The chapter has organized a day trip to the Sterling Hill Mine and Museum in Ogdensburg on Saturday, May 21.

×

This site uses cookies to give you the best online experience. By continuing to use & browse this site, we assume you agree to our Privacy Policy