A tiny tooth is embedded in the center of gold ring.
It’s set amid sparkling stones, so it’s not immediately apparent that the cream-colored fragment is, in fact, a child’s tooth. The idea behind this ring is not grotesque, but sentimental –- a semi-precious bit of a little darling. And the child didn’t bite the ring to set it as the centerpiece, but rather lost it in the normal business of growing up.
These “milk tooth” rings were popular in the Victorian era –in fact, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were all about the combination of dentistry and jewelry. Many of Victoria’s jewels were adorned with the teeth of her children–and of hunted animals.
And while we can have a laugh at the peculiar tastes of wacky monarchs, we all should confess right now that we are hardly unfamiliar with dentine as a decorative element in jewelry. After all, ivory is animal dentine.
In fact, it’s animal teeth that set the stage for whatever jewelry you now see on an earlobe finger, wrist or neck near you. Jewelry communicates both individuality and belonging. Eighty thousand years ago, or so, a hunter draped himself in boar teeth to show both his own individual courage and hunting prowess, and his affiliation with other hunters. (More: 25,000 Years of Jewelry. ) You say you like classic jewelry design? Then you better like yourself some teeth.
Still, when I saw the milk tooth ring at Doyle & Doyle’s Vault show about sentimental rings, I did immediately find it rather gross. It reminded me of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia where I saw a glass jar filled with a peculiar material, golden, ranging from translucent to creamy. At first I thought the stuff rather beautiful — until I learned that this material was human skin, the results of dermatillomania, an obsessive compulsive disorder in which the afflicted pick off their own skin. (In this instance, the jar was filled with skin flakes collected by a 23-year-old Caucasian woman.)
Gag, right? But why should this be, really? We easily find beauty in the cast-off skins, nails, bones and hair of other creatures, so why is it so difficult to find not just utility, but beauty in human detritus?
I’ve been interested in jewelry made from human body parts ever since I saw a bracelet which incorporated a hunk of hair, at a museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico a few years back. It was worn by a widow, if I’m remembering correctly, and the hair belonged to her late husband.
Up until then, I’d thought of an objet made from human parts as purely macabre, the territory of Nazis. Leaving aside dermatillomania, I’m sure it’s hard to procure quantities of human skin or bone in a way that doesn’t involve desecration of graves or crimes against humanity. But we living folk do produce a great deal of material that we shed and replace painlessly –- like hair. And so why not upcycle?
I’m not seriously asking this question: I realize that the answer has something to do with our cannibalism taboo. We eat other animals but not humans — generally, we adorn ourselves with the parts of other creatures but not with ourselves. But must jewelry made from human body parts always be a little disgusting?
Lately I’ve been working this question into my conversations – I’m always a delight to have at dinner parties – and my entirely unscientific answer to this question is: for a modern audience, hell yes. Human body parts as jewelry? Yuck.
But it was not ever thus.
For instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has in its holdings a bold necklace, early 19th century, Hawaiian. At its center is a huge whale tooth, suspended on a thick coil which is made of 1,700 feet of deep brown human hair. It’s worked in tiny braids, and, like the Victorian milk ring, you can’t immediately tell that the fiber originally grew on a human. This necklace was a seriously powerful talisman – “hair was a sacred substance whose presence enhanced the mana [supernatural powers] of the necklace and its noble wearer.”
In other words, this was a statement necklace, not an everyday piece, and it was only to be worn by a chief, not a commoner. So while I don’t think the fashion critics of the time found this necklace gross, per se, it was certainly meant to be intimidating.
In contrast, the latest exhibit at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is Death Becomes Her, an exhibit of mourning attire from 1815-1915, which includes mourning jewelry, also known as memorial jewelry. Starting in about the 18th century, it became fashionable to incorporate hair into brooches and bracelets. This was accomplished either through weaving and braiding, or by chopping or macerating the hair and mixing it with a binder to a create a kind of hair paint.
Now, in every other way, this memorial jewelry would be considered understated, perhaps even demure, by the fashion standards of the time. But think about encountering someone wearing these pieces. The sparkle catches your eye, and then you drawn in closer, and spot a tawny braid in the middle of that brooch.
Doesn’t it force a sharp breath? Doesn’t it lead to so many questions? Whose hair ? Why is this person wearing it? There’s a story to tell, a question that wants to be asked, an answer that wants to be given.
And this, I think, is the point. Jewelry is always is a symbol of something, but its components are, on their own, neutral. We project the meaning on the metal, the value on the stone. Most of us are accustomed to mentally jogging away from assigning deep meaning to the parts of other animals. But bits and pieces of humans, our remains – these can never be a blank slate on which we can project any meaning we’d like, or take purely on the basis of sartorial value.
So, here’s my contention: jewelry made from human body parts can indeed be beautiful, and maybe, perhaps, not necessarily disgusting. But never neutral, always arresting, and always at least slightly shocking.