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In Search of the Family Logo : Finding, Explaining Coats of Arms

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Lustig is a regular contributor to Valley View</i>

There’s nothing like a family coat of arms to spruce up a home, you think, and start to fantasize: a roaring lion , perhaps, with a cross on a field of red. “For King and Country” in Latin. Or a rooster would be nice. But what if it’s a plucked chicken with the motto “In Battle We Quiver”?

Well, if the curiosity won’t subside, you might want to look up Joey Bernard. He has been locating family coats of arms, crests and mottoes and deciphering them for 42 years. And he’s never once come across a plucked chicken.

“Coats of arms were awarded by the Crown,” said the London-born Bernard, 65, who, with three of his children, owns the Chatsworth-based House of Heraldry. “And it was done in recognition of doing something courageous or honorable. You earned the right to have this.”

The award--called an achievement--had three parts: the coat of arms, the crest above the arms and either a motto or the date it was awarded below.

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When a family distinguished itself, the Crown instructed the court herald to create a unique symbol. “It was a badge of distinction,” he said, “that crossed all social boundaries and was given to someone for personal merit or achievement. A person from the humblest profession was just as eligible as the highest. And it was highly coveted.”

He said one man, who learned that a duplicate achievement of arms was mistakenly awarded to someone else, spent his entire fortune, more than 1 million pounds, to defend his family’s exclusive right to it.

Bernard says the renewed interest in genealogy--tracing one’s family’s history--is responsible for the rising interest in family coats of arms.

“Heraldry was very big throughout Europe, especially in Germany, England and France,” he said. On the other hand, he added, there were only a few from Greece and practically none from Turkey, the Near East, Middle East and Armenia.

He can’t guarantee that he’ll find anything--only about 60% of European family names bear a coat of arms--and won’t charge if he comes up empty-handed.

House of Heraldry does not guarantee that a coat of arms exists for your particular branch of the family, only that somewhere in the history of heraldry, someone with your last name was thusly awarded.

“I know you didn’t fall off an apple tree,” Bernard said. “We know that if your last name is Silverstein, you came from a Silverstein, and you will eventually go back to a Silverstein that had done something to win a coat of arms. This is the coat of arms for the family name, not particularly your name.”

But finding out whether your family has a coat of arms is only half the battle. Deciphering what everything means, including the colors, is the other half.

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“Once we have established that a coat of arms exists, we have to locate the crest and the motto that goes with it,” Bernard’s daughter, Leah, 31, said. In her windowless researcher’s room, piled high with books, documents and notes, she determines the exact pattern and color combination of more than 20,000 requests a year.

Sometimes the symbols are not immediately clear.

For example, Bernard once determined that the coat of arms for a particular family was a bird with a rock in its claw.

“These are watchmen. They stand on one foot, and they hold a rock and guard the sleeping flock. Should they drop off, their claw would relax; the stone will fall, and everybody will wake up. It’s called ‘a crane in its vigilance.’ The symbol is telling you the family had served as guards to the court.”

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Sometimes a customer doesn’t like what is unearthed.

“We had a coat of arms that was a pelican taking blood from its chest for the children,” Leah said, “and the woman who was buying it didn’t think it was significant enough. But after researching it, we found it was a symbol of Christ. When I told her what it was about, she became very proud of her coat of arms.”

But the firm doesn’t have all the answers to everything it finds, such as an Italian coat of arms with a serpent eating an infant. “I’ve never been able to figure that one out,” Leah said.

When told the meaning of the symbols, some people are skeptical, said Bernard’s son, Gary, 27, especially since everything, including the colors, means something positive.

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“People don’t believe it when it says everything good about everybody. Well, it was supposed to be. Every once in a while you run across someone who had a defeat in battle, and you’ll see a weapon that’s broken, but as a rule, the Crown didn’t award a coat of arms for doing something bad. That’s why heraldry was so important, because 98% of the time it was something glorious about the family.”

Bernard said no one really knows who initiated the first coat of arms--some think it was the French, others the English. But it is thought to have originated with the Jews, “more for identification than anything else,” he said.

Ancient Judaism was composed of 12 houses. In battle, one of the houses could display its coat of arms on a banner, and miles away, those from another house could see if it was a friend or a foe.

Although the art of heraldry really began to blossom in the 13th and 14th centuries, Bernard said, the oldest example was found in a French churchyard in 973. “They don’t know whose it is because the name has worn off, but we do know it’s heraldry because of the charges--the various symbols--that were cut out on it.” And though it is extremely rare today, a coat of arms can still be awarded in France and England.

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Through House of Heraldry, the Bernard family offers a variety of services from their four stores at Solvang, Universal City, San Francisco and on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. The items sold can be a hand-painted coat of arms on parchment for $49, which includes a complete description, or a three-dimensional piece. These range from a small copper shield starting at $85 to a large 34- by 21-foot model at $550. Other items include the coat of arms replicated in gold- and silver-thread embroidery, on door knockers, rings and pendants.

“Sometimes you have to be diplomatic with this job,” Gary said, “as many coats of arms have a lizard or skull on them.” The lizard, he said, is a symbol of defiance; the skull, of war. Some German and Irish coats of arms, he said, have grotesque images such as a head on a skewer, indicating success in battle. “That can be kind of tough to explain to a family.”


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