Living Jewelry

Ann Herold is West's managing editor.

It started, innocently, as a way to spend quality time with my snake. Like all ball pythons, Monty gets beauty points for the caramel mottling that runs up and down his chocolate body. It's that jaguar-like loveliness that makes python skin a popular material for shoes, bags and purses. Although Monty had been spared becoming a dead accessory, I saw no reason why he couldn't be a living, breathing one. Wrapped around my arm, he made a gorgeous bracelet, and off we went, two companions, to run errands.

Being a typical ball python-- gentle to the point of saintliness--Monty would stay completely still, unnoticed by clerks and attendants. Until, one day, a woman behind a counter looked at my arm and recoiled as if she'd been shot. To her, the snake was as terrifying as a gun. I felt her pain, and that was the end of Monty's days as arm candy.

I was reassured, at least, that I wasn't an aesthetic geek when my friend Lynn, a jewelry designer, saw Monty for the first time and insisted on holding him. Soon she had him wrapped around her arm like a cuff.

Unless you pass through life as a hard-core solipsist, there's no getting around the effect snakes can have on people. For the record, children have no innate fear of snakes, and those as good-natured as ball pythons or corn snakes are the perfect reinforcement for that. Monty has never had a single temperamental moment, not even the time a 6-year-old took him for a ride in her Barbie car. They must have been cruising Mulholland because the car was making a lot of wild curves, and Monty went flying. I expected one pissed-off python, but as I picked him up he was, as always, perfectly calm.

Somewhere on the way, though, snakes have come to represent evil to scads of people--the devil, after all, is a real snake in the Bible. If someone is not to be trusted, he's a snake in the grass.

Which is a shame, because they are truly living jewels. I feel as if I'm at Cartier when I go to The Fish Tale in East Hollywood, which is two stores in one. The front is lined with aquariums, the back with terrariums housing snakes and other reptiles. The corn snakes are unreal, their red spots as rich as rubies. Another corn snake resembles pink tourmaline.

King snakes may not be as unflappable as corn snakes--"I've never seen a corn snake strike a person," says Fish Tale proprietor Michael Dedman--but they are generally easy to tame, and quite the showstoppers. Blacker than onyx is how I would describe the store's Mexican king snakes. A pearl-white albino king has bright dots as riveting as the yellow sapphires in my ring. The coastal king snake may be a simple brown, but his patterning is like the weaving in an Indian basket. I'm thinking of accessorizing a la snake again when I remember the look on the woman's face.

Anyone interested in testing their own comfort level could visit Allan Martello, who runs a concession in front of Grauman's Chinese on Hollywood Boulevard where you can be photographed with any of his numerous reptiles. They include a 17{dagger}-foot reticulated python in an alluring tiger pattern. He also has the striking albino Burmese python, which comes in iridescent yellow. Martello, who moved to L.A. two years ago from Las Vegas, notes that his snakes are captive-bred and have been handled since babyhood, to where they are "dog tame." Over the 10 months he's been operating, he says he's never had a snake strike. That's quite a record, considering that scores of people toting digital cameras ask to pose each day, with Martello pulling in about $300 in tips. Who says snake eyes are bad luck?

The Fish Tale, 4364 Fountain Ave., East Hollywood, (323) 665-0350.

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