Jewelry shows its spiritual side

Los Angeles Times

Pop stars Miley Cyrus and Taylor Momsen wear rosary necklaces, sometimes four at a time over a slinky corset dress or vintage rock T-shirt. “Eat Pray Love,” whose protagonist travels to India in search of enlightenment, has spawned a collection of charms, rings and bracelets. And the reality-bending Kardashian sisters are designing jewelry based on Armenian religious icons.

It’s official: The practice of incorporating religious or spiritual symbols in jewelry has become ubiquitous among smaller niche designers as well as more commercial, mass brands. With the public’s growing interest in yoga, meditation and personal talismans that offer protection or courage, jewelry and accessory designers are picking up the theme and adorning their work with icons deeply rooted in ancient beliefs and religions.

Jewelry designed around religious symbols or the use of religious tokens as jewelry may not seem like anything new. Who doesn’t remember Madonna writhing around on a stage draped in rosaries during the 1980s? In 2004 it was David Beckham, shirtless (natch) with a delicate rosary hanging from his neck down his chest, on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. But the trend is bigger and bolder than ever today, with icons steeped in spirituality coming in all forms of familiar (and perhaps not so familiar) symbols dangling from bangles, necklaces, earrings and even belt buckles.

A sign that society is becoming more religious? Actually, it might be just the opposite. While there will always be jewelry and tokens worn to literally show one’s faith — such as a Star of David for Judaism or a crucifix for Christianity — the rise in jewelry carrying evil eye charms, Hamsa hand pendants and Hindu Om symbols caters to people who are expressing their personal spirituality rather than an affiliation with organized religion.

“We are in a moment in American religion where the emphasis is on the spiritual, not the religious,” says professor Stephen Prothero from the department of religion at Boston University. He defines the vague term “spiritual” as “not being part of an organized religion, an assertion of self-reliance in spiritual things.”

“I think it’s more about ‘who I am’ and jewelry is often that,” he says “What can be more intimate than something like a tattoo or jewelry? Something that’s close to your body.”

Prothero adds that although expressing spirituality through body decoration may seem natural, there is also an irony. “Jewelry is about materialism, and the spiritual message is the opposite. It’s not supposed to be about things of this world.”

Regardless, there is an undeniable surge in jewelry based on spiritual symbols that customers can’t seem to get enough of. Rachel Smith, owner of, stocks lines such as Me + Ro and Good Charma, which incorporate elements such as Sanskrit and prayer beads in their work. “Spiritual jewelry gives people a sense of the individual within. As an individual they can find some sort of thread to something higher,” she says “In the last five years I realized the need for jewelry with meaning. Now 85% of the jewelry I carry has some sort of meaning or inscription.”

Southern California-based Dogeared Jewels and Gifts makes spiritually based pieces that are popular as gifts and sentimental tokens. Their wares include “Karma” pendants displayed on a card that reads “What goes around, comes around. Wear your necklace as a reminder to keep the circle positive, peaceful and loving,” and a Travel Charm necklace that boasts a compass pendant, a heart pendant and a St. Christopher medallion. The latter comes mounted on a card that says “Let your icons be a reminder to navigate peacefully, with a loving heart, and a saint that’s got your back!” The company also recently created an officially licensed line of jewelry tied to the release of the movie version of “Eat Pray Love,” complete with lotus pendants and meditation charms.

For fall, Tory Burch has included blue and white evil eye charm jewelry, designed by Kara Ross, which seems an exotic choice for Burch, whose brand has a more conservative sensibility.

“It’s just part of the interchange of cultures and the globalization of culture that we are all a part of,” says Prothero, “Nobody owns religious symbols. The positive side is that it gets people to think about different religions and symbols.”

More intensely religious symbols are still making their way onto jewelry, though most designers won’t claim their pieces as religious, but say they are more spiritual and ultimately open to interpretation.

Take, for example, a Mexico City-based brand called Virgins, Saints and Angels, which is designed by a former image consultant for Levi’s named Cheryl Finnegan who moved from California to Mexico after a divorce.

“I guess it was sort of my ‘Eat Love Pray’ moment,” she says. Finnegan uses the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on most of her pieces. Crosses adorn cuffs and rosary beads are made into multi-layer necklaces. But even with her brand’s very specific name and the religious iconography, Finnegan uses these symbols purely for their aesthetic value.

“It’s whatever you want to make of it,” she says, “because it really all came from somewhere else.” She adds that she is careful not to throw any of the religious iconography in anyone’s face. “If someone wants to wear a St. Benedict pendant because they are a member of the St. Benedictine monks, then good! If someone likes something because it looks Celtic, they can wear it,” she says. In May, Finnegan debuted a collaboration with the Kardashian sisters of TV-reality show fame who tapped their Armenian heritage to create a collection. Elements from the Armenian cross and infinity symbol were turned into earrings and bracelets, some combined with spikes to create an edgier look.

Rosary beads are also being used or deconstructed in order to create a drapey Y-shaped silhouette. Designers such as Brooklyn-based Jessica Elliott and a line called Twisted Faith have their own takes on the traditional idea of the rosary. Elliot has a collection for fall called the “Rosary” line: Y-shaped necklaces made of colored beads, anchored a third of the way down with different symbols, such as a “mesh clover” or “Istanbul diamond.”

“For me, religion is not something I choose to express through jewelry because I feel it alienates people,” she says. “It’s more about expressing spirituality and wearing these things as a personal talisman, not religious icons.” Elliott made what she called the “Unity” necklace five years ago, consisting of one chain carrying a Jewish star, a Buddha and a cross. “It didn’t sell,” she says, “I think people were afraid to put it in their stores.” Elliott’s intent was not to send a mixed message, but to add some levity to symbols that have otherwise intensely religious roots.

The religious message is “less clear when you wear an Om and you have no idea what it means,” says Prothero. “Smooshing the Buddha together with a cross and star of David has a clearer message of someone who is spiritual and doesn’t belong to one religion.”

He adds that even though all of these symbols may be floating through the fashion world on shiny gold bangles or set with diamonds, people should be religiously literate and know what the symbols they’re wearing stand for. “I’m torn. Sometimes I do get annoyed when venerable religious symbols get dumbed down, but when has it never been like that? Besides, all religions are just different paths up the same mountain.”

Amen to that.