Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Spook Things Up with Halloween Jewelry Design

Next Monday is Halloween, so I hope you’ve got your costumes ready! If you can’t dress up in a full-on costume, you can still get in the spirit (oooo!) by wearing Halloween-themed jewelry designs. Terri Haag’s article “Jewelry on the Dark Side,” featuring the gothic and ghostly jewelry designs of several jewelry artists and some background on historically dark jewelry design, will get you in the moOOOod and inspire you to make and wear the most spooktacular jewelry on Halloween. (Wonder how many Halloweenish phrases I can come up with?)

"Arnold's Skull" Belt Buckle by Lee Downey. Sterling silver, Damascus steel skull. Photo courtesy of Lee Downey.

“Arnold’s Skull” Belt Buckle by Lee Downey. Sterling silver, Damascus steel skull. Photo courtesy of Lee Downey.

Jewelry on the Dark Side

Designers display their gothic fantasies
By Terri Haag
from the September/October 2015 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist

I blame my curious collecting predilections on my grandmother who had a salt-entombed dragonfly in her cabinet of curiosities when I was growing up. It sat at my seven-year-old eye level and was utterly mesmerizing. Not that we had a paucity of live bugs or anything–tarantulas, giant scorpions, and foot-long centipedes were common visitors to our house on the outskirts of Tucson. Despite stern parental prohibitions, I often herded these unfortunates into jars and boxes under my bed, to be much loved–but doomed–pets. They were so much more interesting than stupid bunnies or even cats and dogs. Besides, if you forgot to feed a tarantula, it would still be alive a month later.

I still love bugs and dead stuff, and for that matter, dead bug stuff. There’s a glass box on my entry table containing a dead tarantula and two defunct stick insects, as well as exquisite, Murano hand-blown glass beetles, walrus ivory skeletons, and monkey skulls staring out of my china cabinet at anyone staring in. Mind you, none of these things would have even raised an eyebrow in a Victorian parlor, but modern Western cultures have the luxury of pretending bugs and death never happen at all. Dead chickens come wrapped in plastic, and with enough Botox, no one needs to get old in the first place.

Generally, people in earlier times weren’t as squeamish, or as lucky, as we are. In those days, when someone died, the first concern (well, maybe second) was that their souls were prepared for the trip, lest eternity be spent roasting along with company even worse than themselves. To remind everyone of the Eternity Imperative, Victorian illustrators employed optical illusions in which a young woman morphed into a skull and back again into a woman, as one gazed at her. Grieving family members during Victoria’s reign made hair jewelry from tresses clipped from their dead loved one’s head. Everyone was comfortable, or at least accustomed to, such memento mori–the reminders that dust we are and to dust we shall return, ready or not.

The New Victorians

But I’m kind of Victorian in that regard myself, because I like these reminders. And despite our general reluctance to face facts, or perhaps because of it, apparently so do a lot of others these days, as evidenced by everything from ear buds to motorcycle boots to baby bottles and rompers (!) emblazoned with grinning death heads. (Seriously. Baby bottles.)

Lee Downey's Gibeon Skull. Life-sized human skull carved from Gibeon meteorite. Photo courtesy of Lee Downey.

Lee Downey’s Gibeon Skull. Life-sized human skull carved from Gibeon meteorite. Photo courtesy of Lee Downey.

Which conjures up Lee Downey, the all-time king of creepy and the owner of Artifactuals. I’ve been collecting Lee’s world-famous jewelry and carvings for years. Most pieces feature skulls, skeletons, road-kill armadillos, and mashed toads, to name but a few, all convincingly carved and flawlessly executed (no pun intended) out of everything from fossil walrus ivory to black onyx to nickel-iron meteorite. His latest truly fantastic objet d’ mort is literally out of this world: an exact, life-sized human skull carved out of Gibeon meteorite. Not for Downey the cartoonish, exaggerated crania of cheap designers and mass production. Downey’s skulls and skeletal creations are so life-like you aren’t absolutely sure you’re not looking at dead elves.

Lee Downey's Carved Skull Ring. Sterling silver, turquoise. Photo courtesy of Lee Downey.

Lee Downey’s Carved Skull Ring. Sterling silver, turquoise. Photo courtesy of Lee Downey.

And then there’s Momo Mercurious. His odd adornments include octopi, bird skulls holding baubles in their beaks, silver scorpions, raptor claws clutching assorted cabs, ammonites with unlikely heads. His booth at the 2015 Pueblo Gem & Mineral Show in Tucson looked like a zoo run by the Addams Family: crocodile and bison skulls surmounted by books and posters of similar motifs advertised a wide variety of surpassingly strange and gorgeously realized silver jewelry.

“Ha. Yes. Weird,” he said happily when I commented. Always curious as to how someone got so . . . bent . . . I asked Momo how it all started. “I started making jewelry as a teenager in school in England,” he told me. “Besides jewelry making, my school had cool outdoor activities, including caving, of all things. At an impressionable age, I literally descended into the underworld, squeezing through birth canal-like passageways that opened up into monumental caverns full of glittering flowstone and crystals. It gave me a taste for the arcane. And of course I grew up in London when the whole Punk/New Wave, non-conformist, Nihilist social explosion was happening.”

Octopus Jewelry Collection by Momo Mercurious. Sterling silver, leather. Photo courtesy of Mercurious Designs.

Octopus Jewelry Collection by Momo Mercurious. Sterling silver, leather.
Photo courtesy of Mercurious Designs.

Which explains why his jewelry resonates a subterranean, Nihilistic, Punk/New Wave, nonconformist chic, but in a way that’s not just too weird. Momo’s stuff you would wear. Maybe not to the PTA meeting, or church, but certainly to drum circles and Samhain celebrations. “I want people to feel the intention that has gone into my pieces — that they are unique and designed with purpose, with passion, and imbued with life. They are amulets, talismans, power pieces designed to be heirlooms in the old tradition of solid hand-craftsmanship, rather than a massproduced product.”

I asked what was up with the octopus theme with which he is obviously much-taken. He grinned wickedly. “Ah. There’s a subtle eroticism in the tentacular caress. Take a look at The Tale of the Fisherman’s Wife and the erotic art of Masami Teraoka.” (Or actually not-so-subtle eroticism: Readers, beware and investigate at your own risk.)

rogerhalas-facehugger-brooch

Roger Halas’s Facehugger Brooch. Dinosaur bone, mokume gané, sterling silver, hessonite garnet. Photo courtesy of Roger Halas.

And then, there’s Roger Halas, the creator of the Facehugger Brooch and other disturbing baubles. “I’m drawn to strange themes because of my fascination with science fiction and fantasy, where the only creative limits are those posed by the human imagination. But like many kids, my artistic journey started with dinosaurs. I drew them all and even made some out of clay. I was also fascinated by makeup effects in the original Star Wars trilogy, and of course, the work of H.R. Giger. People were horrified by Alien, yet even as a child I was inspired by the overall concept, production design, and of course, the creature. In fact, lately I’ve been experimenting more with makeup effects, costuming, and body armor, and I also write science fiction, so perhaps one day that will all come together.”

Not content with making jewelry, Halas is branching out into the rag trade and beyond. “I dress up when I go to Ren Faires, and with the upcoming continuation of the Star Wars films, I will be creating a cosplay character from the Mandalorian clan. I’ve always wanted to be an intergalactic bounty hunter, anyway. So there, I said it.” (Apologies to non-Star Wars obsessed readers.)

rogerhalas-vampire-hunter-thumb-ring

Vampire Hunter Thumb Ring by Roger Halas. Sterling silver, garnets, white sapphires, black jade. Photo courtesy of Roger Halas.

Although I already had a good idea, I asked Roger what kind of reactions he got when people first encountered his jewelry. “Lots of people get creeped out by the facehugger brooch. Which makes me happy, because it’s supposed to creep people out. Facehuggers are disgusting, in all the right ways.”

Well. Yeah. Obviously.

Roger thought for a moment, then continued, “One time I made an amulet for a woman using symbolism from Greek mythology and other elements relevant to her as an individual. She started having all kinds of good luck. Maybe it was how it empowered her with a positive attitude or perhaps it was some inexplicable force operating at another level?” He shook his head thoughtfully. “No idea, but it seems to have worked.”

Fairy Tales by (Hans) Christi Anderson

If Lee Downey, Momo Mercurious, and Roger Halas tend toward in-your-face notifications of your imminent hasta la vista and often involve creatures most people would rather hit with a shoe than wear, Christi Anderson’s art, while equally involved with life and death, is far more subtle. Think Game of Thrones meets My Secret Garden, meets Sleeping Beauty, but without Dopey or Goofy. Bird houses, fairy lairs, lockets, reliquaries, casement windows, flying hearts, gates with and without keys, doors to secret places, books–her evocative images are all about enchantment and moving from one realm into another, about passages and transformations. In essence, they speak to that wildest and most romantic of shape-shifting creatures poised on the brink of annihilative transformation–the 12-year-old girl–who is alive and well inside every grown woman.

elemental-adornments-metal-clay-jewelry

Christi Anderson creates fantastic pieces of metal clay jewelry in her home studio. Photo courtesy of Elemental Adornments.

Given that her designs feature birds, trees, and images that suggest forests, I guessed she grew up in the Midwest. “Ha,” she snorted. “Try Scottsdale, Arizona. Where I always felt misplaced, by the way. But every summer, my grandparents drove me to Rhode Island where my grandfather was a locksmith and a carpenter. Once he made me the most wonderful wooden box with little locks and tiny, fascinating keys. It was literally enchanting. I suppose that’s where all this imagery is coming from.”

I had a similar story involving grandparents who took me from Tucson to Marshalltown, Iowa, every year. “How funny,” she laughed. “Marshalltown is where I did my first bead show!”

Post-puberty, Anderson lived a peripatetic existence with a semi-nomadic (her words) husband. “At the time I had a photography business, but that isn’t something you can endlessly uproot and transplant somewhere else, just as you are getting established again. After eleven years, I said enough with starting over.”

 

Soon after putting her foot down she went to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show for the first time. “I spent every nickel of the photography money I’d made over Christmas on beads and findings. Then I discovered precious metal clay, or PMC, and became pretty much obsessed. I had my first sales booth at a bead show in the aforementioned Marshalltown. The table cost $40 dollars, and my hotel was a whopping $39.99. I made $400 and put it all back into PMC at $7 a package.” (It costs about $82 a pack now.) Building on such stunning financial success, Anderson bought a small kiln and kept it in the fireplace because her husband was afraid she would burn the house down otherwise. “I turned into a nocturnal recluse, working all night and staying in the house all day.”

The first things Christi made were ceramic hearts covered with PMC. Then, because she loves birds (she keeps dozens of exotic avian pets), she started making birdhouses with tiny doors that opened and little nests inside with bits of real feathers and pearls for eggs. In fact, she made species-specific bird houses containing species-specific eggs — blue with brown specks for robins, tan with brown specks for wrens, etc. “Each birdhouse takes me about a week. I discovered all kinds of secret techniques to do successful PMC hollow forms, but it took me two years to figure them out.” (No, she isn’t sharing.)

While both Downey and Mercurious manufacture in Bali, Anderson manufactures on her bench, in her studio, at home. With the exception of the books and doors bracelets, which she finally had cast, everything else, from rose thorns to spider webs, is hand-made from PMC. When Christi says her pieces are unique, she usually means the one you are holding is the only one in existence.

Some pieces are so one-of-a-kind she’s never even used the idea twice, such as the Poe Reliquary Box. This piece made her a finalist in the Saul Bell competition in 2013, and is Anderson’s most complicated undertaking. The box measures 3 x 2.5 x 2.5 inches and features her signature, incredibly delicate hand-carved silver filigree and spider webs. On top, a raven stands guard over a red quill pen–with a real feather–and a key. Inside the box is a hand-carved bone skull and a miniscule leather-bound book of Poe’s The Raven. “I kept that one,” she admits.

christianderson-elementaladornments-ruins-locket

Christi Anderson’s The Ruins Locket. Fine silver metal clay. Photo courtesy of Elemental Adornments.

Anderson’s all-time best seller is an enchanting locket called “The Journey of Life,” which took first place in the 2013 Bead Dreams competition and has been thrilling people ever since. The piece features a lazy afternoon sun looking down on a Georgian-style house front with three different doors, each with a different keyhole escutcheon. But, as Christi explains, life isn’t fair–you only get one key with the locket and it doesn’t fit any of the locks. On the opposite side, the moon shines down on the doorway to Heaven. What lies behind that door is a secret, and every locket’s secret is different. If a personal secret inside is preferred, the owner can remove the tiny padlock on the side and insert his or her own incriminatory doodad inside.

Tempus Do Indeed Fugit

Being of an age myself where Victorian roasting fires seem a lot more immediate than they used to, and being in serious need of some good luck, I figure I can’t go wrong by incorporating these designers’ métiers into my own work. I’m thinking of creating a design for a highly personal, arcane amulet featuring a dead dragonfly made out of meteorite, which is being stung by a silver scorpion that’s being eaten by a face-hugging Mandalorian octopus–in a birdhouse.

It might not be to everyone’s taste, but I’m hoping to both expiate some sins and hit the $12 million dollar lottery as a result. If I do, thanks Lee, Momo, Roger, and Christi! And you, too, Grammy.

–TH

Such a fun article–and isn’t this some fang-tastic jewelry design? You just never know what you’ll find in issues of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, so it’s best to never miss an issue. A great way to make sure you get them all is to get the CD collections that feature a full year of the magazine in a convenient digital collection. You can get an entire year’s worth of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, Step-by-Step Wire Jewelry, or Colored Stone for only $10 in our 50% off CD collections sale.

This sale is a perfect time to fill in any gaps in your jewelry design and technique magazine collections. I’m almost out of Halloweenish phrases, but I have one more: Don’t miss your chance to goblin these up! OK I’m done. 🙂

Want to see more spooky fine jewelry? National Jeweler shared some spook-tacular jewelry of their own!

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