Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jewelry in fantasy

I love browsing books on jewelry – its history, purposes and styles in various cultures. Those are easy to adapt to uses in fantasy as well.

Purposes of jewelry

As well as being a sign of wealth and status, jewels and jewelry are frequently used as objects of power or control (or both). From Tolkien’s rings to Julian May’s torcs to Michael Moorcock’s Jewel in the Skull to Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels, such objects are beautiful as well as providing a way to produce or channel magical energy. And in the case of the Ring, that attractiveness is a good way to lure the unwary into becoming the object’s next host.

Jewelry can also have practical uses that are combined with decoration – for instance, bracers or a garde-nez. Maybe the protection is symbolic, such as jeweled masks that girls wear when they enter puberty. Or on worlds overrun by vampires or werewolves, perhaps people wear silver nails through their hands, which not only invoke the Crucifixion but is supposed to make their blood taste bad.

Mythology and superstition can be very helpful here. For instance, amethysts were supposed to be change color if there was poison in a drink. I wouldn’t mind seeing a world where all jewels (or semi-precious stones) really did have such powers.

Placement of jewelry

Jewelry can be worn on or in a lot of body parts. Ears, fingers, wrists, arms, toes, ankles, neck, waist… and that’s just on this world. Others might be even more creative. For instance, jewels or metallic shapes can be embedded into the skin.

I once read a novel about a diamond that had the power to heal all diseases and reverse the effects of old age. One character, on obtaining the stone, had it surgically implanted into her lower abdomen so that she could constantly draw on its power and no one else would be able to use it (unfortunately, someone attacked her and took it. You can imagine how).

Types of jewelry

A woman came by selling human eyes set into rings.
“How lovely,” said Smara.
“They won’t last,” said the woman.
The Book of the Mad, Tanith Lee

I love seeing unusual objects used as jewelry, and while human eyes in rings might only be seen in the lunatic city of Paradise, spiders in amber or seashells would be easier to incorporate into a more normal place. Or what about transient jewelry, such as ice crystals carved into elaborate shapes, or tiaras made from solid blocks of scent that disappear after a while but leave the hair smelling good?

Living jewelry would be even more fascinating, such as flowers sprouting from earlobes or a monarch butterfly spreading its gorgeous wingspan across the base of a throat. Or small serpents coiled around wrists, for an effect that is at once strange, beautiful and potentially deadly.


writtenwyrdd said...

I read a story once where the woman got a flower implanted in her. These were special alien flowers and hard to come by. She mortgaged everything she had, getting two, then three and then, finally, a fourth flower...which turned out to be a weed! I loved that story because it was such a classic fairy tale with a moral for an ending.

As far as jewelry goes, I admit to being a little tired of hearing about mystical jewels or jewelry as the source of a quest a la Tolkien and everyone else it seems; but jewelry in general can be cool.

Where would I like to see jewelry used that is different is not as magical tools or as talismans of power that are quest objects, but for the jewelry to be biological, say symbiotic in some manner.

That sounds like the Witchblade, but I was thinking more along the lines of the jewelry being high tech--biotech computers, means of linking with future computers, or shape-changing sidekicks that can go dorman as a bracer on your arm.

If magical, they could be magical aids, armor (like the witchblade, even though it was explained as alien tech) and et cetera.

You might find an amusing statement of cultural differences if aliens are, for example, selling these really cool stones to an alien offworld trader...and they turn out to be some kind of turd from an animal the locals despise, thus it's the alien low tech people having one on with the offworlders.

I think jewelry is mostly accoutrement but you can raise it to the level of character, sidekick, plot device or even a MacGuffin.

Abby said...

Lovely post. I make jewelry myself, and it's fascinating to read about jewelry in fantasy works, etc.

Angela Ackerman said...

I love this about your blog--you always post on topics that aren't often posted about. I read them and think--she's right! I wonder why no one's talked about how this all fits into fantasy before?

I think Jewelry can be a fantastic addition to world building, if it comes with some meaning and isn't just a random detail.

Anonymous said...

Regarding amethyst, both Greeks and Romans wore it to prevent intoxication. And Lord Byron drank wine from amethyst goblets for that very reason.

Donna Smith said...

Fantasy is firmly grounded in reality, and your post is further proof of the same. I have always been fascinated with jewelry and fantasy both, and nothing is better when both come together! Thanks for sharing the amazing post =)

Anonymous said...

I know rings have been done to death, but what about rings as symbols of authority and binding.

Magical Signet Rings that bind all to the power of the words in the document which bears the seal.

Wedding Rings: Till Death Do Us Apart?

As well as the fantasy considerations of such rituals as "kissing the ring".

Marian Perera said...

Hi writtenwyrdd,

As you said, given the popularity of Tolkien, it would be difficult to make a quest revolving around some magical piece of jewelry seem original.

Though part of the fascination the One Ring still holds for me is the fact that the quest was to destroy it rather than to find or control it. That, and its own corrupting power over people.

I like the idea of symbiotic jewelry for just that reason - it's fascinating to see normally inanimate or non-sentient objects with personalities and goals of their own. In his SF novel Hothouse, Brian Aldiss has an intelligent fungus which attaches itself to the protagonist's head like a crown and more or less controls him that way.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, ralfast! Now I've got an idea for a future post all about rings in fantasy. :)

Marian Perera said...

Hi Abby,

Thanks for commenting, and I'm glad you liked the post.

One of my favorite Judith Michael novels is Possessions, where the heroine is a jewelry designer. I love reading about the descriptions of the materials and designs she uses.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Angela,

Thank you very much. :)

It's fun to write these posts because they push the envelope of my own imagination as well. Only thing is, after these posts are up, I always find myself remembering details that I've left out.

For instance, I'm pretty sure that R. A. Salvatore has a series where the heroine uses semi-precious stones to generate magic, and if I had the books on hand, I'd dip into them to see what the system was there.

Anonymous said...

Glad I could be of help Marian.

writtenwyrdd said...

Idea posts are always fun because they do stretch your imagination.

Barbara Martin said...

Another interesting post to get me thinking about jewelery and its relation to my characters. Nicely done, Marian.