Apropos of absolutly nothing I suddenly decided I needed toe rings, so I carved a pair in wax, got them cast in silver (just to test – gold will follow depending on their success…) and then had them beautifully finished with soft edges. I slipped (forced, actually) them on to my toes and completely love them, and while all this was happening I started thinking about all the kinds of alternative jewellery there are. Alternative to what we do here, that is, which are finger rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches… all the usual things.
I don’t think any one civilization can lay claim to being the innovator of any of the adornments we favour, but each has embraced them differently. Toe rings, for example, are endemic to India. Long ago no one was allowed to wear gold below their waist except for the gods, of course, and royalty. But that has been relaxed and toe rings on women are common, and indicate that they are married. Interestingly men wore toe rings much more than they do today when women were expected to walk with their eyes down and could therefore see if a man was married. In the 60s and the hippie era when backpacking in India was the thing to do, many of the Indian traditions of jewellery wear were brought back to the west, toe rings included. They’re not uncommon now, but they’re still not as mainstream as finger rings, for example.
I always think of nose rings as being Indian too but evidence has been found of Australian aboriginals wearing nose rings as far back as 4000 BC. Many cultures have a history of wearing nose rings, but once again there’s a really good reason that India comes to mind immediately in connection with them. They are deeply entrenched in the Indian jewellery culture and can be amazingly ornate and jewel encrusted – mostly as wedding jewellery – and incredibly heavy. I always thought the eleborate chains that led from the nose ring either up into the wearer’s hair or round her ear was just another form of adornment, but apparently it actually serves a purpose – it helps carry a lof of the weight of these extravagent nose rings because otherwise the weight of them couldn’t be borne by the nostril without horrid consequences. Nose rings are widely worn in western culture too now, but a bit more modestly, generally; a little diamond stud, a plain gold ‘sleeper’, and mostly through the nostril. In African and some South American cultures, though, the septum (the partition that divides the nostrils) is often pierced and a ring is worn. For body piercing enthusiasts in the west this is now quite a common choice.
Then I moved on to ear cuffs. In my research I kept coming across the idea that in ancient times the ear cuff was called ‘kaffa’ but for the life of me I could not find a root for this word, or any reference to it in any serious history texts on the subject. I think it’s one of those things that just gets regurgitated from one article to the next with no research being done. All I can find is that Kaffa is a region in southern Ethiopia and it’s also an ancient city in Ukraine, so quite reasonably I don’t subscribe to the word meaning ear cuff. But that aside… ear cuffs are also very ancient and have been worn in some form or other by many cultures for milennia. Usually they are worn sort of clipped round the outside of the ear so no piercing is required, and they can be very plain and unobtrusive or highly ornate and full of gems and shiny metal. It’s become a bit of a trend for celebs to wear them to red carpet occassions and actually they can be very beautiful, both glitzy and plain.
Another area of jewellery that cannot be ignored, but for which you need a strong stomach and complete committment, is ‘stretching’. We’ve all seen pictures of cultures who stretch their bottom lip (and actually sometimes the top lip as well.. ugh) and insert a disc into it, and the same with ear lobes. This is all to do with marital status, wealth, societal importance and in some cases a belief in the health properties. To get your lip big enough to take a plate in it takes years and years, and the same with ear lobes. Once the lips and ears have been stretched to these extraordinary lengths there’s no going back, so full or empty, you’ll have this feature forever. Now that’s committment. There’s a lovely story about stretching though. Before Buddha became Buddha, he was called Siddhartha Gautama and was born into a very wealthy Nepalese family – a prince by today’s standards – and lived the life of luxury including copious amounts jewellery. He stretched his earlobes with jewels, and then he denounced his life and forsook all the trappings, including the jewellery, and started on his journey to being Buddha. His earlobes were as they are always depicted – stretched long and misshapen, and this is to remind his followers that he gave up all the riches to live a life of poverty and modesty. I have actually wondered about his long earlobes and now I know!
After reading about all these alternative ideas and looking at the pictures it occurred to me that we in the west – except for a very small minority of rebels and short term thinkers – are actually very conservative in our ideas about jewellery. This is not a bad thing by any means because it means that with imagination and skill we have adapted some of these ideas and made them attractive, wearable and most importantly desirable. It also gives us at PGG the opportunity to expand our range without having to reinvent the wheel, as it were, and if we do it sensitively and bravely then who knows, 22ct toe rings and ear cuffs may be the next essential piece of kit!
And for a mapgie … a gold banding ring might be just the thing because mercifully, beaks don’t stretch.