Two molars found in Turkey; extracted postmortem; holes delicately drilled through the center, once looped through with cord; smoothed and worn, a piece of the body weathered against another. These are different from the animal teeth placed at burial sites, say the archaeologists, trying to reconstruct some meaning in 8,500 year old pendants. They are more symbolic, maybe intimate, memorabilia to commemorate a loved one—they’re human.
Two amulets, unearthed in Switzerland; made of cranial bone collected postmortem; round and ovalled at the edges, holes through the center; 5,500 years old and grey like stone, not bleached or yellowed like I picture bones to be. Imagine it around a Neolithic neck, bringing the power and protection of the deceased back into the bodies of the living. Or maybe the fragments belonged to trephinated patients; they were supposed to have remarkable power and strength if they survived the procedure. These are more macabre, perhaps. After all, what could be more precious than the human skull?
–But they’re everywhere, so to speak: archaeologists unearth similar cranial amulets in nearby digs, pointing to a local tradition. In Denmark, they name a pendant “Odin’s Skull”; runes inscribed on the back of the bone invoke the healing powers of the gods. In Tibet, a strand of 18th century prayer beads intersperse cranial beads with rounds of red agate; another strand weaves in bodhi seed, glass, and pink coral; another with slivers of finger bone, turquoise, and lapis lazuli. More perforated teeth, too, are uncovered around Greece and Anatolia.
Even in our semi-recent past, it seems human jewelry—that is, jewelry made of the human—was the fashion. To some, it was a memory of a lost loved one, a source of protection, or a wish for strength and health. In Victorian Era England, milk tooth rings were an acknowledgement of the life process. The high infant mortality rates of the time meant that making it into toddler years, let alone tooth-losing age, was a milestone. Queen Victoria was the first to adorn a broach with her daughter’s first lost tooth, in celebration of her life.
The trendy material of the Victorian Era was actually hair: plaited, woven, set in enamel, shaped into flowers around wreaths, ground into pigment and painted. Queen Victoria wore a lock of her deceased husband’s hair around her neck, and in time hair work became an entire industry of its own, catering not only to spouses and parents coping with loss, but also friends wanting to show their platonic commitment and love. Locks were gifted freely among living lovers, traded like friendship bracelets to be worn in pendants around the neck, bent into hairbows, and sealed in rings.
And then somewhere along the line, human materials fell out of fashion. There’s been some resurgence lately of pseudo-human jewelry: realistic plastic cast teeth, miniature bone charms here and there. But it seems like a different thing entirely to use real people! When InStore Magazine interviewed jewelers about the weirdest questions they had ever been asked, a shocking number responded with inquiries about jewelry from human materials: “Can you make a ring out of my kidney stones?” and “What can you do with my husband’s gallbladder?”. Plenty can be done with a gallbladder, but today’s consensus settles more on the side of disgust, horror, and hesitance than creative embrace.
I understand the aversion; there’s something admittedly unsettling about wearing a piece of your people. Maybe at a surface level, it seems unclean, or unhygienic. Though you can always ask a doctor for organs, stones, screws, staples, or whatever else they pull out during an operation, they’re allowed to say no—and often do, saying they have no way to ensure your proper, safe handling of biomaterials. When they do allow you to reclaim your parts, outside companies can offer help with storage and safety. One woman sent her amputated leg to be de-fleshed by beetles, and was thrilled to receive just the cleaned skeletal structure in the mail a few weeks later. For things that fall out at home, there are plenty of preservation and disinfection methods doable with common supplies and a bit of research: diluted bleach baths, rubbing alcohol, sun bleaching.
But even solving the problem of cleanliness, as professionals working with human materials today do, something about it still feels weird or creepy. I couldn’t find much on the psychological or cultural reasons behind this aversion, but here’s my running hypothesis:
Val Plumwood wrote The Eye of the Crocodile after a saltwater crocodile dragged her from a canoe, sparking the sudden realization that she, a human, was made of meat. It seems obvious said out loud—obviously we bleed and tear, and are made of stuff just like every other fleshy animal on the planet. “Juicy, nourishing” stuff. And yet, Plumwood writes, “in some very important way, I did not know it, absolutely rejected it.” She links her experience to some latent belief in human exceptionalism: much of her shock was not about actually being eaten, but that she was being eaten, and that her “special status” of human invulnerability was violated.
At the core of her argument is that the “dominant story about human identity,” at least in Western culture, is one of “human hyper-separation from nature.” It is a narrative that fails to see humans in ecological terms, as an impermanent part of a world “where everything flows, where we live the other’s death, die the other’s life.” Plumwood talks about how even in death, the burial practice of sequestering the body in a coffin six feet underground—well below the reach of larger decomposers—is a way of denying that our bodies are usable, and reusable.
This denial of our body’s material, as material, extends to our aversion to human jewelry (or so I propose). Something about it seems predatory and limiting—like a grossly misled choice, like someone should have used a shark tooth instead. In the same way that Plumwood thought, “As a human being, I was so much more than food,” so we think that as humans, we are irreducible to memorabilia, art, and adornment.
This is where I make the disclaimer that obviously, human jewelry can be taken to absolutely violent and inhumane extremes. Despite all of the historical instances of ethical sourcing, and symbolism of love and memory, the idea carries legitimate negative connotations. It’s true—the Gauls of the Iron Age would adorn their horses’ necks with the heads of slain enemies. Finding trophies in a serial killer’s den is a standard plot point for shows like Criminal Minds. Fashion can especially turn exploitative and violent when valuable materials come on the market—just look at poaching, and the bloody mass harvests of hides, tusks, and bones. This is not about being egalitarian in our violence, and making some statement that because it can happen to animals it should also happen to us. It should go without saying that there is nothing beautiful or loving about an exploitative parts-for-jewelry trade, or in any valuation of human material derived from the taking of life. This should also go without saying but: don’t go get your teeth extracted to make earrings.
Disclaimers done, a lot of modern day revivals of human jewelry work against this negative image, creating at responsibly small scales to bring people personal meaning. Everyone can attribute their own interpretation, but one refrain among those who chose human jewelry is that it symbolizes an attention to the growth process. It is a manifestation of love for the human, physical self. Plumwood talks about how we have come to understand humans as made of “mind-stuff,” instead of the meat-stuff of other beings. With conversations about “what makes a human” centering around consciousness, morality, free will, or any number of other elusive intangibles, human jewelry can be a powerful affirmation of the self as an organism. It can be refreshing to pause and recognize the way the body functions, produces, and changes. Sure, you could fill a ring with quartz. Or, you could build it around a kidney stone, minerals compacted and shaped in your own body, of your own body—a different look, sure, but still striking.
Rather than discard the intricately assembled pieces of ourselves, what statement does it make to preserve them, highlight their innate beauty, complexity, and intrigue—to put them on a wearable pedestal? Lucie Majerus is the designer behind Human Ivory, a jewelry service that transforms a client’s sent-in teeth into round dentine pearls, then sets them on earrings, cufflinks, rings, and pins. The project is a “suggestion to cherish our own ‘Material’ instead of other species teeth and reconsider conventional preciousness.” What makes a pearl plucked from a pearl farm more valuable than the pearl you nursed and grew for years, cleaned twice a day, flossed around, played with when it was loose, rinsed and tucked away when it fell out? Most of her designs leave room to add more pearls; as the wearer loses teeth with age, their string of pearls grows to keep pace with the life process. Teeth are records of identity, age, trauma, disease and deficiency, health and care. To wear them is to wear a story of your self.
I found my belly button a few years ago when it fell out of an envelope labeled “Olivia’s Bellybutton.” It was round, red-brown, totally harmless; siloed for too long in a baby box. I imagine it on a pendant, set in a round of silver—a small memory of the moment I became a separate body, and a reminder of life’s interconnectedness. To use Plumwood’s words, it could be a wearable nod to “understanding life as in circulation, as a gift from a community of ancestors,” beginning and ending far before and beyond I was cut away from my mother’s nourishing life force.
So the Van Gogh ear story was a myth, but unconventional romantic gestures aren’t. There are still those who see body jewelry as a way to “give yourself” to a lover—like my ex, who wore a pendant of her new girlfriend’s blood. As with the traded locks of the Victorian Era, there is something uniquely committing and profound about giving a piece of yourself to another, for them to value and continue seeing beauty in. Maybe it can be a practice in guarding our individual selves less, opening instead to the interdependencies and relationships that become as much a part of us as “our own” skin, bone, and blood.
There’s no one way to do body jewelry. Though teeth and hair have been popular throughout history, our bodies have their own histories, producing and shedding differently. In some ways, teeth and hair are probably on the more palatable side of the spectrum; they’re exposed and visible whether set in tissue and pore or silver and resin. But people also have gallstones, scabs, and lost nails, pieces that can be tastefully refashioned into wearable appreciations of the human body. The magic of human jewelry is the way you can take whatever you have and love it far beyond its usefulness, bringing value to it just by choosing to.
Colm. “Odin’s Skull: A Macabre Amulet from Denmark.” Irish Archaeology, May 31, 2017. http://irisharchaeology.ie/2015/09/odins-skull-a-macabre-amulet-from-denmark/.
“Finger Bone Prayer Beads.” – Works – Rubin Museum of Art. Rubin Museum. Accessed October 14, 2022. https://collection.rubinmuseum.org/objects/2983/finger-bone-prayer-beads.
Formichella, Janice. “Victorian Hair Jewelry: Yay or Nay?” Recollections Blog, September 26, 2020. https://recollections.biz/blog/victorian-hair-jewelry-yay-or-nay/.
Little, Becky. “Trendy Victorian-Era Jewelry Was Made from Hair.” Culture. National Geographic, May 4, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/160211-victorian-hair-art-work-jewelry-death-history.
Majerus, Lucie. “HUMANIVORY.” Accessed October 15, 2022.
Plumwood, Val. The Eye of the Crocodile. Australian National University, 2012.
Stein, Alison J. “On Jewelry Made from Human Remains.” Very Curious Mind, October 29, 2014. https://verycuriousmind.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/jewelry-human-remains/.
Stolze, Dolly. “Four Practical Posthumous Uses for Human Bones.” Atlas Obscura, March 17, 2014. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/morbid-monday-uses-for-human-bones.
University of Copenhagen – Faculty of Humanities. “Human teeth used as jewellery in Turkey 8,500 years ago.” ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/12/191213115408.htm (accessed October 14, 2022).