surprising materials

The magic of plastic

Pieces made with materials that we consider less valuable, are often not taken seriously. Plastic has that effect in particular, and you may hear comments like: ‘this piece has plastic, so it’s not real’ or even ‘this is a fake because it should have coral instead of plastic.’ But who says that it should…?⁠ Plastic plays a role in jewellery quite often, and its use extends into the realm of amulets. Here are a few examples.

Bakelite Bakelite, a type of plastic invented in the early 1900s, was widely used in jewellery production in the early 20th century. Its popularity was due to its durability, versatility, and affordability. It could be shaped, carved, and molded into various forms, making it an ideal material for creating intricate and colorful designs. So instead of thinking about this material as ‘fake’, I feel the use of bakelite in traditional jewellery highlights the intersection of technology and culture and tells us about the changing social and economic circumstances of that time. It shows how people adapted to new materials and incorporated them into their jewellery. The bright red of the bakelite in the Kabyle brooch shows both the fascination for this new material, and works miracles for the wearer!

Imitation amber One thing these plastics were used for, is to imitate the costly amber. Amber was valued for a number of reasons, including magical ones: a little more about that is here. An example is the woman from el-Arish, shown in the photo above. Around her neck, visible behind the string of Maria Theresia Thalers her child is playing with, she is wearing a necklace made of dark beads: most likely these are the imitation amber beads in a dark cherry hue as shown in the image. They also exist as proper amber imitations in an opaque amber colour, and are now rare themselves as they are no longer made. ⁠[1]

Colour over material Plastic is also the material chosen for the Bedouin ring, where a piece of battered and damaged plastic has been carefully set in silver. Judging by the wear, it has kept its wearer safe from harm for a lifetime. That is by virtue of its colour: these bluegreen shades are considered particularly effective against the evil eye, just like turquoise. This piece of plastic serves that purpose perfectly: it is the colour that matters here, not the material.

A bicycle reflector against evil A wonderful example of jewellery with apotropaic properties is the silver necklace from Oman shown above. It combines several well-known principles of magical protection, and adds to those a reinforcement of its own. The colour red is the dominant colour when it comes to averting evil, and is present here in three splashes of vibrant red. Three is a number that is regarded as beneficial, as it represents the trinities of life: man, woman and child, along with birth, life and death. The dangles confuse evil with their unpredictable swaying and the sound of their jingling, while the tiny crescent moons bring prosperity and growth. ⁠But it is the center piece that steals the show: a plastic bicycle reflector. Its reflecting capacity averts evil even more on top of all of the above: imagine how these would shine when they catch a ray of sunlight! ⁠I especially like this necklace as it shows that purpose beats material in some cases: there is nothing precious about a plastic reflector, and yet it may save your life from both evil forces and approaching traffic.⁠

So you see how plastic may function as amulet in a range of ways. It can be a substitute for something else (such as imitation amber or coral), it can function as fully equal to other materials because of its colour, and it can even be the material of choice precisely because of its own capacities. In all cases, it would have been as real to the wearer as other materials: it is the desired effect that counts!

More on amulets, charms and magic in jewellery? Download your free e-book here, read other posts, or enroll in the e-course on Magic of Jewellery!

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[1] See the chapter on imitation amber in King, R. 2022 Amber. From Antiquity to Eternity.

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. Her main field of expertise is jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, as well as archaeological and archaeological revival jewellery. She has authored several books on jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Turquoise Mountain Jordan, and many others. She provides consultancy and research on jewellery collections for both museums and private collections, teaches courses and curates exhibitions. She is not involved in the business of buying and selling jewellery, and focuses on research, knowledge production, and education only.