Pop stars Miley Cyrus and Taylor Momsen wear rosary necklaces, sometimes four at a time over a slinky corset dress or vintage rock T-shirt. The book and movie Eat Pray Love, whose protagonist travels to India in search of enlightenment, has spawned a collection of charms, rings and bracelets. And the reality-bending Kardashian sisters are designing jewelry based on Armenian religious icons.
It's official: The practice of incorporating religious or spiritual symbols in jewelry has become ubiquitous among smaller niche designers and more commercial, mass brands. With the public's growing interest in yoga, meditation and personal talismans that offer protection or courage, jewelry and accessory designers are picking up the theme and adorning their work with icons deeply rooted in ancient beliefs and religions.
Jewelry designed around religious symbols or the use of religious tokens as jewelry might not seem like anything new. Who doesn't remember Madonna writhing around on a stage draped in rosaries during the 1980s? In 2004, it was David Beckham, shirtless with a delicate rosary hanging from his neck down his chest, on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. But the trend is bigger and bolder than ever, with icons steeped in spirituality coming in all forms of familiar (and perhaps not so familiar) symbols dangling from bangles, necklaces, earrings and even belt buckles.
A sign that society is becoming more religious? Actually, it might be just the opposite. While there always will be jewelry and tokens worn to literally show one's faith — such as a Star of David for Judaism or a crucifix for Christianity — the rise in jewelry carrying evil eye charms, Hamsa hand pendants and Hindu Om symbols caters to people who are expressing their personal spirituality rather than an affiliation with organized religion.
"We are in a moment in American religion where the emphasis is on the spiritual, not the religious," says professor Stephen Prothero of the department of religion at Boston University. He defines the vague term "spiritual" as "not being part of an organized religion, an assertion of self-reliance in spiritual things."
"I think it's more about 'who I am,' and jewelry is often that," he says. "What can be more intimate than something like a tattoo or jewelry? Something that's close to your body."
Prothero adds that although expressing spirituality through body decoration might seem natural, there is also an irony. "Jewelry is about materialism, and the spiritual message is the opposite. It's not supposed to be about things of this world."
Regardless, there is an undeniable surge in jewelry based on spiritual symbols that customers can't seem to get enough of. Rachel Smith, owner of Givingtreejewelry.com, stocks lines such as Me + Ro and Good Charma, which incorporate elements such as Sanskrit and prayer beads in their work. "Spiritual jewelry gives people a sense of the individual within. As an individual they can find some sort of thread to something higher," she says "In the last five years, I realized the need for jewelry with meaning. Now 85 percent of the jewelry I carry has some sort of meaning or inscription."
For fall, Tory Burch has included blue and white evil-eye charm jewelry, designed by Kara Ross, which seems an exotic choice for Burch, whose brand has a more conservative sensibility.
"It's just part of the interchange of cultures and the globalization of culture that we are all a part of," Prothero says. "Nobody owns religious symbols. The positive side is that it gets people to think about different religions and symbols."
More intensely religious symbols are still making their way onto jewelry, though most designers won't claim their pieces as religious, but say they are more spiritual and ultimately open to interpretation.
Rosary beads also are being used or deconstructed to create a drapey Y-shaped silhouette. Designers such as Brooklyn-based Jessica Elliott and a line called Twisted Faith have their own takes on the traditional idea of the rosary. Elliot has a collection for fall called the "Rosary" line: Y-shaped necklaces made of colored beads, anchored a third of the way down with different symbols, such as a "mesh clover" or "Istanbul diamond."
"For me, religion is not something I choose to express through jewelry because I feel it alienates people," she says. "It's more about expressing spirituality and wearing these things as a personal talisman, not religious icons." Elliott made what she called the "Unity" necklace five years ago, consisting of one chain carrying a Jewish star, a Buddha and a cross. "It didn't sell," she says, "I think people were afraid to put it in their stores." Elliott's intent was not to send a mixed message but to add some levity to symbols that have otherwise intensely religious roots.