By Aïda Yuen Wong
Text-based jewelry have served multiple functions in history. Some are highly personal and others steeped in tradition. International, they often make references to specific culture, religion, and ethnicity. The words tend to be aestheticized with calligraphic flourishes that transform them into endearing and powerful accessories. Calligraphy jewelry announce the wearer’s belief and identity. Let’s dive into the different types.
Nameplate Necklaces as Expressions of Identity
Off-the-shelf or customized pendants, rings, and bracelets personalized with one’s own name or monogram initials are jewelry fashion staples. They are made for specific persons and only gain more significance over time. An iconic example is the “Carrie” necklace worn by Sarah Jessica Parker in her role as Carrie Bradshaw in the HBO “Sex and The City” series. Her use of this necklace is often seen as a reminder that she can do anything she sets out to do, even if it means being single for life. The “Carrie” Necklace also pays homage to classic jewelry styles from the past such as nameplate necklaces which were popular during Victorian times. SJP revealed that of all the fashion items from the show that she got to keep, the “Carrie” necklace is her most prized possession. SJP’s stylist Patricia Field was inspired to incorporate the necklace into Carrie’s wardrobe after seeing kids in the neighborhood donning nameplate designs.
Photo by Arsham Haghani: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-wearing-red-bandana-3580357/
In fact, the popularity of nameplate necklaces began among Black and Latinx (Latine) youths during the 1980s and 1990s to proudly display their often hard-to-pronounce, non-English names. It was a way to express cultural pride and individuality, separate from mainstream white culture. Nameplate necklaces are proclamations that “I am here.” Brooklyn’s Fulton Street was where many such necklaces were sold. These items usually are golden to symbolize royalty and status, with origins going back in part to historical Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, as well as street hustlers in the 1970s. Black and brown celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, Lil’ Kim, and others, have publicly shown their love for this type of jewelry. Instagram account @nameplatejewelry was founded by Isabel Flower to share her passion of documenting the history and craftsmanship behind nameplate necklaces.
Hip-Hop Bling as Luxurious Badges of Success
Hip-hop jewelry with lettering is another popular adornment that can be seen as an extension of nameplate necklaces. They are again associated with power and wealth, real or symbolic. The demand for these pieces of jewelry have grown exponentially in recent years. Many hip-hop artists, rappers, and other celebrities are now wearing them and making them a signature style. The massive “Jesus” chain once worn by the Notorious B.I.G. would turn into a good-luck charms for Jay-Z. Hip-hop bling goes beyond necklaces and iced chains with diamonds. It encompasses mouth grills, four-finger rings, earrings, and more.
Since the 1970s, the genre has gained popularity by DJ Kool Herc in his block parties and by album covers, such as those of Kurtis Blow who had the first certified gold hip-hop record. Jewelers have responded by creating unique necklace and bracelet designs using 100% real gold that even include used gold teeth from the artists. The story behind this trend is recounted in a richly illustrated, 388-page book, Ice Cold. A Hip-Hop Jewelry History (2022), published by Taschen and written by Vikki Tobak, which traces its 40-year-long history. It recounts how the movement began with stars like DMC who was known for his trademark gold chain, inspiring others to “cop their style” and become part of this subculture.
Faith and love Symbols
Another kind of calligraphy jewelry are those with auspicious and religious sayings, which can be worn as talismans or good-luck charms. Islamic jewelry bearing words of the Koran is a great way for Muslims to feel Allah's presence and remind themselves of their faith. Such rings, bracelets and necklaces allow the wearers to read their beloved verses no matter where they are. Due to their calligraphic quality, not only do Islamic jewelry pieces look beautiful, they also make people feel connected to their faith in a special way.
Islamic jewelry are usually made from gold and silver, but it can also be made from any other metal or stone. Gold and silver jewelry is not just a fashion statement; it has both intrinsic value and a spiritual significance for Muslims. Muslim scholars agree that gold and silver form a zakatable wealth, as long as they are set with diamonds or pearls. Silver, however, is only considered zakatable if it has been transformed into an article of jewelry.
In the Victorian period especially during the Romantic era (1837-1861), pieces of jewelry were sometimes inscribed with “mizpah,” the Hebrew word meaning “watchtower.” These were exchanged as tokens of love and friendship between people separated by distance or circumstance. Rings were the most common. Necklaces were often made to be split into two with each person wearing one half.
An engraved mantra of the phrase "Om Mani Padme Hum" (an invocation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion) is believed to be one of the most potent charms in Buddhism, offering intense purification and protection. It is thought that wearing a piece of jewelry with this mantra could help to bring selflessness, wisdom, and enlightenment. Some claim that an Om Mani Padme Hum ring or necklace can even activate powers that are thought to change the course of life for the better.
For Asian Pride and Universal Harmony
In East Asia, calligraphed texts have always been a vital part of its literary, philosophical, and artistic traditions. They have taken the form of brushed, cast, and carved words on stones, metals, paper, or silk, among other materials. Engraved seals, for example, are not only used to mark authenticity, ownership, and appreciation, they have also been collectors’ items. However, the wearing of calligraphy jewelry has been relatively rare historically in this culture. Most of the Asian calligraphy jewelry on the market today tend to feature words for “good luck” and “love” that are designed in a straight-forward way.
Callimode is a new luxury brand that seeks to elevate the style of Asian calligraphy jewelry. Our company introduces a variety of distinctive pieces that reinterpret historical scripts originated in China but also adopted by communities where Chinese culture has touched, such Japan and Korea. Contemporary art jewelry with calligraphy like ours are a beautiful way to express oneself, honor tradition, and also carry timeless meaning. Like the luxurious hip-hop style, Callimode’s core collection is made with solid gold and diamonds to express pride and claim a space in society.
While the words and phrases used for calligraphy jewelry are infinite, Callimode focuses on messages of antiracism and universal humanity. Our creations are sure to add a touch of elegance and social meaning to any look. If you want something unique, look no further than Callimode, the online jewelry boutique with a difference.
Calligraphy jewelry is the perfect way to make a bold and stylish statement. They are sure to draw attention, whether for yourself or as a gift for someone special. With their variety and creative lettering, calligraphy jewelry offer many ways for self-expression and showing what you care about.
Aïda Yuen Wong is Professor of Art History at Brandeis University; Founder and Head of Design of Callimode, an Asian American contemporary jewelry brand specializing in luxury designs to express antiracism in Asian calligraphy. Ethical & Sustainable Jewelry with Recycled Gold and Non-Conflict Diamonds.