What is Materiality of Magic?

Jewellery and personal adornment hold power. They are thought to protect, bless, and heal , amongst other things. When you look at jewellery, you see objects, things: these form the material component of values their wearers believed in, including 'magic'. It is this interaction with objects that I am interested in, but how does it work? What is 'magic', anyway?

An Egyptian pendant with bells, a hand and the engraving of a fish

Personal adornment is closely connected with protection of the personal self. It forms a transition layer between the body and the outside world: worn close on the body and on the skin, but visible from the outside. This position makes personal adornment perfectly suited to exert influence over the well-being of the wearer, and with that observation we enter the realm of magic. Now, 'magic' here does not imply sorcery, wizardry or cunning tricksters doing their thing with rabbits and hats. Rather, 'magic' is to be understood as a means to influence the natural world by using rituals, beliefs and objects. That is not as outlandish at it may seem: I'm sure you know a few people who cherish family heirlooms, jewellery worn by mothers or grandmothers, and wear it on special occasions such as job interviews. There's all sorts of lucky numbers, lucky shirts, knocks on wood...we all practice magic more often than we might realize. Jewellery can be a material form of such magic.

How does jewellery influence the natural world?

In looking at jewellery, there are three different ways and two approaches for it to be used to influence the natural world.

1) As general protection against misfortune. Certain colours are known to keep evil at a distance, reflecting mirrors and swaying tassels confuse it, so these are actively used in personal adornment.

2) To reach a general goal. Some jewellery items are designed with specific materials and symbols to attract for example good luck, fertility or health. The item seems to be designed to deal with a specific wish or condition instead of generally keeping evil away.

3) To reach a specific goal. This is when jewellery items are tailor-made, specifically designed items to serve a very specific purpose, often for a specific person.

A written amulet I had made in Marrakech. This was to be worn in a container around the neck

4) In a 'passive' way of jewellery as general protection from the evil eye. In this case, generally beneficient colours and symbols in jewellery double as protective power, but their use is largely defined by tradition.

5) In an 'active' way as purpose-made amulet designed for a specific situation, condition or person. Here, decoration is used on purpose and/or the object itself is created according to magical books or grimoires, or upon expert advice of a specialist. The line between both is admittedly somewhat blurred, but I feel that the need for specific expertise and knowledge in creating an amulet is decidedly different from adhering to traditional colours, materials and designs that are regarded as generally beneficial.

Materiality of Magic-series

In the Materiality of Magic-series, I will be sharing more on these capacities of jewellery and personal adornment. It is in these expressions that we learn about the people themselves: what they feared, hoped and wanted, what their life looked like. In this way, jewellery offers us a view from within, an intimate glimpse on the life of its wearer. To me, that is the true power of jewellery and personal adornment.


Find out more about the magical capacities of jewellery in 'Amulets'. (this website)

For a series of definitions of 'magic' see this blogpost by Adam Parker.

For a theoretical discussion of 'magic', see Drawing down the Moon by R.C. Edmonds, pp. 5-19

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