Touch wood

Valeria Vallarta Siemelink

The moon can be taken by the spoonful
or as a capsule every two hours.
It is useful as a hypnotic and sedative
and also alleviates
those who have too much philosophy
A piece of moon in the pocket
is better than a rabbit’s foot:
used to find the one you love,
to be rich without anyone knowing
and to stay away from doctors and clinics.
You can give it to children
when they cannot slept,
and a few drops of moon in the eyes of the elderly
helps them to die in peace.

Excerpt from “La Luna”, in Jaime Sabines La Antología Poética[1]

On 31 December 2009, the popular Mexico City daily newspaper El Barrio carried the following headline: “Supply of the capital’s amulets exhausted by the crisis”.[2] The uncertainty about the economic crisis and unemployment had drained supply of the raw materials needed for the manufacture of amulets in the famed Mercado Sonora.

The Sonora Market is heir to the old tradition of the prehistoric tianguis (street markets). It was established in the heart of the city of Mexico in the fifties and represents the many facets of the syncretic culture found in contemporary Mexico and the majority of countries in the American continent. Its aisles smell of thyme and frankincense, garlic and musk, filled with religious symbols pagan objects, live animals—or their skins and bones—fresh herbs, colour candles, scapulars made for self-restraint or desire, and soaps to win the object of our love. All this in the service of those who need the hand of fortune and are convinced that in the efficacy of these elements. But in the last day of 2009, healers reported that the capital market had exhausted their stock and were unable to produce remedies and amulets that Mexicans needed to face the new year.

Mexicans share with the rest of Latin America a deep and complex relationship with luck. Regardless of the country of which came from or where we live, our beliefs or the way we have been educated, few can say that they don’t “knock on wood”, throw a pinch salt over their left shoulder or exclaim Solavaya!, as occasion arises. It is also common for many of us to bear an object—the image of a saint, the photograph of a loved one, a stone, a special ring or perhaps our first pen—that offers security and loyalty. This object perhaps assumes, even without our explicit consent, the function of an amulet and contributes to the successful completion of surgery, travel or examination.

In his Naturalis Historia, Pliny describes an amulet as: “An object that protects a person against a problem.” Amulets, probably the oldest artefacts of humanity, are present in all cultures and can take all forms: milagros, ribbons, votive offerings, animal parts, horseshoes, miraculous powders or four-leaf clovers. They have given rise to a myriad of uses, customs, rituals and cosmological beliefs which constitute an important cultural reflection of the past and develop expressions and meanings each time more diverse meanings in our time. Amulets currently have a profound popular dimension, and like other forms of material culture, are essential elements for the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of contemporary identity. Sheila Pine defines the modern charm as: “A portable object to which are attributed supernatural powers that can change the fate of people, either attracting good or repelling evil.”[3]

The amulet is a fascinating object around which is focused the project Joyaviva, a series of workshops and exhibitions conceived by curator Kevin Murray, seeking to explore current notions of the amulet and relate it to the vibrant contemporary jewellery production that creates connections between csountries across the Pacific Ocean.

Analysing the qualities and meanings of the amulet, both culturally and personally and harnessing the indisputably active nature of this artifact, jewelers, designers, artisans and artists from Australia, Chile, Mexico and New Zealand have been given the task of creating new amulets—jewels, portable objects that exude life, they generate, communicate and re-energise the field of international contemporary jewellery.

The result of this project is a collection of 30 contemporary objects that reflect the culture, environment, ideas and concerns of their creators. These artists address issues that, despite the cultural diversity of their origins, have more similarities than differences. Some designers refer to the earliest origins of amulets and demonstrate a concern for natural phenomena such as earthquakes that hit the Pacific Ring of Fire, around which are located countries from New Zealand to Chile and Mexico. While the Chilean Carolina Hornauer produces kelp and copper objects intended to restore confidence in the future of the inhabitants devastated by a tsunami in the Mapuche community of Tirúa, the New Zealanders Areta Wilkinson, Jacqui Chan and Sarah Read produced a series of brooches to show solidarity with the survivors of the Christchurch earthquake as they seek reconciliation with their new urban environment.

Among Mexicans a concern is noted about the climate of relentless violence related to organized crime that has plagued the country in the last decade. Cristina Celis emulates those cleansing ceremonies involving eggs, to produce a series of white porcelain rings to be passed over the whole body to absorb fears and inspire courage; Gabriela Campo has made ​​a small container that protects the traveller who ventures the dangerous roads and highways of the country; Jaqueline Roffe has created a series of white pearl brooches that conceal the image of Santa Muerte whose syncretic origins combine various pre-Hispanic elements of worship for the dead as well as the Catholic rite of the anointing of the sick. This figure is often revered by the offenders. The image of Santa Muerte in Roffe’s work is made visible by rubbing black ink on the surface of the brooch, which allows the wearer to be recognised as a member of this cult and thus frees him from a possible attack by his worshipers.

Other artists such as the New Zealander Kathryn Yeats, the Australian Alice Whish and the Chilean Valentina Rosenthal, have designed special amulets to protect young children, encourage their independence and help them gain confidence in school work.

They are also those who reinterpret—with humour and conceptual sophistication—well-known superstitions and rituals. The Mexican artist Martacarmela Sotelo employs two magnetised pieces of wood made from an old chair, which is turned into a necklace of minimal form that evokes, as we connect the wooden components, the old act of “touching wood”. The Chilean Angela Cura invokes Ekeko, a god of abundance, fertility and joy that traditionally receives offerings from the people of the Andean region. Also, the Mexican Laura Alba, drawing from traditional Catholic scapulars, enables tags and trademarks to become mechanisms that protect us from impulse buying or overconsumption.

The works on display in Joyaviva: Live Jewellery across the Pacific demonstrate the enormous potential of contemporary jewelry, as a highly expressive medium and a powerful communication tool. The cultural environment and personal identity of its creators is embodied in a number of forms and materials so rich and diverse.

At the end, we all believe in something. We can touch wood, repeat a mantra, hang a scapular or carry a piece of moon in our pocket. We are the ones who confer value and power on objects. The works presented here are impregnated with life, meaning and talent. They represent a bridge between cultures across the Pacific, and are a point of connection between those who have the pleasure to create the object and those who have the good fortune to bear it.

[1] Sabines, Jaime (2011). Antología Poética. Ciudad de México: Fondo de Cultura Económica


[3] Paine, Sheila (2004) Amulets. A World of Secret Powers, Charms and Magic. London: Thames and Hudson.

Budge, EA Wallis (2011). Amulets and Superstitions. New York: Dover Publications.

Clark, Mary Ann (2007) Santeria: Correcting the Myths and Uncovering the Realities of a Growing Religion. Goleta: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Hood, Bruce. SuperSense, From Superstition to Religion – The Brain Science of Belief. London: Harper Collin Publishers.

Miller, Daniel (2010). Stuff. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lawrence, Sullivan (2002). Native American Religions of Central and South America: Anthropology of the Sacred New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Ortiz, Fernando (2002). La Santería y la Brujería de los Blancos. La Habana: Fundación Fernando Ortiz

Paine, Sheila (2004). Amulets: A World of Secret Powers, Charms and Magic, London: Thames & Hudson.

Sejourné, Laurette (1996). Supervivencias de un Mundo Mágico. Ciudad de México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

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