From Rolling Stone Keith Richards’ skull ring to the Seldec Abby to Mexican sugar skulls, skeletons will always fascinate humans and be worn, by some, as jewelry.
By John Maddin
Why the fascination with skulls and skeletons? Sure, morbid appeal, signifying danger, and warning signs are all legit. We know skeletons are reminders that one day we shed this mortal coil. This is our take on the obsession with dem bones and why skull rings are cool.
Skull imagery is present throughout all cultures, and can mean different things to different people. For most it is the symbol of death, but not necessarily in a frightening way. In the Tarot deck the skeleton or skull represents change and transition, but is often used by Hollywood to mean danger, because, well, Hollywood. In Mexico, skeleton imagery represents the remembrance of a beloved family member, friend, or pet whose time has come. And then, of course, skulls are just plain freaky- looking without the fleshy vestments encasing the human central processing unit commonly known as the brain.
There can be beauty in morbidity. Each skull is unique, that’s a given. The bones tell stories, for those willing to look, listen, and learn. They’re like snowflakes, according to photographer David Orr. Orr photographed Viennese anatomist’s Joseph Hyrtl’s skull collection. Hyrtl was trying to debunk phrenology – the idea that skull sizes indicate intelligence. Orr’s photography augments what Hyrtl was doing in a way; telling the stories of people who might have otherwise gone forgotten.
In the 1300’s in Europe, the Black Plague wiped out over ⅓ of the population, creating a real problem later for churches with overloaded graveyards. The Sedlec Abbey of Kutna Horta in what is now the Czech Republic made room in the church necropolis by removing the bones of plague victims and lining the walls of the church with sculptures made entirely of skulls and bones, including an elaborate bone chandelier. The Sedlec Ossuary is now one of the most visited tourist sites in Europe.
Photo by Keepcalmandwander.com
In the Buddhist and Hindu cultures of northern India and Tibet, the skulls of the deceased were often turned into works of art with elaborate, intricate designs etched into the cranium along with silver and gold. The skulls were then used to hold ceremonial cakes as offerings to higher powers.
Mexican culture celebrates those who have passed on by incorporating flowers into skeleton and skull artwork, along with the making of sugar skulls to hand to children on the Day of the Dead. What was once a symbol of fear and danger thus becomes one of remembrance and joy. The U.S. owes a lot of its fascination with skulls to Mexican culture.
Universal symbols worn for personal reasons
Humans are naturally drawn to universal symbols. Such signs typically get an emotive response: hearts represent love, a peace symbol or peace sign is obvious. Skull designs in the U.S. are often found in music imagery, like the omnipresent Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” skull or in Heavy Metal album posters and covers. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones famously wears a skull ring on his right hand when he’s playing the guitar. For many in this crowd it’s a statement of how cool they are to use skull imagery. For others it’s a warning: don’t mess with me, I ride a Harley-Davidson and wear skull rings!
Regardless of the reason, careful artistic renditions are always a delight to behold. How does the artist interpret this part of the anatomy? No wonder biker ring collectors often have so many, from the ubiquitous screaming or laughing skull to the skull-and-snake, and the multiple-skull rack. And then sometimes there’s the artist that turns the skull into something comical and friendly. In other words, there’s a skull design for every occasion and every point of view.
It’s all in how you interpret it. When I get asked why there is so much skull and demon imagery in my jewelry, I often say that everyone has their own personal demons, but I take mine and others and turn them into artwork. Why have them rattling around inside, causing havoc? They’ll look much better sitting on your finger or dangling from a pendant chain. Plus, they just look so friggin’ cool!
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Edited by Michelle Walch