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. "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 as well as 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 may 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 (natch) 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 today, 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 will always 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 from 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 may 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 a surge in jewelry based on spiritual symbols that customers can't seem to get enough of. Rachel Smith, owner of www.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 is more conservative.
"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.
Take, for example, a Mexico City-based brand called Virgins, Saints and Angels, which is designed by a former image consultant for Levi's named Cheryl Finnegan who moved from California to Mexico after a divorce.
"I guess it was sort of my 'Eat Love Pray' moment," she says. Finnegan uses the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on most of her pieces. Crosses adorn cuffs and rosary beads are made into multilayer necklaces. But even with her brand's very specific name and the religious iconography, Finnegan uses these symbols purely for their aesthetic value.
"It's whatever you want to make of it," she says, "because it really all came from somewhere else." She adds that she is careful not to throw any of the religious iconography in anyone's face. "If someone wants to wear a St. Benedict pendant because they are a member of the St. Benedictine monks, then good! If someone likes something because it looks Celtic, they can wear it," she says.
In May, Finnegan debuted a collaboration with the Kardashian sisters of TV-reality show fame who tapped their Armenian heritage to create a collection. Elements from the Armenian cross and infinity symbol were turned into earrings and bracelets, some combined with spikes to create an edgier look.