Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Journey of the Balangandan Necklace

Above:  Vintage Photos of slaves wearing their Balangandans
Above:  Photo by Man Ray, with his wife Julia wearing a vintage Balangandan Necklace

During the Covid-19 Lockdown, I discovered the opportunity to create my version

of the Balangandon amulet necklace. (Click on the link to read the history of this necklace). Simultaneously, as I began to create the piece, the movement of “Black Lives Matter”came to
the forefront in America. I started to ponder the importance of holding
onto a talisman during difficult moments. What do the charms and
symbols represent in our everyday experience and challenging times?
Can they be something that gives our lives meaning and our
accomplishments representation?

     As a woman and metalsmith, I have certainly been challenged by my
place in the world and the struggles I’ve faced. However, looking back
through history I found great significance in the human struggle,
epecially those of women and slaves.

     Jewelry charms have had great meaning to me. I remember collecting
gumball machine charms in a shoebox when I was a child. When I
(Click on this link to read another blogpost:  "A Charmed life.")

     I created my 2020 version of a Balangandon to exemplify an eternal
reference to the hopes and dreams of women everywhere. I made the
chain links to represent barbed wire, a reference to slavery. I chose
opals and moonstones to honor our hopes and dreams: the things we
wish for and the reality of our everyday lives. I adorned the corners of
the silver plate with Aladdin’s lamps to inspire magic. 

     The piece began its journey over 25 years ago when I purchased the
central Mother of Pearl Charm that has a sliding door revealing 4 major
arcana playing cards. I have no idea of the origin or age of the piece but
imagined it to be a Victorian folly that might be worn on a Victorian
woman’s chatelaine. I imagined this woman‘s morning ritual of
“pulling a card” to predict the events of a new day, much like a tarot

     Last year, while showing this Mother Of Pearl charm to a fellow
jeweler, she told me about the history of the Balangandan Necklace. I
built the piece around this Mother of Pearl Charm. All the charms
represent a woman’s journey: children, growth and daily tasks
emotional and physical strength, love and loss on a life’s path well-
traveled. Some of the charms are vintage and some of them I made.
Each individual charm has a meaning to the concept of the piece.
The necklace can be worn on the neck or at the waist. It can also hang,
as it was originally intended, on a wall by the front door. It is my intent
that the owner adds their own charms to commemorate their individual
soul’s journey.

The Charms on my Balangandan Necklace:

I mimicked the original shape of the silver plate from which the charms
hang to give reference to the ships in which the slaves traveled to the
New World. This shape, to me, also represents the sea of life. The opals
and moonstones represent the dreams we hold as individuals on our
journey. The Aladdin’s Lamps on either side of the holder add some
magic to our travels.

Top Row: (left to right)

1.) The articulated mermaid.Vintage Silver Charm.Because I
always wanted to see, if not be, a mermaid. 

2.) Vintage Silver Chalet charm. We all deserve the home of our

3.) Motorcycle Boot. To kick some ass when we need to.

4.) Baby Shoe. The hope of a new life.

5.) Vintage dice charm. Silver and Acrylic. Because sometimes a
little luck is involved.

6.) Vintage silver pickaxe.  Because sometimes you have to keep
chipping away on something until it gives way.

7.) Vintage Silver Hope Chest. Because we collect things and store
them in our hearts.

8.) My wisdom tooth from bone loss. Silver.  One of the things I’ve
lost along my journey.

Bottom Row (left to right)

1.) Vintage Sewing scissors in a leather worn sheath. Because there
are things we need to mend or cut out of our lives.

2.) Silver Chicken Foot Charm. A nod to Santeria, religious beliefs
and magic.

3.) Vintage lenses holding a silver screen with which I’ve embroidered a cracked heart.
Because sometimes our hearts break.

4.) Vintage Mother Of Pearl Charm. (see above)

5.) Vintage Silver and Mother or Pearl Baby Rattle. Because
sometimes we need to entertain and distract our children, or
even ourselves.

6.) Vintage Silver Knight in Shining Amor. Because we all want to
be saved or find “the one”

7.) Vintage Painting on glass set in Silver. Because I have dreams
of a city under the sea where I can live peacefully.

8.) Vintage carved wooden Shoe Charm. Because everyone needs to walk a mile in another persons shoes.

Above:  My Balangandan Necklace as worn by my talented friend, musician and writer, @felice_rosser
Above:  My Balangandan Necklace as worn by my talented friend, jeweler and gemologist, Reema Keswani @golcondajewelery. (photo by @amandajoyr)

Afro-brazilian Amulet
March, 2016
From the Museum of Ethnology,

As the indigenous peoples who worked on the Portuguese colonial plantations in
Brazil died out or fled, they were replaced by African slaves, who brought with
them elements of their home cultures. The African territories they came from, a
number boasted fairly advanced metallurgical industries.

The balangandan is a religious object typical of Brazil, and particularly of the state
of Bahia, that represents the encounter between African and European cultures. In Portuguese, it is called a penca, or bouquet, while the name balangandan is an onomatopoetic word meant to recall the sound made by the object's dangling metal baubles

Consisting of a number of charms strung on a common fastener hung from a
chain, the balangandan traces its roots back to the 17th century, though its more
general use dates to the 18th-19th centuries. Worn by women of African descent,
the balangandan most frequently adorned the thick chain belts that hung about
slaves' waists, though on special occasions, it might be attached to the
wrist. When not in use, it hung in the house near the door. Originally made of
silver, the balangandan represented significant monetary value and was not
infrequently presented by plantation owners to favored slaves. Each
balangandan was unique, having been composed to reflect the specific life path of
its wearer. Its charms included religious symbols that could be interpreted
simultaneously as Christian in origin, or as representing certain African
gods. Other charms were intended to impart good fortune, happiness, prosperity,
or good health, while a third type was selected out of gratitude for - and in
commemoration of - having survived some misfortune, such as an accident or
illness. The function of the balangandan was in some respects similar to that of a
modern charm bracelet.

The charms of the balangandan frequently depicted plants or fruits such as the
pomegranate, symbolizing wealth or fertility. One common motif was that of the
gourd vessel or dipper, which a number of African cultures used as a symbol for
the female womb. Another was that of a hand posed in what is known as the 'fig'
gesture, or figas, with the thumb protruding from between the curled index and
middle fingers. Originally a Mediterranean symbol used to impart fertility and
ward off evil spirits, the figas is still a very popular symbol in Brazil today. The
fastener on which the charms were strung was representative of the ships that
brought the slaves to the New World, the birds that sat on either side symbolizing
the continents of Africa and the Americas.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

This is my studio mascot
Mr. Don’t Panic.  I bought hin from a street artist on 8th St. in NYC in 1988.  He’s been in every studio I’ve had since then.  I always say that it takes about seven years for a jeweler to develop a vocabulary of skills:  the things you know to fix when you tend to f*ck up a project.  He holds that space for me and reminds me not to panic.  He is especially valuable to me now during the challenging times we are facing now on earth.  Do you have a personal talisman or mascot that gives you strength and stability?  I’d love to know…

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Are you old enough to remember the commercial that ended with the tag line:  “Only your hairdresser knows for sure?”  I’d like to change that to:  “Only your jeweler knows for sure”.  Here is a lovely secret I recently shared with a couple on their 20th wedding anniversary.

  Blair Breard was a friend in the early days of my first store, Clear Metals, in the East Village of NYC.  She would come in, hang out and share her stories about her experiences in NYC as a young actress.  She met Robert Leaver and they married.  They are both incredible talents and human beings.  (Blair now has her own production company, “Bossy Boots” and Robert is an artist, musician and performance artist

 I made their wedding bands.  They had a son, Mason (now a teenager). Twenty years later, they are still my friends and loyal customers.  Twenty years is a long time.  What does 20 years mean in a relationship?  If you search for traditional gift ideas on google, it will say China, white porcelain.  More to my liking it is represented by the color green or by the emerald.  Think of growth and creation.

Robert came to me early on, perplexed by the idea of what to gift Blair for this big milestone.  He was struck by the idea of going back to the altar in the woods where they had committed their vows, to see if there were any remnants underfoot he could repurpose into a gift.  He came to me and showed me a handful of stones where they had been standing.  Pepples, dirt and broken china.  One pebble, not beautiful, came to represent how they had turned dirt and stone into a lasting, creative relationship.  I put this pebble into a prong setting, melted some silver into a metal pebble and set an emerald into this blob of creation.

Together Blair and Robert created Mason.  Blair had secretly kept all of Mason’s baby teeth because she had an inside relationship with the Tooth Fairy.  She came to me and showed me a little tin filled with Mason’s teeth.  Some were large, some were tiny.  I created a “tooth charm” for Robbie.  It is organic and strong, a symbol that is representative of creating something from nothing.  How we all bloom.  I hand carved the charm in wax and added gold to represent preciousness. I held my breath as I sent two UPS packages to the same address to each of them on the same day.  I wondered how this would play out.

One of the perks of my chosen profession is that I receive the gift of sharing in these meaningful moments of life with people.  Friends who become patrons.  The most valuable lessons I’ve learned in all of this is how to keep secrets.  And patience:  the patience to wait until I hear from both, simultaneously, elated and filled with joy.  I have such gratitude that I get to share in these special moments.  

Monday, May 14, 2018


I work in relative obscurity in the middle of woods.   
The wild turkeys roam and call out to me through the sun streaming upon my workbench.  It is quiet. It is serene and I have time to contemplate.  This is right for me at this time in my life. I am no longer pulled by my dreams that
wilt in daylight.

Am I lonely?  No, because I have contact: Just the right amount of contact that I choose and which I value.  I feel such gratitude now when I sit eating a sandwich at the local diner and watch the old man next to me sitting alone and staring at his gold watch.  He looks peaceful.  I can see that he’s lived a life that has been full.  I love him silently and admire him.  What were his choices and where did he stumble or astound?

My life is much smaller than it used to be and I like it that way.  I moved to my cottage in the woods almost 2 years ago and it’s taken me that long to find the moonlight on the path when it’s dusk.  It’s taken me that long to reach out and wander the perimeters of my town.  That’s when I found the Repair Café.

The Repair Café is an old concept.  It happens in many incarnations in many communities.  I remember when I was a child how I sat by my father’s elbows and watched him closely when he fixed a broken chair or metal shelving.  When he drilled through the metal and attached nuts and bolts for stability it seemed almost painful, like a stay in the hospital.  The drill through the metal screamed when it was mended. It sighed as it was sanded and repainted.  We laughed when he was stumped by an engineering challenge and we wondered why the piece didn’t repair itself.

I’ve been making jewelry for 45 years and I like to take my time.  I volunteered my time one afternoon several weeks ago at the Repair Café.  I was there to advise and do small repairs “on the spot” in a large room at the back of a church.  Volunteers were buzzing around, setting up tables and lamps.  I worked a double task of sewing and mending as well as wielding my pliers to fix that broken clasp on a long chain.

The Café had barely opened its doors when a couple of real Woodstockers walked up to my small jewelry station.  He was dapper and friendly.  She was tall and monumental in her fuscia fake fur coat and purple hair.  They were clutching a round cookie tin,

Putting the tin down, they slid it over the table to me and I opened it.  Resting in a square of red velvet was a silver and semi-precious stone pendant, one of the largest pendants I’d ever seen.  Immediately I knew it was modernist, from the 1950’s when many artists also made jewelry. It resembled a Paul Klee painting with fanciful and playful beaded silver wires sticking out randomly.  It was odd and intriguing and a little bit garish.

“Can you fix this?” he asked.  “It’s actually quite valuable, by an artist that used to live here in Woodstock:  Rolph Scarlett.” 

I examined the big pendant and saw that it was in need of a solder job because one of the jump rings on the main, hollow form had snapped.  Soldering a piece of jewelry is always a challenge when someone else has made the piece. Not to mention the care that is needed in preserving the original patina. Turning it over in my hands I could see that while it was somewhat primitive, it had been made with intention and humor.  I liked this odd piece of jewelry and was intrigued with the person who had been Rolph Scarlett.

I could fix it.  It would be a challenge and a bit scary but I knew I could do it.  Plus, I love the fantasy that I can be part of a bit of history in carrying on the tradition of artists that work in metal.

I carried the piece back to my studio and researched Rolph Scarlett.

“Scarlett was Canadian-born, came of age in the Midwest, and spent few important years in Hollywood, where he designed stage sets. His work from this early period echoes Klee’s use of color, his confidence in naïve, primitive forms, and his blend of abstraction and figuration. In its flat spatial qualities it prefigures the Indian Space painting of the 1940s by a decade. He moved to New York in 1933 and eventually found his first great patron at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, directed by Baroness Hilla Rebay and art patron Solomon R. Guggenheim. Guggenheim would collect over 60 works by Scarlett for his collection, more than any other artist outside of Vasily Kandinsky and Rudolf Bauer.”

It turns out that Scarlett was friends with Paul Klee and admired his work greatly.  Scarlett’s paintings are beautiful and similar but he never really gained world recognition like Klee.  He lost the support of patrons when his style changed and he retired to Woodstock where he lived in “regional obscurity” to the end of his life.  He also returned to his original passion of making jewelry.

This week on a quiet day in the studio I said a prayer while I soldered the pendant.  I had taken it apart to repair it.  The patina changed when the piece was heated but I re-oxidized it back to its aged splendor.  I reassembled the pieces and imagined Rolph stamping the piece with his nod to street graffiti.  Street Graffiti affected me tremendously when I first moved to NYC in the 80’s.  Samo and Keith Haring were my contemporaries.  Rolph and I shared that fascination. I still incorporate graffiti images into my work.

The pendant needed a “bale” from which it could hang on a chain.  I chose one of my “beaded bales” that are part of my own signature.  I thought about this choice.  I knew that ethically I should choose a plain large silver oval jump ring in keeping with Rolph’s intention but I just couldn’t do it.  On the inside of the bale is my triangle signature.

When I’m old and sitting in a diner, eating my sandwich and staring at my watch, I will hold the wish that in the future someone might discover a piece of my jewelry and bring it to a Repair Cafe. I hope my signature will be recognized. If another jeweler repairs my work and adds their moniker, it will continue upon it’s journey.  I will know that in spite of my choice of relative obscurity as a career path, I’d made a mark on the path well traveled.
(Left:  Barbara Klar's Graffiti Safety Pin, 1984)

Monday, July 10, 2017

Inspiration and Synchonicity

…when jewelry has a life of its own….

Does the idea come first like a light bulb illuminating in my brain or is there something I see which triggers a familiarity upon which I can expand? I am tempted to say that things just happen: Do they roll and stand up to get attention or spring like a sprout from the fertile ground
I tread?

I was given this Labradorite Cabochon stone from a friend. As I touched it's smooth surface, I rolled it over in my hand and put it back into my stone box, I was struck by the color and luminosity it possessed in different lighting. There was an iridescent blue that reminded me of
the pink and turquoise blue of a sunset by the ocean. I had just moved and ended a disappointing relationship that was tumultuous and mean. I was alone somewhat happily yet I could only feel the fear. I was thankful that the new place came with a bed that was not only
comfortable but enabled me to lay my head upon the pillow and gaze into the treetops and see the sky. I forced myself to breathe long deep breaths even though my heart was beating in my chest and my phone was blowing up with abominable texts from my ex.

While I laid on the bed, out of the corner of my eye I saw the brown paper wrapping with string around a small painting, waiting to be unpacked and hung. I had collected so much art over the years but now most of it sat in storage. Through the years I'd become increasingly uncommitted regarding this collection. While I loved every piece of art I owned, I didn't want anything hanging on my walls anymore. I wanted my mind to be free so I could dance with my own ideas, unhindered by someone else's.

"I should hang that painting", I whispered to myself. Three months later, the package still sat by my nightstand. It had been moved endlessly around my tiny bedroom because it seemed to be constantly in the way. I loved that painting; it had been given to me by a friend on my birthday 6 years ago. I like to look at its colors because it made me feel like I could fly into its night sky and lose myself into the cobalt blue and sherbet-colored sunset. I could lay atop that small hill and watch the sun disappear over the horizon.

I hadn't been able to work since I moved because the displacement had been so abrupt and brutal. I could only cry because I felt broken and lost. I've never been unable to work in the sanctuary of my studio, not ever. The dry period was long, until September when production for
the holidays was upon me. I felt empty and dry. Coming down the stairs from my bedroom one morning I tripped on the edge of the brown paper and the painting fell down the 5 stairs with me after it. We both arrived on the landing somewhat shaken and disheveled, but all in tact. I sat
there stunned and slowly unwrapped the painting. I ran my fingers over the gilded gold frame and let the colors wash over me. I immediately hung it at the foot of my bed where I could gaze upon the tree tops through my window and then lose myself into the colors of the sunset
painting. Or was it sunrise?

I sat in front of my stone boxes and opened them one by one, wishing that inspiration would find me like water in stream rippling over the rocks with diamond reflections. The Labradorite found its way into my hand again and I wanted to catch the clouds that reflected in the streams of my memory. That beautiful stone was the painting at the foot of my bed as much as it was a cool glass of water from the well to quench my thirst. It came from the earth and it whispered to the blue in my soul while I set it into a ring.

But the journey of this ring had just begun....

from Michele Zalopany (click on her name to access her website)

Barb and I have been dear friends since we attended the Cleveland Institute of Art. We each followed our own trajectories that began at CIA. Through the following decades we both worked hard at our lifes’ work; for Barb it was jewelry, and for me, it was painting and drawing.
A few months ago, I saw the ring in a post that Barb had put on Instagram (@barbaraklar). The elaborate silver setting held a large
oval Labradorite stone. The setting was like an exaggerated contemporary version of a Victorian gothic cocktail ring. The 19c, with its confluence of colonialism, photography and Darwin has been a source of study and fascination for me. There was just something about that ring that struck me in a profound way like no piece of jewelry ever had.For years, I have been studying and researching colonialism worldwide, but Hawai’i, in particular. The earliest ethnographic photographs of Hawai’i are the foundation of my paintings. Being part native Hawaiian, I am fascinated by some of the faces of the women before miscegenation; they were a far cry from the brown-tinted, Caucasian-featured hula hula girls, used to promote the tourist industry, especially beginning in the 1920’s.

That ring reminded me, very profoundly, of Hawai’i…the sea and the

Shortly after I purchased the ring, I attended a transcendental event with acsmall group of people. Under the guidance of a trained facilitator, various psychedelic plants are administered to each person based on their experience and intent. My intent was to be able to work through a difficult period with my partner, and to have some breakthrough in my work. After a gut-wrenching, powerful-on-many-levels night, we all got together in the morning, to talk about our experiences. The next step was to integrate our experiences with the plants, in our daily lives. This made perfect sense to me on a very rational level. Little did I know or expect some of the irrational and poignant synchronicities that would occur.

Just before the journey, I had been commissioned to make a large vertical painting for a private residence. The subject matter had been decided: two pearl divers. I had nearly finished the divers, but was having a very difficult time determining the configuration and colors of the water into which they were diving, which comprised nearly 2/3 of the entire painting.

I’ve had insomnia for a while now and wake up several times a night
completely pie-eyed. A few days after the journey, I woke up at 2:14am,
and went into the living area to have a cigarette. I had a conspicuous thought that seemingly came out of the blue…the ring, it's light and it's color would be the ground of the painting! The next day, I painted the remaining white canvas with the image of the sea, rock and sky depicted in the ring with a big brush and watercolor. It freed me up from my usual tightly controlled rendering. It offered an infinity of possibilities, and most of all, I was energized and stimulated!

I completed the commission. The client was pleased, and so was I.

*healing properties of Labradorite
A stone of transformation, Labradorite is a useful
companion through change, imparting strength and
perseverance. It balances and protects the aura, raises
consciousness and grounds spiritual energies. Excellent
for strengthening intuition - promoting psychic abilities.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Tiny is TOPS!


The components I use to make  jewelry are so small that I need magnifying glasses to see them clearly.  Often they will jump off my bench and fall into the void of my workspace, never to be found again or only appear when I'm searching on my hands and knees with a flashlight.

This drives me crazy at times, but I love Tiny Things.  Last week my assistant, Jen, and I were reminiscing about our love for all things tiny.  How did this start?  Surprisingly, we could both trace our fascination back to our first dollhouses. One of my earliest obsessions occurred when I accompanied my mother on her weekly grocery shopping and noticed a toy high atop a shelf on an aisle, prior to Christmas of 1959.   This was the original "Dream Kitchen" and came with a working dishwasher and a total of 176 pieces.  It included tiny steaks, plates, pots, pans and canned goods.  I repeatedly tortured my mother until it arrived that Christmas.  I began to create a secret dollhouse in a cabinet in my bedroom where I made curtains and doll clothes with my tiny crank Singer sewing machine.  I would work on my cabinet of curiosities endlessly until my mother would come in and force me to go outdoors, into the sunlight.  But I preferred my dollhouse, much as I prefer the time spent in my studio today.

This is a dollhouse to top all doll houses.  Fairy Castle was commissioned by silent movie actress Colleen Moore in 1928 and now resides in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois.  It took many years and countless artisans to create this masterpiece:  with its 500-year-old ornaments, pure gold and diamond encrusted chandeliers, it boasts a great hall, a princess's bathroom and a well-manicured courtyard.

Here is my "Girlie Necklace".  It features all charms that reference the pin-up girl theme.  While I do not often work in non-precious or costume jewelry, I couldn't resist it when I saw these charms.  The small binoculars are viewable with a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge. There's a pink-gold plated "Playboy" locket, an expanding cellulose fan with nudie girl pictures and a small disk that rotates viewable girlie pics… The little book expands with picture postcards of Somerset.  It is made of copper with silver accents and is truly one-of-a-kind.

The wonders of a Tiny World are infinite:  zoom in and you'll see!

Friday, October 30, 2015

New Information about "The Seeker"

After Publishing this post about “The Seeker”, a dear client took it upon herself to research the image in the vintage porcelain. Thankyou, Jane Wood, for your keen detective work!
*Aloysius Gonzag: Born in the castle of Castigione, 1568; died, June 1591.

The eldest of 7 children in a wealthy family in Northern Italy, he was chosen to be trained in the military but received “the calling” to be a priest at a very young age. His family was vehemently opposed to this but when he developed persistent health issues, he was sent to a monastery and furthered his education there. In 1591, a plague broke out in Rome and the Jesuits opened a hospital for the stricken. Aloysius volunteered to work there. Six days before his 23rd Birthday, Aloysius showed the first symptoms of being infected. He recovered, but his health was left worse than ever. He had a vision that he would be dead within the year and told several people that he would die on the Octave of the feast of Corpus Christie. On that very day, he seemed well in the morning but insisted he would die before the day was over. He died just before midnight.
Owing to the manner of his death, he has always been considered a patron saint of plague victims. For his compassion and courage in the face of an incurable disease, Alysius Gonzaga has become the patron both of AIDS sufferers and their caretakers. Aloysius is the patron of Valmontone, a town not far from Rome.

In Art, St. Aloysius is shown as a young man wearing a black cassock and surplice, or as a page. His attributes are a lily, referring to innocence; a cross, referring to piety and sacrifice; a skull, referring to his early death; and a rosary, referring to his devotion.

It is curious to me that this little porcelain was crafted by me, unknowingly into something of a shrine to the testament of knowledge and healing. I, too, feel like I live in an age of many plagues. We seek to heal.