Call it ghoulery jewelry.
In the depths of a West Hollywood boutique, shoppers with an eye toward the bizarre can indulge their wildest anthropological fantasies: bracelets, necklaces and a whole body of knickknacks fashioned from human and animal bones.
Necromance on Melrose Avenue is the place to unearth such hip adornments as human fingers on a leather cord for $28, a necklace of human teeth and bone beads for $30, dangling skunk jaws and chicken vertebrae for $12. Or a necklace made from muskrat and skunk skulls with assorted animal teeth: $40.
In need of a new conversation piece? There's adult human skulls and even a tiny fetal one. And an intact human hand, femur bones, crocodile skulls, cat vertebra and a whole human skeleton hanging from a chain. For the true bargain hunter, there's even a tiny display casket with assorted human and animal bones that sell for $2 to $25.
Such is the weird world of Nancy Smith, a 32-year-old Louisiana native who has spent a lifetime romancing the bones of everything from dogs to dinosaurs. To Smith, who makes her own bone-adorned jewelry, human and animal remains are anything but creepy. They're aesthetic, unique, even beautiful.
"No two animal vertebrae are the same," says Smith, whose friends call her The Bone Lady or just Necro Nancy. "Bones come in all different shapes and sizes. And their neutral color isn't matched anywhere else in nature. They're perfect for jewelry."
Smith's roots with bones run clear to the marrow. Growing up in New Orleans, she dreamed of becoming an anthropologist and preferred ogling the transparent human anatomy pages in the encyclopedia to playing with dolls or reading her books.
Years later, while working in a New York City clothing boutique, she volunteered at the Museum of Natural History, pouring plastic bone casts for a huge dinosaur exhibit. Then she got an idea to combine her passions: jewelry and jawbones.
In 1990, she moved to L.A. and founded Necromance--the root word of which means death, corpse and dead tissue. "I know what I do is a little weird," she says, "so I knew I needed a big audience for my work."
So far, the business has been a huge success. Her boutique is one of six eclectic shops collectively known as "The Black Market." On a recent Saturday, her's was by far the busiest.
With a skeleton crew--usually it's just her behind the counter--she has collected bones at zoos and museums, defunct medical schools, animal auctions and state fairs.
Smith, who wears ruby lipstick, a jet-black jumpsuit and skull tattoos on her shoulder and leg, calls her jewelry another form of recycling. "This might sound flip," she says of her sources, "but the way I look at it, they're not using them anymore."
Some people, however, have a bone to pick with her.
"I think it's appalling," says Bob Calverly, spokesman for the L. A. County Medical Assn. "Does this woman have any conscience at all? How would you like to have the bones from one of your relatives made into a necklace? Those bones once belonged to a person. They were somebody ."
Adds Mark Rodriguez, assistant director of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum: "There are laws that govern the selling of human materials. . . . A lot of these things might be replicas passed off as the original. But if they are real, my question is 'Where are these cadavers coming from?' "
Richard A. Schmidt, a deputy city attorney, said that depending on her bone sources, Smith could indeed be breaking local health and safety codes. "She's definitely walking a tightrope," he said. "It's a gray area of the law."
Such criticism confounds Smith. For years, she says, marketable human bones came from India until that country banned such exports. While human bones are now harder to come by, she still gets the occasional customer who will sell her a skull or two.
She won't identify her various middlemen and human bone sources, but she insists her skulls, finger bones and fibulae are indeed real--and both legally acquired and sold.
Her critics "just don't get it," Smith says. "They're never going to get it. People think bones mean murder. They don't. They're part of science, a decoding of the mysteries of the past. And they make for some beautiful jewelry."
Still, some angry customers complain about the skull of a human fetus, cat skeleton or the otherworldly looking photograph showing the frail skeleton of a child killed by encephalitis.
Despite their qualms, Smith says the complainers stick around to gawk at her wares.
Others come to buy.
"Anymore, it's very hard to be different in L.A.," says Linda Giurbino, wearing an eye-popping Lycra outfit, as she fingers a barrette made from a human clavicle. "And this is better than getting a tattoo."
Vinnie Chas, bass player for the rock bank Pretty Boy Floyd, has another reason for shopping at Necromance: Shock value.